How Korea taught me to love singing

노래방 (noraebang) translates literally to ‘song room’ and is Korea’s very popular version of Karaoke. People go in small groups, and are given a private room, bookable by the hour. The usual set-up includes 2 microphones, 2 tambourines, a couple of song books, a giant remote control, a big couch around a table, and 1-3 TVs that show the song lyrics along with a totally irrelevant video of Korean couples breaking up or scenic beaches. Most places charge by the hour, but will add quite a bit more time for free if you start to run out. Some of the fancier establishments require that you buy some alcohol and food, but at most purchasing alcohol is optional (although that may actually be illegal) or you can bring your own. Some places have a pole in the middle of the room (for dancing?) and some have girls you can “order” to come and sing and dance with you! Some are very fancy, and some are in dingy basements.

noraebang with the fatherMost noraebangs seem to be open all night, from early evening til morning, although I can’t be sure because I’ve never found one closed when I wanted to go. I’ve never been one for karaoke, and was quite terrified by noraebangs at first. But visiting noraebangs quickly became one of my favorite evening activities in Korea. I’ve been more times than I can count, and have more than exhausted all of the songs I know in their song books (for myself as well as the friends that usually accompany me, I’m sure).

After-festival noraebang-ing
Picture taken by my friend Ellen.

Noraebangs are much more a part of Korean culture than karaoke is in America. I was pretty surprised when my first school outing went to a noraebang right after dinner, and everyone was expected to sing and dance together in one very cramped room. It was quite unlike any work party I’ve been to back in the US: I danced with the head teacher while the principal sang an old pop song, and then was asked to sing “Poker Face”. My lack of confidence was only made worse by everyone else’s impressive singing abilities. I don’t know if it’s because most Korean people grow up going to noraebangs and get more practice singing, but I think they’re much better than the average American at carrying a tune. After a couple crates full of Hite and Soju, my lack of ability didn’t matter. By the end of the evening, I had sang an ABBA song I’d never heard before with the gym teacher, and “Last Christmas” and “Love Me Tender” arm-in-arm with several less-than-sober colleagues.

As it turns out, this really isn’t anything out of the ordinary when it comes to workplace outings in Korea. At first I thought it was so “unprofessional”, but Korea just has it’s own kind of professionalism. And I have to say I appreciate it quite a bit.

Want to impress your Korean co-workers at the noraebang? Try some ABBA, Michael Jackson, Beatles, “Lemon Tree” by Fool’s Garden, or “I Believe I Can Fly”. Younger audiences will probably appreciate Lady Gaga, Adele (if you can pull that off!), Backstreet Boys, NSYNC or “Bad Case of Loving You” by Robert Palmer. Why some of these songs and groups are popular, I truly don’t understand…

Potatoes are not people!

Last week I was teaching my fourth grade classes a textbook unit that covered the sentences: “What’s for lunch?” “We have fish/salad/rice/chicken.” Which I think is awkward and perhaps entirely incorrect, but was in the textbook and so had to be taught (which is a topic for another post). My students were very interested in what kids ate for lunch in the USA, which prompted me to do some research into school lunches around the world.

This is a typical school lunch for me in Korea:

School Lunch

Every day we have some kind of rice, soup, kimchi, vegetable and protein (usually fish or chicken or tofu) . All of the kids, from pre-K through 6th grade, are expected to eat everything, and to eat enough to satisfy their teachers.

In my research, I came across this great blog What’s for school lunch? And apparently this is what kids are eating for lunch in the US:

Chili dog and fries. Yum!
Chili dogs and fries.

Nachos and fries?!
And nachos and french fries. Wow. Healthy!

Of course, my students were all insanely jealous that they never get french fries or nachos or hot dogs at lunch (although they do sometimes get a fried mandu or rice cake, albeit rarely). I tried to explain that many kids in the US are not very healthy, but of course my 4th grade students couldn’t care less about that aspect.

I know there’s been a lot of reform going on in the US to push for healthier school lunches. But today, I came across this interesting article on Slate: Congress wants the Agriculture Department to rethink its healthy school lunch proposal: it’s just too good.

According to the article, the school lunch legislation going through Congress has been derailed, thanks to the efforts of lobbyists from the National Potato Council and other interest groups. The proposed changes included limiting starchy vegetables and salt, increasing healthy fruits and veggies, and a stipulation that pizza can not be counted as a vegetable (that has to be a law? really?).

All of those changes sound like good ideas to me, but apparently not to everyone:

The Department of Agriculture created a proposal that fit within its budget and pleased nutritionists, public health experts and many school lunch officials, but it didn’t please the American Frozen Food Institute or the companies that provide much of the food served to kids at lunch—companies like Coca-Cola, Del Monte, and the makers of frozen pizza.

