Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Winterize Your Mind

We had a White Christmas in Gunsan and it was really exciting. For about 2 days.

Then the clean snow melted and left us with brown slush, icy roads, and a lingering chill. And the novelty started to wear off. Being from the Pacific Northwest, and never doing snow sports, I'm not used to being in freezing temperatures for more than a few days at a time. The fate of this unflinching winter cold is finally settling in, and I already wish that it would get warmer, back to a mild 50 degrees and raining like a sensible Seattle winter. Or I just wish I could take a trip to the southern hemisphere and be in instant summer.

My friend Will gave me an awesome book last year for Christmas called "When Wanderers Cease to Roam" by Vivian Swift. She is a middle-aged woman who spent the decades of her adult life traveling all over the world, and now lives a stationary existence on Long Island. The book is part journal, part seasonal reflections, part travel memoir, and part watercolor art. It is a really original and lovely book. There is a part called "How to Winterize your Mind" for January, which I would like to share here.

"ONE: See the sun rise and set every day. The average night is 13.5 hours long. We spend most of January in the dark. Don't miss a minute of daylight.
TWO: Learn how to draw a tree. Now is the best time to see what a tree really looks like. Draw one a day.
THREE: Put something beautiful in your room so that it's the first thing you see when you wake up.

an aqua-colored princess phone* an antique perfume bottle* a glass wind chime* a Spode tea cup, a tin of Assam tea* a blue jay feather* the words to your favorite song* a puddle of summer rain"

Last night I woke to a loud rumble, which sounded just like F-16's flying overhead. Since the nearby Airbase doesn't usually do practice flights at 4am, I thought there must be an attack by North Korea. I don't live in fear of this, but it's always a possibility. I then realized that the sound was not fighter planes, but just really loud howling wind. I didn't know until morning that with the wind came a downpour of snow, about 4 fresh inches by the time I was leaving for work. And still coming.
I'd rather have this new snow than the old slush, and in a way I feel renewed for a few days. Like it or not, a definite Korean winter is here to stay, and I just have to get used to it, and plow forward into the New Year with a winterized mind and spirit. So friends, do what you need to do to warm and comfort yourself, to make your heart cozy.

And let's all keep a sense of humor for 2011. Yesterday I went to the gym and after working out went into the locker room to change. An older woman was staring at me in mild shock while she BLOW DRIED her bum-hole. Yes, cheeks spread apart, toward the whole locker room, using a hair-drier I was hoping to use later on my HAIR, while SHE stared at ME for oddly enough being from one of the 200 other countries on the planet that is NOT South Korea, and then working out at the SAME gym as her. Pretty ridiculous moment. Laugh, and winterize, and I think it will be a good start to the year.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Merry 크리스마스!

This was only my 2nd Christmas away from home, the first being in Mexico in 2005. I couldn't complain spending that holiday on a beach in Baja, though here in Korea things were actually fairly traditional. With the solid handful of foreigners in Gunsan, we had each other to celebrate with, all excited to stave off that lonely, away-from-home holiday feeling and be together.

It ended up being a 4-day celebration, starting on the 23rd. We traded our usual plastic jugs of Hite beer for a more elegant cocktail party. There were suits and ties and party dresses and various cocktails. It was so nice to have a different kind of party in Gunsan and see our friends get dressed up.
Christmas Eve day was mellow. I slept in, went downtown, had tea with a friend, and rode my bike in the very lightly falling snow. Then Aaron and I went out to dinner at a duck place on the outskirts of town that I've been wanting to go to for a long time. We had dish called 오리주물럭 which is duck stir-fried with carrot, onion, and leeks in a spicy red sauce. It was really delicious, and the side-dishes were good too- sweet and spicy bean spouts, shrimp broth tofu soup, and an interesting firm cabbage kimchi. Then I went home and watched It's a Wonderful Life and drank hot chocolate.
Christmas morning was clear and beautiful. There were patchy remnants of snow, but it wasn't a White Christmas. I Skyped with my dad in Florida which was really nice. Thank goodness for Skype.
My mom and sisters sent a package with gifts for Christmas and before. My sister was so thoughtful to put things that would make it feel like the holiday season- lights, candy canes, festive socks, scented candles. I opened the rest of the gifts in this awesome package, including things I can't get in Gunsan like Seattle tea and organic dark chocolate, and even my own stuffed stocking! So wonderful to still have a stocking, and a big thank you to them for thinking of me all the way over here.

