Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy holidays!

As we recover from the whirlwind of visitors of the last couple weeks, we're thinking of all of our friends and family back home. Happy holidays and hope everyone has a great New Year!

(Note: the Hello Kitty cake was a Christmas gift from my boss -- it's solid ice cream with a mango topping! And despite its Asian look, it came from Cold Stone Creamery)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Just in time for visitors

My review of the latest travel guide on Seoul.

Monday, December 14, 2009


When we were living in Andersonville we basically had 2 options to get homegoods: Target or CVS.

In Seoul, however, it seems like there is an endless hierarchy of stores, and the longer we live here, the more options we uncover.

For instance, when we first moved into our apartment I got our pots and pans at a street market in nearby Ahyeon-dong. Everything at the street market was cheap and good quality, but hauling the goods all the way back home was enough to make me never go back there.

Then we discovered Grand Mart -- a grocery store/small department store in our neighborhood of Sinchon. Because of the convenience, the store has become a staple for food. We got towels and tupperware from Grand Mart too before discovering Daiso, a Japanese discount store in the subway stop near our apartment.

Daiso is an experience -- the first few times Mike went there alone he insisted that he was the only man in the store. When I went last week the Japanese workers were learning Korean over the intercom system. "Annyeong haseyo" a recording of a woman said, and then all of the employees (and some Japanese shoppers) repeated after her. Everything at Daiso is cheap (1,000 - 3,000 won, $0.86 to $2.90), but pretty low quality.

Then on Friday I had to go over to the World Cup stadium area for a story and decided to check out HomePlus -- a super supermarket (SSM) inside the stadium. Brazilian city planners take note: after the World Cup in Seoul in 2002, the government transformed much of the stadium into a mall. When we went there on the weekend it was bustling with families going to the movies, arcade, spa and, of course, HomePlus.

After having a thriving small business market for years, Seoul is now experiencing an invasion of SSMs. The government has been trying to curb their growth and they have been successful to some extent. But everyday Koreans seem to love the stores, and it's not hard to see why.

HomePlus is gigantic -- imagine a Kohl's stacked on a Target stacked on a Jewel. And they have everything at a pretty low price. Since HomePlus is jointly owned by British grocery chain Tesco, we were able to find granola, M&Ms and Dijon mustard there -- three things that are impossible to find in normal Korean grocery stores.

The service was horrible there though -- or maybe just more Western-style, when compared to the overly attentive store clerks that Korea's service industry is known for.

And although I want to try to support local businesses, I have to say that the convenience of being able to buy everything in one place and the vague familiarity of HomePlus has made me want to go back.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Seoraksan and Sokcho City

We spent the weekend in Sokcho, which sits on the East coast of Korea, in between the famous Seorak mountains and the Sea of Japan (East Sea). It was cold and quite windy, but beautiful. Plus, we had a chance to try a local favorite, stuffed squid (오징어순대). That picture still makes my mouth water.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

An American Thanksgiving in Korea

For about a week, Nissa and I had been scrounging around the Internet for some kind of satisfactory place to have a proper Thanksgiving meal in Seoul, but since we both work evenings, most of the good-looking options weren't possible for us. So I proposed we just go to a buffet lunch somewhere downtown and, in the spirit of the holiday, gorge our brains out.

We opted for the Lotte Hotel's "stylish buffet" lunch, and were surprised to be greeted by a large, red, Thanksgiving-themed banner with a glowing, golden turkey in the center. The meal, of course, wasn't the home-cooked goodness we'd have if we could, but it was still great -- turkey with gravy, roast beef, stuffing, potatoes, and yes, even a mini pumpkin pie. By the end of the meal we were both incredibly (and uncomfortably) full. So, mission accomplished. Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

War memories in the wilderness

Rock face littered with bullet holes (red) from fight
between North and South Korean forces on the Kim Shin-jo trail.

The outside world might associate Korea with conflict and nuclear talks, but you would hardly get that impression living in Seoul.

We've been in Korea almost six months so far and beyond the daily news headlines and occasional civil defense sirens, life here is pretty ordinary. Most South Koreans we've talked to don't spend much time worrying about the North -- and understandably so. The conflict has been going on for over 60 years and the daily ramblings of the North's government hardly affects the lives of South Koreans these days.

That's why I was excited to see some of the remnants of inter-Korean fighting newly on display here in Seoul last weekend.

On Jan. 21, 1968 -- 15 years after the Korean war armistice was signed -- a group of 31 North Korean commandos crept down from the border into Seoul to try to assassinate then-South Korean President Park Chung Hee. The South Korean military and citizens intercepted them and bloody skirmishes ensued. Twenty-eight of the commandos were killed, two escaped back to the North and one was caught alive. Dozens of South Korean citizens and troops were killed.

The event led President Park to boost his military capabilities and create the reserve military forces in April 1968. Those moves, however, did not protect Park and his family in the end. His wife, Yuk Young Soo, was assassinated in August 1974 by a Japanese-born North Korean sympathizer. Park Chung Hee, himself, was killed by the head of the Korean CIA in October 1979.

Not surprisingly, the route that the North Korean commandos used in Jan. 1968 to come to the presidential headquarters has been closed since that attempted assassination. But last month the government opened it again to the public.

The area is known unofficially as the "DMZ in Seoul" because, like the more famous DMZ at the 38th parallell, it has been protected off-limits to human activity for several decades. Officially, the route is named after the only surviving North Korean commando -- Kim Shin-jo. You can read a moving interview with Kim on the JoongAng Daily's website. Today, Kim is a pastor at church in Seoul.

