Tuesday, July 12, 2016

What I Do & Don't Miss About South Korea

There are many things I miss about Korea. It became my home for a year and was just as hard to leave as it was to leave America in 2014. At the same time, I don't regret my decision to stay for only a year. I can't believe that already eleven months have passed since I finished teaching there. I think it's due time that I make a list of what I do—and don't—miss about life in the Republic of Korea.

WHAT I MISS

-I think what I miss the most about Korea is the safety. (Yes, despite the presence of North Korea. Most South Koreans really aren't that concerned about it.) I never felt any danger walking at night by myself, or going hiking by myself, or doing anything by myself. Owning a gun is illegal, and people simply leave you alone*. I hardly heard of any crime at all happening when I lived there. As an example, I accidentally left my key in my apartment door one night—which was practically inviting someone to come in—and nothing happened. When I think of how common crime is in the States and how mass shootings have become mainstream, I can't help but yearn for the sense of security I had in Korea. I also never had to worry about being catcalled or receiving any kind of inappropriate gesture or comment from a Korean. If this ever did happen, it was from a person of another ethnicity.

-I miss the restaurant and street food too, of course—though by the end I'll admit I was sick of kimchi. Bibimbap, toppokki, red bean fish, hotteok, dakgalbi...things that I'll have to travel two hours to the Korean section of Atlanta to be able to eat again. No more local kimbap stores that offer dozens of traditional Korean dishes for less than $5.

-Like I said in a previous post, I definitely miss the lack of tipping and the fact that taxes were included in the price. That makes so much SENSE! I propose the U.S. adopt this immediately.
Reeds along a beautiful bike path
through the countryside

-I miss how easy it was to access parks, nature, and good, car-free biking and hiking paths. While I live in a beautiful area of the Georgia suburbs that's surrounded by woods and animals that love to jump in front of your car, my family still has to travel a good distance to get to a proper, questionably-secure path. Parks in my city aren't very safe and I generally try to avoid them. I certainly don't feel comfortable going downtown alone. Do you see why I miss Korea's safety so much?

Palgong Mountain in the fall
-I miss being surrounded by mountains. Despite how built-up Daegu was, you could always see tree-covered mountains in the distance that made it beautiful again. And all the hiking paths on these mountains, of which there were probably hundreds, were always so well-maintained. I have yet to figure out who kept them this way and when on earth they did it.

-I miss being able to walk everywhere, but I guess that applies to most city life. Back here in the suburbs, it takes at least 8 minutes of driving to get anywhere. In Daegu, the closest local mart was a 3-minute walk away. The nearest convenience store, dry cleaner, and restaurant were around the corner. The subway was 10 minutes away, and that could take me anywhere a foreigner might want to go.

-I continually miss the cheapness, cleanliness, and safety of public transportation. A subway or bus ride was $1 each way, in Daegu at least, and was always incredibly prompt. It was nothing like the subways in New York City or Washington, D.C. Even the taxis were relatively cheap. I never missed driving my own car when I was there because the transportation was so good that I didn't have to.

-I seriously miss Daiso, which was and will always be the best dollar store I've ever been to. It's all over Korea (and Japan, where it started) and provided me with so many good-quality kitchen items, school and bathroom supplies, and other random things for ridiculously cheap prices. I've half-seriously joked that I'm going to run off and marry Daiso one day and am still considering it. Before you do any shopping at more expensive stores in Korea, go to Daiso.

-I miss the cheap outdoor markets scattered around the country. There's something special about being in a huge, crowded marketplace and buying all sorts of fresh produce directly from local sellers.

-I miss being able to "play the foreigner card." Whenever I was around Koreans and I made a mistake, or didn't understand something, or didn't fit in, I always told myself that it was okay because I was a foreigner, and people would realize that and be more sympathetic. Unfortunately I can't do that now that I'm back in the States.


-I miss cat cafes. Sadly my almost 19-year-old cat died when I was in Korea (it was heartbreaking, but I half expected it), so now I have to resign myself to hoping the neighbors' cats who wander into our yard will let me pet them.

-I miss the non-sketchy 24-hour convenience stores on every block (big shoutout to CU and GS25), which supplied me with many snacks and water bottles throughout the year. Oh right, and plenty of ice cream.

-I miss the tradition of automatically taking your shoes off when you enter an apartment or sometimes even a restaurant. Back in the States, my family has to make a point out of telling guests to take off their shoes before coming in the house.

