Posts Tagged Seoul

Riding in style

About a month ago

On a Saturday morning, a couple coworkers and I take the 45 minute KTX  ride to Busan with the intention of lounging on the beach for a couple of days. My skin hasn’t seen much sun this year so I kind of look like a vampire. No, I don’t watch True Blood.

Busan, the second largest city in South Korea, is a two-hour car ride south of Daegu. It’s on the southern tip of the peninsula and it is the fifth largest  port in the world. There’s more to do there than in Daegu, like going to the beach,  so it doesn’t suck. My first time there, back in April, I went to Shinsegae, the world’s largest department store. Shinsegae makes a typical Macy’s look like a  kiosk. There is an ice rink, so I went ice skating, nearly killing several young Korean children (stopping on skates isn’t my thing). We make it to Busan Station go outside and immediately look for a cab. A taxi driver who looks to be in his mid 50’s  with leathery skin sees us and recruits us into his car. I notice that his car is all black and that it says ‘Deluxe’ on the side, spurring me to voice my concern to my friends. We reason that it can’t be too much more expensive and hop in.

Normally, a meter will start at 2200 won (close to $2), this particular cab is 4600 won out of the gate.  It’s clear we are going to pay more for leather seats. I communicate in piece-meal Korean to the driver that this is expensive. The driver replies in a sandpaper voice that its alright, he says something else that I don’t understand, and then he chuckles. At this point I don’t trust him, I don’t necessarily dislike him, but I don’t trust him.  My two coworkers are laid back (one reason they are good company) and they aren’t overly concerned with the price.  We decide that if the fare seems out of control early on we will get out and hail a new cab.

About 5 minutes pass when we reach a part of the city littered with oil refineries (I think).  There is nothing like a steady whiff of oil. My gaze out the window is interrupted by a quick glance at the meter. It reads 17000 won. We aren’t near Haeundae Beach yet and we aren’t in an area to find another cab. A cab ride from the station to Haeundae is normally 15000 won.  While this cab is higher in price because there is a decal on the side that boasts that it is deluxe, I think we also fell victim to the take-advantage-of-the-foreigners-traveling-in-a-new-city scheme that some unscrupulous taxi drivers employ.  I become irritated and again mumble that it’s too expensive.  Our only option is to bite the bullet, continue, and hope the price isn’t too high. At this moment, I regret settling for the deluxe cab and save the experience into my enormous lesson learned file.

When we finally reach an area where we are able to find a more reasonable cab, the meter has jumped to 25700 won. We decide to get out where we are rather than pay this guy over 30000 won.  We all throw in our money and I begrudgingly pay the driver. He pops the trunk and gets out of the car to hand us our bags  (which must be part of the deluxe experience). I snatch my bag out of the cab drivers hand and we look at one another for a while. I study his face. He studies mine. His eyes narrow and he mutters something to me as he is getting into the driver’s seat. I notice that my friend forgot to shut the backseat passenger door. The three of us look at each other thinking the same thing: should we shut it?  Before we know it the driver pulls off with the backdoor still ajar. We watch frozen with our mouths open. The car moves close to the side of the road. So close that the open door is in danger of hitting a pole, tree, or pedestrian. He doesn’t drive more than 10 feet before the door clips a street light on the edge of the sidewalk, slamming the door shut. The cab screeches to a complete stop. We catch a glimpse of the driver looking around frantically not knowing exactly what happened. The three of us erupt in laughter while we search for another taxi.

We jump  into a new cab and two minutes later arrive at the beach.

The highlight of the trip came about an hour later at an Indian restaurant called Namaste. Delicious.

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Tempus fugit

Time flies.

Anyone with some life experience under their belt knows that time seems to speed up as we add more chapters to our narrative.  Activity can wash away time like a wave swallowing up a footprint in the sand.  Tonight, as I visit my blog, which of late has been more rare than a nun visiting your boss’s favorite porn site, it suddenly hit me,  I have now been  living  in Korea for over 4 months.