Last weekend I went and hiked the route. It wasn't as beautiful as the trails in Bukhansan National Park that we hiked a few weeks ago, but it was interesting to see the route that made such an impression in Korean history. Surrounding the former-DMZ is a well-to-do area, filled with -- as a hiker I met called them -- "million-dollar-man" houses.

I saw a couple former bunkers on the way to the trail, but the most impressive sight was the rock face riddled with bullet holes (see above) from the inter-Korean battle that took place there. The bullet holes were painted in red and white, so you could see them, and there were at least a dozen of them.

South Korea has changed a lot since the late 1960s. The "Miracle on the Han" has meant high-rise apartments and urban sprawl galore. But it still was cool to see the view from the route and imagine what the soldiers saw when they looked down at Seoul 41 years ago.

Seoul today from Mount Bukak on the Kim Shin-jo trail.

The funniest book I've read this year

Here's my book review
of "Fool" by Christopher Moore which was published in the JoongAng Daily on Saturday.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Test Day

Last Thursday, about 600,000 high school seniors in Korea took their college entrance exams, known here as 수능, or Suneung. The outcome pretty much determines the caliber of university these students will be able to attend, so the pressure is extremely high. To help out, parents and underclassmen have early morning rallies outside the test locations on the day of the exam. They bring hot coffee and bags full of snacks for the exam takers, as well as a lot of cheer. It's pretty much like a pep rally before a high school football game in the States -- except this is for a 10-hour academic gauntlet. Talk about values.

Sound is from Ewha Women's University High School on the morning of the exam. Note: there is some slight profanity (in Korean, of course).

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Happy Halloween!

Halloween isn't really a big thing here in Korea. We went out last night to the big nightlife area near our house and saw a total of four costumes -- and no, we weren't two of the four. There are no Halloween decorations up, no fun-sized candy packs, and no haunted houses as far as we can see.

But Hong Kong on the other hand was in full pre-Halloween celebration mode when we were there last weekend. The above pumpkin-filled play area was in the Hong Kong airport. And we were even able to buy some mini chocolate bars there to bring back to work.

Hope everyone had (or is having) a great Halloween!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Journey Into Bukhansan

We did a day hike at Bukhansan National Park over the weekend. The densely forested mountains are just a few subway stops north of Seoul's city center, and in addition to amazing views of nature the park gave us an incredible perspective of the city. We hiked just a small, southern portion of the park, and the great thing is there's so much more to explore.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Farewell, family

Hanging out on our couch.

Matching Banana sweaters!

Mike's parents left for Chicago today after their week-long trip to Seoul. It was really nice having some family in town, albeit for such a short time.

We're counting down the days until we have more visitors around Christmas. In the mean time, we'll be busy working, studying and taking the occasional weekend trip (next stop Hong Kong!).

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Giving Thanks

This is a picture of a Korean pear (alongside a standard computer mouse for comparison). As you can see, it is almost ridiculously large. Now, you may have seen pears like this, usually marketed as "Asian pears", at the supermarket. I've had and loved those pears, too, but had no idea what I'd been missing out on until coming here and tasting these pears. Like I said, they're huge, but they're also extremely sweet and juicy. The inside flesh is almost comparable to that a watermelon. A few weeks ago I accidentally dropped one of these in the kitchen and it started leaking juice like a fresh spring -- now that's some serious juiciness.

Over the last week or so, people have been lugging special gift boxes of these pears and all other kinds of fruit around Seoul in preparation for the Chuseok holiday. It's a lot like American Thanksgiving, and people typically go back to their Korean hometowns to see their families and partake in a feast. My parents actually came here a few days ago so we were able to celebrate together with them and my uncle's family for the last couple days. Nissa and I also had a chance to see the house my mother grew up in here in Seoul's Yongsan neighborhood yesterday. It took some wandering around side streets to find the place, but eventually we did.

Because of the holiday, Seoul has felt like a virtual ghost town this weekend, with the subway mostly empty, most stores closed, and a lot fewer cars and buses than normal cruising outside our apartment. Suffice it to say, it's been nice to have some peace and quiet for a change. And just like Thanksgiving back in the States, my aunt last night sent us home with a bag full of leftovers.

Thankfully, though, not this kind:

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Korea's eco-city

Artist rendition of Songdo, South Korea.

My piece on Korea's first "eco-city" aired this Tuesday on Chicago Public Radio's "Worldview" program. In case you missed it, you can listen to it here. Korea is building what they hope to be one of the greenest cities in the world, but ecologists say that they are destroying important wetlands and eco-systems in the process.

I definitely would like to do more stories about Korea's green growth in the future. 80 percent of Korea's stimulus package was devoted to green growth -- the highest percentage in the world. While Lee Myung-bak has gotten a lot of support for his green initiatives (he even rides his bike to work), some in the government are questioning just how eco-friendly some of his projects are.

Production credit: I couldn't have done this piece without the support (and constructive criticism) from my coach Mike.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

TYWMIK: Popeye's

I actually came across this when accidentally coming out of the wrong subway exit for work. It was simultaneously the best mistake I ever made for my mouth and the worst mistake I ever made for my health.

And two whole floors to clog your arteries in!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Palace Music

A few weeks ago, I recorded an early morning, traditional Korean folk music performance at Changgyeong Palace, and took some photos.

The music itself is a medley of several, centuries-old Buddhist pieces performed by a group of about 20 musicians.

Anyone who is interested can download the full 24-minute performance here.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Like a Kid in a Grocery Store

When I was young, no family weekend was complete without a trip to the Korean grocery store. We'd ride in the van for 45 minutes, passing landmarks I'd gradually memorized as being along the way -- the forest preserve, the gated country club, the Toys 'R Us -- and eventually, my father would turn our maroon Plymouth Voyager down a narrow, alley-like corridor running next to a fenced condominium complex. We'd pull into the back of a strip mall and park in the loading area next to the garbage dumpster.