I went to only 8 movies
in Korean theaters. Can you
spot the odd poster out?
-I miss the awesome mini movie posters that you could pick up every time you went to the theater. I brought all of mine home and made them into a larger poster that I'm quite proud of. I also really liked how Korean cinemas allowed you to choose your seats when you bought your ticket, which was much easier than searching around in the dark for empty chairs in a crowded theater.

A larger-than-life
Iron Man lantern.
What's not to love?
-I miss the festivals happening all the time, all over the country for various holidays or just because. My favorite was the Jinju Lantern Festival, which I was fortunate enough to go to twice. —>>

-I miss k-pop, too! It can be so catchy, it's great for dancing, and it helps that some of the lyrics are in English. Plus all the giant boy groups are amazing dancers.


-I miss being able to get anywhere within the country in around 5 hours or less. Korea is only 2/3 the size of Georgia, which my students found strangely hilarious.

-I miss all the group trips with WinK and Enjoy Korea that I took throughout the year and which introduced me to parts of the country I might never have visited on my own. I met so many new people through these trips and went on adventures I'll never forget.

-I also miss the indoor climbing walls that were literally everywhere once you started looking for them. I got into climbing in Korea (always just bouldering) and was hoping to keep it up in the States…until I found out there wasn't a single climbing wall in my home city. Great.

-I miss being in a country that has so much culture, so many traditions, and such a rich history. I like that the U.S. is so young and diverse, but sometimes I wish we also had our own unique culture apart from being an amalgamation of other ones. For example, I still have a hard time answering what constitutes "American food."

-I really miss, and enjoyed, living in another culture. There was a sense of adventure where everything was new and exciting and just waiting to be discovered: strange food, quirky traditions, historic temples and colorful festivals, sleeping on the floor with dozens of other people in a hot jimjilbang... Looking back through my pictures makes me really yearn for that feeling of exploration again. What made my time in Korea even better was that I still had access to such a large foreigner community. This was one of the things that attracted me to South Korea in the first place. Perhaps I would have been more immersed in the culture and language if I were in a more isolated place than Daegu, but I will never regret picking it as my home city.

-And finally, I really, really miss all the people I met from all over the world. There's just something special about being able to interact with people from other countries on a regular basis. I loved being able to hear about the similarities and differences between different cultures, and then to compare them to mine. These people—including fellow Americans—were very often well-traveled and open-minded, and somehow carried a different mentality on the world than people who had never traveled before. I hope I'll be able to experience that again soon.



WHAT I DON'T MISS

-Somehow when I was brainstorming this list, the language barrier didn't even occur to me at first. I didn't actually mind not being able to understand the everyday chatter of passers-by or my students when they weren't in class. Plus there was the added benefit of not being able to understand the advertisements that are now blaring at me from all directions in America. The only time language was a problem was when I was trying to ask or communicate something that was more complicated than ordering food or telling a taxi driver where I wanted to go.

-I don't miss having to dodge motorcycles, bicycles, and sometimes even cars when walking on the sidewalk.

-I don't miss the lack of ovens or dryers in Korean apartments, though I got used to it eventually. But now I can make muffins again! :D

-I definitely don't miss how expensive fruit, cheese, and cereal were there. It was crazy.

-I don't miss Koreans' paranoia about the sun; it could get a bit tiring. White, wrinkle-free skin isn't everything, and it's even led to widespread vitamin D deficiency among the Korean population.

-I don't miss having to bring my own soap and toilet paper to public restrooms because many institutions didn't feel the need to provide these necessities themselves.

A gorgeous gray landscape
-I certainly don't miss the rows and rows of tall, gray, ugly, totalitarian-looking apartment buildings spread across the country. They really ruined the scenery sometimes.

-I don't miss the complete lack of trash cans! I still can't understand why, in an otherwise developed country, Korea continues to have giant trash piles in very conspicuous areas because they refuse to provide public trash cans.

-I also don't miss the paucity of vegetables in Korean food. For someone who loves veggies, it's nice to go to restaurants that actually have a good selection of green things again.

-I don't miss the lovely habit held by many Koreans of compulsively hacking gobs of spit onto the pavement. It made me cringe every time.

-I don't miss getting occasional looks for being a foreigner. It really wasn't bad at all; people mostly just minded their own business. But every now and then I'd feel self-conscious for being the only foreigner on an all-Korean subway car. I admit it's nice not to stick out anymore.

