Everland

Or Eh-boh-laen-duh as it’s known in Korean, is the Disney World of Korea. If you wanted to get specific, I’d say Everland is more of a Disney-Epcot-state fair-zoo mix. On one particularly yellow dust-y Sunday afternoon, a group of 10 or so of us (mostly) waygookens headed to Everland in honor of my friend Ellen’s birthday.

Tickets were pretty cheap – 35,000 for the day. Passing through some rather epic entrance gates, I found myself surrounded by souvenir stands and that perky Disney-esque music playing out of strategically placed speakers. It was everything you’d expect, yet I couldn’t help but feel excited.

I was surprised to see many familiar buildings:

A little bit of Russia in the global village
A little something from Russia…

and a bit of Italy...
…and Italy…

and the Middle East...
…and a little bit of Turkey.

This “Global Fair” was really just a bunch of dressed-up souvenir shops selling the same amusement park nonsense you’d find most anywhere, with a couple things of note: stuffed animal bananas, and animal ears of all different kinds of animals that were worn by Korean women of all ages throughout the park. I was tempted to buy a set of giraffe ears/horns, but managed to resist.

In place of the Magic Kingdom, Everland has this giant sparkling tree:

Welcome to Everland!

Tulip Festival

It was rather pretty. Lucky for us, we happened to be at Everland during their Tulip Festival.

Everland's Tulip Festival
“European Adventure” was all decked out in tulips.

The food on offer at the park was an interesting mix of west meets Korean: ice cream, cotton candy, slushies, hot dogs (Korean style), dried fish, and peanut butter squid. There were also a bunch of Burger Cafes:

American themed restaurant at Everland

The “American Adventure” part of the park was mostly ’50s themed, with a Western-themed ‘rodeo’ ride thrown in for good measure. Considering the American culture most of my co-workers tend to like, I was expecting more disco and ABBA, and was pleasantly surprised to find otherwise.

In the "American Adventure" part of the park

In the "American Adventure" part of the park

I’m pretty sure that cart is selling peanut butter squid. Yum!

In the "American Adventure" part of the park

“Magic Land” seemed to be mostly the usual carnival rides and kiddie rides – the log splash ride, a mini-roller coaster, some bumper cars. Of note: the people running the rides have to do a little dance while the ride is going. And I thought being a carnie in the US couldn’t be any worse.

Also, everyone working the food/souvenir booths at Everland has to wave at passersby constantly with two hands. Really. Non-stop waving. How they avoid carpal tunnel, I have no idea.

This giraffe has a ridiculous tongue

My favorite part of the park was “Zoo-topia”. The biggest attraction was a Safari “ride” featuring some rare white tigers and a liger! After waiting in a line that passed through an elaborately decorated African hut sort of theme, we boarded a big tour bus that looked like this:

Safari World tour bus

On the safari, we passed some of these:
Lions!

and these!
Ostriches! and more giraffes!

There were also some tigers, elephants, and bears, the last of which the driver had balancing on his hind legs next to the bus windows for treats. Really though, I felt kind of bad for the animals. Some of them seemed to spend all day sitting by the side of the road, doing tricks every five minutes for the next tour bus. The bear we saw looked a bit weary, its mouth entirely caked over in treat flakes. You could also pay a ridiculous amount of money to get a private car and a guide, who’d supposedly lure the animals onto the roof of your car. It felt a big more imposing than a regular zoo with the buses passing through so frequently. The animals had a bit of space to move around, but didn’t really have anywhere to get away.

I’ve never been to a zoo outside the US, so it was fun to see some unfamiliar animals in Zoo-topia:

In Zoo-topia, with some Fennec foxes
Fennec Foxes! I didn’t realize they existed outside of The Little Prince.

Coati, the acrobat
This is a coati.

Kangaroo, chewin on some stuff
These guys were familiar, but fun to watch hop and box and eat stuff.

An awesome owl
And an owl! Which is also familiar, but posing quite nicely.

There was also the “Friendly Monkey Valley” attraction, which claimed 12 different kinds of apes and 145 monkeys.
A red-faced monkey

How many monkeys can you fit in a hammock?