We always went in through the back door -- past the cleaning supplies and the bathroom, through the thick, plastic-sheeted curtain, out alongside a freezer -- like we were members of a secret society. The shelves would be filled with food you couldn't find at most grocery stores: shrimp chips with strange writing on them, bags filled with miniature, dried fish, wrinkled persimmons sitting in green, cardboard trays, piles of colorful candies sparkling in their cellophane wrapping, and 20 pound sacks of rice stacked tall along the store's front window, blocking both sunlight and passersby from peeking inside.

My brother and I would inevitably wander toward the covered wooden basket at the end of the far aisle, which, when opened, revealed a thick tangle of writhing and snapping crabs, whose legs and arms lightly clacked against one another like woodblocks as they tried to wrestle to the top of the pile. They smelled of ocean and dirt. My mother would come by and either scold us and tell us to put the tongs down, or she would reach for a brown paper bag and have us pick out the liveliest ones for dinner.

Behind the register, an old woman with a perm and a floral shirt would be watching a Korean drama on a small TV. The fuzzy VHS tape gave just a tiny hint as to what sat magnetized on the rows and rows of tapes behind her, each hand-scrawled in black marker with a title and episode numbers. The woman's husband would be sitting behind the tall shelves of tapes, watching several TV's at a control station and writing more labels. He would yell at my parents from the back room about what was good this week, and his wife would pull a stack of tapes from a shelf and place them in a plastic bag. My parents would set a full, plastic basket on the counter and speak warmly with the woman, like an old friend, as she rang up each item. And before we left, she would always hand my brother and me a couple packs of Botan Rice Candy -- the stickers or tattoos hidden inside would be stuck somewhere on us or the van way before we got home.

20 years later and a thousand miles away, I find myself peeking into the fogged tanks in front of restaurants, trying to catch a glimpse of the fish and squid swimming inside. I crane my head back in amazement at just how tall some buildings are, and how there can be surprises stuck all the way up there at the top. I wonder where the old women who sell herbs and vegetables on the street get their goods, and where they go after the sun goes down. I see more varieties of rice than I ever knew existed at the grocery store, and am always tempted by the ladies advertising half-price rice cakes by the registers. I sometimes take the bus now, and am slowly discovering how all those subway stops are connected to each other above ground.

I see small kids on the bus sometimes -- backpacks strapped on, holding on way too casually to the poles for such a bumpy ride -- and I wonder what it's like to be a little kid in such a big city. I can only imagine.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

School's out!

My class and teacher at Yonsei

Thursday was our last day at Yonsei University and boy does it feel good to be done with school! While I don't regret going to Yonsei, those last couple weeks were really tough to get through (as evidenced by the lack of blog posts!). In the end, though, we were some of the proud and (amazingly) few that passed the Yonsei course.

My class ended the semester with a cooking class where we learned how to make Tak Toritang (spicy braised chicken and potatoes) and an Australian wine and French pastry party. Our teacher was enthusiastic and funny and one of the best language teachers I've ever had (definitely better than the ones I had when I was learning Spanish at U. of C.).

But I struggled in the second half of the semester trying to balance my class schedule (9am - 1pm plus homework time) and work schedule (3pm - 9pm). After the midterm, the class picked up pace quite a bit too, as the people who couldn't handle the class (for various reasons) dropped out. By the last week, we were learning three grammar rules and tons of new vocabulary a day. The brutal pace the class took in the second half of the semester showed on the final exam -- everyone did poorly on the grammar section and even people who were great students didn't pass some of the tests.

Given how poorly so many people did on the finals, I really question the point of Yonsei's intense teaching method. Four hours a day, five days a week, for ten weeks is a huge amount of time. But language acquisition doesn't happen overnight and the repetition that you need to learn a language couldn't occur when we were taught new things every class hour.

Our next class at Ewha Womans University will start in just under two weeks. It will be a lot less hours (three days a week and just a couple hours a day), so we're both looking forward to taking a more leisurely (and more sane) approach to learning Korean next semester.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Goin' to the Country

I didn't get a chance to write about our trip down to my cousins' hometown a few weeks ago until now, so here goes... We met Haekgyung and Hyunjun on Friday at the bus station and embarked on a two-and-a-half hour ride southeast, to the town where their mother works as a principal (though I can't remember the name of the town). She picked us up at a small bus station and we swung by the local equivalent of Wal-Mart to pick up some groceries for the weekend. I believe it was an E-Mart, which actually bought up a bunch of Wal-Mart's stores when the American retail giant gave up on its dreams of conquering Korea a few years ago. Take that, Wal-Mart.

My aunt then drove the four of us down toward Seokpo, where my uncle works as a manager at a zinc refinery. But on the way there we made a few stops -- first, at a traditional Korean village where only people with the same family name had resided for generations. The houses had beautiful architecture, and the village sat in a shallow valley, surrounded by lush green hills and rice fields.

We winded our way through the hills some more and stopped in a small village that my aunt said was known for its smoked pork. We had two kinds, one that was lightly seasoned and scented with some pine and another that was thickly marinated in a dark red sauce. Both were amazing. I thought about that pork all the way to my uncle's apartment.