Another of our traditions is a Christmas brunch, and incidentally this is what the foreign crew had planned. I made a roasted eggplant frittata and headed back to James' and Jen's house in the late morning. They are the same couple who hosted the cocktail party 38 hours before, so we are all grateful for their willingness to open their house. They are among the few people who have a place big enough to fit more than 5 people!
It was one of the most amazing brunches I've ever had- biscuits with homemade sausage gravy, crepes with fresh fruit and Canadian maple syrup, smoked salmon with cream cheese, brie, bagels, and capers, pancakes, a fruit platter, yogurt, croissants and other pastries, bacon, fruit cake, mimosas, and coffee and baileys. Did I mention BACON? I think all the food was made more special by the fact that a lot of the ingredients are hard to find in Korea.

After we had all gone back for not seconds but thirds, we could sit back and focus on the gift exchange. We planned a White Elephant with a personal trivia quiz to rank the order of opening gifts. In the week prior, we all emailed Jen one little-know fact about ourselves, and she compiled them into a quiz. Of course, you try to match what you know of people's personalities to the facts, but it was harder than anticipated. It was also funnier than anticipated, with facts such as, "In high school, I was voted most likely to flirt at my own wedding" and "I've ridden an ostrich" and "I won $150 on an MTV game show then immediately lost it to a carnie in a double-or-nothing billiards game". We discovered friends who are musically inept, have almost died of hypothermia, are traumatized by headless chickens, lived in tents for months, and interviewed presidential candidates. I would love to do this again in the future with other groups of friends or family.
Then we graded and scored the quizzes, and the person with the lowest score got to pick a gift first. Then the next lowest score can either open another gift or steal a gift that is already open.... and so forth down the line. People had all gotten nice, interesting gifts, and in the end I got probably the most Korean one- a furry white hat with bear head and ears on it, with an attached scarf that ends in bear paw mittens. Before coming to Korea, I would have considered this gift only appropriate for some one under 10 years old, but now Korean style has slowly infiltrated my brain, and I really like my animal hat/scarf combo. As we gathered our dishes and gifts to head home, snow had started falling in flurries outside.

It kept coming down as I relaxed and drank tea in my apartment. A White Christmas! I was thinking back, trying to remember how many I've actually had. We've had more snow in Seattle in recent winters than from most of my childhood, and I'm thinking that all in all, maybe I've had 5? Do any other Seattle-area folks have an estimate for White Christmases over the last 28 years?
I was still a little full from brunch, so I figured walking to dinner and enjoying the snow was a must. There were women sweeping the snow, and a few people shoveling walkways. Cars were on the road but going slowly, and overall it was just so peaceful and quiet. A group of 14 of us had made reservations at a new Italian restaurant in town, right on Eunpa Lake overlooking the water. We had decided to go with a set menu and fixed price for our large group, and enjoyed caprice salad (OMG FRESH MOZZARELLA, how I've missed you!), and multiple pizzas and pastas with wine and good beer before a walnut cake dessert. The best was an olive oil chicken pasta with lemon, capers, and roasted garlic. The dish was simple, but really really really good. The service was bit slow, but normal for Korea. At ethnic restaurants here it's hard to know exactly what foreign aspects will be adopted and what will remain Korean. Overall it was a really nice meal in a lovely spot.
We tromped into the snow again over to Cherie's place... Christmas was not over yet! We squeezed into her apartment and played a hysterical game of boys vs. girls Charades and then a homemade version of Taboo.
Sunday was Boxing Day, Day 4 of festivities. A group of about 10 of us went to the neighboring city of Iksan to go Ice Skating. We rented skates that were by far the most ghetto ones I've ever seen. They were a hard plastic, so it was difficult to lace them up well, and the blades were completely dull. On the freshly flooded ice, the skates didn't cut into the ice at all, and you literally just slid sideways when you tried to skate! I asked the guy to sharpen the skates and he said no. I asked to exchange them and he said they were all the same. I cannot fathom that a country that is known for speed skating and figure skating, and won Olympic Medals, would subject its average citizen to such a mediocre skating experience. But once more people had skated and the ice started getting rough, we could actually skate a little bit, and had fun. We were the only foreigners, and there were cute couples and a kids speed-skating team. (Photo by Lindsay)

It was a full four days of plenty of activity, festivities, and good food. Hope every one had a Merry Christmas, wherever you are and in whatever ways you celebrate!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Civil Defense Drill

At 2pm on the 15th of every month, South Korea is supposed to conduct a "Civil Defense Drill". An announcement comes over the radio, and all work, school, transport, etc. must stop for 20 minutes and simulate what they would do in case of an attack by North Korea. Only, these drills never actually happen.

But today, December 15th, on the first Drill Day since the November 23rd shelling of the South Korean island, the country actually took the exercise seriously. When North Korea fired on this small border-water island a few weeks ago, it was said to be the most aggressive attack in decades, and the first assault on a civilian area since the end of the Korean war in 1953. We were told about the drill the day before, that we would have to bring all our students to the school gym at 2pm. You are supposed to seek an underground shelter, but our school doesn't have one, so the gym was the best we could do. For 20 minutes we listened to the voice on the radio, explaining this was only a drill, and what every one should be doing.

