It’s been a while! After leaving Korea on March 3rd I spent four months travelling through South East Asia, spending time in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Stripped of nearly all of my personal belongings, I set out with just my pack, an iPod, a copy of Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, and a couple of Hostel World booking receipts. I had the time of my life before coming back to Canada just in time for the summer. It’s been fantastic reuniting with friends and family these past few months.
I was unsure of what to do with this blog once I left Korea. Since it is geared towards living in Korea, it seemed redundant to continue posting in it once I returned to Canada. However, the urge to continue writing brought me back. I’ll post here from time to time about travel or news pertaining to Korea, and will of course keep the domain name registered. I hope the site can be used as a resource for those considering the move to South Korea. If nothing else, it serves as a great memento from my time spent abroad.
To get back on track, I borrowed an idea from Tom at Waegook-Tom.com. Basically, you go through the alphabet, answering questions for each letter about your travels. Tom’s list can be found here. I enjoyed reading his list almost as much as I enjoyed writing my own! So, without further ado, here are my ABCs of Travel.
A – Age you went on your first international trip
I was five the first time my mom took myself, my older cousin and my little brother down to Florida to visit my grandparents, who used to flee south every year to avoid the cold Canadian winters. My first big trip outside of North America was when I was 17 for our high school graduation trip. We visited France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. The travel bug bit me hard and deep on that trip.
B – Best (foreign) beer you’ve had, and where
I’ve drank a lot of different beers over the years, and I can confidently state that South Korea has the most generic tasting beer in the entire world. Even North Korea makes better beer than their more developed neighbours to the south! But for the best foreign beer I’ve tasted? That might have to go to bia hoi in Vietnam. Although not a specific brand of beer, bia hoi is fresh beer made daily with no preservatives and sold at street side vendors. At a price of about 15 cents a glass, you really can’t go wrong.
C – Cuisine (favourite)
A bit of a toss up. I’ll always be partial to Korean food, seeing as how I lived there for two years. Nothing hits the spot like a Korean BBQ or a big serving of dalk galbi. Thai food also really gets me. Healthy, spicy, and delicious. I’ve never had a Thai dish I didn’t like.
D – Destinations: Favourite, least favourite, and why
This is a tough one! For my favourite destination, I’d have to go with the Indonesian islands of Bali, Lombok and Flores. The islands and surrounding beaches really are the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in my life. From pristine corals to white sand beaches, sun kissed volcanoes to charming little villages, Indonesia has it all. I’m truly convinced that Indonesia may be one of the last great adventures on Earth.
The distinction of my least favourite destination, and I’ll probably take some heat for this, goes to Berlin. I was there for a few days when I backpacked through Europe after my first year of university, and there just wasn’t anything about it that made me want to go back. It was a pretty typical city, as far as I was concerned. It’s very possible that I missed out on some of the sights, seeing as how it was my first big trip, I was travelling with a large group, and we were on a tight timeframe. But for now, Berlin gets the dubious distinction.
E – Event you experienced abroad that made you go “wow!”
Hands down, this one goes to Lao New Year (known in Laos at Pbeemai). I was fortunate enough to be in the northern Lao city of Luang Prabang for Lao New Year this year. For Laotians, New Years is a time of cleansing. Historically, this meant that the three day holiday was devoted to cleansing the home and all of its various Buddha images. Over the years, however, the “cleansing” aspect of it has evolved into an enormous water fight! In the days leading up to Pbeemai, you will find progressively more people in the streets armed with hoses, buckets of water, and super soakers, ready to drench anyone they see. In Luang Prabang, it was literally three full days of water fights. I’d recommend NOT bringing your camera out, should you choose to visit Laos during Lao New Year…
F – Favourite mode of transportation
Easy. The tuk-tuk. For me there was really no feeling greater than cramming 5 or 6 people in a tuk-tuk armed only with my pack, a few dollars, a map, and a sense of adventure.
