The Great Bingsu Review [June]

Right off the bat I must apologize to those of you who aren’t in Korea to experience the wonderful dessert of the gods: Bingsu. You probably shouldn’t read this; it might induce salivation and a deep dark hunger that even the most gourmet ice cream or finely shaved snow cone cannot sate. This style of shaved ice is, as far as I know, unique to South Korea. In it’s most basic form, bingsu is shaved ice topped with various fruits, condensed milk, red beans and rice cake; there are many variations of it: the featured fruit changes by season, sometimes the fruit is substituted for chocolate, coffee, coconut….you name it; sometimes the ice is flavored or the bingsu features milk ice rather than plain ice. Occasionally there is ice cream or whipped cream. Bingsu is just a bowl of happiness, okay? The bingsu knows no bounds.

Of course, upon coming to Korea, I quickly become addicted to bingsu and started eating it 2-3 times a week. I’m obsessed with trying as many different ones as I possibly can. So, I present to you the fruits of my first month of labor: The June Bingsu Review, a ranking of bingsu from worst to best:

mango cheesecake bingsoo

4/10

Mango Cheesecake Bingsu from A Twosome Place in 신촌 Sinchon, near Sinchon Station. I wanted to go to this dessert cafe because it exterior looked pretty cool; alas, with a name like A Twosome Place, I knew it would be awkward to go alone (as it is with most places in Korea). So I waited for a friend to suggest that we go. The cafe interior is lovely. It’s supposed to be a European-style dessert cafe, and I would agree that the interior does a good job of reflecting that vibe. But Europe must have terrible bingsu. The mango cheesecake bingsu that my friend picked is beautiful, but that’s about it. If I have to get most of the sweetness and flavor from the cheesecake (which wasn’t great either) then it’s not very good bingsu. The thimble sized container of (condensed??)  milk they served on the side did nothing to help. It was very thin, and disappeared into the ribbons of ice as soon as I poured it on. The way the ice was shaved is elegant, but the taste is lifeless. I will say that the layered texture of the ice in this one complements the mango pieces well.

namsan bingsoo

5/10

This green tea bingsu was obtained after a long, painful trek to Namsan Tower. There’s a scoop of green tea ice cream, condensed milk, red beans, and slightly green tea flavored ice. I thought it was great at the time because I was DYING, but now that I think about it, it was really quite average. The ice flakes were particularly….icy.  My advice? Don’t go trekking up Namsan tower for this thing. If you happen to be there and would like something refreshing, this would do. 

mango bingsu

6/10

This is the Mango Yuzu bingsu from Sulbing dessert cafe (설빙) in Myeongdong. Yuzu is a citrus fruit indigenous to East Asia; the flavor is difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t had it, but I would say it’s similar to a lemon meets an orange and a grapefruit? It’s not one of my favorite citrus flavors, but it does go well with mango. Still, this bingsu my least favorite one from 설빙 and doesn’t rank too high on my bingsu charts in general. The mango chunks are just too large. I had to eat the mango pieces separately from the rest of it, and for someone who values mix-ability of bingsu, that’s going to minus some points. Also, at this particular store they forgot to give us condensed milk, which I’m kind of salty about.

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6/10

This is an Oreo Bingsu from Nora’s Cafe in Hongdae. I was super excited when I saw the advertisement for it out in the street because I was under the impression that Oreo bingsu was somehow very rare, but there are other cafes and dessert places that feature this item on their menu. Though the Nora’s cafe was super cute, check out some other store’s Oreo bingsu. Pass on this one. It was like eating a big bowl of Oreo cereal in skim milk (I dislike skim milk with a passion). The ice was pretty watery, like slush. BUT there’s a hidden layer of ice cream or something on the inside… Whatever it was, it was rich and sweet, but definitely showed up too late to make me change my opinion.

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6/10

This 팥빙수 (patbingsu) is from 팥미옥 in Sinchon, a store which proudly advertises “100% MILK FLAKE.” The frozen milk has a great texture, but it’s not sweet. It’s less than “just sweet enough”. I was forced to get all the sweetness from the red bean. If you like red beans a lot, you’d probably like this one. It was too much for me; there’s another layer of them halfway through.  This one could’ve been better if it were served with a side of condensed milk to take the edge off the RED BEAN RED BEAN RED BEAN.