My favorite was this mandrill, who seemed more than obliging to pose for the camera:
Mandrill yawn

Mandrill
Weird note: mandrills have some oddly human proportions. Watching this one sit there gave me an odd sense of looking at a person. It was a bit unsettling.

There was also a petting zoo, with some giant rabbits and wandering sheep. You are not allowed to hug the sheep at Everland, in case you were wondering.

Because it took longer than we expected to get there from Seoul, we ran out of time to check out the on-site Art Museum, which sounded a bit intriguing. It was also too early in the season for the ‘Carribean Bay’ water park to be open, which boasts “the world’s longest lazy river,” among other things. Which all means this was probably not my last trip to Everland! Although I still haven’t been to Lotte World…

Lunar New Year and other Observations in Seoul

The first week in February was the Korean Lunar New year holiday (설날). Before coming to Korea, I had only known Lunar New Year as “Chinese New Year.” But seeing as they celebrate in Korea as well, they certainly wouldn’t be calling it “Chinese” New Year over here. As it’s Korea’s most widely-celebrated holiday, we had three days off of work, and I took off to the big city (Seoul) with a couple of friends.

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For those unaware, this year is the year of the rabbit. Being born in 1987, that makes it my lucky year!

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Lunar New Year in NYC is always a big to-do in Chinatown, with a parade with giant dragons and all of that. So that’s what I was hoping to find in Seoul, but as it turns out most Koreans celebrate the holiday privately with their families. I was pretty disappointed that there wouldn’t be any giant dragons parading in the streets, as this is Asia, but we did manage to find some smaller festivities at one of Seoul’s tinier palaces, Unhyeongung.

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They were renting out hanbok, traditional Korean dress, by the hour for only ~$3.00. As soon as we saw the sign, we automatically, unanimously decided it was a good idea.

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And as soon as we were dressed and outside, regretted the decision a bit. Walking around in this traditional Korean get-up as a foreigner made me feel like a pretty big idiot. But at least it made for some good pictures. We also got the thumbs up from a few older Koreans, but mostly just lots of stares and giggles.

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Hanbok is a very unflattering look for me.

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This is the way it’s supposed to look:
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They also had some traditional games…
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…some of which were more complicated than others.
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Interesting side story: a month previous to this, at my school’s “teachers’ PE day,”, we played the above game in the gym. They had that game board made up out of hula-hoops on the floor, and there seemed to be some complicated, very un-straightforward way to move around it. Because I couldn’t figure it out, I was a ‘stick’ for the entire game. This involved being blindfolded and standing at the front of the gym, jumping around in circles to flip ‘up’ or ‘down.’ To be blindfolded and completely unable to understand anything you’re hearing is an interesting experience that I hope I will not have to repeat any time soon…

There were also some crazy cool paintings depicting the transition from Year of the Tiger to Year of the Rabbit.
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— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

On this trip I discovered how gigantic Seoul is. I thought I had already seen the main shopping areas and the touristy districts, but there are so many. A friend of a friend (and native Seoul-ite) took us to Gangnam, a neighborhood on the other side of the river. Gangnam has shopping to rival Myong-dong as well as tons of international restaurants and nightlife. He took us to a Mexican restaurant, where I had perhaps the best burrito in my entire life (not that I’ve been to Mexico, or eaten Mexican in California or anything, but it was pretty good). But venturing south of the Han made me realize there’s a whole nother half of Seoul I have yet to explore.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Bukchon Hanok Village is a neighborhood of traditional-style houses on a hill above Insa-dong.
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The neighborhood is super cute, but I can only imagine how annoying it would be to live there with so many tourists constantly coming through and posing for pictures.
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I’m not sure what this bench was doing in the ‘traditional’ neighborhood. But the head on the right kind of looks like JFK.
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— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Insa-dong is the main touristy neighborhood in Seoul, where the streets are lined with vendors touting all kinds of touristy memorabilia. It’s also known for many ‘traditional’ tea houses. The best* one is called ‘old tea house’ and is tucked away off the main strip, down an alley and up a set of creaky wooden stairs. The inside is cozy and cluttered with antique-looking furniture. But the main attraction is that there are birds flying around. When I heard about this, I was kind of hoping the place would be full of birds everywhere, chirping and flying around your head. As it turned out, we only saw 4-5 while we were there. But that’s probably for the best, because nothing could ruin a cup of good tea faster than a bird pooping in it.