-*I know I said Korea was really safe above, but I did have a few very uncomfortable encounters with a middle-aged Korean man trying to look into my first-floor bathroom/bedroom window when I was showering or changing late at night. I had to tape a sheet to my window every evening because of that creeper. This man was definitely an anomaly and I believe he was more curious about the "foreign girl" than an actual danger—but still, it wasn't a pleasant experience.

-I don't miss the extreme vanity of the Korean people, even though they still seemed very friendly overall. On the whole, they are perhaps the most vain group of people I've met, and many (though not all) are overly concerned with their appearance, with plastic surgery and being thin, and with always checking their hair (even the guys) in whatever mirror they can find. They take selfies right and left and are constantly on their phones. Unfortunately, seeing all this vanity around me sometimes made me more vain as well…but at the same time it was acceptable, so I didn't have to feel bad about it.

-I don't miss the pushy, righteous old people (especially the old women) who believed that because they were older than you, they had the right of way. This applied even when they could easily take one step around you instead of barging into you on their way out of the subway. At the same time, I also don't miss seeing people old enough to be grandparents permanently bent over 90º from years of searching through trash on the streets.

That's matching shirts
AND matching shoes.
Why. Just why. -_-
-I have mixed feelings about Korea's couple culture. Again, I've never seen a society so focused on coupledom, so intent on being in a relationship and showing it off to the world. And couple clothes. I will never get over couple clothes. Korean couples have no shame in acting cutesy, flirting with each other, or holding hands in public. For a single person, it is hell. You are constantly reminded of your singleness in the face of so many seemingly-happy couples. Korean singles, especially over 30, are persistently questioned by friends and family as to whether they have a boyfriend/girlfriend yet and if not, why. But for a person in a relationship, it's the freedom to act as couply as you want, with no disgusted stares by passers-by aimed your way. So again, it's all a matter of perspective.

One of my students
actually said "The Scream"
looked like Obama. Wtf.
-I don't miss the lack of long vacations for hagwon teachers, or the Korean mentality that everyone needs to be either studying or working constantly. My Korean coworkers worked their butts off every day, whether they had to stay overtime to set up decorations for a Halloween party, call parents all day to promote Summer or Winter Intensives, or attend an Open House on a Saturday. Some of these teachers left after only a few months because they couldn't handle the pressure, but for the amount that they were paid, I can fully understand their decision. On the other hand, I also felt bad for my students when I heard how many hours they were stuck in school or hagwons every day, sometimes even on the weekends. Kids need time to just be kids, and adults need time to relax.

-I don't miss the blatant racism among many of my students, who considered Africa one giant, poor, disease-ridden "country" and immediately labeled black people as "gorillas," "ugly," "dirty," or my favorite, "Obama." I understand that Korea (and Japan) has a very white, homogenous society. Nevertheless, in today's ever-diversifying international economies, this ignorance needs to be addressed. For the Koreans I met who had traveled to other countries, this was much less of a problem.

-Finally, I don't miss my hagwon's Winter and Summer Intensives. AT ALL. Those things were horrible—so horrible that I could write a whole blog post about them but shall refrain to prevent myself from getting worked up again. Then there's writing extensive report cards for 70+ students every three months. And trying to control a classroom of children who clearly didn't want to be there and made sure I knew it. I've learned from this experience that maybe teaching elementary students is not for everyone. But before I dissuade anyone from trying, just know that every school, every teacher, and every student is different. I will freely admit I had some students who truly wanted to learn, and their eagerness made my experience as a teacher much more fulfilling. Plus I know plenty of people, including several of my foreign coworkers, who extended their contracts because they truly enjoyed the teaching experience. (Or more likely, the easy lifestyle.) You'll never know unless you try, and remember that it's never too late.

Alright, fine…. I kind of loved these guys.

Well, I think that's it for my Korean blog. But who knows? Maybe I'll start a new adventure worth blogging about in the future. Until then, thanks for reading. Peace ♥︎


Friday, January 8, 2016

More Korean Food!

Now that I've gotten past all the cultural things, I can talk more about specific Korean dishes! I'm going to miss Korean food a lot.

Basic Dishes

-Bibimbap (비빔밥), one of the most well-known Korean dishes, is popular among many foreigners, especially those seeking some vegetables in their food. It’s kind of like a meal version of a kimbap. The basic kind has rice, a fried egg, a mixture of stringy vegetables, and gochujang, a spicy red pepper paste sauce used in lots of Korean food. I grew to like this sauce so much that I actually bought my own and started putting it in my own cooking for extra flavor and a little kick. In nicer restaurants, you can get bibimbap with raw beef that actually cooks on the surface of the sizzling hot pot. If you treasure your fingers, touching the bowl directly is not advised.