G – Greatest feeling while travelling
As mentioned above! A close second would have to be not knowing or caring what day of the week it is. That’s a pretty fantastic feeling.
H – Hottest place you’ve travelled to
I guess technically Indonesia would be the hottest place I’ve visited. However, the hottest day I can remember was while I was in the Vietnamese city of Hoi An. We rented scooters for the day to visit the ancient Hindu temples of Mỹ Sơn. Even flying down the road on a scooter with the wind in my face, I could feel the sweat pouring out of me. I think I drank, like, 12 bottles of water that day. It was insane.
I – Incredible service you’ve experienced, and where
Honestly, the hospitality in most of the parts of Asia I visited was second-to-none. In any homestay, hostel, or pension that I stayed in, I was (almost) always treated to the best service one could ask for. If I have to pick one thing, though, I’ll have to go with the service in Korean restaurants. I know, I know, I’m probably biased, but seriously, the Koreans have it figured out when it comes to restaurant service. You push a button on your table when you want something, there’s someone at your table in seconds, they bring you whatever you want in no time at all. And the best part of all? THEY DON’T EVEN EXPECT A TIP!
J – Journey that took the longest
That would have to be the 4 day / 4 night boat ride from Lombok to Flores. To be fair, we were stopping along the way to swim, snorkel, and hike Komodo and Rinca Islands, but it’s still a looong journey. Honorable mentions go to the “5 hour” boat ride from Coron to El Nido in Palawan that turned into a 47 hour journey due to our getting caught in a tropical storm, and the day train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai (which took 14 hours, if memory serves me correctly).
K – Keepsake from your travels
My first and only (at least for now) tattoo, which I got in Puerto Princesa following our harrowing 47 hour journey from Coron to El Nido in the Filipino province of Palawan. The situation was dire enough that the coast guard was in constant contact with our boat to ensure that we were still alive. We ran out of food, forcing the crew members to dive overboard to catch fish so that we could eat. If we had been out there any longer, our fresh water supply would also have run out. Thankfully, we had a fantastic captain and crew that were looking out for our safety first and foremost.
L – Let-down sight: Why and where
The Temple of Heaven in Beijing. It’s not that it’s a terrible place, I just thought that everything else I saw in Beijing was much more impressive and worthy of my time on a tight schedule.
M – Moment where you fell in love with travel
As mentioned above, it was during my high school graduation trip to Europe in 2004. I promised myself after that trip that I’d do more extensive travelling before I became tied down with responsibility and obligations. Mission accomplished.
N – Nicest hotel you’ve stayed in
I normally travel on a shoestring budget, meaning “nice” often isn’t an adjective I use when considering accommodation. Other adjectives that have, at times, not come into the equation when selecting a room: “clean”, “spacious”, “insect-free”, “dry”, and “indoor”. If I have to give an answer, I guess I’d say the fully furnished condo I stayed in in Prague, offered to my friends and I from a sketchy guy at the train station.
O – Obsession: What are you obsessed with taking pictures of while travelling?
Anyone who has travelled with me knows that I take an insane number of photos. Scenery is probably my number one photographic interest.
P – Passport stamps: How many and from where?
52 stamps in total from USA, France, the Netherlands, Germany, England, the Dominican Republic, Czech Republic, China, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia.
Q – Quirkiest attraction you’ve visited and where
It has to be Loveland on Jeju Island in South Korea. Loveland is filled with sculptures, paintings and statues dedicated to sex education and illustrating – without leaving much to the imagination – various sexual positions. I wrote briefly about Loveland here as part of Project365. There’s nothing quite as entertaining as seeing a group of senior Korean women smiling and flashing peace signs in front of a statue of a naked woman or a giant stone labia.
R – Recommended event, sight or experience
It would be impossible for me to pick just one. Whether it’s ziplining through the jungle in northern Thailand, scuba diving in the corals of Indonesia, sipping coffee in a cafe on the streets of Paris, or eating stuff you had no idea was even edible in China, there’s something out there for everyone. Regardless of your budget, interests, or timeframe, the best recommendation I can make is to just get up and go.