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7/10

This is the Premium Mango Coconut Bingsu from 설빙. It has whipped cream instead of ice cream on top, and the ice is of the standard light, fluffy Sulbing quality with a bit of coconut flavoring. As you can see from the picture, this bingsu also came with a block of white chocolate and cheesecake. I believe the citrus syrup on top is yuzu, but it was hard to tell; the flavor of the syrup was lost to the mango and the coconut, in my opinion. The mango and coconut combination was lovely and perfect for summer, but the mango slices were huge, so it didn’t mix well.

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7.5/10

This blueberry bingsu is from a place in Sinchon that advertises “100% MILK FLAKE”. It’s true. It’s actually frozen milk. The flakes are a little bigger than I’m used to seeing, but it’s actually like fresh-fallen snow. Melts in your mouth. No crunch. They also don’t overload it with blueberries, which is great. Unlike in the red bean one, which was lacking in sweetness, the blueberry syrup of this bingsu brings the sweetness level to “just sweet enough.” Still, a little condensed milk wouldn’t hurt….maybe I just have a condensed milk addiction? Hahahaha.

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9/10 for the fruit one, 8/10 for the green tea

These were from a cute little bingsu place in Sinchon that takes pride in their red beans. The one on the left is a milk base topped with fruit, and the one on the right is green tea. I will say that this is the finest textured bingsu I’ve ever had. It’s SO smooth, and the red beans and 떡 were on point. It’s just sweet enough, so you probably wouldn’t feel bad if you ate this while you were dieting or something. The fruit one was particularly refreshing. Though you can’t mix it because of the big chunks of fruit, you could eat around the fruit or even cut it into pieces if you wanted to. I wasn’t bombarded with useless chunks of fruit like I was with the mango bingsu from Sulbing. The green tea one was good, but it kind of bored me.

berry yogurt bingsu

10/10

This berry yogurt bingsu from 설빙 is my favorite one to date. It’s perfect. The ice cream on top is tart like greek yogurt, which is so perfect with the sweet berries and berry sauce. Occasionally there was a sour raspberry, which was a nice surprise. Berries mix very well. There’s another delicious layer of sauce halfway through, so you never find yourself with boring lumps of ice. At the very bottom, there’s a sour powder that made my jaws tingle in the most delightful way. If you go to Sulbing and you’re feeling a fruit bingsu, get this one.

30 Things I Love Right Now [June]

(1) My hour long commute to school: Practically empty bus. Good music. My thoughts going by like scenery. Does that make sense? Probably not. (2) Bingsu. Which is the same as Bingsoo, but the second one you can shout from the rooftops.  (3) Zion T (4) Especially listening to Zion T at the Han River, with my host sister and her cousin. (5) Being able to pick out a Lim Kim song over the bustle of a crowded restaurant.  (6) Hongdae hipsters with man-buns. The fact that you can recognize hipsters in any culture tickles me. (7) Rain (not the Lim Kim song….okay yes, also the Lim Kim song.) (8) My bedroom window. A common symbol for escape, for dreaming. You know, it’s a very teenager-y thing. I’ve always wanted to daydream while looking out a bedroom window, but the one in my childhood bedroom had been nailed shut. (9) Blue lemonade (10) Coffee shops in Seoul. Every one is different and charming. You never feel guilty for staying long. (11) $2 coffee (12) lip tint and gloss. Yes, I too have fallen victim to the lip tint trend. (13) Washing my hands (14) with liquid soap. The bar soap on a stick in subway station restrooms makes me nervous, and quite frankly, a little embarrassed. (15) Successfully ordering at restaurants (16) Seeing the dirt build up on the side of the tub and then swirl down the drain. A sign of a day well spent? (17) my Korean teacher’s voice.  (18) Understanding my classmates’ Japanese (blessing and a curse) (19) Not having to wait in line at the restroom (20) Public restrooms where you can flush the tissue (21) Remakes. Yes, FFVII. You heard about that right? Of course you did. (22) The convenience store before going home; the people who work there know me now. (Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name…and what you usually eat for breakfast.) (23) People with tattoos  (24) on the wrist. A girl with a black cat tattoo on the inside of her wrist got on my bus one day and had to hold the handrail above her. That’s when I spotted the tattoo. She also had a lovely wrist; I kind of felt like I was intruding. (25) not remembering when I fell asleep.  (26) The Peach Sake face mask from Skinfood. Burns. Burns my complexion to glass. (27) Diamond Dave by bird and the bee (28) The purple gorilla named Violet from Animal Crossing. She keeps it real, sweetie. (29) random free wifi (30) the word 사거리 (sageori) which I loved long before I knew what it meant. (Intersection. specifically, a 4-way one)