The students didn't seem to take it too seriously. Compared to the orderly fire and earthquake drills I had to do in school, this seemed pretty laid-back. But apparently nation-wide, it was the biggest drill since they began in the 1970's. For more details, here's an article from Yahoo News called "Korea Stages Mass Evacuation Drill Amid Tension". The average South Korean doesn't seem too worried that the North will attack, so I try to take my cue from them. But about an hour after the drill, when I heard the F-16's from the nearby Air Base flying overhead, I felt a little jumpy.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Daedunsan Hiking

Today is my 9 month anniversary in Korea. Now that I'm 3/4 of the way done with my contract, I'm feeling like the rest of my time here will go really fast. Time is slipping away and there are still a few key things I want to do before I go. One of those things was to hike in Daedunsan Provincial Park, a day hike from Gunsan, before it closed from a big snowfall.

Weekends have been busy, but I finally had a free weekend, and Saturday was a surprisingly warm and beautiful day for December. I took a bus with 2 of my main hiking buddies (though one friend I always hike with is in Thailand-missed you Greg!) and was happy that the bus went directly to the trail head. Most hiking I've done here requires at least one if not two bus changes to get to the park. We were instantly met with stunning views of craggy rocks coming out of the mountainside, along with a suspension bridge and cable cars in the distance. Like all Korean hiking trails, there were NO switchbacks- just stone and metal staircases straight up the mountain. So it was a great workout even though the park is not that large.

To get to the highest peak, you have to go up this insanely steep cable staircase. I don't have a fear of heights, but being on this thing swaying in the wind was a bit disconcerting. Toward the very top we got into a little snow, luckily with railings and ropes on the side of the trail.
We made it to the top, where you can see the surrounding hills as well as the other outcroppings on the mountain. It's a really cool hike, with many viewpoints and different perspectives. We sat to rest for a moment, and a nice group of middle-aged Koreans took us under their wing. Though they spoke almost no English, they were quite convivial and offered us Korean rice wine, tangerines, and dried squid. Some of my best experiences I've had with Korean strangers have been while hiking, when people seem genuinely gleeful to see foreigners outside enjoying the mountains. And they can't fathom us only snacking on granola bars and apples when we should be drinking soju and eating squid. (Photo by Cherie)
Then we wandered on to another outcropping and found our own serene spot in the sun overlooking the layers upon layers of distant mountains. It was the clearest view I've had in Korea, and the quietest. It was a little side trail, and such a treat to have the rock to ourselves. We watched birds swoop and people far below cross the cable bridge. Then we descended partway down to check out the cable bridge for ourselves.
From there you could either continue walking down the stone stairs another hour to the bottom, or you could take the cable car! Many parks in Korea have cable cars, and I've been wanting to take one, so today was my day. While we waited in the long line, I tried some traditional tea of boiled jujube called Daechucha. It has a good fruity taste at the beginning which leaps into a bitter, medicinal finish. Overall I like it, and it's supposed to be good for muscle aches. Finally they packed us into the cable car in a fit so tight I'm sure it was over-capacity, but sped down the hillside without incident.At the bottom we ate hot noodles, dried persimmons, and a really delicious seafood pajeon (savory green onion rice-flour pancake). Then we did some stretches and drank sweet Korean coffee before catching the bus back to Gunsan. It was an awesome day and I'm really happy I was able to get one more hike in.

On Sunday I was determined to be as lazy as possible. The weeks have been so busy, and usually on Saturday morning I do long runs and/or go out of town, so by Sunday I really need to decompress. I had a big brunch, read, then watched the latest Glee episode. It was Christmas-themed, and made me want to decorate. I was getting antsy being in the house, so even though it was FREEZING, I took a bike ride downtown to get some Christmas decorations. I now have a mini-tree that is trimmed, plus a poinsettia a friend gave me. All in all, a good weekend! I'm going to bed early, actually ready for Monday.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Racing Through Seoul

I like training for races because it keeps me motivated to exercise. I ran a half marathon along the Seawall here in Gunsan in May, on a warm day amidst a festive atmosphere of music, drums, costumed runners, chanting, and sparkling ocean water. By fall I was looking to do another one, and found one in Seoul in early December. I signed up with 4 other friends to do the half marathon, and one friend to do the 10K. We trained separately sometimes, together sometimes, often running in the dark and cold. Finally race day came last Saturday, so we all hopped an early bus to Seoul. Fortunately it started at 2pm, the warmest part of the day, but still chilly and grey. The course was along the Han River which cuts Seoul in half.