My uncle moved back to Seokpo a few years ago, when the company he worked for ran into some kind of trouble and asked for him to come back to supervise. As we came up to the town after dusk, my cousins started sitting up in their seats and pointing things out through the window. This was the town they had grown up in, and they hadn't been back in over ten years. Compared to Seoul, the streets were very dim -- pale yellow lights illuminated some run down-looking houses and stores to our left, and you could make out the faint reflections of the moonlight sparkling off the river to our right. A slight, metallic odor filled the air. As we drove along, the brightly lit factory came into view, with all its large metal silos and colored walkways standing in clear contrast to the dark hills behind. Soon, the car's headlights beamed upon my uncle, who was standing in the entrance to his apartment's parking lot waiting for us.

Hyunjun was thrilled to see the old place again. It wasn't the exact apartment he had grown up in, but since all the units followed the same layout, it was close enough to the home he once knew. The space was small -- two bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom, and study, all crammed into about four to five-hundred square feet. It was older, too, with the wallpaper rippling off the wall in some places and the rusted plumbing clearly on display in the bathroom. Hyunjun kept saying he remembered it being bigger (the study had once been his bedroom) and he couldn't believe the four of them had at one point lived there together. Nissa and I wouldn't be sleeping here tonight, though. My uncle had rented the modestly furnished apartment upstairs for us to stay in over the weekend, in which a set of towels and toothbrushes were laid out neatly on the refrigerator for us upon arrival. After watching a little TV in my uncle's room, we headed upstairs to turn in for the night.

The next morning we set off for the seaside in a large company van my uncle had borrowed for the weekend. We wound through rolling hills for a couple hours, stopping once or twice to take some pictures. At one point we drove alongside acres and acres of cabbage that looked close to harvest. Apparently this area was known for its cabbage, which all eventually went into kimchi. My relatives said the owners were millionaires -- cabbage millionaires.

Soon the hills cleared and we arrived at Hosan, a beach area along the east coast of Korea, in Gangwon Province. The air was cool, a little humid, and just a little salty. My uncle rented a room for all of us at a motel along the shore, as a sort of base camp for the afternoon, and after changing into our bathing suits we headed out for the water. The waves were incredibly strong, so much so that they could knock you off your feet if you weren't careful. We didn't venture out far, for fear of the undertow, but it was fun battling against the waves nonetheless. We even got a little sunburned.

That evening, on the way back to Seokpo, we stopped in a town called Taebaek. This was a much larger town than Seokpo, we could tell just from the traffic heading in. Even though it only had a population of about 50,000, all the cars and lights from the restaurants and stores made it feel like we were in a metropolis again. As we got out of the car, we could hear a woman's powerful singing echoing down the street. Nissa recognized the song was from Les Miserables. A musical troupe was performing in the town's park -- songs from Grease, Fame...

We closed out the night in Taebaek with a traditional Korean dinner, where you are served about 20 side dishes along with rice that is cooked in a stone pot. On the way back to Seokpo, we could see the stars clearly in the night sky. The air was cool and the hills were quiet. It was going to be hard to go back to Seoul.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Watermelon, Watermelon Everywhere

I woke up on the couch this afternoon -- after what seemed like a one- or two-hour nap -- disoriented, sweaty, and with an overwhelming desire for some watermelon. Ever since we moved to Seoul in June, the weather most days has been disgustingly hot and humid, and on many of these days I've been tempted to take home one of the large, striped-green orbs that sit seductively on fruit stands around just about every corner here. Walking by, I would imagine the wealth of succulent goodness hidden inside each of those giant globes and think about whether this was the day...

But you don't just buy a watermelon on a whim. That kind of food purchase is a serious investment, perhaps along the lines of buying a turkey for Thanksgiving. I've never invested in a turkey before but imagine there are a number of similar things to consider:

1. Size: turkeys come in a variety of sizes, but watermelons tend to come in one -- large. And because of this, you have to decide how bad you want to eat watermelon, because you're going to be eating a lot of it, maybe for several days. There's also the weight consideration, because someone's gotta carry the darn thing home.

2. Quality: like with most fruit, judging the quality of a watermelon from the outside is pure mysticism to me. After arriving at the supermarket today and heading straight for the watermelon display, I did a general look-over of the fruit. All seemed to bear a significant resemblance to their peers. Upon a physical inspection, however, some appeared to be flat in certain areas, or not as round. I slapped a few as well, because I had heard somewhere that you want the watermelon to sound hollow when you hit it. And of course, I picked several up, to gauge their weight. I ended up buying the roundest, heaviest, and hollowest-sounding one I could find, which most likely made no difference whatsoever in the end.

3. Price: the watermelon market in Seoul seems to be as volatile as the stock market. In the last few months, the price of a watermelon has gone from as high as 18,000 won to 8,000, generally speaking. But even today a man tried to sell me a watermelon for 17,000 won, so caveat emptor.

4. Leftovers: since there's only two of us, I knew there were going to be leftovers, and our fridge isn't very large. Things would have to be rearranged. On my walk home, while cradling my prize in both arms, I also thought of all the space-saving ways I could cut up the watermelon so it would fit in our small refrigerator...

After rinsing the baby off and setting it on the counter, I pressed a knife against the watermelon's midpoint and with just the slightest amount of pressure, the blade cracked through the rind and the watermelon just about snapped in two, pink juices splattering on the counter. I reset the knife and finished the cut through to the other side, but being a little inexact, a thin sliver of the fruit's flesh fell off to the side and landed in a small pool of juice. I picked up the piece and popped it in my mouth. This was going to be a good one.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Death of Kim Dae-jung

My assignment for work yesterday was to go to one of the memorial gatherings for former Korean president Kim Dae-jung. As I climbed out of the subway and onto Seoul Plaza, I was struck by how many people had come in the middle of a hot and humid day to pay tribute to the former leader. A very large portrait of Kim was set up next to city hall, surrounded by thousands of flowers. Hundreds of people queued up to stand before this display and bow their heads or kneel in front of it. Many walked away with tears in their eyes.

