Well, this is a blog that I should have written some time ago as we have been living in Korea a year and we are leaving tomorrow, but I only really got round to writing it a few weeks ago, so sorry for the lack of details. Alas, time is not my friend. Time seems to fly by, but I guess that’s down to having too much fun?
So due to a lack of progressive updates, I just wanted to post one big rambling of my time here; the good, the bad, the weird, random thoughts coupled with random observations and what I have learned about Korea
The beginning of my journey started in Heathrow last year. Before I fly I like to have a celebratory burger and a beer. This time was no different. A massive burger was what I needed to help settle the nerves. Packing your life up into a suitcase, leaving your friends and family and moving to a strange country where you can’t speak the language and don’t know anybody is a pretty daunting prospect. But I knew once I got on the plane, I would be okay.
I have the travel bug. So moving abroad after university was always going to happen for me, I just never really knew I would end up in South Korea! 8,852 km later, dazed and confused, I arrived in Seoul.
Of course, before I left there were concerns about living so close to North Korea, but since living here I have learned that the North are a bit of a joke to the South and are just seen as an empty threat.I would say that South Korea is probably one of the safest places in the world to live. There is basically no crime. I can go to the bathroom and leave my phone on the table in a bar and when I return it’s still there. I can walk home alone late at night. If I lose my purse, it will be returned to me. Not that i am suggesting you try these things to see if it’s true.
So, for the past year I have been living in a place called Seohyeon which is just outside of Seoul, in Bundang. It’s sort of like the Chelsea of Korea. The women stroll around in designer clothes, with a small dog in their handbag that resembles a rat, with very little thought going through their mind other than where the closest, most expensive coffee shop might be. I mean, it’s no Gangnam, (which having visited it, was very accurately depicted by Psy), but it’s a very rich area full of affluent people. This bodes well for me. Here, I am a ‘waygook’ (that’s a foreigner). In Bundang, they see lots of waygooks, therefore very little attention is drawn to me on the basis that half these people have either lived abroad, or have studied with foreign tutors and speak perfect English.
This is where I work:
Primarily I am here to teach, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun!
One of my main qualms however is that I am constantly being mistaken for an American. Kids will point furiously at me in various public places such as museums, theme parks and supermarkets and shout at me “Miguk saram!” I find it almost impossible not to correct their misjudgment, and in my best Korean, I say what directly translates to- “American person, no! English person, yes!
Normally I wouldn’t be so offended by the prospect of being called an American, yet, in Korea, I am. Korea has a large military presence of American soldiers who more often than not, manage to get the rest of us ‘wagooks’ a bad wrap. Listen up Korea; lesson number one, not everyone who is white is American. Okay thanks. Also, why is my ID card an ‘Alien registration card?’, come on guys.
So food in Korea for me is hit and miss. However, I don’t think it’s like Marmite where you either love it or hate it, that isn’t possible- there is something for everybody. Now, kimchi is Koreas national dish; kimchi for breakfast, kimchi for lunch, kimchi for dinner. Of course there are many different kinds of kimchi too, and they all smell- which means the subway smells too (it also carries a whiff of soju, Korea’s national drink!) If you go to an Italian restaurant, you will get kimchi in your lasagne or on your pizza. No matter what country’s food you decide to sample whilst in Korea, I guarantee you that it will be served with a side dish of kimchi. I quite like all the little side dishes of oddities you get with every meal. More often than not I have no idea what I am eating, but if it looks non fishy, non boney and is dead, I will sample it. I love the fact you can go out to a barbecue restaurant in Korea, it’s my favourite place to eat. I can pick whatever meat I want, as much as a I want, and then barbecue it. Dream. *Dribbles*.
When you eat out in Korea you usually order loads of food between you and share it around. Obviously being the massive eater that I am, I don’t like this. I like my own portion. I order something, because I want to eat it, not so you can eat it too, it’s all for me. I have slowly overcome this problem by taking more food when people aren’t looking, and simply heading to Dunkin’ Donuts afterwards to fill any gaping holes in my belly that are left. On a side note, I hadn’t experienced DD’s before I came to Korea, so I got really excited and started eating 2 a day. Then I discovered Krispy Kremes about 6 months in. DD’s is so inferior.