Here are the 6 of us before the race. Luckily we had a non-racing friend there as well to cheer us on and take pictures. We saw a handful of other foreigners, but of course, it was almost all Koreans. And the Koreans all looked over 40, while all the foreign runners looked under 40. It's the same with hiking- you don't see many young Korean adults out on trails, it's mostly the older generations.
There were less people than I thought there'd be, and it lacked the exuberant vibe of the Gunsan Seawall race, but maybe that is to be expected in December. It was still pleasant with a faint buzz of anticipation, music, a dance show, and group stretching exercises.
They started making announcements and people with our same color bib numbers started moving toward the start line. Often you don't have to speak the language to understand what's happening, but the MC still used some English, "Um, now is the half... you know, uh, half." Once we were all tightly lined up, the group massage began! We all massaged the shoulders of the person in front of us, then turned around and karate chopped the person behind us. Then we were off!

The course wasn't stunning, but it was nice to be on a foot-trail along the river, and run under bridges and pass towering buildings and the N. Seoul tower in the distance. It's always interesting to people-watch as well, like the guy in front of me with the Adidas shirt that said "Impossible is nothing." Or seeing a decent number of women runners, when I NEVER see any women out running (where do they train?!). Or just always having to pay attention to not get run over/run into/cut off in the total lack of trail etiquette. I often wish I had a video camera strapped to my head to record the weaving ways of moving Koreans, whether they are walking, running, cycling, or driving.

Anyway, I felt great for the first half of the course, and my half time was faster than in training, but then I got a killer side ache. I had to hobble for a few kilometers and my friends were all ahead of me, but I felt better toward the end and finished strong. My time was 6 minutes faster than the Seawall race, and I think actually the cooler weather was nice since you don't get as dehydrated from sweating. Besides tight quadriceps, I was perfectly warm. I crossed the finish line to cheering friends who also all had good races.

There were bottles of water for immediate consumption then over in the recovery area, there were booths giving away hot tea and hot tofu soup. There were also little cups of makgeolli, Korean unfiltered rice/wheat wine. We thought there'd be a warming tent, but no such luck. By the time we took our timing chips off our shoes and found where to drop them, we were all freezing. When you turn your chip in, you get a goodie bag with your finisher's medal, bananas, a bread roll, and a cookie.

We took taxis back the guesthouse, cold and tired but feeling good. It's a great guesthouse- right in Hongdae off the subway stop, a room for 8 people with a loft, and a nice view from the 19th floor. It took awhile to get all of us feeling warmed and normal, with hot showers and coffee and the heater and blankets and Gatorade and stretching. But we managed to head out for a Mexican dinner of nachos, burritos, and margaritas which we were all pretty excited about.
We wandered through the Christmas-lighted Hongdae area for some drinks. At one point I tried a beer from North Korea- not great with a watery and skunky flavor- but I couldn't pass it up. Sore muscles aside, we couldn't stop ourselves from dancing on a rare night out in the big city.

On Sunday morning we headed to Itaewon for a Western brunch- only my second one in Korea after Daegu 2 weeks ago! I've always really liked brunch, but after living here, brunch is exalted to a whole new level. I don't think I've ever been so excited for a cheesy omelet with mushrooms and peppers, toast, mixed baby greens, and coffee. Last stop was grocery shopping at the international food store before catching the bus back to Gunsan. A few of us went straight to the jimjilbang, or Korean spa, to soak in the hot tubs and sit in the saunas. It was the perfect ending to a full weekend of lots of exercise, lots of food, and time with some of my favorite people in Korea.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thanksgiving Weekend

Trying to have Thanksgiving in Korea poses a few obstacles. First of all, the ingredients. I like to bake, but I couldn't even find vanilla extract here, and ended up getting my current bottle of vanilla from an import store in Seoul. An average Korean grocery store will have ground cinnamon and ginger, but not allspice, cloves, nutmeg, or cinnamon sticks. Green beans? No. Beets. Huh uh. Frozen turkey? Unlikely. They were indeed selling them at Costco (an hour and a half train ride from Gunsan), but there was the issue of transporting it on a train, and the fact that they cost 8,900 won per kilogram. Let's do the math...20 pounds is about 9 kilos, so 9 times 8,900 is 80,100 won, putting a 20 pound turkey at about $70.

Then there's the days off. Most foreigner teachers in Korea work in hagwons, or private after-school academies, so they are often teaching til 8 or 9pm. That means a regular Thanksgiving Thursday dinner was not possible. But Saturday loomed invitingly and taunted us Americans, "Come on! Just try to have a traditional holiday!"