At least a thousand people must have been there. Huddles of older men and women sat in lawn chairs and on the ground underneath rows of white tents that had been set up in the plaza. It looked like most were there just to spend the afternoon taking in the scene with friends. Some had empty bottles of makgeolli scattered around them. Interestingly, I talked to several people who said they weren't particularly fond of the man, but came to pay respect nonetheless. That in itself, I thought was amazing.

President Kim is probably most known for his reunification efforts with North Korea, which led to highly public and emotional reunions of families that had been separated for decades since the Korean War, but also involved the not-so-public funneling of hundreds of millions of dollars to the North in return for the favor. But that is just a small part of the Sunshine Policy, and Kim's presidency and amazing life story.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tokyo part 3

And now for the part you've been waiting for... What would a trip to Japan be without robots!

As part of the bid for the 2016 Olympics, Tokyo built a "life-size" Gundam robot on it's bay. Towering 60 feet tall, this thing was really impressive!

You can see how they built the robot here.

And of course, I couldn't leave Tokyo without getting some robots of our own. Meet Guyzer and Bean, Mike's piperoids:

Monday, August 17, 2009

Tokyo part 2

The Mori art museum in Tokyo was having an exhibit of Chinese sculptor Ai Weiwei's works. The exhibit was very cool and made me want to learn more about Ai.

Ai collaborated with Herzog and de Meuron in designing the bird's nest for the Beijing Olympics. There were some interesting photos of the construction of the nest in the exhibit.

My favorite pieces in the exhibit were Weiwei's sculptures made out of tea. This one is made up of one cubic meter of Yunnan Province tea, compressed to weigh a ton -- the same weight one cubic meter of water would weigh.

This "teahouse" is made up of 432 cubes and prisms of compressed tea.

Tokyo part 1

Last week I took a two-day trip to Tokyo to get my work visa. Even though it was a super short trip, it was a bit like a mini-vacation. The JoongAng paid for my plane ticket (since it was a work-related expense) and I got to spend most of my time there wandering around the city with Max K. as my guide. Since Max is an architecture grad student there, I got a really cool perspective on the city and even got to see a building I've always been fascinated by.

After meeting at the Korean consulate shortly after my plane landed, we headed towards the Mori art museum in Roppongi Hills. On the 52nd floor of the building there are windows in which you can get a 360 degree view of the city.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

First show in Seoul!

Mike played his first show in Seoul yesterday at the "Free Market" near Hongik University. The market is a place where artists (mostly students) sell their handmade crafts and musicians play on an outdoor stage.

Vertigokidd had a good-sized crowd during his set and managed to earn a few thousand won from some fans (see suitcase in third photo).

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Korea's love affair with baseball

My first "Feature" article was published in the JoongAng Daily today. It's about how crazy Koreans are for the "all-American" sport of baseball. I talked to Korea's star pitcher and he told me soccer is over-- baseball is now Korea's favorite sport.

This was my first big reporting assignment since coming here, and I felt I grew a lot in the process of writing it. I learned how to navigate the language barrier and find people who spoke English for the article (which is a real challenge here at times). And I pushed myself to cover something that is out of my comfort zone (ie, not wars, refugees, or massacres!).

Mike has also been leaving his comfort zone lately with his reporting and production work on TBS eFM. I hope that this laboratory called Korea will keep giving us opportunities to challenge and expand our abilities as journalists.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Wandering Hapjeong

Some pictures from our afternoon wandering around Hongdae, Hapjeong, and our neighborhood today...

The room full of cats is a "pet cafe" we came across called Gio Cat. There are dog ones, too.

Friday, July 31, 2009


Not that they really mattered in the grand scheme of life, but we had midterms at school this week. There was more tension in the air than usual in the hallways -- I saw a lot of people furiously cramming information into their heads before and in between periods. Even I was a little nervous at first. But that passed soon after the writing section when I realized the exams wouldn't be as difficult as I'd thought. Good thing, because I hadn't studied much.

I have had a distinct advantage over much of my class this semester because of the inherited knowledge of Korean I have from my family. I've had to accept this with both a little pride and embarrassment (yes, it's good to understand what the teacher's saying most of the time but then, why did I get placed in the lowest level?) Class has been great, though, especially for learning proper grammar and new vocabulary words. I used to have this very foggy idea of how to construct sentences which has been cleared up quite a bit. Plus, I can now conjugate verbs into the past, present, and future tense, which is pretty helpful.

But the second I walk out of that classroom, most of that knowledge slips away. Thinking at a desk and thinking on your feet are two wholly different animals. I still find myself stumbling over questions at the supermarket and misunderstanding what store clerks are asking me. It's so easy to take for granted a simple thing like being able to communicate what you're thinking -- without having to think about it. Not here, though.

I've found the thing I miss the most is being able to read. Walking through our neighborhood department store, brand names and store signs that are in English seem to psychically call out to me. I don't need to sound out letters or piece together words to find a meaning -- the phrase "Hyundai Department Store" just speaks to me in all its literal glory, with all its intended meanings, in the split second it takes the words to hit my eyes. I go to the New York Times website and see eight different headlines at once, get a general sense of all of them and drag my pointer to the one that piques my interest -- all within a matter of seconds.

