Monday, September 28, 2009

Run DMZ: R16

Hip-hop culture is a large part of life for young Koreans, and one of the most popular aspects of the hip-hop lifestyle is B-boy (short for "break-boy," essentially breakdancing). A long-time fan of the show America's Best Dance Crew (much to the chagrin of my father), I couldn't wait to experience b-boy in person. Luckily, the opportunity came quickly with the R16 Competition in Incheon. My coworker Lauren and I made the trip south to check out the R16 crew competition finals on Saturday night.

The crew finals was a single-elimination tournament in which two teams (aka crews) had about 5 minutes to battle each other. If you have never seen a b-boy battle, the way it works is that each crew alternates turns (30-45 seconds per turn), and a single person will freestyle breakdance or multiple teammates will do a pre-choreographed b-boy routine. The winner was chosen after each battle by 5 judges. The 16 competing crews represented 15 different countries, and each crew had an average of 9 members.

Sound like an event for teens and 20-somethings? While the vast majority of the crowd fell into this age range, I saw fans in strollers as well as more than a few totally hip old ladies rocking out. The audience was significantly depleted when both Korean teams were eliminated in the first round, one in a complete upset by Holland. Yes, Holland. The country famous for windmills, clogs, and marijuana is apparently rather prolific at breakdancing and advanced all the way to the semifinals where Japan (the ultimate R16 champions) finally knocked them out in a tie-breaker round. The USA crew advanced to the second round where they were defeated by the Russian crew (eventual second place finishers). I guess we know now what Russians do during those long winters.

Another country with a shockingly good crew based on completly unfounded stereotypes I didn't even know I had was Canada. Our often-neglected neighbors to the North are actually pretty awesome at breakdancing. The most fashionable crew by far was from Portugal, whose members all competed in outfits of bright green and red (if you don't understand why, google the flag of Portugal, then crank up the neon-ness of the shade of green in it by about 50 times). The second most fashionable crew was the victors, Japan, who all wore matching t-shirts and changed outfits three times during their four rounds of competition. Taiwan's crew was the most unfairly eliminated crew, knocked out by Holland (gah! Holland!) in the quarter finals despite their routines including members being thrown halfway across the stage.

Sound totally dope? Watch part one of the final round here. Doesn't sound totally dope? You're wrong, brush up on your hip-hop slang and then watch part one of the final round here to see why. The final round, as a side note, is significantly longer than the qualifying rounds.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Kpop Artist of the Week: Rain

Rain (or λΉ„, pronounced Bi, the Korean word for rain) is probably the most famous Korean pop artist in America due to his longstanding "feud" with Stephen Colbert (summarized here for the unfamiliar). If it were possible to make one person from three others, he would be the lovechild of Michael Jackson, Usher, and Justin Timberlake. Rain is old news to the Korean pop scene at this point as he has been around for about 7 years, significantly longer than most of today's popular artists. Rain has transcended the world of pop to also become a singer/actor/model/clothing designer/Global Goodwill Ambassador for South Korea. Apparently in his newly appointed ambassador position his main task is to popularize Korean-style food around the world (really!).

Check out Rain's music video for "Rainism." You may notice his flair for the dramatic.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Korean Crash Course: The Subway

The Seoul Metropolitan Subway is composed of 11 separate lines that cover the entire urban area, service both of the city's airports, and extend into outlying cities such as Incheon. The lines are constantly criss-crossing, creating an intricate web of transfer points. The Seoul Metro is highly accessible to English-speaking foreigners, although usage by foreigners seems to be disproportionately low. When transferring, there are strips of color and arrows marking where you need to go for the entire duration of the transfer, making the trip extremely easy. I would estimate that at any stop that is also a transfer, at least 80% of disembarking passengers will make a transfer instead of exiting, which leads me to wonder how anyone ever makes it to their destination.

The Metro is by far the cheapest way to travel, and the pricing is made according to a zoning system, whereby the farther you travel, the more you pay. To enter the subway and travel anywhere within a radius of a few stops, the cost is 1000 won (~85 cents). The most expensive ride I have ever taken took about 2 hours and cost 1500 won. Because Seoul is a very environmentally conscious city, if you buy the reusable and rechargeable card for 2500 won, you get 100 won off every single ride you take for the rest of your life. If you buy a single-ride card, you are required to make a 500 won deposit to get the card, which is refunded to you at the ticket-return machines at your destination.