Gunsan has a U.S. Air Force base, which besides the noise of more air traffic than usual, makes me feel much safer about living in Korea. Especially after events like last week's horrible and unexpected shelling by North Korea of the South Korean island Yeonpyeong, I like knowing there is a base so close. In addition to the protection factor, a base means American food and products. There are often Airmen at foreign parties, and a few were invited to Thanksgiving and able to get 2 turkeys and a ham for the feast. There are very few foreigners that even have ovens, much less one big enough to cook a turkey, but the ones that do woke up early to cook the birds.

Since I have a (small convection) oven, I felt it was my moral obligation to bake any and all dishes I would bring. I had recently stumbled across this Roasted Onion and Pomegranate Gremolata from the food blog Not Without Salt. I was enticed by its simplicity and vibrant color, and happy to use the very last of the parsley from my garden.

I have also been eating a lot of fresh persimmons lately because they are in season right now. Well, toward the end of their season, but you see them for sale on street produce stands everywhere, and two different Korean friends gifted me bags of them. They are delicious fresh, but I wanted to bake a dessert, and I had a picture of a rustic tart in my head. Luckily I came across a recipe to match my mental image, and made this Persimmon Tart.

I also had just a few fresh chilies left from the garden, as well as some rare cornmeal, so I made a chili cheese cornbread. All this baking was early Saturday afternoon, after running 10 miles in preparation for a half-marathon next weekend. It was a busy day, but so satisfying to slip my warm dishes on the buffet table next to all the other amazing food and revel in the abundance while sipping a glass of wine. By the time every one trickled in with their food, there were at least 35 guests, and mounds of food from the traditional turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, and cranberry sauce, to spaghetti, green salad, and pasta salad, to Korean savory kimchi pancakes (김치전) and spicy clear noodles (잡채) to desserts of sweet potato pie, cheesecake, fruit crumbles, and cookies.

Other teachers, Air Force men, parents, and Korean friends filled this piano hagwon-turned apartment to the brim. The hosts had done an awesome job of setting up as much seating as possible in low, Korea-style tables. There was a ton of food, so much that you had to go back for seconds and thirds just to get a taste of everything!

Surprisingly, with all this food, it was a simple chocolate chip cookie that stole the show. Baked and brought by one of the Airmen, every person who tried this cookie freaked out. (Photo by Lindsay).

Afterwards, of course, we were all in food comas and needed to digest. One friend streamed the Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys game, so it really felt like America. There was a side room with a heater on and pillows for laying down. I had to take a walk in the fading afternoon light. Upon return, once the game was over, we watched YouTube videos, played charades and had more pie and spiced cider.

So, under unlikely circumstances, the foreign community in Gunsan pulled off a pretty amazing holiday. It was a full day of food, friends, cute kids, work, and play. I am very thankful for all the wonderful people in this little city, and the willingness to put new spins on tradition.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Babies, Buses, Big Cities

The weekend before last, I went to visit my friend who just had her first baby. She is from Colombia, and has been married to a Korean man for 9 years. They live in the neighboring city Jeonju, so I took a day trip to meet the cute little boy. Her mom is here visiting for the first time from South America, and I got to practice Spanish all day. It stretches my brain to talk about a 3rd language in my second language, saying things like "Quiero comer bibimbap" or "Yogi significa aqui". When I left her house that night, I was in Spanish mode and kept trying to speak to Koreans in Spanish.

I was in Jeonju waiting for a bus, and talking on my cell phone about meeting friends for a late dinner at my favorite noodle shop when I got back to Gunsan. I wanted to take the bus that went to Iksan, then Gunsan, which would say 익산, 군산 but I was distracted and got on the bus that said 익산, 논산. Now don't those look almost the same? I can read Korean but I made a mistake and was wishfully thinking that my bus was coming soon. Of course I didn't know there was a problem when we stopped in Iksan as usual, but later I realized I didn't recognize the next city AT ALL. Every one got off and the driver asked me where I was going, and when I said Gunsan, he shook his head. His next stop was Daejon, 2 hours from Gunsan! I jumped off the bus and went into the station, but by then it was 9pm and there were no more buses for Gunsan, Iksan, OR Jeonju. My stomach sank as I thought I might have to stay the night in this random town.

It is times like this when I find international living and not speaking the language most frustrating. I felt completely helpless in a strange place and couldn't talk to any one in detail about what to do. The ticket agent said "Daejon" and even though it would take me even farther from home, I thought perhaps I could catch a bus later from there since it was a big city. I bought the ticket and went back out to my driver. "Daejon?" he repeated. "No, Kicha, kicha!" he said, waving me away. I thought that he was recommending a closer city for me to go to, so I went back to the ticket lady to tell her "Kicha". She reluctantly gave me a refund, wrote something on a paper, and waved me toward the door saying, "taxi". The taxi took me to train station, and I realized that "kicha" meant train, and they often run later than buses. Luckily I caught a train back to Iksan, a taxi to the bus station, and a bus to Gunsan, with no harm done besides being tired and spending 3 times more time and money to get home.

