Friday, May 28, 2010

The Final Countdown

As of today, I am officially done with 3 of my 4 terms as a teacher here in Korea. That means only 13 more weeks left in this experience. Wow!

I would just like to take this opportunity to apologize for my lack of posts recently. I have a few half-written entries that I have just not been inspired to finish. I promise they will be coming soon!

I would also like to let everyone know that I am closely following all the news about the tensions between North and South Korea and getting as much information as I possibly can. If you have an urgent opinion about the issue, please contact me and let me know your thoughts.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Children's Day and Parents' Day

While Americans use the fifth of May to celebrate the victory of Mexican troops over their French oppressors, throughout Korea and much of Southeast Asia the day is used to celebrate children. For elementary school children in particular, this day is one of great importance. Many children get the day off from school, and in some cases, subsequent days off as well, although I have been unable to verify if school is officially canceled or if the parents are just really, really nice.

On the holiday itself, it is traditional for parents to buy a gift for their child or to take their child somewhere special. For example, families may go to the movies, the zoo, or to an amusement park. However, my friend and I went to the shopping capital of Seoul on Children's Day to find it bursting with people, very few of whom were children. The only logical conclusion, therefore, is that the parents took the day off to "spend with their children" and instead went on a shopping spree.

Three days after Children's Day is Parents' Day, on May 8. On Parent's Day, the tradition is to buy a flower, typically a carnation, for your mother or father. This year the day fell on a Saturday, so from Friday through Sunday, convenience stores and florists sold small, premade baskets of flowers outside their stores, and street vendors switched products to sell the same. This makes the holiday pretty difficult to miss for Seoulites.

On a related note, happy Mother's Day to the greatest mom in the world! I love you!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Who Let the Dogs Out?

Known in America widely for being a pretty ridiculous song, "Who Let the Dogs Out?" was actually quite famous in Korea for a while as well. Although Americans enjoyed it for its somewhat nonsensical lyrics and vaguely catchy tune, Koreans liked it for a different reason. Specifically, the song appealed to the younger generation. It turns out that the title/ commonly repeated lyric of the song "Who Let the Dogs Out?" sounds like words in the Korean language. In Hangeul (the Korean alphabet), the line would be written as such: "우울할 때 똥 싸."

The English phonetic equivalent of that text is "ooh-ool hal dae ddong ssa."

It translates to "When I feel gloomy, I poop."

Kind of different.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

English Word Sounds that Don't Appear in the Korean Alphabet

The Korean alphabet is made up of letters that are pronounced phonetically. This is great for someone who is learning to read Korean because the pronunciation is consistent from word to word. The problem comes when attempting to "Korean-ize" English words. Korean society is being infiltrated by American culture, but there are some word sounds that just don't translate. For example...

  • The letter for "r" and "l" is the same. This has resulted in many, many stereotypes against Asian culture. The Korean alphabet has a character ㄹ that sounds like an "r" and an "l" combined. Impossible, you say? Sort of. I've been trying for months and I still can't quite do it right.
  • There is no letter that sounds like "i." This is one of those things that only becomes a problem when writing English words in Korean. The Korean alphabet just doesn't have this vowel sound. Instead, the sound for "i" is made by writing two vowel's consecutively: "ah" plus "ee." If you say it fast, you can see how these sounds together make an "i."
  • There is no letter that sounds like "f." This is usually solved by using the letter for "p" instead, and these sounds are close enough to keep me satisfied with the translation. However, on occasion the letter "h" will be used, which leads to ridiculous words like "hu-rench hu-ries."
  • There is no letter that sounds like "v." This is a fairly minor complaint because "b" and "v" have very similar sounds. In fact, I mainly mention it for two reasons. The first is the popularity of Valentine's (or Balentine's) Day here. The second reason is the popularity of the movie Avatar, or as it is written in Korean and pronounced by all of my students, Abatah.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Korea is a culture that seems to be obsessed with coffee. Coffee shops here are not simple buildings; they often have two or three levels, all of which are packed full of customers. This holds true despite the overwhelming number of coffee establishments that exist in the city. Often, several multi-story shops will be on the same block as each other. Sitting around in a coffee shop is just something people do...a lot.

All around the world, people go to coffee shops for the same basic reasons: the coffee tastes better than when you make it at home and hey, we're all a little lazy sometimes. However, in Korea, going to a coffee shop is pretty much the only option, as I have found getting quality coffee in your home to be quite the difficult task. I made the mistake of buying my own coffee pot when I arrived, because it was cheap and I like drinking coffee. There's nothing wrong with the pot, it's finding something to brew in it that's the problem.