The article also sited the NY Times to report food lobbyists have spent $5.6 billion fighting these proposed school lunch changes. And it seems that’s enough to buy legislation away from the best interests of the country’s children.

In Korea, school lunches are planned by the school nutritionist, whose job is to create a healthy and varied menu each month. According to my Korean colleagues, the parents wouldn’t have it any other way.

I was talking to a Korean friend about this, who thought it was pretty crazy that the government would give the kids unhealthy food, which could lead to obesity and other health problems later in life, and then not provide them with the health care they’d need to take care of these problems. She thought it was pretty funny. I think it’d be funnier if it wasn’t actually happening.

It’s pretty hard to explain to my Korean friends that my country puts the interests of its potato industry ahead of its children! How ridiculous can we get? If I were in America right now, I’d take to the streets! I’d join them on Wall Street! And this would be my sign:

Potatoes are not people!

Culture Shock of the Week: Korea and Butts and Lawsuits, oh my!

Sticker prominently displayed on the bus to English Camp...

This is a bit of a blurry picture, but what you may or may not be able to see is a woman from behind, wearing nothing but a thong and high heels and a dragon back-tattoo. This big decal was very prominently decorating the interior of the bus I rode back from English Camp with my sixth grade students. It seems like a bit of an odd choice of decor for your very public bus, but to each their own…I guess. You’d think having this in view of a bunch of 12-13 year old boys would cause quite a commotion, but none of them seemed to pay it any attention. Maybe they didn’t see it? That seems highly unlikely, as they’re 13-year-old boys and it’s a picture of a mostly naked woman…

But butts are really not a big deal in this country. Maybe it’s because everyone goes to the jimjilbang together (well, boys with other boys and girls with other girls) so nudity isn’t really a big deal. In the hospital, there’s hemorrhoid removal posters featuring big extreme close-ups of the point of surgery, and no one pays them any mind. Plastic surgery is advertised with really smooth and firm-looking bottoms. A nurse will give you a shot in the but without any concern for who else may be within view, because no one really cares.

Really though, it’s better that way, right? It’s just a butt. We’ve all got one. We’re so uptight about that stuff in the US. Can you imagine if a bus driver that worked for public elementary schools had that sticker on his bus in the US? I’m sure there’d be a lawsuit in no time. Or at least he’d be fired, immediately. Probably before he even got the chance to pick up any kids.

Today I was thinking about some of the differences between teaching in Korea and the US, at least what I know about teaching in the US based on growing up in the school system. In Korea, I can hug my students or give them a pat on the back and it’s no big deal. I can give students my cell phone number, although that’s not really something I’d want to do (many other teachers do though). I can “threaten” my students when they’re being bad..not that that happens a lot…but if I were to, say, mime kneeing a student in the face, I wouldn’t have to worry about repercussions. Not that that’s a mature way to approach classroom discipline… But the Korean teachers often discipline the students by having them hold their hands above their heads or stay in push-up position for a prolonged period of time.

In the school bathrooms, there’s often no soap at the sinks. I have my own antibacterial hand stuff, but I don’t know what the students do. Yesterday there was a bee hive/bee infestation situation in several classrooms, which still hadn’t been resolved today. Earlier this week the fire alarm went off in the middle of class, but we just waited for it to stop so we could continue. After class, the fire alarm light was still flashing in the hallway, and no one was paying any attention…

I’m pretty sure all of these things could be potential lawsuits in the US. In Korea, it’s no big deal. I was aware, but never really realized how much our sue-anyone-for-anything culture really influences life in America. Actually, I think that’s probably a big reason behind the differences in driving in the US and Korea…but that’s a topic for another post.

Captain A******

So this is interesting. A friend of mine brought to my attention the other night that the new Captain America movie is being released as “The First Avenger” instead of the “Captain America: The First Avenger” over here in Korea. Apparently, distributors gave international markets the option of shortening the title in hopes the movie could be profitable “anti-American markets.” But only three countries went for the shortened title: Russia (duh), Ukraine, and South Korea.

South Korean’s inclusion in the list seems pretty surprising. As an American in Korea, I don’t see much of any “anti-American” sentiment from the locals. Actually, it’s more of the opposite. If you were to ask my 6th grade students what country they want to visit (which I have), 95% of them would say “USA!” without hesitation. A ridiculous amount of people wear clothing emblazoned with the American flag or the words USA/American/any number of American cities (especially NYC, Brooklyn, and Boston, Massachoobats. In the country’s craze for English education, the American accent is generally preferred across the board, with many Irish, English and South African native speakers being asked to make their accent sound “more American” by their employers. So, that there’s any ‘anti-American’ sentiment is news to me.

