Sunday, June 27, 2010

Korea vs. Uruguay

Tiger masks -- for when you're deathly ill but still want to show your Korea pride!

Saturday night Korea played Uruguay in the Round of 16 World Cup game. Having been immersed in pro-Korea advertisements for the last couple weeks, we were excited to see our adopted team play.

Mike even got in on the Red Devils fun by joining a subway ad cheering on the Korea team. (See ice skater Kim Yu-na on the right).

Seoul skyline from south of the river.

We headed over to Banpo Park along the Han River to watch the game on a huge projection screen. But alas, it rained, so we went to our friends' house to watch the game instead.

It was a depressing evening -- both the U.S. and Korea lost their matches. But the teams' World Cup runs were fun while they lasted. I don't think I've gotten that into a tournament since the Bulls or White Sox were in the championships. And now we have these nifty jerseys to remember them by.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Full Circle

Seoul can be a confusing place to navigate when you first arrive.  Since the subway is one of the easiest ways to get around if you're not familiar with the territory, it's hard to tell how each part of the city relates to the others because you're always traveling underground.  It's like virtual teleportation.  Adding to this are all the golmok, or alleys.  Branching out from every main road are countless 골목 and side roads that wind and weave their way into and through one another.  It doesn't help that many parts of Seoul look exactly like each other, from the buildings to the store fronts.  The first few weeks we were here, I had no idea where anything was.

Nowadays, every so often, we run across a part of the city that brings us back to those early days of confused and jet-lagged wandering.  "This is that place we got our ID's!" or "This is where we got lost!"  The above is a picture of one of the very first restaurants my aunt and uncle took us to after we moved here.  Inside they serve an amazing grilled, black pork that fills the whole room with a smoky goodness.  We stopped in here for lunch today after picking up some appliances for our new apartment, which happens to be right in the neighborhood.  We had no idea, of course, when we signed the lease a few weeks ago.  Needless to say, I plan to be eating a lot more here, along with the taxi drivers who seem to frequent the place in droves.

It's really strange to be taken back to those first few weeks with trips like this.  That time seems to have happened in such a surreal haze that it's nice to go back and see the same things again with a little more clarity (and sleep).  Another plus: with our now seasoned tastes for Korean food we were able to tell some of the subtler differences in the flavor of the pork and the various side dishes.  To reiterate, it was really good.  I can still taste the fresh garlic in my mouth (and it's dinner time now).

Editor's Note: Nissa was showing her Korean pride by wearing her soccer jersey all day.  South Korea plays Uruguay tonight.  The whole country's gone football crazy.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

World Cup fever

World Cup fever has overtaken Seoul! Everywhere you go, stores are selling "Red Devils" T-shirts and restaurants have rented extra TVs to show the games.

Saturday night we went out with some friends to a Korean BBQ place to watch the Korea-Greece game. We wore our red shirts: I just had one from Gap, but Mike had a more authentic-looking jersey he had bought on a previous trip to Korea.

The table next to us was filled with die-hard fans, and it wasn't long until we were all jumping up and chanting "Dae-han-min-guk (South Korea)!" By the end of the game, our fellow fans were even passing us their baby to look after while they had a final toast.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Year One: The Essentials

There are some things about living in another country that you'll probably never find in a book or a movie.  After a year in Seoul, here is a list of some of my favorite recollections and lessons learned about every day living in Korea:

 Green means "on"

1. Hot Water - Our first showers in Korea are cold ones.  We fear the worst, and foresee a chilly future, completely ignorant of how technologically advanced this country is (e.g. literally, video phones).  I tell my uncle about the shower and he laughs -- just turn on the water heater, he says.  Now, all our showers are preceded by the push of a button, and when we're done with the hot water, another push.  And like good energy savers, every time we leave the house, we make sure the water heater is off.

2. Organic Waste - One of the weirdest things for me to see when we first came here was the pile of food scraps sitting in my uncle's kitchen.  I had no idea what that dish full of fruit peels was being saved for.  What I didn't know is that people here separate all their waste -- from glass to paper to plastic to food.  My cousins had a device that dried the food scraps out, to shrink their size a bit and also keep them from smelling up the house.  Then they'd get dumped in an organic waste bag to be hauled off by the city.  After we moved to our apartment and started taking ten-story trips down our building to dump a banana peel or a chicken bone in the food waste bin, Nissa came up with the ingenious idea of keeping our food scraps in a tupperware container in the freezer.  Our fridge is now regularly stocked with composting material, and we also keep a pile of food scraps sitting in the kitchen before they graduate to the freezer (and later, the food waste bin downstairs).

 Our brand

3. Drinking Water - We are told by several people early on not to drink the water.  The validity of this information, I do not know.  But for the first month, Nissa and I take the advice of my cousins and boil our tap water for a full hour before drinking it.  I start to miss the bite of an ice cold glass but fear intestinal incertitude.  We go on living like this until we receive our first gas bill.  It's, in a word, frightening.  We quickly figure out it's a whole lot cheaper to buy big bottles of water from the convenience store in our building rather than burn hours upon hours of natural gas to hydrate ourselves at home.  Two-liter water bottles are a regular fixture in our apartment now.  (I've since heard the tap water here is safe, but I've never seen a local drink it.)