Anyway, back to food. If you go out to eat with a Korean person, it actually becomes more enjoyable because they can read Korean. Simple. I mean, I can read Korean, but in a Korean menu it won’t say the nice simple words like you have learnt such as ‘beef’ or ‘pork’, it will only describe the specific cuts, of which nobody knows the word for, and if you ask a Korean what it is in English, they say it doesn’t translate. You can also guarantee that in 8/10 restaurants, the menu will read something like:
STARTERS- ‘Lots of hangul that I can’t read despite the fact the heading is in English’
MAINS- “Some more hangul for you”
DESSERTS- “Come on, stop it now…”
This annoys me. Most places do this; heading in English, the rest in Korean They lull you into a false sense of security thinking, “yeah, I think I can read this!” Not only do they do this on menus, but they will do this on the outside of restaurants. They will place lots of beautiful, descriptive, wordy English on the outside that makes you think, wow! That sounds good! Let’s eat here, they must speak English!
Go inside. Menu in Korean. Nobody speakey the Englishee. Stop the madness!
So eating out with Koreans is good. Although they will complement you on how good you are at using chopsticks, because no westerners can use chopsticks. Oh, and they will warn you of just how spicy all the food is and how you should be careful.
More wordy English that makes no sense!
Cafateria food is an interesting one. I actually ate in the school cafeteria for a total of 2 times before I decided it wasn’t good. Everything has a certain smell to it. I don’t know what that smell is, I haven’t encountered it before, but it’s not a good smell. Most days they serve some kind of rice, some kind of kimchi, some kind of bones with very little meat and a spine soup where the bones are swimming in some kind of bodily fluid like broth. Sometimes I am forced to go there when we have kids on a Saturday as I have to take them to lunch and sit with them. Those are bad days. The smell makes me want to leave Korea and never come back. Other people say it’s not so bad, but I am much happier eating bagels and beans on toast in my room.
Some of the best things we have done have been the weirdest things. I mean we have done a fair bit of normal stuff like; theme parks, abandoned theme parks where K Pop videos were shot, water parks, Hello Kitty cafes, weddings, temples in the middle of cities, towers, bridge fountain shows, trick eye museums, penis parks, cooking based musicals, watched the World Cup final at 5am, visited the DMZ, ice museums, played shows in a band, visited a sheep cafe, done some ice skating, and gone to the zoo. However the two oddest things have been encountering Disco Pang Pang and visiting a dog cafe. Disco Pang Pang is something that the kids use to gauge how cool other people are. If you can do disco pang pang, you are hardcore. If you can do disco pang pang whilst taking selfies, you are way more hardcore. If you can do disco pang pang whilst taking selfies and combing your hair, you are the pinnacle of hardcore and coolness. For foreigners it’s just a case of trying not to vomit and stay seated. I didn’t actually go on, but just watching it made me very sick. I should of course explain what it is. Disco Pang pang (an onomatopoetic name) is just a spinning disc that flies around very very quickly and tries to bump you out of your chair whilst very very loud music plays. I will never attempt this ride. I want to live too badly.
The second most enjoyable thing that I’ve done here is visit a dog cafe. You have to understand that dogs in Korea aren’t real dogs. They are the size of cats. Women treat them like children, dressing them up in doggy clothes and dying their ears pink. So by the time I went to a dog cafe it was my 11th month, and having not touched an actual dog in some time, it was one of the funnest days that I have spent here! There was literally every kind of dog, licking you, sniffing you and walking all over your table! I definitely recommend a visit to a dog cafe for a very strange experience that you won’t get back home.
Here are some other things that I enjoyed…
1. A Psy concert (A must do in Korea).
2. A Cho Yong Pil concert (he is a random Korean ajoshi who is the Paul McCartney of Korea. We were of course the only white people there and the only under 50s).
(It was like minus 10 and snowing when this photo was taken!)
3. Some street food.
4. Watching Seoul FC play
(Behold Cass, Korea’s answer to beer….)
5. Autumn is so pretty
6. But then winter is damn pretty too
7. For me, spring is the prettiest. Cherryblossom season only lasts 2 weeks but it’s the best time for visiting. Summer sucks. It’s too hot to do anything.
8. We even got ourselves some bikes to explore on!
(Tancheon stream runs all the way from Seongnam into Seoul and is perfectly flat. The perfect place to ride!)