Many subway stops are linked to underground malls, which are very popular and extremely cheap. However, most of these shops are catered towards women's clothing and shoes, so if you are a man you might be out of luck.

For those seeking helpful tips for safe riding, here is a list of some subway Do's and Don'ts:
  • DO bring a book or cell phone with TV or music so as to avoid making eye contact with other passengers.
  • DON'T sit in the seats designated for the elderly, pregnant, and infirm, even if the train is completely devoid of such persons.
  • DON'T commit suicide by jumping onto the tracks. Apparently this became such a popular method of killing oneself that the metro authorities equipped most stations with glass sliding doors to separate the tracks from the platform (as seen here). However, not all stops have this feature.
  • DO line up in front of the doors when the subway is approaching the station. This applies to both the boarding and exiting riders. The first person in line should stand no farther than 6" from the door to ensure quick transfer and maximum awkwardness with the person on the other side of the door.
  • DON'T make eye contact with the on-board vendors who walk up and down the cars trying to sell novelty products. Also, DON'T steal their products even though they leave their bags unattended as they walk around. However, DO purchase things from them if you are interested, even though you have spent the previous 60 seconds pretending the vendor did not exist.
  • DON'T ride during rush hour unless intimate personal contact with complete strangers is something you enjoy. Unfortunately, rush house is impossible to predict as it varies by line and by day. Sometimes it is at 3 pm, and sometimes it is at 10 pm. However, DO talk to the nice English-speaking Korean man who is concerned for your emotional welfare during your first rush hour experience, and whose face is about three inches from your own.
  • DO provide plenty of time for your late-night rides. The subway shuts down around 1 am on weekdays and around 12 am (midnight) on weekends. If you do not leave enough time for your ride, the subway will simply stop running and you will be kicked off wherever you are. Then you may choose to take a taxi the rest of the way or wait until 5:30 am when the trains start running again (a popular strategy of Saturday night club-goers).
  • DON'T confuse an underground crosswalk at a busy intersection with a subway entrance. Subway entrances are clearly marked and you will look pretty foolish searching for one in a crosswalk.
  • DON'T refer to subway stops by their handy three-digit number codes, even if you are a math person and the number system makes more sense than the names. You will get made fun of.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Korean Crash Course: Street Fashion (Autumn)

It is a well-known fact that Korea is among the most beauty-conscious of all nations. As such, there are some very strict guidelines for what Koreans, especially those in their teens and twenties, are expected to wear in public. Of course, these rules may be violated as long as one does not wish to be asked on a date ever, by anyone (joking...sort of).

  • Age 15 - 22: This is a fashion gray zone. The young male may adopt many fashion styles, ranging from preppy to punk. However, all jeans must be skinny jeans.
  • Over 22: Option One: Suit. In fact, there is no other option.
  • Age 15 - 22: There are two options for the fashionable young lady. The first is what I call Street Stylish. This look generally involves a short, high-waisted skirt, a vest, or similar trendy piece. Required piece: high heels. The second option is Punk Stylish. This look requires skinny jeans and a t-shirt with a graphic design or ironic slogan. While this look can also be paired with high heels for an extra-stylish vibe, it is more often paired with colorful sneakers.
  • Age 23-55: Women in this age group should opt for the Sexy Professional look by day but may switch to Street Stylish in the evening. However, Punk Stylish is a bit immature and tends to be out of the question. The key pieces of the Sexy Professional look are a high-waisted, knee-length, form-fitting skirt and high heels.
  • Over 55: The fashionable but elderly Korean lady will follow a very strict clothing formula. The woman will wear pants and a t-shirt, and a sweater if it is chilly. Either the pants or the shirt must be patterned. There must be at least one extremely vibrant color involved. If it is a sunny day, the lady may opt for a bedazzled plastic visor to protect her face from the sun (example). Shoes are generally extremely short, chunky heels.
Other Tips: Referencing the US with your Wardrobe
  • If a baseball cap is worn (on the teenage male or Punk Stylish female), it should be a New York Yankees baseball cap. These can be purchased at any Korean hat stand.
  • NYPD gear is also strongly encouraged. This can be purchased in Korea at a variety of locations.
  • In fact, any t-shirt referencing an American city is encouraged. While New York is preferable, shirts from such varied places as Indiana and Lancaster, PA have been sighted.