Another girlfriend also recently had a baby boy, her second child here in Korea. She is British, and I give her major props for having kids in a foreign country. But I'm glad some one is, because I like having kids around in this community of friends. Besides the language barrier, there are many cultural differences in child bearing customs. For example, C-section rates in Korea are much higher than in the U.S. or England, with the majority of mothers opting for them even without medical necessity. Both of this friend's babies were over 9 pounds (probably unheard of in Korea), and both times the doctors recommended a Cesarean, and both times she had uncomplicated, natural births. When the babies are born they take them to the nursery, where they flash either a chili pepper or a peach light to announce if it's a boy or a girl. Why, I have no idea, but you can probably guess which one is for boy and which is for girl.

When I went to visit my friend the day after #2 was born, I was surprised to find her in a private, apartment-like room on a separate floor from the nursery. In Korea, the moms are kept separate from the newborns for the majority of the time, except when they go downstairs to feed. If they don't want to nurse they can pump breast milk or the nurses will bottle feed the baby for you. Also, it's customary for Korean moms to seriously rest for about a month after birth, staying warm and not lifting anything heavy. Moms are also supposed to eat 미역국 (miyuk gook), a seaweed soup every day for a week or two.

The clear broth is cleansing for the blood, the iodine helps the uterus shrink, and in general it is nutritious and considered good for producing milk. Then in turn, children are supposed to eat miyuk gook on their birthdays, to commemorate their mothers. Well, miyuk gook may be the ideal, but on Friday night my girlfriend and I opted for a pizza dinner instead after the kids went to bed. I got to bed early so I could wake up early for a 15 kilometer training run in prep for a half marathon in 2 weeks from now.

After the run, I headed to Daegu for my first time, which is the 3rd largest city in Korea after Seoul and Busan. On the map you can see Gunsan (Kunsan), Jeonju (Chonju), and Daegu (Taegu).

After the hour-ride to Jeonju, it's about 3 hours to get there- so a bit of a haul, but I wanted to see the city and a friend was already planning to go. And he lured me with promises of Mexican food and microbrews. Daegu is a big city, but it's pretty compact so it doesn't feel like you have to trudge through a bunch of sprawl to get somewhere. There is a subway, but it's only 2 lines making a t-shape. The main downtown is in one area, with many pedestrian streets linked together. Even though the street is closed to motor vehicles, people still drive cars and scooters through it in typical Korean style, but it is more peaceful than your average city street.

Along with the shopping, restaurants, bars, hofs, and clubs, there is also Western food! Now, I'm far from the kind of traveler who goes abroad only to eat American chain food, but I do like having a variety. I love Korean food, but I miss other foods and flavors. For dinner we went to a Canadian-owned restaurant/bar with an awesome menu. Mostly Mexican, with some different burgers and Greek food too. We shared a huge plate of nachos (!!!!!) as an appetizer, and I had a chicken gyro with lettuce, olives, and tzikiki and a delicious pale ale, a REAL microbrew from Canada. We left there stuffed, but managed to find room for a dessert cocktail from a street stand bar. I have never seen these in Korea, it's like a walk-up coffee stand, but for drinks, and you get a to-go pouch with straw. Brilliant.

We walked around, shopped, played foosball, and went dancing before calling it a night. On Sunday I had my first restaurant Sunday brunch in Korea, it's been over 8 months. I occasionally make a big brunch at home, but there is no cafe to eat Western food in Gunsan, and somehow I never have in Seoul. If you want to go out for brunch in Gunsan, you can choose from ramyeon, kimbap, udong, or fried rice. We went to a cheerful cafe where the clientele was about half Korean and half foreign. There was french toast, pancakes, and eggs on the menu, and I wanted it all. Luckily they had a 2 person set meal, so my friend and I shared a gigantic plate of classic pancakes, nut pancakes, brioche french toast, scrambled eggs, home fries, sauteed mushrooms, and coffee for 18,000 won or less than $9 each. It was heavenly. Afterward, we walked around and shopped for winter clothes like long underwear, arm warmers, down vests, and socks before wandering past medicinal herb shops.

We got to the bus station around 3, in perfect time to catch the 3:20 bus back to Jeonju. Only, the bus was sold out, and the next one wasn't until 5:40. We were really hoping to get back to Gunsan in time to have part of Sunday evening to relax. The train station was across the street, so, learning from my last bus fiasco, I thought we might as well check the train times. The station was packed, and after waiting in a long line, we found out that all the trains to Iksan and Jeonju were sold out. So we walked back to the bus station to get a ticket for the 5:40 bus... but by then, THAT one was sold out too! It was insane. I think there was some kind of festival or holiday I didn't know about, because I can't imagine why the transportation would be so full. We bought a ticket for the 7:40 bus which was the last one of the night to Jeonju.