9. I am in Asia, so obviouslty that means epic holidaying- I got to visit Bali for 2 weeks
10. …and the Philippines
12. You will never run out of places to hike- just watch out for the ajummas! They are the curly haired old women who are dressed for an arctic expedition (even in the height of summer), head to toe in gortex North face gear. They take hiking VERY seriously here.
Christmas away from home was interesting. It was my first one so it was always going to suck a bit. However being at a school with 20 other foreign teachers meant that everybody came together, and it turned out to be okay in the end. I felt more sorry for the students. How unloved must you be if your parents send you to English camp for 5 days over Christmas? It turns out Christmas isn’t so important here. I got to make this awesome gingerbread house too.
I have done a fair bit of traveling around Korea. I have visited Busan, Gyeongju, Seokcho, Samcheok, Gangneung and I went skiing in Yongpyong! I can’t be bothered to go into great detail on them, as we really did go somewhere new every weekend to explore, as there is so much to do, we were never left at home twiddling our fingers. I can’t possibly write about it all! But here are some brief words on some of the places we visited a little further away from Seoul.
Seokcho; a lovely little seaside town that turned out to be so beautiful that we visited twice. It was neighboring Sereoksan National Park which we were able to spend a few days in walking, (thankfully the main peak was closed much to Tom’s disappointment and my joy). Not only this, but it doubled up as a free aquarium!!!
Never before had I walked the streets of a town with so many different varieties of sea creatures, shoved into a glass tub, and displayed on the street for passers by to look at and think, “yes, that swimming octopus type looking thing with tumours all over it’s head looks delicious!” The funniest part was watching a couple of Korean kids, who were maybe 4 or 5, dancing round a pot with a steaming crab in it, singing and dancing, holding hands, as it died a slow painful death! This ritual was amusing to me, but what was not amusing was the distinct lack of places to eat for people who despise seafood. I think we ended up eating at a chain restaurant- Han’s Deli. It’s a bit of go to place when you have spent all of your money and pay day is still a week away… We spent quite a lot of time at Han’s Deli actually…Despite that, the beaches were beautiful and had it of been a little warmer we could have spent a day on the beach easily, taking in the view, with Sareoksan national park for a backdrop. People don’t necessarily associate Korea and beaches together, however Korea really does boast some beautiful beaches, where the sand is white and the water is so clear! Although, on our second trip back to Seokcho, I did see a turd coloured jelly fish…
Skiing for the first time was an interesting experience. I had no lessons, I was just given some skis, clothes, a helmet and goggles, and was told; “SKI!” Of course this didn’t last long because it was then that I discovered my motion sickness also extended to moving on skis. Before I got sick though, I did make it down the beginners slope a few times without falling over! There were so many kids knocking about, I could just see myself mowing them down. I did watch a couple of people get carted off in body bags however, which put me off even more, so at that point I retreated inside to find some tea to drink, and that it where I stayed.
We went to Gyeongju for some culture and history and it did not disappoint. We took a trek up a mountain, that was scattered with relics as you made your way up, like an outdoor museum; then the view from the top was awesome. It’s a shame though as in Korea, most of the time it is hazy, (thanks China) so the view is always impaired. None the less it was worth doing. We took the easy route up, but it seemed we may have taken the more difficult one down, as we met basically nobody except a few hardcore ajoshi climbers! We made our way down through a trail of bamboo forest which I didn’t expect to see and that was great. The city is mostly famous for the burial mounds that are located in the city centre. Here you can visit the graves of old Korean figures, it’s pretty impressive, but it was so hot that day (Over 40 degrees + humidity) I could barely walk, so it was a little hard to enjoy.
We also visited a museum and a massive pond. It doesn’t sound very exciting, but the pond was very impressive. A temple overlooks the pond and the pond bares the temples reflection on its surface. As daylight faded it looked even more glorious as the area was impressively lit up to provide a perfect reflection, minus the small ripples in the water. Gyeongju is also famous for a special kind of bread. It’s not really a bread though, I think that’s false advertising. It was more like a large chunk of red bean paste, which is horribly sweet, that is coated in about a millimeter of bread. It wasn’t very nice, but we took a box back to school and the Korean staff seemed to like it!