S – Splurge: Something you have no problem forking money over for while travelling
Food and beer. I have zero issue with forking over cash for the chance to taste something that I may not be able to get once I leave. Even if you find a restaurant at home that serves it, it won’t be as good as the real thing!
Honourable mention: TRAVEL INSURANCE. It saved my life (and my bank account) after I was bit by a monkey in Indonesia and had to be treated for rabies. I would have been stung with the $2400 bill had I not heeded my mother’s advice and invested in travel insurance!
T – Touristy thing you’ve done
I typically don’t avoid doing the touristy stuff. Angkor Wat, the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China – these are all tourist attractions for a reason. Basically everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve been sure to check out the touristy stuff (as well as lots of other things that aren’t quite as touristy!).
U – Unforgettable travel memory
Hands down, my surprise trip home to Canada for Christmas in 2011. I hadn’t been home in close to two years. The only people who knew I was coming home were my brother and a handful of my friends. Since my flight was delayed and it was late when I landed in Toronto, my brother picked me up and we went straight to the local pub, where my friends were gathered under the guise of the night being an ugly Christmas sweater party. The next morning, Christmas Eve, I surprised my parents (who thought that I was in Japan for the holidays). And then finally, on Christmas Day, I surprised my grandma, who actually fainted when she saw me! That, for me, is easily the most unforgettable travel memory.
V – Visas: How many and for where?
6 – My working visa for South Korea, plus 5 travel visas from China, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia.
W – Wine: Best class of wine whilst travelling, and from where?
I’m not really much of a wine drinker. It more or less all tastes the same to me. I’ll go with France – drinking wine with my friends from university while sitting in front of the Eiffel Tower. It was French wine, so it must have been good… right?
X – EXcellent view, and from where?
The view from the top of Mt. Seoraksan during the autumn in South Korean, the view from the summit of Mt. Rinjani on Lombok in Indonesia, or having a birds eye view of hundreds of islands while flying from Labuanbajo on Flores to Bali, again in Indonesia.
Y – Years spent travelling
Including the time I spent living in Korea, my backpacking trip through South East Asia, two trips to Europe, and a few holidays in Cuba and the Dominican Republic, just shy of 30 months.
Z – Zealous sports fans and where?
I was in Korea for World Cup 2010 and Europe during EuroCup 2004, and I can honestly say that the most insane sporting event I ever saw…was the Men’s Olympic Hockey Gold Medal game during the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. It was my fifth day in Korea and, along with my room mate and a few new friends, I went to the foreigner district of Itaewon in Seoul to watch the game at a Canadian bar. The bar was crammed to far over capacity and the ratio of Canadian fans to American fans was fairly equal. The anticipation when Canada was up 2-1 with less than a minute remaining, the heartbreak when USA tied it up, and the jubilation following Sidney Crosby’s now famous goal – all of it while surrounded by fellow Canadians just after I had moved to a place about as far from home as one can go.
Why Do People Move to America?: The Definitive Answer (as told by a class of Grade 2 Korean ESL students)Posted: November 23, 2011
It’s been a long time since I last wrote a full entry here, instead spending my blogging time adding photos and microblogging about what I’ve been up to via my photo project, Project365. This, however, deserves more than just a short caption on my daily photo.
Over the past several months, I’ve been putting more of an emphasis on discussion and writing with my older students, rather than spending a lot of time on grammar and vocabulary. My thinking was that if I could get them more comfortable with their conversational English, the grammar and vocabulary would naturally fall into place. For the most part, it seems to be working. A while back, I had a discussion class with my Grade 2 students about the reasons that people emigrate to the United States. The class had all kinds of opinions on why people make the move and it was really interesting to get some perspective on what Korean children think of America (almost without fail, they love it). Some of them raised good points, some of them… well, I’ll leave it up to you to decide.