Most coffee for sale in stores here is instant coffee. It's contained in tiny sticks that are at least 50% sugar, and it is hugely popular. They're sold everywhere, usually in packs of 100 or 500. I myself have drank some of these at work in dire situations, but it's more like drinking hot chocolate than anything else. Finding actual ground coffee beans to brew at home is very challenging. They can be purchased from coffee shops like Starbucks, but run around $20 for a bag, which in my opinion is a bit steep (even for Starbucks). Therefore, I too have been forced to turn to coffee shops when I want my caffeine fix. Although the coffee I can buy is delicious, I do miss waking up to the smell of coffee in the morning.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

White Day

Today is a holiday of sorts here in South Korea: White Day. A month ago, we celebrated Valentine's Day. Like in America, Valentine's Day celebrates couples or prospective love interests. However, it is a male-centric holiday. If you are the female half of a couple, you buy chocolate or a present for your man, but do not receive a gift in return (although it is common for couples to go on a romantic date). The reason is that women are celebrated one month later on White Day. In the days leading up to March 14, it's deja vu all over again as the convenience stores and shops put out flowery baskets and heart-shaped candy boxes for men to buy for their women.

This holiday creates an interesting dynamic for gift exchange. On the positive side, men often confess that they are unsure what presents to buy for their girlfriends, especially at the beginning of the relationship. This holiday pair system gives the man the advantage of already knowing how "serious" of a present he received. On the other hand, the relationship is one month more serious on the relationship scale when his turn comes. And more importantly, as I pointed out to some coworkers, the man has the opportunity to receive a gift and then become single before he has to return the favor (not saying it happens often, just saying it's possible).

Luckily, if the man should choose to behave that way, the woman could still celebrate herself on Black Day, the April 14th holiday in honor of singles.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Answers to Earlier Questions: The Trash

Today, I learned the reason why there are no trash cans on the streets of Seoul. I brought this issue up earlier in my post about dealing with garbage, on October 25. Well, this mystery has been solved, and the answer is definitely original. Apparently the reason that there are very few public trash cans is to reduce the possibility of trash can bombings. In particular, they are worried about bombs placed by North Koreans.

True story.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Lunar New Year

This past weekend, on Sunday and Monday, was the celebration of Seolnal, or Lunar New Year. If you are not familiar with what Lunar New Year means, it is the start of a new year as marked by the lunar calendar, as opposed to January 1st which marks the new year on the solar calendar. This year, Seolnal also fell on Valentine's Day (a post on that topic to come at a later date), which created an interesting dynamic between the consumerism of Valentine's Day and the traditionalism of Lunar New Year.

On Seolnal, like on Chuseok, most Koreans travel to meet their families. Although for most this means leaving Seoul and heading to the countryside, it is becoming more common for families to come into the city on holidays. In residential areas of the city like Mokdong (where I live), this means an almost complete shutdown for two days of all businesses that aren't McDonald's or the school I work for.

Again like Chuseok, Seolnal involves paying respect to your ancestors. Typically, Koreans wear new clothes or Korean traditional clothing called hanbok to mark the day, and many families play a traditional stick game called yut. However, if you're young the day can become quite a payday as older relatives give you pocket money for wishing them a happy new year. I'm not talking about petty change either; the average student of mine made out with about $200 this past weekend.

새해 복 많이 받으세요!

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Lack of Cows

One of the most striking features of the restaurant business here in Korea is the predominance of pork over beef as a food choice. Pork is abundant and cheap, while servings of beef are usually smaller than servings of pork and can be up to five times more expensive. So, what's the deal? I asked my friend if there were any cows in Korea and he said there were, but, in my opinion, there are obviously not enough. That's not to say that the pork here is necessarily bad. There is a wide variety of pork cuts available (luckily, not a pork chop to be found), and I have made done a complete 180 in my eating habits as a result. I would venture to say that I ate pork as a meal maybe 5 times a year in the US, not counting dishes with bacon on them. Here in Korea, I eat pork almost every day. I have certainly been satisfied with the pork, but a person does start to yearn for a steak after a while...