Gangneung was a place we really wanted to visit as it was on the coast, which was said to be beautiful, and it is also home to a North Korean submarine! The submarine itself was really cool. You could go inside and explore it, but watch your head, it’s pretty cramped in there! I recommend that you wear one of the helmets provided. The story goes that the sub tried to infiltrate the coast line, but they were busted pretty quickly so the men on the sub burnt all the documents and mostly killed one another, with a few being captured. So now the sub is proudly on display for tourists. Alongside the sub is a large war ship- apparently the only one in the world to be displayed on land. It was huge! You can explore inside the ship and peer into the rooms to get a sense of what it must have been like to spend time on the ship. The only downside to the ship was the fact that the top deck had been turned into a coffee shop…how Korean! The weather was pretty grim. We found ourselves walking against the traffic in the rain along the coast line. That doesn’t sound so bad, but you were separated from the sea by a huge barbed wire fence to keep the North out.
We then headed to an art museum. I don’t really like art museums, but we thought we would try it out. It turned out to be interesting, as it for some reason it proudly boasted a ‘Pinocchio Museum’, which was bizarre. From Gangnueng we went onto Samcheok, again on the coast, but this time the weather was on our side. We had a day at the beach, eating ramen and drinking makkoli. Bliss! The city had a velo bike trail; an unused railway track that snaked along the coast line, which you pedal along on karts. It was pretty scenic and there was lots of odd things on the way. One of the oddities being a mile long tunnel that featured lasers and neon lights. Another bizarre thing being the tunnel completely dedicated to an old Korean Olympian, who I guess, once upon a time, won a race or two!
We spent the rest of the weekend bowling and eating wine and cheese (thankyou Homeplus for selling English extra mature cheddar!), followed by a noraebang session! Singing power ballads at the top of your lungs in a noraebang is okay here, which is why I love them.
You could peer into the North with binoculars, but no photos were allowed, as the North have been known to get riled. We visited the 3rd tunnel- one of the North’s many attempts to dig through into the South. We also visited the most northern train station in the South. One day they hope to connect the tracks to Pyeongyang in the North. I’m pretty sure it will never happen.
One of the other places we visited in Korea was Busan. This is on the Southern coast of Korea and is really popular for tourists. In fact Hyundai beach is always swarming with waygooks, so it’s not that much fun. There are however some quieter beaches around which we did visit.
We went there in just our second week of being in Korea after we were forced to take a weeks holiday and had no ARCs. We spoke no Korean, couldn’t read it, didn’t understand the subway system, didn’t understand the food, we literally knew nothing! The fact that it was also a public holiday didn’t help! Busan is a little more backwards than Seoul so that made for an interesting trip. We spent the time temple gazing and chilling on the beach.
Our second trip to Busan however turned out to be much more fun! In April, we went to Holi festival which was being held on Busan beach. The event basically just consisted of throwing powdered paint at each other on the beach, jumping around, drinking and dancing to music. A good weekend!
Now Jeju; Korea’s Hawaii. Again, we went here in our second week of being in Korea so we didn’t really take full advantage of it, but we still had a really good time. There’s lots to do in Jeju. There’s craters to be climbed, islands to be hopped and it also features Mount Hallisan. This was a tough mountain to climb, on the basis that it was bloody hot! Also it was one of Tom’s “it’ll be fine” moments where he made me climb it in hotpants and converse. It was not fine. I couldn’t walk for days. But it did have an impressive view, none the less.
Whilst we were here we managed to catch Korea’s best loved musical: Cookin’ Nanta. This is a musical which is a cross between stomp, Jamie Oliver’s 15 minute meals and Oliver. There was a lot of chopping, a lot of dancing and hitting things. As we were the only foreigners in the audience, it was only natural for the cast to bring Tom on stage to get married and to try their wedding soup!
The beaches in Jeju are amazing, so I know why the Korean’s go nuts for it and have around 100 flights there per day! The water is crystal clear and the sand is golden, you could be in Bali! Except, you suddenly smell kimchi and realise you are in Korea.
So that’s some words on living in Korea. This year has been proof that time goes so so quickly, as it has definitely been the fastest, busiest, most exciting year of my life! As the expression goes; I’ve laughed, lived and learned so much. Thanks to everyone we met on the way! Next stop: New Zealand, Australia and Sri Lanka!