How Korea taught me to love singing

λ…Έλž˜λ°© (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…

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.

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 πŸ™‚ 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!