View my pictures from Korea!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Korean Crash Course: Dining Out

For the non-Korean-speaking traveler, one of the most immediate problems is purchasing food. Obviously this is not something one can simply ignore, as eating is a basic human need. Eating out is surprisingly cheap in Korea, and can often be carried out for around 5,000 won (plus, no tipping!). Therefore, eating out is one of the best options for a hungry American, especially if said American has no kitchen supplies. Here is my step-by-step guide to restaurant dining:

Step One: Find A Restaurant. Walk into the nearest street and look in any direction. There is at least a 75% chance you will be looking at a restaurant, bar, or convenience store. Easy enough. Don't forget to take off your shoes if the restaurant has floor seating!

Step Two: Order Food. The language barrier is particularly obvious when it comes to meal times. I have developed three basic dining strategies. The first and best method is to choose a restaurant with a picture menu. Picture menus are much more common here in Korea than they are in the United States, so with a small amount of determination and about fifteen minutes of free time it is generally possible to find a restaurant with a picture menu. These restaurants are also the most likely to have an English-speaking owner and English words on the menu. The second, riskier but faster, method is to choose a fully Korean restaurant and simply point at random items on the menu. This actually tends to be more successful than one would think; however, there is a great deal of uncertainty involved. If you manage to figure out what you are eating, you still don't know what the dish is called and therefore have gained no helpful knowledge for future restaurant visits. The third option is to wimp out and buy food from a convenience store. Still no guarantee that you will know what you're eating, though.

Step Three: Eat Food. Hopefully you carried out step two successfully, because otherwise this step will get tricky quickly. A lot of Korean food comes in the same flavor: spicy. It takes a little while for the stomach to acclimate to two spicy meals a day. Luckily it is possible to learn how to avoid spicy food. With nearly every meal there will be small side dishes provided for free. One of these dishes is always kimchi, and there is almost always a kimchi-flavored radish. Kimchi is apparently quite good for you, and comes in a surprising variety of spiciness and overall quality.

Step Four: Order More Food or Drink. The waiting system in Korea is much more sophisticated than that in the US. While in the US you are subject to the whim and personality of your server (ranging from overly helpful to vanishing act), most Korean restaurants place electronic bells on every table. This system has two main advantages: the first being that you are never hassled by your server unnecessarily, and the second being that you can immediately get service when you actually need it.

Step Five: Pay. Most restaurants have a standard check listing every item on the menu. The server marks on the check whenever you place an order. Therefore, when you leave, you simply bring the check to the register and pay. Simple! And remember, no tipping!

Future Crash Courses: Public Transportation, Drinking and Nightlife, Street Fashion

Monday, September 7, 2009

Korean Showers and Other Technology

I am officially the tenant of my very own apartment! Finding the apartment was actually a relatively easy experience. The company recommended an English-speaking realtor for those teachers remaining in Seoul, and I set up an appointment with her for one day before class to look at apartments. She ended up running late, so her semi-English-speaking coworker came to pick me up from the subway instead. He called me "Miss Jessica" and carried all my things for me while we were walking. He seemed to be in his 50's and was wearing extremely fabulous shiny silver pants with white pinstripes. I was taken to five different apartments in the area of my school and allowed to choose my favorite. The building I selected is brand new; I think I am the first person to ever live in this room.

One important thing to know about apartments in Seoul is that they tend to be extremely tiny. All five of the apartments I was shown were around 200 sqft of total living space, not including the bathroom. I was therefore extra happy with the final option I was shown which had a loft area for the bed, essentially doubling my living space by allowing the bed to be stored out of sight. Plus, the apartment I chose comes standard with a microwave, quite the rarity here from my experience. Another important thing to know about Seoul apartments is that many of them (even the brand new ones) don't have an actual shower. Instead, there is a drain in the middle of the bathroom floor and a shower head that is attached to the sink faucet. Basically the system ensures that the disorganized bather will drench everything in the bathroom with water. This shower system also explains why all the toilet paper holders have a metallic "shield" portion to help keep the toilet paper dry. I have yet to figure out the justification behind this system, although it saves a marginal amount of space and water.