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My friend Akosua bought a calendar of some Korean drama star who she is in love with. K-pop memorabilia of all varieties – calendars, posters, pictures, socks – is sold all over Insa-dong as well.

The bathroom floor was made of pebbles. And there were goldfish swimming in the toilet.
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(*I have only ever been to one tea house in Insa-dong, but I’m pretty sure there couldn’t be a better one.)

Also in Insa-dong, we saw a small exhibit about North Korean political prisoner camps.
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The stories we read were shocking. Prisoners being starved and beaten and killed in the camps was the least of it. But beyond how absolutely terrible the conditions are, I was shocked to read about how easily people can be imprisoned. People had been imprisoned because of something their grandfather or distant relative had done because of ‘association.’ Many artists and musicians had been put into the camps. One story told of a high school cheerleading team that traveled to the south and was caught saying something about the North. I hadn’t realized how bad things were, the stories were truly awful.

And speaking of the north, these are all over the Seoul subways:
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That’s something you don’t see in the NYC subways. The TVs on the trains also show rather graphic, dramatic videos of what to do in the event of a gas attack. From what I remember, it goes something like this: Gas fills the trains. People panic. There’s a small explosion. The smoke clears to reveal bodies strewn across the subway platform. Those that can run for the safety of the exits. Some are wounded, and have big, bleeding gashes across their arms or foreheads. …I found it rather surprising that they would play something so dramatic in such a public place, but none of the locals seemed to pay it any mind.

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— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Cheonggyecheon Park is a little creek that runs through downtown Seoul. The area had been covered by concrete and roads until about five years ago, when the city decided to renovate it. I imagine it’s a bit nicer in the summer, when there’s a bit more greenery and life around it. But it makes for a rather nice walk, even on a rather gray and dreary winter day.
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— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Downtown we found some super cheap ice skating. I hadn’t been in years and year, and was a bit wary of how well I’d be able to do. As it turned out, I could hold my own on the skates, although nearly-free skating in one of the world’s most populated cities turned out to be more people-dodging than anything.
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This old guy was skating in full hanbok get-up. He seemed readily willing to pose for pictures on request. It made me feel more at home, to see that Seoul apparently has its crazies as well.

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We stayed at a hostel in Hongdae, which is (as far as I know) the biggest nightlife district in the country. On the night of Lunar New Year, we found a group assembled in the common area eating 떡국 (rice cake soup, traditional on Lunar New Year) and drinking soju. It was the hostel owner, a group of his friends, a French guy on a Visa run from Japan, and a couple of Dutch university students who had just gotten off the plane and were on their way to Daejon. After a bit of soju and makkoli, we all went to the fanciest noraebang I’d ever seen, and after an hour or two of singing, ended the night at a small bar singing Oasis songs with a bunch of other westerners. Oh, how I love hostels.

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Soul-Shopping

The second matter of utmost importance for my trip to Seoul: shopping. Seoul has many famous markets and shopping districts selling all manner of all kinds of things at all hours. But I really just wanted to go to H&M. My work clothes situation was getting a little desperate, and being an American-proportioned female in Korea makes it very difficult to shop for clothes (as Korean women tend to be tiny tiny). To make things more difficult, most shops don’t have fitting rooms, and shopkeepers will just visually size you up and let you know if something will fit. My washing machine also tends to tear clothes apart. So I was pretty eager to do some shopping.

Myeong-dong is a gigantic shopping district, especially popular among ex-pats for its two H&Ms and Forever 21. It has tons of international chains as well as discount stalls and boutiques. Stacked on top of these multi-level shops are floors of coffee shops and restaurants, and all of this is packed into a few dense blocks. Even on a Thursday early afternoon, Myeong-dong wins for the craziest crowds I encountered in all of my time in Seoul, and the craziest, most crowded H&M and Forever 21 I’ve ever been in (which includes NYC…quite a feat).