The lack of cows is also seen in the sometimes outrageous pricing of dairy products. While milk is fairly reasonable, cheese and ice cream are significantly more expensive than in the United States, I would guess anywhere from 2-4 times pricier here. Even the milk is not the same as in America, however; there is a disturbing lack of skim or lowfat milk, and the stuff I use in my cereal bears a closer resemblance to cream than to the milk I've used for the past 15-20 years of my life. Perhaps this is because cereal itself is still a relatively new phenomenon in Korea.

My proposal is a steady influx of calves to Korea. If you come visit, please remember to pack a baby cow in your suitcase.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

What's Your Age in Korean?

Something that was very surprising to me was the discovery that in Korea, the aging system works somewhat differently than the system we are used to in America, or in other words, the only system I ever thought existed. In Korea, you are considered to be 1 year old when you are born. Then, regardless of what month you are born in, your age increases by 1 year on New Year's Day. So, if you are born on December 31st, you are 2 years old the very next day. Because of this difference in counting systems, I have begun referring to my age as "24, in Korean." In case you are unsure, I was born in July of 1987, which makes my age 22 in most other parts of the world.

One interesting byproduct of this counting system is that on your birthday, your age does not change at all. I personally feel that this devalues the day, as many of my students seem to receive very little acknowledgment on their actual day of birth. Often when I ask what they will be doing to celebrate their birthday, the response is, "Nothing." However, this could be a result of the personality tendencies of children and teenagers rather than the method of counting.

Another interesting result of the Korean age system is that young children are only friends with people who are the exact same age as themselves. Since school classes are grouped by age and all people who are born in the same year have the same age, this friend pairing is more or less inevitable. In classes at the school where I teach, classmates are mixed in their ages and grade levels. Nonetheless, children who seem to be friends in class sometimes do not actually consider each other to be friends because of their age difference.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


One of the few things that I heard from multiple people before I left the US was that I should be prepared to sing a lot of karaoke in Korea. And they were all right. Karaoke is on a whole different level here than anything I've seen in the States. Unlike in the US, where karaoke is a rare experience involving a room full of strangers and at least a little bit of alcohol, karaoke in Korea is a common bonding event for friends or coworkers.

The process begins by going to a Noraebong (direct translation: singing room). These are very easy to find: last night upon walking out of a local bar, my friend counted 5 different NRB establishments just by looking up and down the street. Once inside the Noraebong, your group is taken to a private room, and from that point on you have free range to choose whatever songs you want for the next hour. The rooms generally feature comfy seating, 2 microphones, tambourines, and a disco ball.

There are many different quality levels for Noraebong, from the typical basement-turned-singing-room to the super luxury caliber. Some of the nicer NRB establishments have features such as a stage area, multiple levels within one room, or free ice cream (that was my favorite). While typically about 80-90% of the available songs are in Korean, the English song selection is still wide enough to keep most singers happy for an hour or two.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Happy Holidays!

Happy holidays from Korea! I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas and New Year!

Sorry for the long gap between posts, but as many of you know, my family was visiting for the holidays.

Christmas in Korea is nowhere near as overblown as Christmas in the states, although nearly all of my students acknowledged that they celebrate the holiday in one way or another (meaning almost all of them receive presents). Some places go all-out with their decorations, but in general, decorations are kept to a minimum. Therefore it was rather hard to get into the Christmas spirit this year.

The forced secularism found in America was also nowhere to be seen. I was allowed to wish all my students a Merry Christmas as they left my classroom on Christmas Eve at 10 pm (no holiday spirit from the employer, clearly...). In fact, the Christmas tree located in City Hall Plaza had a cross on top instead of a star. There aren't many places in America where I would expect to see that.New Year's Eve is another holiday that is underplayed here in Korea, passed over in favor of Lunar New Year. Again I worked until 10 pm on New Year's Eve, making it difficult to fully appreciate the day. The Seoul equivalent of Times Square is a place called Bosingak in the center of the city. Instead of a ball drop, there is an enormous bell which is rung 33 times at midnight. This tradition originates from the former purpose of the bell, to announce the opening and closing of the Seoul gates. The bell was rung 33 times at dawn to signify the opening of the gates. The bell is enormous and currently 16 people are selected to ring it. These people are chosen by a survey and are mostly regular (more or less) citizens. This year, the people ringing the bell included the mayor and 4 other city officials, the coach of the national soccer team, a formerly homeless essayist, and a university student who participated in a study aid program for elementary schoolers.

My New Year's Resolution: more consistent posting! Hope to hear from all of you this year!