Slogging through Hangul, though, is like having tunnel vision. I see one letter at a time, then a syllable, then a word. I sound it out in my head and hope for some semblance of meaning. Trying to read newspapers and books remains a pretty futile exercise. I can maybe get through a paragraph and understand one out of every five words. Navigating through a Korean website, therefore, is like working a maze -- a deep, dark, confusing maze. My methodology has been to start out by picking a random path that looks promising and plow ahead. Usually I hit a dead end and have to start over. And over. And over... I'm guessing this eventually gets easier. It's just going to have to take getting lost a few thousand more times.

Monday, July 20, 2009

American Breakdown

I think I had my first food craving breakdown yesterday. For most of the last... how long has it been now, six weeks?... I've been doing pretty well eating mostly Korean meals at home and around town. I've even acquired a taste for eating lettuce rice wraps, called 쌈, for dinner. But something got to me yesterday. Maybe it's the oppressive heat and humidity. I'd been bugging Nissa to go with me to the local Costco so we could see what kind of foods they had to offer. I'd never been to a Costco, which is in my mind, right up there with Wal-Mart and McDonald's on my list of full-on, American-blooded ventures into the insatiable hunger of man, as well as the vastness of his pocketbook. In other words, it was my duty to visit one.

We wandered around an area of Seoul just south of the Han River for about an hour, trying to track down this elusive Korean Costco. After asking a sweaty man for directions and consulting a large map (on which Nissa spotted the Hangul letters that spelled out "Cos-tuh-co") we found the red, blue and beige warehouse. It was swimming with people, cars parked literally around the block. We walked around to the front and entered the building through the sliding glass doors with what seemed like a swarm of Koreans. The inside was complete madness. This was actually a two-story Costco, with household-type goods on the first floor and groceries in the basement. We weaved through the crowd of families and shopping carts, watching the hordes collecting mega-sized boxes of cookies, clamoring for free samples of sausage and candy, and digging through piles of marked-down clothing.

It was all a bit too much to handle.

Before this visit, I had imagined Costco to be a kind of American grocery utopia. Piles of fresh ground beef, aisle upon aisle of cereal and condiments, wide-open lanes. Instead we found a shopping zoo. We got back on the subway to head home, but I still had a hankering for a hamburger -- a good old-fashioned, 1/3 pound patty with lettuce, tomato, and onions on a fluffy, yellow roll, slathered in ketchup, served alongside a batch of hot, greasy french fries. Maybe even with a miniature American flag stuck on top with a toothpick. So we headed to Itaewon, a.k.a. the foreigners area of Seoul. I'd never been there before either.

One transfer and seven stops later, we exited the subway and came across a Canadian bar. It was rustic lodge-themed on the inside, with Gwen Stefani playing on the stereo and a neon marker board with things like "Wii night" scrawled on it. My hopes lifted. We ordered a couple burgers and waited... Ten minutes later, we were greeted by a pair of thin and flat patties, each served on a hard ciabatta roll with a too-ripe tomato, a slice of onion, and Korean-tasting ketchup, mustard, and mayo squirted on the bottom bun. To top it all off, chips. Not fries. I grudgingly ate the bastard while vowing to make my own hamburgers from now on. Then I ate Nissa's last chip.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

I'm an internationally published writer!

The JoongAng Daily published my first article today. It's a book review of "The Vagrants" by Yiyun Li. Enjoy!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Campus Life

Ewha Womans University and Yonsei University in Sinchon, Seoul.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Exploring Seoul: Samcheong-dong

In just four days I will start work as a copy editor at the International Herald Tribune's Korean partner, the JoongAng Daily. I'm super excited to make my professional debut in print journalism and can't wait to return to the newsroom. But going back to work means I will have a lot less free time to explore Seoul.

So I decided to take advantage of the good weather yesterday and explore the Samcheong-dong area of Seoul. Right off the Anguk station on Line 3 (we live at the Ewha Woman's Univ. stop on Line 2, for reference), this neighborhood is full of art galleries, trendy coffee shops, and tiny museums.

I wanted to see the neighborhood's Jeongdok Public Library, which is supposed to have beautiful gardens, but sadly it was closed. So I let my feet be my guide, and ended up halfway up a mountain at the Silk Road Museum. This three-story museum was the size of a house -- in fact, I'm pretty sure someone was living on the fourth floor. Something about the display of the objects and the smell of the place made everything seem more real than in your average museum. Fur-covered trunks and stone carvings sat out unprotected, and burial icons were laid out on sand. Perhaps it was the mountain air, but I felt an almost mystical transcendence getting lost amongst the muskets and guardian deities.

Monday, July 13, 2009

My Month as a Korean Bootlegger, Part Two

I think I realized things weren't right when Anderson left. Or maybe when Tasha did. Or was it Terry? In the four weeks I worked at (redacted), I witnessed about half of the meager 15 person staff turnover. Which means we had goodbye cake and other sweets about seven times while I was there. No complaints about that. But I barely had a chance to learn people's names before someone new was sitting at their desk. After about two weeks of this, I stopped the charade of introducing myself to the newcomers. I knew I was leaving soon, too.

On my first day at work I met Ken, the office's equivalent of an HR person. Over the course of the month, Ken started taking a few minutes out of his day to teach me the Korean I wouldn't be learning in class. Nothing vulgar or anything like that -- usually -- but just the everyday kind of talk and slang that might help me pass as a native. He also made a routine of pulling me away from my desk every couple hours to take a break and go catch some fresh air with him, which he usually liked to take in with a fresh cigarette. If anything, Ken taught me work doesn't have to be a prison. As he told me, "A hard worker is a sad worker."