Please note the car in the midst of the crowds in that photo. ‘Pedestrian’ streets don’t really exist over here.

To add to all this shopping madness, the streets were still icy from the other day’s blizzard, and so people and cars were sliding all over the place. Many methods were employed to get rid of the ice, including the more familiar (a snow shovel), to the more tedious (chipping away with a hammer) to the …extreme:

Taking Care of the ice in Myeongdong

Next to Myeong-dong is Namdaemun, a perhaps equally gigantic shopping district featuring a more traditional-style market. I’m pretty sure you could find most anything you could ever need at a traditional Korean market.


Namdaemun had all the crazy, crowdedness of Myeongdong, although a bit more single-level.

Three points of interest:
1. I found these guys in both Myeong-dong and Namdaemun:
Blues Brothers in Namdaemun Market

More Blues Brothers in Namdaemun Market
It’s been a while since I’ve seen the Blues Brothers anywhere, and haven’t noticed them anywhere else in Korea. Also, the red looks kind of tacky.

2. It is impossible to find cheap, cute shoes that fit my ‘gigantic’ American-sized feet in Myeong-dong, no matter how long you spend looking.

and

3. Face/body stores use men to advertise make-up to women. Why this is a selling point, or attractive, I don’t understand.

Even after a couple of days devoted solely (ha) to shopping, I still have some shopping to-do’s in Seoul: Yangsan Electronics Market, Dongdaemun’s 24-hour shopping, and Hongdae’s weekend street fair will all have to happen sometime this summer.

Ho-ho-ho-Hongdae

It wasn’t until the third or fourth night of my week-long vacation in Seoul that I made it to Hongdae, the famous university area. Almost instantly upon exiting the subway, I wished we had made it out that way sooner.

Coming from the US, I’m used to ‘college towns.’ Despite the proximity of all the universities, Hongdae does not have a ‘college town’ kind of a vibe. Hongdae is an impressive sprawl of bars, restaurants, hofs, nightclubs, shops, coffee shops, street vendors, lights, music, and general madness going on into all hours of the night. Even after three nights of exploring, it stills feels never-ending.

Hongdae

As it was a Wednesday, I wasn’t expecting much. But even early on in the evening, the streets were quite packed with university students, slipping around on the icy streets, in and out of bars.

(This obviously isn’t Hongdae on a December night – I borrowed this picture from the internet – but look at the crowds!)

Our evening started with some Hoolala chicken:
Hoolala!

I was very happy to find some street art, which I hadn’t seen any of anywhere else in Korea:

Hongdae

Hongdae

We embarked on a quest for a recommended Club FF, which proved rather difficult to find in the never-ending maze of bars and clubs (which becoming increasingly difficult to navigate as the evening wore on). Trying to find a ‘Club FF’ is especially difficult in Korea, as asking the locals about ‘FF’ is tricky in a language without an F sound.

Although our search for Club FF proved fruitless, we did find many other worthy drinking places, auch as this German-style brewery:
Good brews in Hongdae
in which we accidentally ordered that giant cask of beer. Fortunately, it was delicious and so it didn’t go to waste!

We also found a Rock’n’Roll bar playing western indie rock that was excellent because it 1.) served pretzels and 2.) let you request your own songs. We found some French study-abroad students, and I discovered my traveling companion Mark was an avid French student. Our new friends led us to an underground bar in a gigantic cellar, which we closed down and then headed to a chain called ‘Ho Bar’ which is open until 6am every day. Which seems quite ridiculous.

Our Wednesday bar crawl was enough to convince us that Hongdae was where we should be on New Years Eve. And so, two days later we headed back with a few more English-teacher friends.

Bars in Ulsan just don’t have this kind of atmosphere:

Bar Decor

…or this kind of trendy way to serve soju cocktails:
Fancy soju cocktails

This must be why they serve their soju cocktails like that

New Years Eve also unfortunately took me away from Hongdae, to a hipster party in the ritzy neighborhood of Apgujeong on the other side of the river, where a DJ wearing a giant mouse head played electronic music at a bar only that served Absolut Vodka and Budweisers for 10,000 won/~$10 a bottle. (!!!)