-Donkasuh (돈가스), which actually originated in Japan, is a giant fried and breaded pork cutlet with a sweet "cur-ray" sauce. It's very cheap and can be found almost everywhere. You can even get a version of it that's just fried cheese.




-Jjim-dak (찜닭), which means "steamed chicken," is a flavorful, soupy, and spicy glass noodle dish with steamed potatoes, carrots, onions, and chunks of chicken. It comes in a giant plate that you share with others, and very often, despite the presence of noodles, it's still eaten with a small bowl of rice on the side. Sadly I'm not yet skilled enough with chopsticks to gracefully remove the bones from slippery, sauce-covered pieces of meat.



-Jajangmyeon (자장면), or black bean noodles, originated in China but are a popular dish in Korea. Supposedly it's a tradition that people who are single on Valentine's Day come together to eat jajangmyeon in sad solidarity.






-Pajeon (파전) is kind of like a non-dessert pancake eaten with a very strong, salty dip. It can be made with green onions alone or also with seafood. I can't say I'm a big fan of the chunks of squid, though.




-Kimchi chigae (김치 찌개) is a hot-pot soup made of kimchi, noodles, and pork that comes out of the kitchen literally still boiling. It’s spicy, full of flavor, and served with rice. Of course.




-Toppokki  (떡볶이) and rappokki (라볶이) are my guilty pleasures. Toppokki, sold by both street vendors and small kimbap restaurants, is made of soft, cylindrical rice cakes swimming in gochujang sauce. It's nothing but spicy, carby goodness. But even better, though I feel like I'm killing my insides every time I eat it, is rappokki: the usual toppokki rice cakes and sauce plus fish cakes, a full serving of ramen, and maybe a boiled egg on top. It is to die for.



Multi-step Meals

What I really like about some Korean meals is that they're prepared in front of you and require multiple steps. This forces you to slow down, appreciate your food, and socialize with your company. Here are a couple of my favorites:


-Dakgalbi (닭갈비) is a delicious combination of chicken, cabbage, potatoes, rice cakes, cheese (optional but always recommended), red sauce, and, if you’re still hungry at the end, rice. It’s slightly spicy and absolutely delicious. The waiter starts by putting a big pan of the stuff on the stove in the middle of the table. (He also puts a tall metal ring around it so no one gets splashed; some restaurants even supply aprons.) As it heats up and starts sizzling, the waiter periodically comes by and stirs it temptingly in front of you. After a few minutes he adds the cheese, and a few minutes later it’s ready to eat. When the food starts to dwindle, you have the choice to add rice to the pan. The waiter mixes the rice with the rest of the sauce and food and the eating continues.






-Shabu shabu (샤브 샤브) is truly wonderful. It’s the longest meal I’ve had—2 to 3 hours from start to finish, if you like your company—and is definitely not a good option for a rushed lunch hour. It’s such a long process that I’ve even divided it up into five steps.



1) Let's begin with the elaborate layout of the shabu shabu meal. Each person gets a bowl, a plate, and three dipping sauces. The shredded veggies and thin rolls of raw beef are for sharing. 





2) First you add some meat, leaves, and sprouts to the pot of boiling water in the middle of the table and wait patiently while they cook in front of you. Once they're done, you add some of the soup to your own little bowl. 






3) Then you pick up one of these seemingly inedible plastic-looking things (left) and dip it in a bowl of hot water. It turns out that thing is actually the wrap for your little hand-made spring roll. I've learned since that these are common in Vietnam. You put it on your plate and quickly add some cooked meat, shredded veggies, and sauce. If you wait too long, the wrap will get too sticky. Roll it up and start eating.




4) Once you've finally run out of wraps, then it's time for…noodles! A waitress comes and adds a bowl of white noodles into the main pot. You wait a bit for them to cook, and then dive in.

5) BUT WAIT! You're still not done! After you finish all the noodles, the waitress comes back to your table and dumps in a small bowl of rice. Because no Korean meal, no matter how large, is complete without rice. She stirs it around in the remaining liquid until it becomes a sort of porridge. You wait for the mixture to cool down, dig in, and then finally, the marathon of deliciousness is over. 


Strange Foods

Everyone always wants to know the weird foods people have eaten in other countries, so here's my selection:


-The strangest food I've eaten in Korea is hands down beondegi (번데기), or silkworm larvae. They're a popular street food with a very distinctive smell and a very unappealing look. They're essentially little slimy brown pre-bugs that taste like dirt. I've found that most people either love them or hate them. My non-Korean coworkers insisted I try one as an "initiation" for my first dinner out, and I gave them another chance a few months later, but they were gross both times.