So, with that being said, SojuSoldier.com brings you…
Why Do People Move to America?: The Definitive Answer! (as told by a class of grade 2 Korean ESL students)
- America has many playgrounds and roller coasters (Yep, lots of theme parks in the good ol’ USA)
- Jason teacher is from America! (That’s true!)
- People have yellow hair (They’re referring to blonde here, people. Blonde.)
- America has the Statue of Liberty (That’s true!)
- Andy teacher is from America! (That’s true!)
- Iron Man lives in America! (That’s… uh.. true!)
- People are clean and smart and kind (That’s a pretty sweeping statement. I guess they have a nice American English teacher at their public school)
- America has many, many smart phones (Go figure.)
- American teachers are good. (I’m sure there are lots of good teachers in America, yes)
- There is americano coffee (It’s in Korea, too)
- Baseball bats (They have those in Korea, too.)
- American people have cute clothes and wonderful jeans (Bless those wonderful American jeans)
- American houses are big (Some of them are, yep. If you make a lot of money when you go to America, you can buy one too! In the mean time, why don’t you Google ‘Occupy’ and see what comes up?)
- America has many guns (That you can conveniently holster in your wonderful jeans!)
- Many children foods like candy and ice cream and chocolate (None of which is available in Korea…?)
- America is very good (Good response)
- Alexander Graham Bell (Not American)
- Many rockets like the Apollo (That’s true!)
- English is hard. It would be easier in America. (True.)
- “They have Neil Armstrong and he rode Apollo 11 and he went to the moon and he back in America” (That’s true!)
- American people have many flowers (I guess so.)
- Many, many cars (Too many.)
- Many people (True, but it wouldn’t seem that way to a young kid who doesn’t understand the concept of ‘population density’”
- Many toys (I thought you wanted a smart phone?)
- American people like skiing (I guess if they live near the mountains or can afford to go on ski trips, yeah. Don’t expect to be able to take a subway to the ski hill like you can here though)
- At night there are many stars in the sky (You’ve got me there. I saw a star in Seoul through the thick haze of pollution and smog one time though!)
- Many jeeps (The question was ‘why do people move to America?’, not ‘Why do people travel back in time to the 1990s?’)
- Brent teacher is from America! *children start laughing* (That’s… wait, what? WHAT? Get out! Get out you miserable child! GET OUT!)
Welcome to the new SojuSoldier.com!
I had been toying with the idea of changing things up on the blog for a while and after making a new year’s resolution to post more often, decided to pursue a new challenge.
The biggest problem I face with this blog is that on a day to day basis, there isn’t always a great deal to talk about. When I do sit down to write something after a vacation, a big weekend away, or some exciting event in the city, I find that I have a difficult time being concise and writing short entries. I always end up taking a night or two to write something up, which leads to less content being produced. At the same time, there are a lot of really interesting aspects of Korean culture that I experience on a daily basis that just don’t warrant a full blog entry. I realized that the way I’m doing things now, many of you are still unable to get a good look at daily life in Korea. I wanted that to change.
Project365 is the solution. One picture, everyday, for one whole year. Each day I will post a new photo to the Project365 page that is now on the main menu at the top of the page. I’ll write a short description of what’s going on in the picture and hopefully this will allow for people to have a better look at what life is like on a daily basis for me here in Korea. From the Project365 page, clicking on an image will take you to the Flickr page where I’ll be uploading all the photos. From there you will be able to view larger versions of the photos, browse other photos from the project, or download images. One thing that I should point out is that anyone who is currently subscribed to the blog will receive a notification everyday when the new photo is posted. I understand that it can be annoying to get email like that on a daily basis and I won’t be offended if anyone decides to unsubscribe . I’ll also be putting the pictures on Facebook, so for those of you who might not check the blog regularly, the pictures can be viewed there too.