After spending a bit of time in Hongdae, we regretted our decision to stay in Itaewon. Luckily, we would be returning to Seoul a few weeks later to correct our mistake…

DMZ

At the DMZ (sorry mom and dad!)
(Sorry Mom and Dad!)

Living in South Korea for a year, it was necessary to pay a visit to the DMZ (that’s te DeMatiliarized Zone that separates the North and South, for anyone not in the know). And so I booked a tour with the US Army, which according to rumors did the best tours.

Our day started bright and early at 7am at the army’s Itaewon outpost. We joined the groggy tourists and boarded a couple of buses o take us on the hour trip north to the DMZ.

The crowd seemed to be primarily American tourists, with many military or military families (they get to do the tour for free – for everyone else it’s 70,000ish won). I was quite surprised to see so many Americans, as I thought they may be too afraid to get so close to the scary North (like some Americans I know).

The tour started at the “Joint Security Area,” a section of the DMZ controlled by the American and South Kroean militaries.
Joint Securty Area

They started us out with a briefing, in which this very stern-faced military guy showed us a powerpoint that explained a bit about the US army’s role in ‘maintaining’ the DMZ, what we’d be seeing on our tour, and told us about a terrible attack from the North a few years ago.

DMZ Briefing

We also had to sign something like a waiver, that said we wouldn’t talk or make gestures at any of the North Korean soldiers. And wouldn’t sue the military if we were shot, etc.

The first stop on the tour was a fancy, fairly recently completed building that had been constructed as a meeting place for families separated by the North/South division. However, it’s not in use because the North won’t allow their citizens to meet with their families. 😦

Behind this building was ‘the dividing line’ that separates the North and South. The line is straddled by this row of low office buildings that you’ve probably seen pictures of before:

Face off

That bigger building in the back is on North Korean soil. There’s a soldier standing guard at the entrance, and our guide explained that he was always there when the tours came through, sometimes with binoculars.

As we stood taking pictures, our American military guide pointed out all of the hidden North Korean soldiers that were (supposedly) watching us at that very moment. He told us to be sure not to make any gestures towards these (invisible) soldiers, as they would very possibly retaliate.

We were taken into one of the meeting rooms, which was very unspectacular on the inside with just a boardroom table and chairs. A couple of South Korean military had to accompany us. One had to stand in front of the door on the other side of the room, which lead to the North. Our American military guide sternly instructed us that if anyone tried to go behind the soldier, he was under order to use whatever physical force was necessary to make sure we didn’t get through the door.

This door leads to North Korea.

Crossing over to the other side of the meeting room, I technically entered North Korea! NOur guide was sure to let us know where the dividing point was.

By this point the tour was getting a bit…well, contrived feeling. Sure, maybe there were North Korean soldiers watching us, and I’m sure the South Korean guard couldn’t let us pass through the door and into North Korea. But, it’s just the way certain aspects were emphasized that made it feel a bit stretched out of proportion. At times it almost felt like it was catering to the American fear of the North, and what people would expect from watching all the scary news. Not that I’m any authority to judge on how tense things are or are not, but I just would’ve appreciated a bit less of the ‘spectacular.’

I think it would be interesting to get the tour from the North’s perspective, which I hear you can do if you tour the North. Not that I’m going to be doing that as an American any time soon.

North Korea - 'Propaganda Village'
The next stop on the tour was an overlook with a great view of the small village on the North Korean side. There are two villages where civilians live in the DMZ – one on the North side and one on the South side. The US Army has named the one on the South side “Freedom Village” and the one on the North side “Propaganda Village”. (how “American” do those names sound?)

The giant structure awkwardly looming above the rest of the village is a ginormous North Korean flag. A bit of a battle went on between the North and South about who would have the bigger flag in these two villages, spurred by the South getting a new flag that was supposedly a bit bigger than their old one. After the North constructed this monstrosity, the South kind of let it go. That flag is 595 pounds, stands 525 feet tall, and is the second tallest flag in the world.