Upon arriving to Korea,  I told myself I would regularly blog about my experiences and adventures. I honored this pact  for the first two months. Then I stopped. Why? Is that really any of your business? The important thing in all of this is that I am rededicating myself  to blogging on a more consistent basis. I really mean it this time.

Some things worth mentioning from the past two months:

  • Daegu winters are cold.  Apparently the spring and fall seasons are both very short and the summer is long and soupy hot.
  • The only coat I brought with me to Korea was stolen from a booth at a club when I was building a fan base on the dance floor.
  • I celebrated Thanksgiving with a large group of coworkers and other miscellaneous people. We ordered two birds from a western style restaurant and everyone added some type of side dish, drink, or dessert to the feast. Before dinner, while perusing E Mart (think slightly classier Wal-Mart) to decide what to bring, my friend Chris and I decide that a king crab would be the perfect complement to the meal. We thought it was 7,000 won. It was 70,000 won (roughly $65). Our outrage dissipated once we started cracking and eating. The host of the party was not happy that the smell  of the giant crab masked the aroma of the turkey.
  • Christmas eve landed on a Friday, which meant that we had to work (Christmas is not huge in Korea like it is in the western part of the world).  For most of the day, I actually forgot it was the eve of Christmas until I got a nice card from one of my students. She said she loved me. I told her that she was moving too fast. After classes finished up while we were all in the office inputting homework and attendance into our computers our boss surprised us with a cake. He designated me to cut the cake. I don’t particularly like cutting cake, but I don’t particularly dislike it either. He told me I had to select a woman from the office to cut the cake with. He said to “choose wisely”. I hesitated for a bit and finally settled on a Korean teacher that I am friendly with. My boss said that I couldn’t choose her because she is married. I could sense where this was going – I wanted to defuse the situation but unfortunately the comments  grew more racy,  laced heavily with sexual innuendo: “Who do you want to spend the night with?”  To add fuel to the fire my foreign counterparts began to chime in with “Ohhhh” and “Who’s it gonna’ be!?” According to some, my face transformed into the color of a ripened tomato. I finally settled on a quiet teacher new to the school.  The cake was decent. And, no, we didn’t spend the night together.
  • Leading up to Christmas I was not feeling well. On Christmas day I felt like I had been beaten by two dozen of Santa’s more sinister elves armed with mallets. I slept almost the entire day only waking up at 6pm to head to a nice buffet at a hotel in downtown Daegu called Novatel with some friends.
  • January 1 – New Years Resolution: get in Bruce Lee shape and learn Hangul.
  • For the entire month of January our school, a private English academy, offered its students more classes. They call it  “intensives”, I call it “doubling your class load”. Normally throughout the year we work from 2 pm-10 pm, but for this special month during “intensives” our schedule changed from 8 am – 7:30 pm. Talk about taking your circadian rhythm for a ride.
  • I have been taking very informal Hangul lessons with a Korean friend. She rocks.
  • One positive borne out of “intensives” was that for January  I was back on a more traditional schedule for most working humans. This allowed me to frequent the fitness center after work at 8pm. I am not a morning person, as anybody who has lived with me can attest, so I prefer to workout later in the day. I discovered by way of a coworker that a yoga class is offered for gym members at 8:30pm Monday-Friday. I always wanted to give yoga a go so I found this  the perfect opportunity to dabble. I really took a liking to the class (and the instructor) so I began going everyday.  I am not flexible by any stretch of the imagination, but I made notable improvement. One major challenge was that the instructor conducted the class exclusively in Korean which required me to look at the person next to me for cues of when to change position. I ensured the amicable, toned girl next to me that I was gawking out of necessity. She said, “sure” in a sarcastic tone with a smile. After one week I managed to do a headstand without any wall support. Everyone clapped and cheered in my mind,  in reality it was a rather low-key moment after a Monday class. Now that we are back to our regular work schedule I can no longer attend yoga class. There goes serenity.
  • I am enjoying the teaching aspect of my life here.  In mid December I took on the role of  “senior teacher”, whatever that means.
  • For the Chinese Lunar New Year (February 2) I went to Seoul with my boy Nicuation. Due to the cold weather and a penchant for partying our visit lacked the requisite sightseeing that you might do your first time in a new city. We did manage to squeeze in a trip to the 63 Building. The view at the top provided a panoramic picture of the city and the aquarium on the first floor was worth visiting. We went to a popular traditional market called Insadong which consisted of rows and rows of small shops that featured artwork, souvenirs, Korean garb, among other things. I came very close to buying a hanbok. A hanbok, which literally means “Korean clothing” is the traditional Korean dress worn at  festivals and celebrations. I guess they are not very popular with the younger crowd. At one shop, I was able to bargain in Hangul to get the price down (they can get very expensive, like a suit), but this hanbok was not flashy enough for my taste. I am still searching for the perfect hanbok.