I’ll continue to write longer posts periodically to talk about life in Korea, my travelling adventures, and whatever else I think may entertain everyone back home. Project365 will be used as a vehicle for people to see the things I probably wouldn’t otherwise talk about, but are nonetheless still important parts of life in Korea. As an added bonus, I hope to improve my photography chops, as I’ll have to get into the habit of carrying my camera with me everywhere I go.
I look forward to the challenge that this project will no doubt be, and I’m eager to see what the next 364 days hold in store. So, for now, take a look at the Project365 link at the top of the page, where I’ve posted the picture for Day #1.
On Saturday afternoon, Christmas Day, I’ll be heading off to China for my winter vacation. I’ll be spending the first four days in Beijing, followed by an overnight train ride to Shanghai for New Years. The winter’s in Korea are cold and dry, and the weather in Beijing isn’t much better. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t kinda, sorta regretting not choosing a more tropical destination to spend for a week off in the winter. That being said, any travel is good travel, and I’m eager to see what China has to offer.
It’s been a tumultuous month for Korea. Tensions have been high on the Korean peninsula ever since North Korea’s bold shelling of Yeonpyeong Island at the end of November. If you haven’t been following the story, 4 people were killed that day, including two civilians. Despite the obvious nerve of being in a city so close to the border of two countries with such a bloody past, however, it seems as though everyone outside of Korea is talking more about the North Korea situation than the people who live here. Life in Korea has, by and large, gone unchanged. The South have, of course, upped the frequency and intensity of their military drills, and in response, we have heard the same tired rhetoric from North Korea that has been repeated so many times in the past. Phrases such as “sacred war”, “sea of fire”, and “war of aggression” seem to be in the news on a daily basis.
In Korea, it’s nothing new. Said that before. Heard that before. That’s how life goes when you live in a country that has technically been at war since 1950. As the media has pointed out so many times over the last several months, the Korean War (1950-1953) ended with a cease-fire armistice, and not a formal peace treaty. In other words, the two countries agreed not to attack one another, but the war did not officially end. After the recent round of provocations, no one seems to be living life any differently, and the only time North Korea comes up in conversation with my Korean co-workers is when I’m the one to bring it up. On Tuesday, South Korea staged the largest live-fire military drill in the country’s history. My director wasn’t aware it was happening until I told her. It just goes to show that for many people, North Korea is nothing more than than a bratty neighbour to the north, stomping their feet and screaming whenever things don’t go as they please.
For some Westerners living in Korea, the Yeonpyeong attack was the last straw. I heard of people packing up in the middle of the night and fleeing the country without telling anyone they were leaving. Those are the most extreme cases. Most people that I’ve talked to haven’t even considered leaving, let alone fleeing.
With all of that being said, I’m still keen to leave the country for a little while. Summer vacation seems like forever ago, and I desperately need the break. As I write this, it’s Christmas Eve in Korea (Dec. 24 – 1:15 am), but it couldn’t feel less like Christmas. Korea seems to lack the hustle and bustle that characterize the holidays back home, and to top it off, there isn’t even a hint of snow on the ground yet. I would love to be coming home for the holidays to see everyone, but it just wasn’t in the cards this year.
So, to all of my friends and family back home, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. I hope you all have a safe and happy holiday, wherever you are and whomever you are with.
Eating: Physical Requirement or Social Necessity?