But, I am living in Ulsan. And Ulsan very noticably lacks an American military base. According to the New York Times, people resent the continued American military presence:

“South Korea is another story. Although that country is one of Hollywood’s top-performing territories, resentment about the continued presence of the United States military runs deep. Marvel and Paramount worry that those feelings are particularly strong among younger South Koreans, the ones who powered “Iron Man 2” to $27 million in ticket sales in that country last year.”

In Daegu and Seoul, where there are many bases, it’s not too uncommon to see signs like this on bars:

So what’s their problem? Isn’t the US military always stepping in to aid South Korea in quelling aggressive threats from the North? Like when they bombed that island on the border a few months ago?

Of course, and I don’t think that’s what Koreans are resenting. When it comes to Korean citizens and US military co-existing in the same city, the relationship isn’t quite so …beneficial. The guy over at the blog Ask a Korean! already covered this in far more detail than I could.

But I did find a rather surprising, recent article about military crime in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood, translated over on this blog. It’s a bit …one-sided, but all the more interesting because of that:

“Every night on the weekend the Seoul district of Itaewon is overrun with American soldiers. United States Forces Korea, saying that Seoul is safe for American soldiers, lifted its curfew and made it an unsafe place for Seoul citizens.

Jo Seong-hyeon reports…

With the US military having abolished the curfew last year, every weekend night Itaewon becomes a chaos of American soldiers and other foreigners.

The US military allows freedom at night but there is much unhappiness about it.

First, crimes by American soldiers increased 15%.

Serious crimes such as assault, rape, and theft all increased.

On the 26th of last month a woman passing through Itaewon was molested by an American soldier, and recently police caught an American soldier selling the party drug “Spice”.

[Nightclun employee: Drugs are a serious issue in Itaewon, too. I’ve seen it. It’s really serious. And they can infect young Koreans.”

The harm falls entirely on our citizens.

[Victim of violence by American military: I want to forget it… sometimes it comes into my mind and I get so upset… when those thoughts come I get so angry and I hate them.]

American soldiers cannot be stopped from going to prostitutues or secretly committing crimes even as they behave appropriately near nightclubs…

We must raise our voices to demand that our police power be increased in the areas ridden with US military crimes and that the US military strictly crackdown on US military crimes.”

Well, I guess their feelings are obvious.

poster comparison

Honestly though, how much can shortening the name really help this movie’s appeal in an “anti-American” country? The guy is running around in a red, white and blue uniform covered in stars and stripes! The name is the least of the problem. The Korean poster looks like it tried to downplay the Americanism a bit, but really, I don’t think they’re fooling anyone.

One last point brought up by another blogger was perhaps Korea just wanted a shorter name:

퍼스트어벤져 (poh-suh-tuh-a-ben-joh)


캡틴에매리카퍼스트어벤져 (kap-ten-a-mae-ree-ka-poh-suh-tuh-a-ben-joh)

It is a bit long to fit on a movie poster, no?

In the Midnight Hour

It was a couple of Friday nights ago that I found myself alone and broke in Ulsan’s “old” downtown area around midnight. My friends had just left in a cab for the university district, but I didn’t really want to make the trek across town and instead decided to call it an early night (midnight is very early for Korea). It wasn’t until after they got in the cab that I realized I had sent them off with the last of my money, and with buses long since having stopped running, I decided I’d better walk home.

But before I freak out my parents, this story isn’t going where you think. Walking across town at midnight in a city is generally a very bad idea for a woman on her own, especially in another country. But in Korea…things are a bit different. As soon as I turned the corner out of downtown, I found myself surrounded by throngs of high school students, just getting out of hagwons (private school) for the evening. The main road between my neighborhood and downtown is lined with hagwons, building-to-building and stacked 6 floors up. I felt a bit embarrassed to be slightly tipsy and in my evening apparel, suddenly joined by a hundred high school students still in their uniforms toting books and backpacks.

The education system in Korea is always talked about in the local news, and gets quite a bit of recognition worldwide. When I first moved out here 9 months ago, my co-teachers were eager to discuss Obama’s comment that the US should follow the Korean education system because it’s been so successful. They felt it was absurd; in their view, education in Korea is far from a model system. Both of my co-teachers have young kids, and explained how stressed they felt about having to send their children into the school system.

So what’s going on? This is what I’ve observed in my time here:

From the time a child starts to speak, they start studying English. By kindergarten, the child is sent to English hagwons for more study. In elementary school, the student will study in school from 9-3, and then attend hagwons until as late as 8pm (according to my fourth graders). In middle school, school goes until 4:30 and hagwons even later. By high school, most of them start studying early in the morning and go into the wee hours of the night. All of this is building up to the end of their final year of high school, when they’ll take their college entrance exam to determine what kind of university they can attend. If the student does bad on that test, they have to wait another year to re-take it.