4. Spicy - I thought I could handle spicy food pretty well until I came here.  I soon learn when a restaurant says a dish is "spicy", the definition is slightly different from the U.S definition.  And when I say slightly, I mean not-at-all-close-to.  My pride is quickly deflated by a series of tongue-scorching meals that reduce me to a panting, water-guzzling, tear-filled mess.  I've now given up on trying to meet the eating standards here, and regularly order my meals "less-hot".  Meanwhile, little girls laugh in my face.  Also, Nissa.

 Humble, yet practical

5. Bar Soap - The Anti-Bacterial Movement never made it to Korea.  Almost every store, restaurant, and office has a bathroom equipped with not a liquid soap dispenser, but a modest bar of soap.  Coming from the U.S., where the bar of soap has become more of a decorative bathroom accessory than a sanitary tool, this is unsettling.  For the first few months, we avoid these public bars of soap, which in some cases are skewered on the ends of swiveling metal rods for ease of use.  Worse yet, it's hard to find generous amounts of liquid soap to use at home.  Time goes by... our hands become filthier and filthier.  I can't remember the first time I used a public bar of soap here, but it must have been a desperate situation (see: dirt under nails).  Gradually, we learned to love bar soap, using them at rest stops, national parks, and even at home.

You can smell them from down the block

6. Street Waffles - A handheld sugar rush.  You can smell 'em at every subway stop, somewhere within every row of street vendors.  Fresh, hot, Eggo-style waffles slathered in syrup and frosting, then folded over like a taco.  It took a few months to train my body to resist the scent.  Countless others fall victim every day.

7. Haggling - In the past decade, Korea has become flush with Wal-Mart-type stores, places like E-Mart or Homeplus.  This is a relatively new phenomenon.  While there are still plenty of merchants and specialty shops around, they are slowly being pushed to the wayside by these mega-marts or super supermarkets.  Still, most tour books will say Koreans are hagglers and that it's a part of the shopping experience here.  While that's true in the markets and smaller stores, the "marts" are a different story.  During my first few months here, I tried asking for discounts at the mega-mart by our apartment, called Grand Mart, when buying some clothes and my pet fish.  The store clerks gently informed me the prices were fixed.  It was a little embarrassing (though I did get some free decorative rocks for the fish tank in the deal so that helped).

8. Health Care - A few years ago I developed a thyroid condition that requires regular blood tests and a daily pill.  Luckily, when I came down with this I was gainfully employed with a very nice group health insurance plan from work, and all my doctor's visits were covered.  That ended when I quit my job to move here.  For the short period I was in the U.S. afterward, I tried to get insurance for myself in case I might need it.  One major insurer rejected me because of my thyroid problem, another insurer agreed to cover me, but would not cover any treatments or visits related to my pre-existing condition -- not very helpful.  In Korea, though, I have access to the universal government health care plan.  It's not cheap, but it's affordable, and all my doctor's visits are covered (medicine, however, is cheap).  For a freelancer like myself, this has been invaluable.  And I can confidently say the quality of care has been very high.  In fact, during my first visit to Hanyang University Hospital I was escorted around the building by an English-speaking interpreter.  I felt like royalty.  I don't know how they do it in other countries but they do health care pretty well here.  Maybe it's one reason why life expectancy is now higher in South Korea than in the U.S.

Will get you nearly anywhere

9. Public Transportation - This is the first year I have lived without a car since I got my driver's license.  I think it is safe to say I was like most people with cars before I came here -- that is, horrified at the prospect of being without an automobile.  But Seoul's public transit system has been good to me.  The subway is fast, clean, and massive.  The bus system is even more intricate, though riding on one takes a bit of balance and courage.  For trips outside of Seoul, we've taken both buses and high-speed rail that connect to practically every city in the country.  I really thought I would miss my car when we got here.  Most of the time, though, I don't.

10. North Korea - Lingering just across the border from this buzzing, modern metropolis is the threat of a militaristic, rogue nation.  Before we got here, after we got here, and in just the last few months, North Korea has made headlines for conducting missile tests, sinking a South Korean ship, and threatening all-out war.  I would be lying if I said it didn't bother me.  The amazing thing is to watch how South Koreans react to these kinds of stories.  It's like a family collectively shaking their heads at the crazy uncle who always gets drunk at get-togethers and somehow ends up with a knife in his hand: after being lied to and threatened so many times, it's hard to take him seriously.  As a stranger to the party, I certainly don't feel this way, but most Koreans I talk to after these kinds of episodes all have a calm nonchalance about them.  Sometimes the incidents almost seem more like a nuisance than anything else.  I, too, have learned to temper my panic and fear in the wake of these threats, but I don't think I'll ever feel as confident as a local about our neighbor to the North.

Thus, a year has passed since we landed in this country and began this adventure.  It's been hard at times, amazing at others.  I am excited to see Chicago again soon.  But there are still many more places I'm hoping to see both here in Korea and throughout Asia (China, for one), so here's to many more sights and stories to come.