That is the last two months condensed into a small easily consumed package. Obviously there is a lot missing, but sometimes the most important thing is what you omit.

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You Might be in South Korea …

You might be in South Korea if you have a mini personal pizza in a cup and a cocktail in a bag in the same night.

There is nothing really special about pizza in a cup other than it is in a cup. The pizza itself is sub par even after a few drinks, but eating pizza out of a cup makes it unique. I think more food should come in a cup.

Cocktail in a bag is in a class all its own. I like the idea so much that I have wondered why more places do not feature an adult beverage in a plastic bag. Think Capri Sun, only bigger,  that comes in a cocktail of your choice. This concept would probably not be as practical in a place with open container laws, but South Korea has no such ridiculous ordinances. Here you can take a drink almost anywhere, so why not enjoy in a bag form? It is easier to mix and you seldom have to worry about any spillage as the only small opening is plugged with the straw.

 

Nice bartender at Viniro mixing a bag cocktail.

 

They serve cocktail in a bag at a dive called Viniro. Here you will find a few couches (thanks Shir), a dark setting, and plenty of English-speaking foreigners.

So far, I have had Sangria, Sake, and a Long Island Iced Tea in a bag. Chris Justice, a new arrival teacher living across the hall from me, ordered a Fauost and paid dearly. The main ingredient in a Fauost is Everclear which is something like 190 proof (95% alcohol). Chris goes about 6’2” 195 lbs but clearly he was no match for the Fauost,  he did  however manage to finish the bag. Kudos to Chris.

Living across the hall from Chris, a product of Cincinnati, Ohio has been like living in a college dormitory. When we are both home our doors are propped open allowing us to engage in senseless banter. When I first met Chris I hated him. Not for anything he did but for what he had. Though he arrived a week and half after me, Chris’s place was equipped with a refrigerator, washer, television and microwave. My place still has none of the above. My disdain for my new neighbor quickly dissipated once I realized he was a cool bro. I store my milk in his refrigerator. His students call him “Beckham face” and  “John Cena”. Chris enjoys towering over the Korean populace and yelling random things like “watermelon!” while walking on the street.

 

Chris doesn't go anywhere without his teddy bear.

 

You might be in South Korea if you easily offend a restaurant owner by:

a) not ordering enough food

b) not eating said food quick enough

c) failing to say your meal is delicious

Servers and restaurant owners will often stand by your table and observe you while you eat. They derive great pleasure from seeing a happy patron, if you follow these three steps you can usually avoid a hostile situation. Last week our server gave us complimentary pig skin and carefully watched us as we ingested this rubbery, foul-tasting epidermis. Luckily, as a child I had ample practice in concealing non-agreeable food in a nearby napkin or by arranging it on my plate creating an illusion that more had been eaten from my plate than  really was. This childhood experience paid dividends.

You might be in South Korea if 90 percent of the people posing in a picture give the peace sign.

You might be in South Korea if you regularly get skipped in line at the bank.

 

A group played soft music outside of this store on a main shopping strip downtown.

 

 

Two coworkers Jose and Dan outside of a popular foreign bar downtown. Notice Jose's drink in a bag.

 

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A Tragicomedy

This weekend I made it to the night scene in downtown Daegu for the first time. The section that we went to is the most popular spot for bars, clubs and norabangs. The streets were littered with young people conversing, drinking, walking, all pursuing a good time. Taking in everything with fresh eyes made the experience exciting and the time evaporated like a shallow puddle  under a blistering sun.