Parents feel torn: they don’t want their students to study all of the time, but if they don’t, they won’t have a chance to compete with their peers for a good university or job placement. In the end, everyone feels stressed: the kids, because they spend all of their time studying, and the parents, because they’re sending their kids into a system that makes them unhappy. The public school teachers are stressed because students come to them wanting to play games and relax before their hours of evening study, and how can they assign homework knowing the students’ hectic schedules? Hagwon teachers get students who are tired and unable to focus after a full day of school. Who does the system benefit?

I see it in my fourth and fifth grade students, who regularly say they feel sad, terrible, and “depressed” even about how much they have to study. And they don’t get any breaks, either. School let out for summer earlier this week, but many students are still coming to school to study. Next week I start an overnight English camp for fifth graders where students will study at least 10 hours a day, every day, for three weeks.

All of this stress must be unhealthy. According to this recent article in the NY Times, it very sadly all too often drives them over the edge.

Beyond the stress, or perhaps adding to it, is the cost of all this extra education. Hagwons aren’t free, so only those who can afford so many years of so many private school classes are able to get the edge on their peers. It certainly doesn’t provide a very equal opportunity.

Sure, the Korean system is successful in that it’s boosted the economy from third world to one of the strongest in the world in 50 years…but at what cost to the people?

Anyways, this news broadcast from January has some more insight from local students and educators, who can say it much better than I can:



Memorial Day weekend came a week late for this American this year, as Korea’s version of the holiday is June 6th. Luckily, it’s still celebrated with a Monday off of work, and I decided it would only be fitting to usher in the spirit of summer with some camping – on a small island off the west coast of Korea. Seonyudo caught my attention way back in November, when I stumbled across some random blog raving about the islands’ beauty and enticing combination of bike paths, scooter-rentals, and lack of cars. I didn’t want to get my hopes up or anything, but online reports made it sound like our trip would be nothing short of an epic adventure.

About camping: I am by no means an experienced camper. Luckily for me, hiking and general outdoorsy-ness are incredibly popular in this country, so cheap gear is everywhere. I picked up the cheapest tent I could find – 30,000 won at Lotte Mart (Korea’s Wal-mart). Combined with a 10,000 won waterproof picnic blanket from Home Plus and the cheap sleeping bag left behind from the previous tenant of my apartment, I hoped I’d be set.

Getting to the islands from Ulsan is no easy task, to say the least. It required 3 buses, 1 train and 1 ferry, starting on a late Friday evening KTX to Daejeon. Travel wisdom from the weekend: book trains well in advance on a holiday weekend in Korea. In Daejeon, we stayed at my favorite love motel (my favorite for its name – the Bijou Motel, close proximity to the train station, kind ajumma who runs the place, and being the only place I’ve stayed in Daejeon). After one stop at a chicken and beer hof, we called it an early night in anticipation of waking up to catch a 9:30am bus to Gunsan.

Gunsan is a small port city in the middle-ish of the west coast. There were a surprising number of foreigners milling about the bus station for such a small city; apparently we weren’t the only ones taking a weekend island trip. We had a bit of trouble tracking down the #7 city bus to the ferry terminal, which we never would’ve found without the help of a very friendly young Korean woman. After a 30 minute wait for the bus and a painfully slow 45-minute ride all through town, we finally made it to the ferry.

Seonyudo & Gogunsanislands map

Waiting in the ferry station, we found a rather intriguing English map of the islands, featuring what appeared to be several small villages, some beaches, no fewer than three ‘Mud Flat Experiencing Fields’, and the mysterious Golden Rain Tree Colony. Oooooooh.


The ferry ride was a pleasant but rather unexciting hour and a half. Apparently it’s also possible to ferry to China from Gunsan, which – considering the speed of our ferry – must take about a week! But something fun to think about nonetheless.

And finally! We were on Seonyudo. Many golf cart-taxis waited around the port, taking people to pensions or on island tours. We walked over to the beach to set up our tents. On the way, we came across a big group of scantily-clad, already drunk foreigners, and decided to set up our tent far, far away.

The camping area was a small strip of beach separating the sea.

Tent set-up successful, ready to tackle the wilderness.

Our camp-site. Perfect! Except for the lack of showers…

By the time we got our tents set-up, we were hungry and eager to sample some of the island’s seafood. We chose the most inviting seafood restaurant on the main road and ordered three of the cheapest things off the menu – raw fish with rice, seafood noodle soup, and 산낙지. For those unfamiliar, 산낙지 (san-nak-ji) is live octopus. It’s not actually alive, but just recently chopped up so that the legs are still wriggling about. Like how chickens run around after their heads have been chopped off. This more or less made the dish look like a plate of live worms. Yummmm! But it actually tasted great – much better than worms, I’d imagine. By far the freshest tasting octopus I’ve had in 8 months!