But on that first day, work felt like a prison and he was my guard. I had agreed with the head of the company that I would receive a one-month contract to write his textbook, as a sort of tryout, and during that time I would have the freedom to work both in the office and at home. Sometime over the weekend, though, the deal had changed without my knowing. The laissez-faire terms had suddenly turned into strict working hours and my pay had been incidentally cut because of taxes and a health plan I hadn't agreed to. Not only that, but I could no longer deal directly with the boss anymore, I had to go through Ken, which meant I would have to clarify and negotiate the terms of the contract through him, after which he would check with the boss and get back to me. These mediated negotiations happened over the course of my first four hours at work, and after three or four rounds of getting nowhere, I finally convinced Ken to let me see the guy in charge.

Something about my boss's broad smile never quite sat right with me. It seemed to ingratiate and somehow also insult you at the same time, the way a fascist dictator might look upon his populace. I later learned I wasn't alone in feeling this way. The reason many, if not most, people were leaving the company was because they couldn't stand him. After some debate and essentially threatening to walk out, I got most of what I originally wanted in my contract, but the owner insisted on one thing: I work all my hours at the office. I hate working in offices.

Thankfully, my last day there was on Friday. A few minutes before I was about the leave, my boss ran into me in the hallway and asked that I stay for some cake and sweets in my honor. That was OK, I said, I have plans with a friend. We shook hands, bowed, and he thanked me for my work. An hour later, Ken and a few other co-workers met me at a restaurant a few blocks away, where we talked and laughed over some grilled pork and 소맥, a sweet mixture of beer and soju I had for the first time. Ken told me he hadn't bought any cake that day, for one, because he was sick of buying cake. This was better anyway, he said. I wasn't getting a goodbye party. I was getting a welcome one.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Things You Won't Miss in Korea #5

Starbucks. There are a ton of Starbucks here, but independent and/or French-themed coffee shops far out number them. Most of the Starbucks look exactly like the ones at home. This one near City Hall, however, caught my eye. Mimicking the traditional tiled roof on most houses here and prominently labeled "Korea" (no doubt in case you forget where you are), I can't help but think this Starbucks is a tourist trap. Unsurprisingly, several of those skyscrapers you can see behind the Starbucks are large Western hotels.

Now this one is not in the U.S.! Star Beer Coffee is a few blocks away from our apartment and I've been dying to go there ever since I saw it. Unfortunately, as we soon discovered, it's out of business. I wonder if its resemblance to another cafe had anything to do with that.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

My Month as a Korean Bootlegger

(Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Ignore Intellectual Property Rights)

Part One

My first job ever in Seoul was as a textbook writer at an English teaching company that catered to business people. I had originally gone up to the fourth story office (marked with the letter "F" in the elevator for superstitious reasons) to interview for a teaching position. I walked into a small, empty lobby with a colorful coffee bar that looked like it had once been intended as a hip, gathering place but, out of necessity or simple neglect, had become a storage space for the odd printer and file drawer.

I heard some voices coming out of the first small office alongside the wall and sheepishly poked my head in the doorway. There were two men in the room, one behind a desk, the other in a short chair. They stopped talking upon seeing me. 'Hi, my name is Michael, I'm looking for a recruiter named "Terry".'

Now, little did I know the man behind the desk was the owner of this teaching company, nor was I aware that the majority of the time I spent working for him, I would rarely see his face or even be permitted to speak directly to him like this again. But on this day, he couldn't have seemed more happy to meet me. Something piqued his curiosity, I'm still not sure what -- at a later meeting he joked about how you could smell the American on me, I was so fresh off the plane.

I sat down in his office and noticed his shirt and tie first. The top button was undone and the tie loosened off his neck. His suit jacket was hanging in the corner. In his tiny, windowless office, he leaned forward and asked me where I was from, what my background was, what my parents did, why I came to Korea... His shoes were off and I could see him wiggling his toes through his black socks. He was obviously impressed. I wasn't going to see Terry today. In fact, Terry was called in to bring a copy of my resume for the boss to look at.

The man had a vast, scatterbrained vision for his company -- not only did he want it to be a school but an English language empire. He was already making textbooks for his students, or more accurately, pamphlets, and these were included in the admission price but he had a plan to eventually start selling them, and not just to his students but all over the country. He also (surprise) had a web site. He showed me the burgeoning site on his computer and I could see the beginnings (or remains) of a news site for English language learners -- a great idea in theory, which is pretty much all there was at this point. Then there was his plan for a newspaper. One that would compete right up there with the three biggest papers in Korea. Beat them at their online game. And all he needed was a repor-- hey, I was a reporter!

I spent about a half hour negotiating a work contract with him, repeatedly emphasizing that I was only looking for a part-time job and could only do so much to help him build his media conglomerate. Talking an egotist off the ledge while still getting him to give you a job is walking quite the tightrope. Eventually, we agreed that I would write the next edition of his textbook for him over the next month -- one that didn't look like it had been cobbled together by a first-year ESL student.

Friday, July 10, 2009

장마 Season

It's jangma (monsoon) season here, as you can see from Mike's pictures below. Rainstorms in Chicago did not prepare us at all for the amount of rain we'd see here. The closest Midwest comparison I can think of is snow blizzards.

So far we've been experimenting with different ways to keep dry during the rain storms. Our plastic umbrellas do little to keep off the pounding rain. And wearing shorts and sandals means that your legs are drenched and your feet keep sliding out of your flip-flops. After the first downpour nearly ruined our textbooks, we've taken to keeping everything in a plastic bag inside our backpacks. Still, it's embarrassing to show up for a meeting or class drenched to the bone.

Amazingly the locals seem to keep dry in the rain. No one wears raincoats, and most don't have expensive golf umbrellas or rain boots. My current theory is that the rain just shows up more on my blonde hair than their black hair. But that doesn't explain why Mike gets soaked every time it rains too. Maybe we'll learn their secret before jangma season ends in a couple weeks. In the meantime, we're buying ponchos.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Cats and Dogs

The walk home from school...