Almost all of my coworkers went to Seoul for the Global Gathering concert. I stayed behind because as I am getting settled here in Korea I am without extra won to spare on a weekend trip to the capital, and I don’t get paid until the end of the month. I wanted very much to make the two hour  KTX train ride to Seoul, especially since my boy  from NY, Nicuation was going and we could have united forces. It is about a 4 hour car ride to Seoul from Daegu but apparently the KTX travels at a very high pace. Two coworkers, Taco and Meat Sauce, also stayed behind so we went out together. Meat Sauce has been in Daegu since January so he acted as a guide  for the new arrivals (Taco arrived about a week before me).  After too much soju and whiskey Meat Sauce’s sense of direction was deeply compromised, but we still managed to hit up some good spots and on Friday we met up with some Korean teachers at our school. One of the girls had an amazing singing voice. I was impressed.

Before I came to South Korea all of my research signaled that Daegu is home to the most beautiful women. After being here for a week I admittedly was somewhat skeptical of this. My neighborhood is a working class part of town with many seniors selling produce and prepared dishes  and school children running around. For this first week it felt as if I  have more of a chance of seeing two extremely drunk middle aged men fist fighting in the street (which I witnessed) than seeing a breathtaking girl. The disturbing thing about this is  numerous people walked by these two men and did  not so much as blink. I was across the street viewing from a table, set outside of a convenience store. One of the inebriated guys pulled the shirt off the other and ran down the street with it as if it were his nations flag. The other fella trotted behind him wanting the shirt but not wanting to continue the quarrel. I felt guilty watching.

I have seen some good-looking women but to be frank it was not living up to the hype. This all changed when I went downtown this weekend. There I found an abundance of yeputa (pretty) girls at every turn. On Saturday, after hitting up a few bars that are popular among the foreign populace (The Commune, Thursday’s, & Organ) we checked out a Korean dance club. Virtually everyone there was on the dance floor bobbing to the music that sounded very techno. Interestingly I did not see any men and women dancing with each other, rather everyone kind’ve did their own thing. I’m not sure if this is typical in Korea or what. When I approached a few ladies to dance they seemed more startled then anything else and after some unsuccessful attempts I realized this was a futile method. Unfortunately I don’t speak Korean beyond greetings and ordering food. My conversational skills are on par with a two year old baby that really likes beef. In short, I did not truly “experience” a Korean girl this weekend. Regardless, I had a great time and danced for a large part of the night. I met some nice Korean guys who were quick to call me handsome and explained to me a little about Korean women.”You hav to choo vewry careful” stated one guy in a thick accent. We also made friends with some Italian guys who loved to dance and who wore permanent smiles.

We left the Korean club at around 5 am with two Korean guys and their female friend. How did this trio end up joining us? Meat Sauce began talking to a guy named  Kwan and this is how their encounter went, or how I remember it.

Meat Sauce: (Put’s arm around Kwan)

Kwan: (Jumps) Hey I’m not gay.

Meat Sauce: Trust me Kwan I am not gay either, my friend. I love women very much. Last night I had sex with two women. I want to find Korean girl to bring back to my apartment, my man.

Kwan: Do you know American girl?

Meat Sauce: Yes, yes Kwan. I know many white American girls that you can one hundred percent have lots of sex with.

Kwan and his friend explained that they watch plenty of American porn and that they have fantasized about being with an American.

Kwan: I know girl for you, but she little fat.

Meat Sauce: That’s perfect, my man. Kwan,  I do not discriminate. Being with a Korean is like trying to stick a watermelon in a thimble.