Here they are in action:

Eating live octopus can be a bit of a challenge. The tentacles still suction to the plate, and also the insides of your mouth. Apparently they can also suction to your throat on the way down, which is a potential choking hazard (but mainly only if you’re really drunk). The tentacles very conveniently wrap themselves around your chopsticks, which makes picking up the thin little ends much easier. All in all, considering my rather recent 4.5-year stint as a vegetarian, I wasn’t nearly as grossed out as I expected. I’d even do it again!

Our energy sufficiently replenished, we decided we couldn’t be there another minute without getting on some scooters. I was pretty anxious about getting them, as the walkways were pretty packed with golf carts and people walking and biking, but the excitement of driving a scooter quickly triumphed over any anxieties.

The process for renting a scooter went like this: find bike/scooter rental stand. Wait while the owner tracks down five scooters/borrows one from random guy riding past. Pay 15,000. Get a 30-second demo of how they work, and a quick reminder not to drink and drive. And go!

No license? No ID? No insurance? No problem. Seonyudo is perhaps the easiest place to rent a scooter anywhere. I guess the scooters aren’t allowed on the ferries, as they didn’t seem at all concerned with us running off with them. They also didn’t seem particularly concerned with anyone’s safety, but I guess people don’t really sue each other so much over here.

Aside from a near-crash trying to avoid a golf-cart-taxi on a steep hill approximately 45 seconds after starting, I found scooter-driving to be pretty easy, and very fun. There’s nothing quite like zooming along the coast, wind blowing through your hair, nothing but ocean as far as the eye can see to either side…


Scootering around, we passed many groups of touring Koreans, the older and drunker of which thought it was very funny to wave and shout hello! and cheer us on. The people we met on the island all seemed to be on vacation, and much friendlier than normal.

Seonyudo connects to two other islands by small bridges, which are bikable, and pose an interesting challenge when full of other tourists.

In an hour, we found we were pretty much able to explore all the island paths reachable by scooter. The islands are beautiful, but certainly not very big. As far as the strange sights listed on the map, I’d say Korean Tourism advertising has a tendency to give a name to every little spot that doesn’t necessary merit such a significant title. There was unfortunately no “Golden Rain Tree Colony” to be found (although perhaps there was and we just didn’t spot it). There were plenty of mud flats open for experiencing, but we did not partake.


Returning to our beach at dusk, we were surprised to find this land bridge connecting the beach to a small island. Many people were out with flashlights, seemingly scavenging for something. Oysters? Seaweed? We weren’t sure.


I quickly realized I had forgotten to bring bug spray, a potentially very hazardous mistake. Apparently unavailable anywhere on the island, we settled for some bug-repellent incense and hoped for the best. Burning that while hanging out in the evenings, and staying inside my tent for the rest of the night, I came away from the weekend with only 4 mosquito bites – a record low for me and camping weekends! Maybe I’m not as attractive to Korean mosquito, or there’s something in this bug-repellent incense – either way, I like it.

We spent our evenings on Seonyudo making our own entertainment on the beach with some drinks, some music (in particular this one), and a deck of cards. At one point we were joined by some jolly, drunk and bicycling Seoul National University professors, who I was surprised to find had recently moved back from Ohio. Apparently, the pensions back in the main part of town provided more entertainment – bonfires, drumming, fireworks and noraebangs all night. But I was much happier to have some peace and quiet on the beach.


Is there anything better to wake up to? I think not.


And on the other side of our tents: some mud. Prime for experiencing!


The morning sun blanketed the beach in mist. Many people were out on the sand in the low tide, digging for more things. You could actually rent little shovels for 1,000 won to dig for things, right next to the bike rentals.

“The ghosts of Seonyudo”

After a rather ridiculously long breakfast/lunch at the single restaurant we could find that served something other than seafood (which we all agreed we couldn’t stomach before noon), where we met a few more groups of vacationing foreigners – including one from Birmingham, my neighbor! – we rented some bicycles from the scooter guy.

“We are on a tandom bicycle.” Cute.

I was stuck on a small ridiculous bike for some reason, completely inept at handling the island’s steep hills. It’s name was “The Raging Dwarf”, as given by us.

On our bike ride, we found many interesting things:

A lighthouse shaped like two praying hands.

Being reclaimed by nature.

Some big rocks beckoned us off-trail for a while, where we found many giant gross bugs. Luckily, they were quick to scatter wherever we were walking. There were so many running over the rocks, it reminded me of the masses fleeing from Godzilla or some such.

They ranged in size from 1-3 inches. Really. Eeeeewwwww.

Our private beach on the other side of the buggy rocks.

A refreshing foot bath in the sea.