Sunday, July 5, 2009

Weekend America

For this 4th of July weekend, Nissa and I did all things American. We ate pizza, read, took naps, and watched the last Harry Potter movie on my laptop (in nerdy preparation for the next). In fact, the last couple weekends in our new apartment have been spent pretty lazily -- for me, at least. I've been able to watch TV shows like The Office and King of Queens online, listen to my music, and keep up on all my favorite blogs, comics, and news sites -- all, of course, in English.

Holing up on the weekends, though, as relaxing as it can be, has its price, and that is forgetting where you really are. Last Saturday, for example, I didn't leave the apartment all day until the late evening, when Nissa and I decided to go and take a walk around the neighborhood. After a day full of thoughts in English, my mind had to readjust to the sounds of people speaking Korean on the elevator, and to all the neon signs out on the street in Hangul. "Oh right," I realized, "I'm in Seoul."

But things have been getting busier for us since school started. Between class, work and studying, there just isn't much time to chill out during the week. We have gone out for ice cream a couple times (and had something that should be renamed the "garbage sundae). We've also hit up the batting cages across the street. And discovered, to my arteries' dismay, that the fried chicken place on the first floor of our building is pretty damn good. But we haven't done so much as far as sightseeing goes lately. I'm starting to realize how people live in a place for so long and never get to all that sort of stuff. Life just takes over sometimes.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

School Daze: A Response

The last time I was a student was three years ago. The last time I was in a classroom was when I guest lectured in an international media class at Columbia College this spring. Needless to say, Mike and my perspectives on going back to school have been a little different.

For me, school was always about getting the best grades and consuming the most knowledge. While I may have succumbed to short cuts my 3rd and 4th years of college (ie, doing only the readings that mattered), I have always considered myself a steadfast student, eager to learn.

Now, for the first time in my life, grades don't hold any sway on my future. They won't determine whether I get into grad school or whether I'll land my dream job. What I hope to take away from this class is a better understanding of Korean language and culture -- and by turn, a better understanding of my husband and his family. I've always said that I want our children to know Korean. I don't know whether we will have the energy to do that once we actually have kids, but I think it's a nice goal to have. At the very least I want to make sure they have a strong sense that there is life outside of the U.S. and that they are a part of that.

With worries of grades gone, I have been free to get to know my classmates without feeling the pressure to study during breaks. They all are interesting in their own way. There's a Senegalese man who speaks two native languages, French, English, and now is learning Korean. And there's a Texan who I just found out was in the U.S. Army and on the frontlines of the invasion in Iraq. There's also an Australian farmer who spent the last 15 years raising cows and sheep and now is living in the 11th largest city in the world.

Class is challenging, but I feel like I'm learning a lot. And hopefully I'll have a few more friends by the time semester's over!

This post is dedicated to Albert, signed Debbie Upper.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

To All The Teachers

I haven't sat in a classroom as a student for more than six years (excluding the one or two times I've had to go to traffic school). The last few memories I have of class are either from college or high school -- and in both cases I would not call myself a stellar student. I've always been kind of a goof-off in class, maybe even a slacker. Pretty much from grade school to college I had a mouth that loved cracking wise and tried its damnedest to get a laugh at the most inopportune moments. In spite of all this I never had a problem pulling off decent grades, but for the most part, I never took school all that seriously.

Now, as an adult, I've become one of those studious kids my teenage self would probably scorn. I come to class ready and eager to participate, and I quietly dismiss the kids who don't have the same M.O. And seriously, some of my classmates are essentially kids. I'd have been able to tell from just looking at their bright, young faces on the first day of school and listening to their conversations about college and majors, but I also got a glance at the class list with all our respective birth dates and was pretty disappointed to find I'd been alive a full decade by the time some of these fetuses were born. Still, I look at the mop-haired, acne-pocked teen from Argentina slouching in his chair, or the girl with the blank look in her eyes who mumbles all her answers, and I think, "Grow up, already. Why are you even here? Don't you want to learn something?"

I also don't think I've ever noticed until now how vast the range of human intelligence is. There are obviously some sharp people in my class, like the sophomore from Princeton, who absorb information on first hearing. Then, there are the average learners, who make up most of the class. Then... well, to put it lightly, then, there are the complete idiots. Or maybe they're not idiots, but they obviously don't give a damn. And their incompetence and irreverence for learning creates a sort of black hole for knowledge that, I think, absorbs and destroys a small portion of the collective intelligence of the class. Yes, what I am saying is that these people are harmful to others around them, like second-hand smoke.

I've seen my teachers give extra attention to these students, prod and plead with them, and sometimes just give up on them and leave them choking on chalk dust. I can only sympathize. It's hard to imagine how you're supposed to manage so many differing needs at one time and still herd the entire flock toward the general direction of "knowledge". I'll admit, I might've strayed from the herd a few times during my school days, and I hate to think about the tug of war (between stupidity and enlightenment) I forced on my old teachers without even knowing it. I plead ignorance and youth. It probably doesn't do much, but I'm trying to make up for it now.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Korean Cooking: Kimbap

Last night I made my first foray into Korean cooking: kimbap! When we were staying at their house, Mike's cousin Haegkyung showed me how to make this simple, sushi-like dish. Usually you eat this with ramen, but we were pretty ramen-ed out yesterday, so we just had it with some Hoegaardens. It turned out pretty well, but I'm going to try to use less salt next time.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Day and Night

While our apartment is still not organized enough to reveal to the outside world, here are some photos of the view from our gigantic, dirty windows.