I went to the dance floor and came back to the lounge and their female friend was sitting next to Meat Sauce. Her friends  said she wants to drink so we went to a restaurant type establishment. There we ordered red wine and hor d’oeurves. It was a typical Korean restaurant in that you sat on the floor cushion with a low table, but it was more intimate because all the tables were separated by a very thin, see through curtain. We enjoyed a few bottles and got to know each other. The two guys kept saying their friend was fat for Korean standards and she agreed. Meat Sauce was extremely quick to put these thoughts to rest. She was not thin, but not fat by any means. She had a round face and short, straight hair that mushroomed around her ears. After about an hour, a pissed-off  guy  claiming to be  her boyfriend came by and grabbed Kim Chong Yong.  The three Koreans hurried out of the place with the agitated boyfriend. I’m not sure if it was a ploy for a couple free drinks or if it was really her boyfriend but the disappointment on Meat Sauce’s face was reminiscent of a kid finding out Santa is not real.

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Welcome to Wolbae

Since I have been in South Korea I have experienced many new things, some good, some bizarre, and all very interesting. A loquacious gentleman came by today and installed my internet service. After four days I am finally connected to the world. The technician explained to me many things, none of which I understood. I must have said “ne” which means yes in Korean a good twenty times. Hopefully I did not agree to any dodgy business. This post consists of things worth mentioning from my flight up to my arrival in Daegu.

Silk worm larva...it tastes exactly like you think it would.

 A+ for Asiana

From Chicago to Seoul I took Asiana Airlines. All of the stewardesses looked practically identical and they also acted very much the same … they call this collectivism. I’m talking same hair style in a bun, same slender physique, same makeup, same smile, and yes, same gentle kiss… I call this poetic license. Typically flight attendants tend to be friendly and this I understand. Well this group took amiability to a whole new stratosphere. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that these young women appeared to be having the time of their lives. Non-stop ear to ear smiling for a 14 hour flight is no breeze especially when you’re concern is the comfort of a good number of people who don’t appreciate it. I don’t know how much they get compensated, what kind of benefits they have, or what kind of self-satisfaction is tied to the job, but as I ate my kimchi and rice I came to admire the energy and focus of these stewardesses. Asiana Airlines is the way to fly.

Sophie’s First Trip to China

 On the flight I had the priviledge of sitting next to Sophie, a hair stylist from the Ivory Coast born in 1956. Currently, she owns her own salon in Cleveland. Sophie, who has immaculately curly hair and a figure built for power, is traveling to China to learn some new styling techniques that she will bring back to the city that is still grieving over their recent heart-wrenching breakup. I learned that Sophie does not like to be awakened during a flight so that one can maneuver by her to get to the toilet, she opened up the first African hair salon in Syracuse and that she is not willing to fill out a customs slip, which could pose a major problem when you are bringing hair products across the world. I completed her customs form for her upon her request…mostly out of fear. Sophie has a thick accent and she follows the doctrine of tough love.

Gate 10 Incheon Airport

I spot Jared, who is tall and slender with dark hair that is long enough that Sophie could probably style it in an array of different ways. Donned in khakis and a black leather jacket and a number of tribal-looking bracelets on his wrist my first thought (see Blink by Malcom Gladwell) is that he values eclecticity (I know that’s not a word, but it should be … doesn’t it sound better than eclecticism?).   We shake hands, find a seat and in little time we are getting to know eachother.

Jared at the Incheon Airport before boarding our domestic flight.

 My first impression of Jared is that he is serious and quietly confident. It turns out he knows four languages: English, Swahili, Spanish, and Arabic. I know English, very well. Who the hell knows Swahili? Apparently he spent a good amount of time in Nairobi, Kenya. Jared is aspiring to go to medical school to become a doctor and he is using this opportunity in Korea to experience the far-east, save money for school and ostensibly add another language to his repertoire. He is far ahead of me in learning Hangul because he already knows the entire alphabet. I know how to say thank you (ko-map-sum-ni-da), but not very well. Our conversation makes the time pass by quickly and before long a man is waving a sign that reads ‘Mr. Jared and Mr. Daniel’.

Mr. Kang

 The thought that Mr. Kang would resemble Mr. Han from Enter the Dragon was horribly off course. Instead of resembling a power hungry, corrupt drug lord with a claw hand, Mr. Kang is more reminiscent of a high school lunch monitor.