If I die in Korea, it’ll be by bus, scooter or loneliness

Having seen Simon and Martina’s video (above) before coming to Seoul, I thought they were exaggerating for comedic effect, but no. No. No, dear friend. No.

Let me start by saying the public transportation system in Seoul is absolutely amazing– subway lines and transfer points are clearly marked and color coded in both Korean and English. It’s way more manageable than Japan’s train system (technically, but I have a special fondness for Japan’s trains.) You can get pretty much anywhere using a combination of the subway and bus; the bus and taxi drivers are doing their absolute best to make sure you get there FAST. 빨리 빨리 culture is real. This is not the country to play chicken with cars, especially taxis, okay? You will lose. Think you have the right away because you’re a pedestrian? You’d still better wait 5-10 seconds before crossing the road after the walk signal has come on. Blindly trusting a taxi or a scooter won’t blow through that red light? Your funeral. I always let the locals walk into the road first.

My daily commute to school in 신촌 (Sinchon) takes an hour by bus, with no transfers. Since I take the bus more than any other mode of transportation, let me be the one to tell you: Bus drivers here do not play. They GUN it. If you are not at the bus stop with your toes hanging off the curb when the bus opens its doors–which may or may not be when it comes to a complete stop–then yo tail will get left. You will be eating a face full of exhaust, my friend. People have run along the bus trying to get on and been left behind. Pro tip: If you’re running late, try waving wildly to indicate you would like to board the bus. Once you’re on, adhere yourself to the very first solid thing or you will tumble down the aisle and bust your head open on something or knock over someone.

After climbing to Namsan tower with a friend, I had to take a late bus home from Sinchon. It was fuller than I expected, so I had to sit in a single seat near the far back. I love taking the bus. I always end up staring out the window watching people live their lives; hundreds of lit buildings and complexes pass that I’ll never remember (The world is so much larger than we are.) That day I just happened to notice that everyone on the bus was a couple. They were holding hands and sharing earbuds. One guy was running his hands over his girlfriend’s fall of hair while she slept on his shoulder. The conversation behind me was punctuated by bouts of silence as they stared at each other. I could practically feel the love (infatuation) burning the back of my neck like a hot comb. Couples in Korea like to show that they’re a couple: couple clothing, excessive touching, choruses of “why are you so beautiful/handsome?” I saw a guy put his hand under his girlfriend’s backpack while they were on the escalator so it wouldn’t hurt her shoulders. I saw another one carefully tie his girlfriend’s shoes. A girl completely turned around so she could stare into her boyfriend’s face the whole way up the escalator. (I might’ve been secretly hoping she fell backwards when she got to the top, but whatever). Trying to get through a couple walking and holding hands is like trying to split an atom.

I suppose I should’ve expected this, but a good portion of the conversations in my class revolve somehow around boys. I’m not here looking for a Korean boyfriend, neither do I know what my type is, so I never really know what to say. The more my classmates talk about it or my host family asks, “How are you going to meet guys if you’re always studying?” or worse, “When do you want to get married?” the more I feel like I should be lonely. But either loneliness is so close to me that I can’t see it, or it’s not chasing after me in the first place. I don’t want to look to find out; I’m terrified it’ll be closer than I think. It’s also disconcerting to think that it’s not chasing me at all. Is it okay to be content with what you have? These days I like to think I’m happy being with myself and in this country. I’m happy to come home and talk to my host sister and meet with American friends who are here for a while. I don’t want to worry about what’s not there.