I moved on Saturday with the help of Roger, from my training group. My new apartment in Mokdong was about an hour from my hotel by subway, so we dragged all my bags through the public transportation system and bought a beer each from 7-11 immediately upon exiting the subway turnstiles (yes, it was after noon and yes, it is legal to drink on the streets in Seoul. And yes, they sell beer cans at 7-11.) We got all my things to my new apartment with the help of my new favorite realtor (this time wearing a rather Wild West-looking getup). Then it was simply a matter of finding a place able to deliver me a mattress that same day. After wandering the streets for about an hour, we found a used furniture store that sold me a "super single" size mattress and frame for 70,000 won, which they delivered and assembled in my loft two hours later (no extra charge). Service really has an entirely different meaning over here. I went back to the store the next day and bought a kitchen table and nightstand for 75,000 won more, bringing my apartment to a livable level.

Many apartments in Korea feature a very futuristic key system in which each apartment door has its own electronic keypad in lieu of a key. You swipe your hand over the keypad and little blue numbers appear, and you type your pin number to enter the room. Needless to say, I think it is pretty awesome. In addition to the electronic keypad, the doorbells are equipped with video cameras, which light up a small screen on the wall when someone rings the doorbell so you can see who is outside. The screen is accompanied by 8 buttons which are all labeled in Korean and which my landlord claims can be used to talk to visitors at the main entrance and then buzz them up. My experiments with the system have been more or less a complete disaster. The first button I pushed turned out to be the emergency alarm button, which summons the landlord (or presumably, the police). Luckily I managed to turn off the alarm rather quickly, but my landlord still came up to see if I needed help/was being attacked. I have been less hesitant to push the remaining buttons, but after translating them online, I have discovered them to have such enlightening meanings as "transformation," "currency," and "door line rim." As a result, I am unfortunately still unable to communicate with visitors at the front door.

(PS - I have many pictures of my apartment that I will post and link to as soon as possible!)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

First Day(s) on the Job

Monday marked the beginning of my soon-to-be-wildly-successful career as an English teacher. It certainly had its ups and downs. I had to get into work at 1 for my 4 pm class, but first I wanted to drop off my ARC paperwork at company headquarters (without an ARC, you can't buy a cellphone in Korea). Unfortunately, HQ is in the opposite direction of my school, but only by two subway stops. However, I still needed to leave half an hour earlier to allow time for these extra two stops, so 11:30 am found me rushing out of the hotel feeling late already. After hustling down the street on a mid-80s day to the KT Tower, where HQ is located, I had to face the rest of my hour-long commute and day wondering if I smelled bad. Plus I ended up getting in to work about 10 minutes much for the need to rush.

At work, I had a meeting with my Head Instructor for the Memory program. One of my fellow new instructors was also in the meeting with me, and (selfishly) to my relief, he seemed to have even more questions than me. My HI took me up to my classroom on the sixth floor of the building, and I must admit I ended up with a pretty awesome room. All the rooms are basically identical, with a whiteboard and teacher's desk with a computer at the front, and about 13 desks in a U-shape in the remaining space. The thing that makes my room awesome is the back wall: basically huge windows from wall to wall. It's one of the few rooms with such large windows, and since most of the neighboring buildings are shorter than six stories, you can see a good deal of Mokdong.

I taught one class on Monday and one on Tuesday, with varying levels of success. My class on Monday was a real grab bag, with personalities ranging from the hyperactive genius to the apathetic teenage girl. I ran into my first huge problem about half an hour into class when I began our first activity and realized I could barely understand the kid's accents. It was pretty obvious I couldn't tell what the students were saying, and the class became rather amused with my inability to hear them. So much for pretending I'm not a new teacher. My class on Tuesday went much more smoothly. Even though the kids are a little younger, I can understand them much better. Plus the personality range is much smaller, so the class is a little easier to handle. Some of the kids are really curious, which is cute, except for when one of my Tuesday students took my attendance list from me to try to see what was on it. Luckily, she didn't spot the column where I was writing distinguishing features of each student to help me remember names ("tiny!" "pink glasses!"). Close call.