With over 4 hours to wait in Daegu, we decided to go see "The Social Network" which just came out in theatres in Korea. Getting back on the subway, we trekked back downtown to a huge, 9-story Lotte. It was also packed there, with that hectic, impatient holiday-shopping feeling. We couldn't even get an elevator up to the cinema, because they were all full! Finally we took the escalator after navigating through a sea of shoppers. It was 4:13 and the movie had started at 4:10... and they wouldn't let us in! I guess they don't want late-comers disturbing people already watching the movie. Which is ridiculous, because Koreans talk, text, and answer their phones all through movies, so the peace is usually disturbed anyway! Obviously, today was not our day for good timing. By the time we got back to Jeonju at 10:30, it turned out the last regular bus of the night had left at 10:20, and there was just one last "midnight" bus at 11:40. Finally, I got home to my apartment in Gunsan around 1am, 10 hours after attempting to leave Daegu. So much for my relaxing Sunday night. That was not the most interesting story, but I guess it's just to say that some days are like that when traveling. Everything seems to go wrong, but ultimately it's your attitude that determines how much of a disaster it is. It can always be much, much worse.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Korean Summer Phenomena

It's way past summer now, but there are a couple Korea-specific things I meant to write about. Since linear time is over-rated, let's take a quick trip back to those sweltering hot months... a time when, in America, it's perfectly acceptable to sleep with a fan on and wear t-shirts.

First up is Fan Death. Here they believe that you should not sleep in room with the fan on if the windows are closed. The fan can chop up the oxygen molecules and you will suffocate, or the prolonged exposure to the fan wind can cause hypothermia, and you will DIE. I'm not joking. There are still cases every summer of people dying from "fan death"- doctors put it on death certificates, the government issues warnings, manufacturers can only sell fans with timers, and every smart, educated Korean I've asked about it says it is absolutely a real danger. This past summer at Mud Fest I stayed in guesthouse with many friends, and it was hot and some of us were sleeping with a fan on. One of the Korean friends, from a different room, came in around 8am and TURNED OFF our fan. He left and I immediately turned it back on. I thought it was rude, and strange, to come into a room you aren't staying and adjust some one else's cooling devices. My only "logical" explanation was that he was concerned about us dying from Fan Death.

The other thing is how much Koreans try to stay out of the sun. They consider lighter skin more beautiful, so they don't sunbathe or want to get tan, plus the sun is unhealthy and can damage skin and cause cancer. There's evidence that sunscreen isn't as healthy as it is marketed to be, often containing harmful chemicals and not lowering the rates of skin cancer. There is something to be said for staying in the shade or wearing hats and long-sleeves, but Koreans take it to an extreme. The summers here are hot AND humid, yet most Koreans wear pants, jackets, sun visors, face masks, gloves, boots, and umbrellas... ALL summer. It is astounding to me, who loves the feeling of a little sun on my skin, and who is already sweating in shorts and t-shirt, that they could be so bundled up. I think that Koreans have slowly evolved to not sweat in the heat. Seriously. This comic is by Luke Martin, from ROKetship on Facebook. It's perfect because it is SO true, this is what my whole summer was like.

Showing shoulders or upper chest is immodest, so I hardly wore tank tops last summer. On the few times my shoulders were exposed, older women would talk to me frantically in Korean, gesturing to my shoulders and then up to the sun, looking concerned. At the beach it's rare to see bikinis, or even other beachwear. Even in what I considered to be conservative summer clothes, I still got stared at a lot. That's one thing I appreciate about the cold here- now that it's 40 degrees colder, it makes sense to me to wear jackets and hats, and blend in a smidgen more.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Love is in the Air

No, love is not in the air for me (sorry to get your hopes up Mom, haha). I went to my first Korean wedding this weekend! I met my friend Seongho (English name Saint) pretty early on when I came to Gunsan, and his English is good and he like to hang out with the foreigners. He got engaged to his girlfriend a couple months ago, and I was really happy and honored to be invited to their wedding. It was in his hometown of Sangju, a small city smack in the middle of the country, over 3 hours from Gunsan.

On Saturday morning I caught a ride with some other friends to arrive in time for the 1pm ceremony. Here weddings are earlier in the day than in the U.S. Outdoor weddings are very rare, instead they are mostly all in designated Wedding Halls or churches. This one was at a hall in a wedding hotel, which probably holds an average of 3 per Saturday, slating bookings one after another.