A view of our beach, or what would be a view of our beach if you could see it through the mists.

Midway through our second day on the island, we were all feeling a bit in need of a shower. But without any sign of a jimjilbang or public facilities anywhere, the only option seemed to be the ocean. The water wasn’t very warm – quite freezing, actually – and it was a rather gray day, but we could not be deterred. Bathing in the ocean in your clothes is a surefire way to attract a lot of attention, by the way.

The islands rise out of the mists…

…and into more mists.

Our bike tour ended with the steepest hike in my life, which involved going both up and down on (mostly) all fours.

More island eats”

The most popular seafood on the island appeared to be cuddlefish, sea slugs, and these giant, flat, crazy-eyed guys–


These kinds of fish were hanging up drying everywhere. I think they look super gross all mangled together in that bag. Blech.

Our last night on the island got really cold. Unfortunately, the camping area doesn’t really have anywhere to build a fire, or much to use to make one. Some guys had one going in a big oil can, but unfortunately we hadn’t come so prepared. We gathered what sticks and dry things we could find and were given some charcoal by nearby picnicers. Alas, pine needles only last for so long, and so I spent the night shivering in my sleeping bag. Next time, I’ll be better prepared!

The only other thing we needed to complete our American-style Memorial Day weekend was some barbeque. Lucky for us, bbq is ridiculously omnipresent in this country. While searching for a spot, we found some older Korean men who insisted on giving us all shots of whiskey and some raw fish. It was extremely fresh, as they were taking the fish still wriggling from a bucket and slicing them up right in front of us. I’m not sure why Korean people tend to be so willing to share their food with strangers, but that’s one cultural difference I’m a pretty big fan of.

Our last morning on the island, we had a very nourishing breakfast of Korean-twinkies and Doritios, quickly packed up and went for one last walk. Where we came across a rather startling sight:

It’s difficult to see, but this is a group of ajummas, high up the side of a mountain, climbing a sheer rock face sans any harnesses. I wish I could describe this scene better. They were cackling away as their friends scrambled up to join them. There seemed to be some ropes you could hold on to for support, but from our view down below it looked like a climb better suited to climbing harnesses and ropes. Crazy ajummas.

Seonyudo had a whole nother breed of ATV-riding, rock-face-scaling ajummas, really not to be messed with.

On the ferry home, many people had water bottles and containers filled with things from the sea – small crabs, shellfish, some animal that looks like a little stick. It was interesting. We sat next to a woman who kept offering us shrimp-flavored snacks. She didn’t want anything to do with our Doritos. Again, I’m a big fan of the Korean food-sharing culture.

And thus began our somehow-11-hour journey back to Ulsan… Book train tickets ahead on holiday weekends! Lesson learned. A 3-hour delay in Daejeon can be improved by checking into a Love Motel for a shower.

Quite a long post for such a small island, I realize. While they’re a bit touristy, the islands are a ton of fun and I’m definitely glad I made the trek out to visit!

A Whale of a Weekend in ‘Whale Meat City’


Ulsan is second-best known in Korea for its history of whale fishing and contemporary whale non-fishing, which it celebrates every year with a big Whale Festival. (What it’s best known for is Hyundai, if you were wondering.)

For four days over the weekend of May 25-28, Ulsan went whale crazy with whale drawing, cake-baking, ice sculpting and singing competitions, whale meat tasting, whale watching, and whale hunting re-enactments. It all sounded like some kind of strange county fair. Whale ice sculpting in May and ‘whale singing’ sounded particularly ridiculous. I was also very much looking forward to tasting whale meat, as I’ve never had the opportunity before.

Also, I realize this whaling tradition is a bit controversial. I attended the festival with a curiousity as to the cultural and traditional aspects of whaling in Ulsan. But more on the controversy later .

The festival was in two parts of the city – downtown on the Taehwa River and at the Whale Museum over on the ocean. On Saturday I checked out the Taehwa part of the festival, where I found they were running lots of dragon boat rowing races.


This was the first time I’d seen the dragon boats in action, as for the past 8 months they’ve been sitting under the Taehwa Bridge. On the river there’s a big picture advertisement with a bunch of young, buff foreigners rowing. Unfortunately, the racers we saw were all old.


The festival grounds had all kinds of whale decorations.


You know what makes whales better?

I’m not sure what this smurf is reaching for, or what they’re doing in the middle of this whale.

This one doesn’t even have a whale. It’s like they’re just trying to violate as many copyright laws as they can in one place.


One section of the festival was full of straw huts, supposedly used by the prehistoric whale-hunting Koreans. A bunch of people dressed in very authentic leopard-print costumes put on a drumming and jumping/dancing performance with some big traditional masks and lots of neon. It ended with them going to the river, getting into a dragon boat, and attacking the big floating mechanical whale (see top of post). It was …interesting, to say the least.