When I was younger, I used to watch this video all of the time of Dr. Seuss’ the Butter Battle Book. It was written about the Cold War, but I think it applies even better to the North/South situation at the DMZ. The Butter Battle Book is about a town divided into two irreconcilable camps: those who spread their bread with the butter side up and those who spread their bread with the butter side down (the way that latter method works for anyone has plagued me since I was 7). But anyways, they go to war. One side builds a weapon, and the next side tries to outdo them, and so and so on into giant Suess-icle proportions. I forget how it ends, but I do believe they come to some kind of an agreement and refrain from blowing each other up.

We left the “Joint Security Area” through the gift shop, which sold all kinds of DMZ t-shirts, postcards, and the other expected things.

DMZ tourist center

From the JSA we were taken to a sort of tourist center of the DMZ, which was done up quite cute.

Cute soldiers

Here we watched a video, displayed across three gigantic screens, about all of the tunnels South Korean military has caught the North trying to dig into the South. The North claims they’re just mining, but they all seem to be leading directly towards Seoul. One of them has been turned into a museum, and so got to put on some hard hats and head underground to check it out.

The last stop on the tour was Dorasan Station, built to connect the North and South by train. As of today, trains only run north to Drasan, although the tracks lead further north.

Dorasan Station

Dorasan Station
The tracks are there, but no trains…


The sign at Dorasan Station. Pyongyang side non-operational, obviously.

Not many people talk about the situation down here in Ulsan, as it’s pretty far away. But the last thing I read about reunification of the North and South said that it would cost 2.9 trillion US dollars to do, which is a bit disheartening.

Western Comforts

At the three month mark of living in Korea, there were some things I was starting to miss. Particularly certain food things. Like burritos. And hummus. And so, for my winter vacation, I decided to head to the ‘big city’ to remedy some of this homesickness. I never thought I’d be heading to Seoul to search for Mexican food and H&M.

And so I met up with my British friend Mark, who was coming up from Busan. The first thing we did was get a place to stay in Itaewon, the international/foreigner neighborhood, which I figured was the prime location for finding Mexican food. The next thing we did was find a burrito.

Los Amigos' waiter signals
Upon entering ‘Los Amigos,’ I was insantly transported home, with the attempt at Mexican authenticity that’s obviously so far from the real thing, common in all places trying to imitate that are really far away from the real thing (be it South Korea or suburban Michigan). The place even had all the familiar cheesy decor.

That picture is of Los Amigos’ waiter signalers. I was very amused. (Quick note to anyone not familiar with dining out in Korea: waiters don’t check by your table, you have to use a little call button to summon them. Usually it’s a small and nondescript electronic button…)

In Itaewon, I was also able to find hummus at a Moroccan restaurant, although it was kind of awful and didn’t tase anything like any hummus I’ve had before.

Perhaps the best feat in curing my food-homesickness came in finding one of these:

Caribou in Korea!

Yes, a Caribou Coffee! And in close proximity to Starbucks, too. I was pretty surprised to find one in Korea, as they haven’t even spanned across the US yet. And normally I’d be all ‘blargh blargh globalization blargh’ but considering the kind of espresso I normally find in Korea, this was a welcome taste of the familiar (and superior, in my opinion).

The next order of business was to find some good beer, another thing that can be rather difficult to come by. And so we embarked on an international bar crawl down a street lined with bars representing countries from all over the world (but mostly Ireland). The evening ended with a snowstorm –

Snowing!

one final reminder of home after a December full of my complaining that I missed snow (which brought me more than I could have ever asked for for the rest of the week).

While I called it a night, Mark stayed up long enough to finish off a couple bottles of soju, make some friends at the hostel and create all of this on the roof:

Snow on the roof of our hostel

Despite my search for reminders of home in Seoul, I did manage to have some more ‘authentic Korean’ experiences. The next day we braved the snow and blizzarding to hit up the touristy district, Insadong:

Insa-dong

Buddha

The neighborhood is full of traditional restaurants. We opted for the one with the best name:

Lunch at 'Sound of Korean lute without cords' restaurant

…and enjoyed some makkoli (rice wine) to fend off the cold. Makkoli is best drank out of a small bowl.