There are fresh flowers on easels like this, which you always see for major events, such as funerals, grand openings of a new business, and apparently weddings. Before the ceremony, the bride and groom were standing in the back of the room to greet guests. Saint was wearing a tuxedo and the bride was wearing traditional Korean hanbok. This is a colorful silk dress that consists of a short outer jacket and large skirt. It is customary to give money as a wedding gift, and there was a small, staffed gift table that has special envelopes ready. The older generation writes on the envelope in Chinese characters (hanja), as was customary for special occasions. No card is necessary, you just sign the envelope and give it to the helper man in exchange for your reception lunch ticket.

Then we all sat down, and here you can see the hall. It looked like a gaudy 1980's hotel conference room. There is an aisle with a bride and groom's side, and fake flowers. There were wedding hall staff who were young women in these hilarious outfits that looked like 1970's flight attendants, complete with the little cap. I really wish I had gotten a picture of one of them bustling around, seeing to last-minute details. It was past 1 o'clock and the chairs were only about half full, with many guest still standing and talking in the back of the room. I thought we would wait for them to sit, but then two older women started walking down the aisle. They were the mothers of the bride and groom, dressed in hanbok, and walked to the front to light a candle then sit on their respective sides.

After that Saint walked down the aisle. Meanwhile, there were 3 adorable little girls in white Western-style flower girl dresses, who had empty plastic baskets and sort of wandered around. Then Pachelbel's Canon started, and the bride walked down the aisle in a white dress with her father. She and Saint stood in front with their backs to the crowd while the officiant spoke.

To my surprise, the guests in back never sat down, and they continued to chat, answer their cell phones, and let the kids run around. This was probably the biggest difference from a wedding back home, where listening to the ceremony is very solemn and important. I asked a friend about it and she shrugged, saying the officiants all say the same stock speech, and it's nothing special worth listening to. The important part is physically being at the wedding, not focusing on what's said. The the couple is given a big saber-type sword, and they use it to cut the cake. The cake was 3 separate tiers, also at the front of the room, and together the couple makes one cut and that's it. What do they do with the cake, pristine except for one cut? After the man was done speaking, the couple stood in front of each respective set of parents, and bow to show their gratitude to the family. Finally they faced the audience and the groom shouted 만 세! (Mansay!) 3 times. This translates "victory!" or "hooray!", sealing the deal the way the kiss might in an American wedding. They receded down the aisle to claps and cheers and confetti and sprays of shaving cream... on the bride's perfect hair and dress. That surprised me too. Then they walked back down the aisle for pictures. First there are family portraits then one with friends.

Apparently at this time, it's normal for the couples to do a short, more private, traditional Korean ceremony. The bride puts back on her hanbok and only the immediate family is present. To my relief that's also supposedly where the cake gets eaten! All the other guests went downstairs for the reception lunch. Don't forget your ticket- it proves you were an invited guest who gave a gift, not some random off the street! No wedding crashing here, that's for sure. The buffet was one of the most huge and ecclectic I've ever seen- Korean food (rice, crab, duck, pork, clear noodles, tofu soup, marinated veggies), Japanese food (sushi, sashimi) and Western food (kernel corn, potato salad, green salad, crab salad). For dessert there were little cookies, rice cakes, and lots of fruit. For drinks you could have pop, beer, or soju. I met this little boy wearing hanbok who was all smiles. Eventually the bride and groom came down to mingle with guests, and the bride had changed yet again, into a modern black party dress.

Saint was kind enough to invite us to stay the night in Sangju, and spend the rest of the evening with him and his hometown friends. Usually after the reception lunch, all guests go home, but Saint and his wife weren't leaving for their honeymoon until midnight, so they would be hanging out anyway. He had gotten us all a room at the hotel, so we checked in to our rooms before going out again. We went to a nearby hof, which is a Korean cafe/sit-down bar, with the foreigners and about 8 of Saint's hometown friends.

We ate typical hof food like fried chicken, French fries, dried squid, fresh fruit, and nuts. We drank rice wine, beer, and soju. The drink of the night was 고 진 감 래 which is a shot of coca-cola under a shot of soju, dropped inside a large stein that is topped with beer. As you drink, you get a stronger soju flavor at first, then more beer, and finally at the end, the coke. The name comes from Chinese characters, and means "After struggle (or bitterness) there is sweetness". Here you can see one. I didn't try one, and was fighting a cold, but had a nice time meeting Saints friends and trying to communicate in our respectively broken English and Korean.

After the after-party, the party continued. We went to Noraebang! (Korean karaoke) We switched between English and Korean songs and the festive atmosphere continued. Eventually Saint and his lovely new wife had to leave for their honeymoon to Japan, and we had to get to bed. I don't know how typical my wedding experience was for Korea, but I'm very glad I got to see one during my time in this country, and share this special day with friends. I wish Saint and Sujin a long and happy marriage!