One of Ulsan’s biggest attractions for out-of-town visitors are some petroglyphs depicting this prehistoric whale fishing. A very popular tent at the festival was handing out simple ink prints of the petroglyphs, and there’s also a big copy of them up at the Whale Museum in Jangsaengpo. The historical aspect of whaling in Ulsan seems to be a pretty big deal.

I’m not sure if this guy was a part of the festival, or if he just decided it was a good day to take his horse for a ride down the river. But I like the juxtaposition in this picture. Sometimes Ulsan can be a very strange place.

The festival left plenty of space for lounging around the park, and it was a perfect day for a picnic. My friends and I found some familiar foreigners who offered us some of their leftover whale meat. Apparently they had been selling fried whale and whale burgers earlier on, but had unfortunately stopped. I tried a bit of fried whale, and it tasted pretty good. The meat inside was very dark. It kind of tasted like a fish stick, but a bit heartier. Should you ever come across some, I suggest you try it.

While enjoying my fried whale, a local rock band played on a small stage. I was quite surprised to hear them play “Creep,” “Best of Me” by the Starting Line, and “American Idiot.” Radiohead and Green Day are in all the noraebangs and pretty popular, but the Starting Line?? I hadn’t heard the Starting Line since sophomore year of high school, and considering they were never all that big in the US, I never thought they would’ve been popular here. The audience seemed to be mainly older people who had sat down for a rest, and a few groups of adults clustered around tables of fried chicken and soju, who had to no idea what any of the music was. I appreciated hearing those high school favorites quite a bit.


On Sunday I went out to the coast, to “The Whale’s Hometown” in Jangsaengpo, an area of the city I had never ventured to before. For good reason – the only things out that way other than the Whale Museum and “Whale Experience Hall” are the immigration offic and tons and tons of factories.

The Whale Museum had an excellent view:


…of a port full of factories. Lovely.

The coolest part of the day for me were these giant trash-sea creature tricycles:


Looks like they borrowed some of the animal print spandex from the prehistoric whale-hunting performers at the Taehwa. I think these fish-bikes pull it off much better.

Of course, Jangsaengpo was ridiculously whale-themed as well:

The ticket office.

A whale and dolphins swimming down the side of a building!

This looks a bit more like a dolphin. Or maybe a beluga?

Of the two museums, I thought the “Ulsan Whale Experience Hall” was much cooler. It was basically a mini-aquarium with some extra whale info thrown in.

Dolphins swimming over my head. Check out the ajosshi in the suit, hat and sunglasses. Total baller.

I got to ride a dolphin!

The entire community coming together for the whale carving. There were lots of somewhat graphic whale carving pictures.

The downside to the “experience hall” was seeing way more dolphin fetuses than I ever wanted to see. They were pretty gross, and contributed very little to my whale learning experience for the day.

This was in the whaling museum. Konglish, or art school student’s attempt to BS a modern art description? Hmmm….

Along the main road through Jangsaengpo were several whale meat vendors. I didn’t partake, as I wasn’t that hungry and it seemed a shame to waste a plate of whale for just one taste. But it looked like it was raw, cut from various different parts of the whale in all different shapes and colors.

Only 10,000 a plate!

I ended the day at the main stage, where I was very disappointed to find the “whale singing competition” was neither people singing like whales nor actual whales singing. Talk about false advertising! But luckily there were still some music oddities to behold, like as this funk/elevator-jazz/traditional Korean fusion group:

There was also some great drumming.


Although my favorite part was watching this little guy dance and try to eat bubbles:

After a weekend filled with whale-everything, there was one thing I had left to try – whale bread! It was nothing special, really – just the typical read-bean filled waffle dough pressed into the shape of a whale. But quite tasty. And cute!


After consuming my red-bean-filled whale bread, I officially hit my whale saturation point for the weekend. While I didn’t really come to understand any more about Ulsan’s stance on whaling, I would say all the oddities of the festival made me appreciate my little city that much more.


Inspired by the festival, and this restaurant down the street from my apartment (one of many I’ve come across in the city), I did some research on the subject.

(Whale meat)

The most interesting article I came across on the topic is from the The Korea JoongAng Daily, a newspaper I’ve never heard of before. This article gives Ulsan the name “Whale Meat City” (another thing I’d never heard before).

In 2005, Koreans were consuming about 150 tons of whale meat per year, 80% of which happens in Ulsan. This is nothing compared to Japan though – they ate 4,8000 tons! Although there are about 3 times as many of them than there are of Koreans.

I was interested to read that whale meat has apparently been getting increasingly more popular. In 2009, the number of whale restaurants in the city quadrupled to over 100. The one near my apartment seems to be recently shut down, or otherwise inactive since I moved in last October (maybe it’s a front for something else?). None of the Koreans I’ve talked to seem to be really into eating whale, so I was pretty surprised by that statistic.