Nothing beats makgeoli on a cold, snowy afternoon
makoli

The streets in Insadong are lined with stores selling souvineers and traditional, crafty Koeran things, like this pink feather boa fan:
Shopping in Insa-dong
I’m not exactly sure who this is for…

After a while, the snow finally got to us and we ducked into an arcade. Arcades are everywhere in Korea, but I’d somehow never been into one. The first game we attempted was this Chinese drumming game:
Arcade!

I was incredibly excited to find this Rock Band-reminiscent drumming game that had “You Give Love A Bad Name”
"You Give Love A Bad Name"
Unfortunately it was a bit too difficult for my limited drumming abilities. Also, please note the tiny individual ‘recording studio’ style noraebang in the background.

The most difficult DDR game in existence
Of course there was also DDR, which happened to be the most difficult (and unalterably so) DDR game in existence.

Behind all these fancy games was an area with small machines where you could play old school games, like this one:
Bubble Bobble!
bubble bobble!

Mark was really excited to find Tekkin, which is apparently a big deal in Korea:
Tekkin!

I found it amusing that he was eventually killed by a boxing kangaroo and her baby.
Mark gets beaten by a kangaroo

One of my favorite parts of Insa-dong was this four-story shopping center selling all kinds of crafty, gifty things:
ssamziegil

One of the popular sellers was this:
Dong-Dong Bread
‘poop bread’ (dong-dong bread). I’m not sure why this was appetizing to people…

Happy New Year!

Insa-dong is popular for traditional tea houses. And its “Beautiful” Tea Museum:
'Beautiful' Tea Museum

Although the neighborhood, like seemingly every other area in the country, is being overrun by coffee shops as well:
Suh-tah-bok-suh Ko-pee
(For anyone who may not be able to read Korean, this sign says: suh-tah-bok-suh keo-pee)

Culture Shock

One and a half weeks into my stay in Korea, I have eaten octopus – cooked and raw, several other varieties of raw fish, been nearly spit on by several old men on the street, have had children stop and gawk at me everywhere, figured out what constitutes an ‘indoor shoe’ – kind of, and seen many eels being sliced up on the streets, heard dogs fighting out of my bedroom window in the evening…but haven’t really felt culture shock. Except for once.

One evening over orientation, after a rather particularly intensive day of training, my roommate Akosua and I headed out to unwind over a couple beers. Wandering into a new area, we stopped in front of an interesting looking place and tried to make out the Korean lettering on the sign out front. Given that we had both just learned the alphabet, and didn’t know any Korean words even if we could read them, this proved rather difficult. My roommate asked a woman standing behind us on the streets if she could help us read the sign. She stood there with a kind of deer-in-headlights look, and then ran into a place across the street. She quickly emerged with a man in a matching orange neckerchief, who seemed quite eager to help.

I was immediately wary, and figured they worked at the place across the street and were going to try to persuade us to go there. Which would be annoying. But then, the man was actually reading the sign, translating it into English, and seemingly simply trying to help. He was loud. Really loud. And, upon closer inspection, smelled quite strongly of alcohol. The woman just watched, with an oddly strong expression of perhaps eagerness, or anxiousness.

After the man showed us how the Korean letters just spelled out Heineken and Guinness, he consulted briefly with the woman. ‘Ok,’ he declared, ‘We will buy you one drink.’

At this, the woman gripped on quite tightly as it appeared to my roommate. She seemed very eager for us to comply. We offered a few weak refusals, but went with them quite willingly. Free drinks? When we agreed, the woman hugged us both with surprising force.

It wasn’t until we had settled in and were perusing the menu that the thought struck me that perhaps these people were con artists, planning to rob us or drug us and carry us away somewhere terrible off into the night. Of course! That had to be it. Why else would this man, who spoke such good English and worked with American military personnel on a daily basis, and his wife, take such an interest in a couple of foreigners in a rather crowded area of Seoul that certainly saw it’s fair share of travelers? They were being so nice, buying us a round of beers and food. Such kindness just couldn’t be genuine. I even discretely checked my pockets to see if it hadn’t already been done when she had hugged us (she hadn’t). Maybe they were in cahoots with the owners of the bar/restaurant, and were going to try to charge us a million dollars for the bill, and then march us to an ATM to empty our bank accounts. Which I heard they do in Istanbul. Maybe they’d drug us and we’d wake up in a bath tub missing organs or enslaved into some Seoul sex trade.