Still, with the people around me flinging around the words loneliness and alone like curses, I’m half-waiting for the loneliness to come at me suddenly in my sleep. Maybe I’ll wake up crying and suddenly want to go home. I’ll want my parents or one of my best friends. I’ll want to hug a body I’m familiar with. Or maybe I won’t want anything at all.

I Can’t Parse Korean

can't korean

I didn’t pat myself on the back for being able to introduce myself to my classmates in Korean or tell my host mother that I like Korean food (read: I can handle my spice) because I know this is essentially the limit of my Korean. Things I learned in a classroom setting are useful in theory, but my survival Korean is lacking. The first night I had to look up “I’m thirsty” and “I’m full.” The very next day, I was scrambling for the words for “transfer,” “last bus/train.” Since learning how to talk about transportation in Korean, I feel decently comfortable telling my host sister where I’m going through text message. Ordering at restaurants or cafes is a completely different matter. There are times when the set phrases you’ve learned such as “(menu item) 주세요” (Please give me…) won’t cut it. You walk into a place you’ve never been before. You think you’re safe because you can read the menu. You’ve done your 저기요 (if it’s that kind of place). But then this happens:

Weak, weary and terrified foreigner: (menu item) 주세요

Waitress/waiter: 네.

*pause*

Waitress/waiter: kfdjgbvsdfhrbcoedjxd 드릴까요?

Weak, weary and terrified foreigner: ……

And then what do you do? Say yes? Ah, but then you find out it wasn’t a yes or no question. At this point, the waitress flails to try to help you understand, making gestures at the menu you don’t fully understand anyway. You just agree to whatever she pointed at first.

Sometimes this is a vocabulary problem: if you don’t know the word for “bone” for instance, ordering fried chicken might become somewhat of an awkward encounter. I thought it’d be just a (menu item) 주세요 type of situation, but then he answered with the dreaded “kfdjgbvsdfhrbcoedjxd 드릴까요?” It only took half a second for him to understand that I didn’t get what he said. He shifted his weight, looked away to remember any English word in his vocabulary he could use to help me understand. Eventually he said, “Bone? No bone?” and all was good. I felt quite sorry for him, though. Especially because the next group that walked in spoke absolutely no Korean, and insisted on repeating their order to him in progressively slower Chinese. At that time I wanted to learn how to navigate that kind of situation in Korean so I don’t make the waiter do the “Lord help me” face. I looked up the phrase for “to remove bones” and stored it in my phone.

But guess what? It happened again. And again. I wondered, “Did I look up the wrong term? How do I not get this?” It’s not that I didn’t know, but the phrase was being said too quickly for me to catch it. Additionally, the way I (as the language learner) would read the written phrase is different from the native pronunciation (thanks consonant assimilation). These things in conjunction with each other make anything a native speaker says sound like complete gibberish to me, even if it’s something simple like, “뭐 타고 왔어?”

I had an inkling that listening comprehension would be something to prioritize if my Korean was going to improve, so I was adamant about attending Sogang University language program during my time here. It has the reputation of being the best program for improving conversational Korean (even students at other Korean language programs think so). The first hour of class is technically a writing class, but we always discuss our responses with our classmates before writing them down. The next two hours of class are dedicated completely to speaking and conversation: practicing the conversations in the textbook, role playing, using real life (kind of) situations. The last hour is a listening/reading class where we listen to the CD and/or read some text and answer some questions about what the material. In my opinion, the real listening comprehension exercise comes from trying to understand whatever the teacher says. My teacher talks at lightning speed (which is most likely slightly slower that natural speed) without checking to make sure we all understood. There’s always one or two people in class who can speak Korean way better than everyone else, so this creates a situation in which the teacher doesn’t have to slow down because someone gets it. It’s just my luck the golden ones don’t speak the same native language as I do. I just play follow the leader.