-Next is jellyfish salad. I've only ever had it at one restaurant, but it's strangely yummy. Its texture is exactly what you might expect from a jellyfish: kind of like a long, thin gummy worm. There are also stuffed pig intestines, but I was never brave enough to try those.






-And then there's fried octopus. At the restaurant I went to, it was served on a plate with fried chicken, just as a whole fried package deal. I tried it just to be culturally open but the chewiness (and the suckers) really put me off. While I have never and will never eat this, a delicacy in Korea is actually live octopus whose tentacles are still moving as they go in your mouth. There's a real risk of the suckers sticking to your throat, but I suppose that's part of the thrill. There's also a popular Korean myth that octopus, especially live, is "good for men's health"—aka their sexual stamina. Koreans like octopus so much that you can even buy small slices of octopus in the cinema as a movie snack. (I'll pass.)




-Korean convenience stores are known for having great, cheap ice cream. And trust me, I'm all for ice cream. But many Korean street vendors make eating ice cream a potentially awkward experience with their very phallic, J-shaped ice cream cones. The cone itself is porous and a bit dry, but the ice cream itself isn't bad. Just maybe don't post a picture of yourself eating one of these cones online.





-Finally, my favorite strange food: squid chips! It sounds nasty, I know, but there is only a slightly fishy flavor to them. These chips are filled with air but are actually quite oily and addictive. I bought them for myself as an occasional treat on the way home. And then there's "Honey Tong Tong," the snack trend that swept the nation and then, like most trends, quickly died down. These chips are an interesting combination of sweet and buttery, and I have mixed feelings about them. However, I was told that during their peak, stores would sell out of them within hours. Whenever a kid brought a bag to class, all the other students would run after him for a taste and then walk off with crumby, satisfied smiles. (Then again, they did that for most food.) This is an addition to the more traditional Korean snacks, which I always found rather stale and not very flavorful.





Desserts

Koreans like to put sugar on or in everything in general, including tomato sauce, bread, and even corn dogs (along with the usual ketchup), but they also have some distinctive desserts that I've come to love.


-Red bean (팥) was one of the first new things I tried in Korea. It's found in bread, pastries, rice cakes, and even ice cream. It's a sweet mush of brownish-reddish adzuki beans that can be an acquired taste, but I quickly learned to love it. My favorites are red bean rice cakes and red bean "fish," pastries that are sold by street vendors in cold weather for three a dollar.


The red bean/custard "fish" truck
that conveniently parked
outside my school in the winter
My favorite red bean
rice cakes
I was so sad when I found
out these weren't sold
in the summer




-Bingsu (빙수) is kind of like shaved ice cream, if you can imagine it. It's not cheap and often comes in a giant, heaping bowl easily shareable between two or three people. It’s offered in different flavors and with various toppings, including fruits, brownie chunks, actual ice cream, or the more traditional red bean. The bingsu special I ordered once, shown on the bottom left, even had cheese puffs, a piece of candied orange, and actual slices of cheesecake, in addition to frozen berries and a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. What's nice about bingsu is that it's generally light and fluffy and doesn't make you feel five pounds heavier once you've finished it. In fact, it's good enough that I have to show you four pictures of what you're missing out on.

             




-Although Korean apartments don't have ovens, Koreans love their bakeries. One of the most popular is called Paris Baguette, and I've found some very interesting pastries there. Many include red bean, but then there are things like giant sugary hotdog twists that make you question the traditional definition of a pastry.





-I also can't leave out the cafes scattered all over the country which offer some amazing desserts. Caffè Bene (yes, I spelled that right) is especially notable for its fantastic, though expensive, desserts. Behold the cheesecake smothered in chocolate sauce and sitting on a bed of melted marshmallow:




-Finally, I've seen a few crepe shops around Korea that not only offer delicious savory crepes, but also amazingly good-looking dessert crepes that I somehow never tried. Other than the usual fruits, whipped cream, and syrup, these things include entire scoops of ice cream and whole slices of cake or cheesecake. It's ridiculous. I'm not sure how you would even start to eat something like that. But at the same time it's so, so tempting…


(I assume the weird green color in these plastic models is
a result of age, so maybe just ignore that part.)

Have you ever eaten Korean food? If not (and you should), what do you want to try the most? Leave a comment below!