When I think about the differences between a typical meal in Canada and a typical meal in South Korea, I am invariably reminded of my first dinner in Korea, way back in February. I had touched down 12 hours earlier and was feeling the physical and mental effects of a change of address to the opposite side of the globe. My room mate, Jason, and the teacher that I had been hired to replace, Jordan, said they would take me to the nearby city of Guri to meet some new people and experience authentic Korean BBQ. When I arrived, there were roughly 15 other Westerners already there, and I was told that more were on their way. We took our shoes off at the door, as is custom in many establishments in Korea, and sat on small mats on the floor. The table surfaces were not quite one foot off the floor, and were equipped with round grills. The owner brought beer and soju, and before I knew it, people were filling my glass and grilling food right in front of me. The table became littered with dozens of small side dishes, all of which are free. I was told that it was all you could eat meat, and that the beers were cheap. I put back my small glass of beer, and had the shot of soju. When I put the shot glass down, people were already moving to fill it back up. I learned that this too was custom; when someone finishes their drink, it’s considered very rude not to fill it back up for them. In fact, to some very traditional Koreans, filling up your own glass is in very poor taste. You can see the dilemma here. I finish a drink, someone fills it back up. I finish a drink, someone fills it back up. We stayed at the restaurant for what seemed like ages; eating and talking, and talking and drinking. When the meal was finished, I was told that my share was just 10,000 won – or about $8.75.
This is how many meals go in South Korea – lots of people crowded around a table, picking at a common grill in the middle, while consuming large quantities of alcohol. I don’t drink with dinner every night, but I find that any time I’m in a restaurant, it’s tough to spot a table without at least one bottle of beer or soju. Eating here seems to be less about the food, and more about the experience. In fact, some restaurants won’t even serve you if you show up and ask for a table of one. I guess, in their mind, it just isn’t worth their time to have one of their tables tied up by a single patron, when they know that a group of 3 or more will more than likely walk through the door. When you consider how cheap many restaurants are (I can go to cheap restaurants every night for the same price as going out and buying enough groceries to last me a week), it’s easy to understand why restaurants here are always brimming with people. I know more than one westerner here that has never turned on the stove in their apartment, because eating out is just so affordable, easy, and enjoyable.
Ever since that first night, I was hooked on the Korean style of eating a meal. I go out for dinner several nights a week, and have yet to find a Korean dish that I really dislike. I look forward with eager anticipation to taking my friends and family at home out for a night of Korean BBQ and 노래방 (noraebang.. that’s a story for another day…).
I Always Feel Like Somebody’s Watching Me…
Have you ever had that feeling that you were being watched? It happens to everyone at one point or another. That indescribable, fleeting feeling that someone, or something, is watching your every move, making your heart beat faster and the hairs on your neck stand on end. You glance around and see nothing but ordinary people going about their ordinary lives, barely even acknowledging your existence. No mysterious stranger gazing at you from across the road, no unmarked van parked in front of the house.
Try being a foreigner in South Korea, where, unlike Canada and the USA, there are not large populations of visible minorities. Many Korean natives, especially of the older generations, don’t hide their curiosity of foreigners and don’t hesitate to stare. I find that this is always especially noticeable whilst riding the subway:
I glance up from my book and notice that the guy sitting across from me is staring at me as though I’m the first white person he’s ever seen. I glance back down at my book, read a few more lines and quickly steal another glance. Yep, he’s still looking. Okay, back to my book – I’ll read a whole page this time. He can’t possibly still be looking at me after a whole page… Damn! He’s still looking! What is it? Do I have something on my face? Is my fly down? No.. Ok, well I’ll just ignore it. Maybe he’ll get off at the next stop. The train stops. He doesn’t get off. He’s still staring at me. I know what I’ll do. I’ll just stare him right in the eye, turn the tables, and keep looking at him until he looks away.
That scenario has played out more than a few times since I’ve come to Korea. It’s also how I now hold the record for the longest staring contest of all time.
I’m not trying to offend or criticize here at all. In Canada, most of us have grown up surrounded by people from very diverse backgrounds; people of every race, religion, and colour you can think of. It just isn’t like that here. Sure, there’s been an American military presence here since the end of the Korean War in the ’50s, but it’s only been in the last decade or so that foreigners have started arriving in droves to work, travel, and live, and it must have been very strange indeed for the older men and women of Korea to suddenly see so many foreigners in their country. So although the staring can be a little awkward at times, I can certainly understand their curiosity.