Phone conversation with Ms. Kim

Mr. Kang called Ms. Kim the moment Jared and I met him at Gate 10 in the Incheon Airport. After a minute conversation he handed the phone to me. Mysteriously Ms. Kim’s voice was simultaneously scratchy and soft. She explains that we will be meeting Robin when we get to Daegu.

Seoul to Daegu

The flight from Seoul to Daegu is only 45 minutes and I spent virtually every minute with my face pressed against the window in order to take in as much of the country where I will be living for the next year as I can. The mountainous terrain provides for a beautiful view and from this vantage point the country looks like waves of green and when there is a break in the mountains a city can normally be found. South Korea has a population of roughly 48 million, is about the size of the state of Virginia, and close to 70 percent of the land is comprised of mountains, which means that there are some very densely populated areas. Daegu is one of these dense urban areas. We touchdown in the Daegu Aiport and Jared and I retrieve our luggage with no problems.

Confusion

Robin, who is young and dressed like Kanye West picks us up. He says that Jared is going with him in his small SUV and that I am going to take a cab to Avalon School, where I will be working. I was under the assumption that I was going to drop my things off at my apartment and later go to a meeting at the school at 2 pm. It is 10 am now. I ask Robin about the game plan and he says that he will pick me up at the school shortly after he drops Jared off at his apartment. I am confused, but because of the language barrier and because I have fantastic jet-lag I roll with it. Robin arranges a cab for me outside of the airport and we take off.

I just want to live…

The cab driver doesn’t speak a lick of English. I glance at his taxi ID and he looks eerily similar to North Korea’s President Kim Jung-Il. I have heard that people in Korea drive very fast, especially cab drivers, and that you must be careful about crossing streets because pedestrians do not have the right away. None of this prepared me for this next twenty minutes of extreme anxiety. Driving at ridiculously high speeds and taking reckless chances he seemed to be saying ‘welcome to Korea you filthy American’. I honestly cannot remember the last time I was this scared for my life. I genuinely thought that my time had come and that this was it for me. At one point I couldn’t hold my tongue any longer and yelped out “slow down!” Either he didn’t get the message or didn’t care. My knuckles were white from desperately clutching the seat and arm rest and I hadn’t taken a full breath the entire ride. I was so relieved to arrive at the school that I practically leaped out of the Hyundai (which are 90 percent of the cars on the road). He unloaded the suitcase from the trunk and gave me a slight bow. I offered him my best  death stare.

My cool neighbor Leah on the subway. She has been nice enough to show me around. The subway's are incredibly efficient and clean.

Waiting Game

A young woman was waiting outside of  the school for me and paid the cab driver the fare and we went inside. The academy is situated on a lively street in seven story building. Su-Gee speaks little English. She escorts me to a waiting room and says that Robin will pick me up soon. The school is clean and modern. I read the Korean Herald for thirty minutes until she comes out to the lobby and notifies me that Robin is waiting outside.

Empty Shoe-box

We drive about two minutes and take a right onto a small brick road and he says that this is the street where my apartment is. Suddenly, it has a village like atmosphere and we pull up to a building that Robin said is brand new. This is my apartment. I was impressed by the keyless entry system in which you simply type in an access code. Apparently this is very common in Korea. The best part is the little jingle it makes when you enter and leave. I find it soothing and uplifting. It’s also nice not having to ever worry about forgeting or losing a key.

My street, which doesn't seem to have a name. My building is the red brick building on the top left.

Robin brings me to room 103. I ask him what room Jared is staying in and he laughs and says that Jared is working in another branch in a different part of the city (I am working in Wolbae). My place is a small studio apartment (even by studio apartment standards) and what is more disconcerting is that there is not one piece of furniture to be found. I signed a contract that stated the school will provide a fully furnished apartment. I ask Robin where everything is and he says it will all arrive on Monday. It is Friday now. He points to a turquoise comforter and says I can place this on the floor and use it as a mattress in the meantime. I hate turquoise. Normally I would be more agitated by this kind of shoddy practice but my excitement shields my perplexity and frustration. I’m in South Korea!

 

A closer look at my apartment building.

Dongseong-No, a shopping street downtown.

Upcoming blog post preview: Korean Culture 101

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