Of course, after thinking this, my entire attitude changed. My sense of wonder and excitement at our chance encounter become a feeling up idiotic gullibility and even shame. Of course they’d go for a couple of young girls. Of course they’d pretend to help us. We were ideal targets. The couple, on the other hand, seemed genuinely excited to be talking to us about Korea and teaching and America and Canada. But I couldn’t stop trying to second-guess the genuine-ness. Was it all an act? ‘Are you in this area a lot? Aren’t there many foreigners around?’ I asked them. Yes and yes seemed to be their response, but communication wasn’t all that clear.

The woman enthusiastically ordered everyone a Cass – her favorite Korean beer – and we had a spicy, possibly raw fish stew-like dish. Perhaps they would slip drugs into one of these? The thought was in the back of my mind. My roommate seemed to be totally oblivious, which made me all the more wary for the both of us.

We saw pictures of their kids, and told them about the EPIK English teaching program in Korea. Eventually, it was proposed that we go to the top of the highest mountain in Seoul. Right now. It was nearing 11pm, but they looked it up on their smart phone and assured us it was open, and they could drive us, and they could get us back to the dorm for our midnight curfew. Well obviously there was no way I was going to get into their car, which I made quite immediately clear, letting my otherwise quite impeccable manners fall by the wayside a bit. My roommate tried to compensate for me by being extra polite, which only made me more insistent. Beyond the getting kidnapped/robbed/killed reasoning, we also had to be back to the dorm by midnight or be locked out until 5am. And even beyond that, this guy was obviously a bit intoxicated and there was no way I’d get into a car with him if he were my friend, let alone a stranger.

The woman looked absolutely crushed at our refusal, as if she might even cry. I tried to insist we’d be back in Seoul and could go to the top of the mountain another time. And we even exchanged email addresses. But our evening ended shortly thereafter, only after the man’s repeated insistence that we could find our way back to our place, and we for sure didn’t need a ride?

We parted ways. The wife hugged us again, and again with unexpected force. We didn’t get mugged, or kidnapped, or drugged. We just rather uneventfully walked back to our dorm, and made it there before curfew.
Of course, I was happy the entire thing had actually apparently been ‘genuine.’ But I also felt kind of bummed out by the experience. Which only got worse when I talked to my roommate, and confided my anxieties.

‘I could tell!’ (that made me feel rather embarrassed) ‘Koreans are just really generous like that. My Korean friends from university told me all about this. I knew what was going on.’

But still, didn’t she think they were con artists too? At least just a little bit?

That actually made her laugh. So, apparently not.

Didn’t they seem too nice though? Isn’t anyone that acts that nice definitely out to get you in some way (money, sex, organs…)?

This made her laugh even harder. ‘Stop! Stop!’ She was nearly in hysterics.

And then, I realized what was going on. My roommate was Canadian. ‘I bet you don’t even lock your doors at home! Do you?’

No, she didn’t. And she couldn’t stop laughing.

And that was my first and only bit of culture shock. First, that I could perceive the events of the evening so differently than she did, even though we had grown up only a few hours apart in Detroit and Toronto, and second that I had been capable of such skepticism of apparently genuine hospitality from an extremely friendly couple.

Was it just my outlook from growing up in the American ‘culture of fear’ and scare-heavy media? Or was it a product of growing up in the incredibly cautious suburbs, where everyone was afraid of the scary nearby city? Or was it spending so much time in NYC, where there are plenty of con artists taking advantage of clueless tourists, and no one really trusts strangers?

Whatever the reason, it made me feel quite bad that I had been capable of being so carried away by my paranoid thoughts, and let them close me off from enjoying what could have been a pleasant evening and fun cultural exchange.

So, I’ve decided I’d like to try to be more open – without entirely disregarding my NYC and traveling-hardened ‘street smarts.’ Although it would probably take me another 23 years to totally unlearn my American paranoia. And ultimately, it’s better to be safe than sorry, right? I mean, that couple never emailed us. Maybe they were just hoping we’d get into their car.

Or, maybe not. I think I’m just hopeless.

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