Welcome to the Space Jam
Canada: 9,984,670 km²
Estimated 2010 population: 34,314,000
South Korea: 100,210 km²
Estimated 2010 population: 48,875,000
Geographically, Canada is nearly 100 times larger than South Korea. South Korea, however, has 15,000,000 more people. And it shows. Take a walk around Seoul and you’ll immediately notice the lack of natural green space, and an abundance of high-rise apartment buildings. Not many Korean families live in actual houses because the cost of property is just way too high. I had difficulty explaining the concept of a basement or a back yard to my students, because none of them have one. Golf here is a rich man’s game, even more so than in North America, as golf courses have to charge obscene green fees in order to pay their property tax.
Let’s consider an equation: l/p = s where l is land, p is population, and s is personal space. In Canada, s would be relatively large. Korea, on the other hand, would have a significantly lower s value. Simply put, personal space just doesn’t exist here. One of the first pieces of advice I was given when I arrived in Korea was not to get offended if I was pushed or bumped while out in public without being offered an apology (thanks Soulbee, if you’re reading this!). It’s good advice. This is most noticeable while on the subway, or in the busier parts of Seoul. People coming and going on the subway will shove past people with little regard, lest they miss their stop, or brush past slow moving pedestrians in the shopping or bar districts of the city. It’s just a part of the culture, and its not considered rude or offensive to push past people if they are in your way. It took me a long time to get used to this, and I’m sometimes still irritated if I have my back to someone on the subway and don’t see them coming until I’m “politely” moved out of their way.
The number of people also becomes obvious when standing in lines, be it at a busy convenience store, in the ATM line, the escalator line to get out of the subway, or basically anywhere else a line is formed. If you want to get in there, you need to get in there! Older Korean women, known as ajummas, are particularly notorious for pushing past people or jumping in front of lines. It’s always funny/terrifying to see a little old Korean lady hustling through the subway, throwing shoulders at anyone who gets in her way. On the other hand, its maddeningly frustrating to stand in line at an ATM line only to have someone swoop right in out of nowhere just before it’s your turn to use the machine.
As with many foreigners, the first time I tasted kimchi, at a small Korean restaurant in Toronto shortly before I left for South Korea, I couldn’t stand the thought of eating it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day for a whole year. I have a pretty open mind when it comes to trying new things, and I tried to be optimistic after that first taste. But inside, I was cringing. To be quite honest, that first taste, to me, was like what I had always imagined the juice at the bottom of the food trash container might taste like.
Kimchi, for those of you who may not know, is a traditional Korean side dish that is served with virtually every meal. In comes in many shapes and forms, but most commonly, kimchi is served in the form of fermented cabbage leaves seasoned with various spices. There are hundreds of variations on this recipe, and kimchi dishes prepared from radish, garlic, and cucumber are also very common. Obviously, since coming to Korea my opinion on kimchi has changed drastically. It is served free with virtually every meal, and there is no charge for seconds (or thirds, or fourths!). There are some meals where I find myself filling up on the fermented cabbagy deliciousness rather than on the main course, and even if this is not the case, I still almost always find myself asking for seconds. Koreans are absolutely hooked on this stuff. They mix it with rice, flavour chocolate with it, and make pancakes out of it. I’ve even heard that they have kimchi ice cream! If I ask my students what they had for dinner last night, there will undoubtedly be at least 3/4 of the class that would admit to having eaten kimchi as part of the meal. In other words, I really can’t exaggerate how important this dish is to Korea. Quite simply, it is part of who they are.
“But Brent, why is any of this important?”, you might ask yourself?
Well, dear readers, because in South Korea, the unthinkable has happened. Napa cabbage crops, which are used to make the most popular variety of kimchi, have been devastated by the extremely rainy fall weather. This has lead to a severe shortage of cabbage, and as a result, the prices have skyrocketed 400%. Restaurants have responded to the price increase by *gasp* charging for kimchi side dishes. By Korean standards, this is basically blasphemy. To cope with what has quickly become a national emergency, the Korean government has drastically reduced tariffs on imports in order to alleviate demands for the cabbage in an attempt to keep kimchi prices reasonable (in other words, free).