After a week and a half, I’ve started to catch on to what the teachers are saying because they essentially say the same thing from day to day, unless they decide to tell a story (in which case, I simply laugh in the appropriate places). Being constantly bombarded with Korean and hearing the textbook conversations come to life is starting to help a little. If I can get the gist of it the first time, the second time around, I can listen more carefully for the vocabulary I’m unfamiliar with. Right now this progress is limited to the very stable classroom environment, where the Korean is almost predictable. I still can’t quite parse what my host parents say, but I’m starting to get the gist of what they mean using context and body language. Until I get better at parsing Korean, this is the method I’ll have to use.

Meet My Korean Host Family?

One of the things I was most concerned about before coming to Korea was finding housing. Unlike many Light Fellowship-approved study abroad programs in Japan, Korean programs (generally) do not provide housing for their students; you’re expected to find your own. This can be nigh impossible (and not recommended) to do before you arrive in Seoul, see the place with your own eyes and work out details with the building manager. Even then, you’d have to have enough Korean skill to correctly navigate the exchange. The most highly recommended option was to get a hotel for the first few days in Seoul and then search for housing yourself.

I hate leaving things up in the air, especially a matter that could render me homeless if I hit a stroke of bad luck. I talked to my Korean TA about this (who is sparkly and all sorts of wonderful) and she agreed to help me find housing ahead of time. What I didn’t expect was for her to contact me roughly two weeks later about her mother’s friend, who had an extra room in their apartment and was willing to let me stay. It’s really rare to do this, I hear. Almost all the previous Light Fellows I’d spoken with stayed in a 고시원 or 하숙집, so no one could really give me any insight on what living with a Korean family was like. But my fear of the unknown was completely overshadowed by the pros: my room would be larger than a matchbox, there might be air conditioning, someone would help me navigate the city. I figured I could deal with anything else as it came. I need air conditioning.

Definitely the best decision I’ve made in months. When I arrived at their apartment in 정릉 in the northeastern part of Seoul, though it was a little past midnight, I was welcomed warmly by my small host family of three. They gave me a tour around the apartment in very simple Korean and offered me food (which I had to refuse because jet-lag screws with my stomach like ugh). The parents couldn’t speak any English, and the daughter was under the impression that I understood more Korean than I actually do, so a lot of stuff flew over my head, but hospitality comes across well in any language.

The family member that took to me the fastest was my host aunt, who’d decided to come spend some time at the house with her sister. My first conversation with her was more like an interview than a conversation: Where are you from? What other countries have you been to? Are you dating someone? Why not? How many hours a day do you study? Are you Christian? Do you go to church? Some of the first words I learned upon arriving to Korea was 하나님 (God) and 기도하다 (to pray) because she used them so much.

Her two daughters are 16 and 19 (in Korean age); though they were very wary of me at first, once they realized we have some common interest in music, they stopped giving me side eye at the dinner table and started addressing questions to me rather than talking around me. While this made the evening meal a little more tasking, as I had to spend more time fielding questions in very limited and broken Korean rather than stuffing my face with food (my host mom can throw down in the kitchen like woah) I felt more like part of the family rather than an outsider. To be honest, that’s not even something I experience at home. Sisters sending jabs at each other, sharing secret glances when someone mentions “boyfriend”; my host sister and her aunt doing face masks together. It was like they’d all lived in the same house from the start. The aunt and her daughters weren’t treated at all how I would expect guests to be treated.

An aunt just randomly deciding to bring her two daughters to her sister’s house and stay for a week, especially when you have your own house in the same city? No. No way. Not gonna fly. I could barely stand it when one of my aunts from out of state would come stay at our house once every other year or so. I gave her a good dose of side eye every morning just for being in my space. I actively found ways not to spend time with her, and after a few crude remarks about some of my sibling’s lifestyle choices, they found ways to stay out of the house too. My mother just quietly suffered. The past few years, we’ve been either “busy with some family event” or “out of town” when relatives want to stop by for “a few days.”

Family seems to be really important in Korea, and my host family was quick to bring me into the fold: the cousins call me 언니 since I’m older than them. I know this is standard, and not a term of endearment necessarily, but even in English they call me “sister” and that gets to me every time. The aunt insists I call her 이모 (auntie). The warmth I feel when they call me 보아야*  is unreal. It’s impossible to feel like an outsider when they call me that.