Commercial whaling was universally banned by the International Whaling Commission in 1986. Which means the whale served in restaurants has to have been caught “accidentally” in fishing nets intended for something else, or from whales washed up on shore. But there’s quite a bit of controversy as to whether or not this is actually upheld, of course.

The government has said it will pay people $10,000 to report any gray whale sightings to discourage fishing. Although there does seem to be a bit of incentive for fishermen to keep fishing – a 6-meter-long (19.6 ft) whale sells for 25 million won ($21,000). Wow.

I was very curious as to whether I’d see any protesters at the festival, but there didn’t seem to be any. In years past, Greenpeace has been out:

While I certainly don’t agree with whale fishing, I was happy to participate in Ulsan’s whale culture for the weekend, including tasting whale meat. And I’d do it again. Although perhaps if I watched The Cove, I would feel otherwise.

One final final thing in closing: another clip of the traditional music and dance performances from Jangsaengpo. Jazz lady had a killer voice.

Weird Korean Eats, part 1

Last weekend I went to a bar in my neighborhood for chicken and beer, only to be served some of these as an appetizer:


Beondegi (silk worm larvae) are a very popular street-food snack in Korea. The smell that accosts you when walking past a beondegi street vendor is absolutely awful, and difficult to describe except it’s exactly what you’d imagine drifting out of a bubbling, steaming vat of silk worm larvae.

Needless to say, they didn’t exactly whet my appetite. But I knew before I left Korea, I would have to try them, and finding them right in front of me – sans the smell of a freshly-boiled batch – I figured it was as good a time as any. It was a bit soft and chewy, although I must admit I didn’t take much time to chew it before swallowing. My friend’s bite popped and spurted goo into his mouth, so I guess I was lucky. The taste was bitter and very unpleasant, although entirely familiar from the number of times it had already filled my nose and mouth walking past them on the street. It was almost as if I had eaten them before.

The final verdict: not something I need to try again. But I’m glad I did once!

bon appetit!

Vote for me! I have the best dancers!

Last week were the Ulsan Jung-gu district officer elections. If this sounds boring, you obviously aren’t familiar with the way politicians campaign in Korea. Here’s an idea:

Politicians in Korea seem to have found the best way to get their message to the people is through unnecessarily loud music and choreographed dances. Every politician has at least one of these trucks plastered top to bottom with their image, which they drive around the city while wielding megaphones to inundate the populace with their message.

Moving advertisement, part 2

I’m not sure why that’s more effective than, say, a TV advertisement. But that seems to be the way to do it.

When the trucks weren’t driving around, they’d park at street corners and blast music for large groups of supporters to dance to. In the US, I feel like there’d be some laws to limit the loudness or at least how close they could be to residential areas. This did not seem to be the case in Korea. I’m not sure how blasting music so loud it causes everyone to cover their ears as they walk past gets you any votes, but that’s the universally-accepted strategy. I would imagine the purpose was to attract the attention of passing motorists and pedestrians to hand them fliers, but I feel like they were so loud it would keep anyone from getting close enough. Sometimes two trucks would park across the street from each other, fighting with their sound systems to create an ear-splitting cacophony. And this was right next to apartment complexes!

Honestly, how is this effective?? You know who I’m not going to vote for? The guy who’s on his megaphone at 7 in the morning, waking up every dog and rooster in a mile radius (which happened the four days leading up the elections, and was wonderful to wake up to). That certainly doesn’t make me want to do anything for you!

Beyond the sound complaint, I have to wonder a bit about the point of the choreographed dances. American politicians have some ridiculous campaign tactics, sure, but are any of them as politically irrelevant as dance routines? Well, maybe

American campaigns are usually pretty ridiculous, so maybe I shouldn’t be so judgmental…

Here’s some more pictures of Korean campaigns, gathered from around the internet:

Face off
A face-off across the street.

Supporters hustle on street corners

I tried to talk to my co-teachers about the issues at stake in the election, just out of curiosity, but no one I talked to lived in the district. Although I did hear that the last guy in office was booted out after doing something corrupt. Drama!

…And, one last thing! These campaign conversations with co-workers were never dull, as Koreans tend to mix up r and l sounds, since they’re interchangeable in Korean. Which means I heard a lot about ‘our erections’. …teehee. As my friend Mark would say, ‘it’s funny because I’m 12.’

Our phones are worth shit?

That’s what the sign says…

Our phones are worth shit, literally

The word after the poop means ‘value; worth; merit.’ I’m not sure what kind of a message that’s supposed to send to your customers.

As seen in Taewha-dong, from the bus en route to Busan.

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