I didn’t realize how much I actually liked kimchi until a work dinner last week. When I asked where the kimchi was, I was told about the shortage, and that in all likelihood I would be paying extra for it for the next year! I think this was a gross over exaggeration, but I was surprisingly upset at the news. It really made me wonder how I got by at home without it. Ultimately, we did get kimchi, and I haven’t personally had to pay any extra for it.
Which is good, because I don’t know what I’d do without spicy fermented cabbage leaves for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Allow me to rant, if you will, regarding my experience tonight in trying to get home from a busy area of Seoul. I am not okay with being denied service based on the colour of my skin, or some other false assumption regarding my “Western personality”. I should not have to roam the streets for more than 40 minutes in the rain, having to hail 27 (twenty-seven. 27. TWENTY-SEVEN!!!!) taxis before being offered a fair ride. It is also not okay to agree to give me a ride based on the assumption that I am willing to pay 500% of the actual value of that ride. I am also not pleased with the trend of driving past me, pretending that I don’t exist, only to pick up the group of Korean teenagers standing 6 feet past me. Hell, I went so far as to ask two separate groups of Korean people to assist me in a getting a cab, only to have the driver look at me and deny them as well. What you’re doing is illegal, and just because I don’t know the language well enough to do anything about it, doesn’t make it okay. I don’t know if you assume that I can’t pay the fare, or that I’m “rowdy and dangerous” like some of the other foreigners in this country. But smarten up. Seriously. Get your shit together, South Korea. Join the rest of the developed world and instead of frowning upon or taking advantage of cultural diversity, embrace it. You beg and cry for native English speakers to uproot their lives and come to your country, and then you get the select few individuals who take the opportunity to dump on us at every chance.
So, to the gentleman who kindly picked me up after 40 minutes of roaming the streets, and 27 refused rides, I’m more than happy to give you that 100% tip you received from me tonight. I realize that this is a country that doesn’t believe in tipping, but you gave me a ride where others refused, carried on a pleasant conversation with me, complemented me on my attempts to learn the language, and were just an extremely kind individual in general. I’m sorry if I insulted you in any way by refusing my change, but one good deed deserves another.
- Driving! Especially in the tracker…
- Arizona Iced Tea. Weird, I know.
- My bed, aka the most comfortable bed in the world.
- Concerts – I was at a K-Pop concert a few weeks ago, and saw Mika in May, but that hardly did the trick compared to the number of shows I’m able to see over the course of a summer in Toronto.
- My family
- The Crew
- The city of Guelph and all of the people I met there
- Karn’s truck
- Karn’s scent
- That sound that Karn makes when he’s frustrated or in a state of disbelief about something.. you know the one I’m talking about.
- My electric guitar
- Tim Hortons
- My blue couch that I had in my room in Guelph – waiting for me to return in a storage unit on the other side of the world…
- Watching Hockey Night in Canada while enjoying a few brews with the boys
- Cottages – all of them.
- Spending my weekends in the summer hanging out on docks and swimming in lakes. This is basically number 17 in a nutshell.
- English language television
- Being able to carry on normal conversations with the people I see day in and day out, without having to dumb down my language to a level that they can understand.
- Not having to take into account 2 hours of travel time when I go anywhere (courtesy of taking the subway everywhere I go in Korea)
- Cultural diversity
- And as an extension to #23, not being stared at wherever I go by older men/women
- Being able to read food packaging in grocery stores
- Not seeing apartment buildings everywhere I go, everyday, all the time
- Cicadas that don’t make noises that make me think North Korea is attacking
- Fresh air
- Not fearing for my life every time I walk across the road
- Riding busses without the fear that they might explode at a moment’s notice