*My Korean name is 보아 (BoA….as in feather boa. or the singer BoA 🙂

The (wo)Man With(out) a Plan

departure

A few weeks ago I had brunch with one of my childhood friends and her younger sister who, upon hearing I was going to Korea in a few weeks, leaned across the table and said reverently, “I would give anything to trade places with you.” She stared into my eyes with an intensity that made me flinch. I laughed it off and offered to bring her a souvenir (to which she replied “A BOY”and I thought: “Hahahaha….You and me both, honey.”) Nearly every week leading up to my departure from the states I encountered someone– a high school friend, a club member, someone I’d gotten along with at summer camp– who had similar reactions. Some had studied Korean by themselves for years because schools didn’t offer it; some were administrators of Kpop news websites or fan forums, fanfiction writers, etc. The more I people I encountered like this, the guiltier I felt. Because: A) I promised to bring back way more souvenirs than I know I can afford and B) It was like being on the other side of the looking glass. Meeting all those eager, overexcited faces reminded me of a younger version of myself, before my first trip to Japan became a reality. Back then it was the hardest thing to watch other people go out and live my dreams while I was stuck chomping at the bit in a suburb of Birmingham, AL where people still thought any Asian language was Chinese. Now that I’m the one living out someone else’s dreams, my lack of enthusiasm almost offends me.

I just started studying Korean at university last August, and having completed my first year of Korean language study, was awarded a scholarship to study in South Korea for the summer. I’ve never read a book about Korean culture. Korea doesn’t lend itself well to small talk or casual conversation (at least, in my circle of close friends.) It’s a niche topic, unless someone wants to make political jokes about North Korea. I’ve seen a few Korean dramas, but I hardly expected them to reflect reality. So, on the plane to South Korea I found myself largely devoid of preconceptions. I didn’t expect anything other than to struggle with learning a new language and to burn off my tastebuds trying to eat really spicy food. At least at the moment, I don’t have any other motivation for learning Korean other than a purely academic one. I wanted to learn another language that was similar to Japanese because it might be easier to pick up. As a linguistics major, naturally I’m interested in why these languages are similar in the first place and in what ways they differ. If there’s a class investigating Korean and Japanese phonology, sign me up please.

Unfortunately, “I’m just curious,” isn’t really an acceptable answer to give when asked, “Why are you learning Korean?” by a curious passerby. As I listened to my classmates introduce themselves repeatedly over the course of the first week of classes, I’m reminded of all the people who’d approached me before I left the states. Some are Kpop maniacs; some have lots of Korean friends or family to talk to back at home. They have such a burning personal interest in the language, it can be a little scary. I’d feel like a bad person if I looked them straight in the face and told them 그냥 (just because) or 이유 없는데 (I don’t have a reason). Out of self-preservation, I was able to string together, “Because I want to watch more Korean dramas?” Which earned everyone’s approval. So that’s what I’m sticking to.

For once, I don’t have a distinct plan or a short-term goal other than “Get better at Korean,” which is the polar opposite of how I was in Japan. I knew what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go. There were things I’d been waiting to do for years, and I’d had dreams to fulfill, goals to reach.  If my game plan for Japan had been on a whiteboard, there wouldn’t be any white left to see, whereas the one for South Korea is blank. There’s so much white space to play with. I used to have a need to fill up all the white space with plans and schedules and flow charts, but strangely, I’m devoid of those feelings. More and more I’m becoming okay with not knowing where I’m going or why. It’s okay if my friends and I don’t know where a restaurant is, or if we can’t find the museum. Or if I don’t have wi-fi 24/7 to look up which bus arrives at what time etc etc etc. The paths are winding and wide and crossing. I suppose you can never really see what’s there until you stop looking?

This isn’t like me. I should be terrified and scrambling for the nearest guidebook, a map, or searching travel blogs to find my purpose here. Instead, I feel I am watching another me be terrified. Who knows what my larger purpose for being here really is? Just living moment by moment: celebrating taking the right bus home, stopping to dance to the TI song blasting from a street vendor stand might be enough. Purpose will come around.