The Great Bingsu Review [August]

It is with a very heavy heart that I post my last bingsu review (for this year at least). I had a lot of fantastic bingsu this month, because I know how to pick ’em now! Here’s the final round, Round 3!

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6.5/10

This is a Royal Milk Tea Bingsu from a famous bingsu place in Ichon. Famous as in, we had to wait in line for 20 minutes just to get a seat, and that wasn’t even their busiest day. In my opinion this should be called Sundae bingsu because it features bananas, chocolate syrup, coconut flakes, walnuts and almonds, and ice cream. Where is this supposed milk tea flavor, you might ask. Well, I was asking that too. BECAUSE IT’S NOT THERE. Hahaha, I’m kidding. Kind of. It’s waaaaay down at the bottom under the mountain of useless toppings that do nothing but keep me waiting in needless anticipation for the advertised milk tea flavor. And it’s not even that great by the time you get there. I spent so much time waiting to get to the flavored ice that I didn’t even pay attention to how finely the ice was shaved and the overall mix-ability of the entire dish. My advice if you go to this shop? Don’t get this one. The strawberry looked fabulous though.

7.5/10

Mango coconut bingsu from Meet Fresh. This huge mountain of fluffy coconutty goodness is best shared among 3 people. There’s mango syrup layered throughout the ice, but largely the dominating flavor is coconut. The sad dollop of mango sherbet and the actual mango (which was really fresh by the way) just felt like another attempt to balance out the coconut. It didn’t work. I had to search for the mango sherbet hiding behind the mountain of ice, and since you have to carve the mango pieces out to eat them, you end up losing a lot of it. I really enjoyed the coconut flavor of this one, but the lack of balance (of mango/coconut flavor and of ice and toppings) isn’t going to get it on my favorites list.

7.5/10

Isn’t this cherry blossom bingsu just darling? The ice is pretty standard and plain on the outside, but the middle is softer and sweeter like milk had been poured over it. There are two layers of cherry blossom paste: on the top and another halfway through. (Not sure if those flowers on top are supposed to be edible or not….) The crumbly-looking flower pieces have a more intense flavor than the paste. It’s hard to describe the cherry blossom flavor to someone who’s never had it, but it’s kind of like rose + strawberry, maybe? I dunno. Floral flavors are hard to describe. Anyway, this bingsu is light, delicate and refreshing. It’s the kind of bingsu you eat while writing poetry. Makes you stop and appreciate the little things. It’s definitely cute and charming, but more of a novelty. I don’t think I’ll crave this one, but the time we spent together was nice (read: romantic and confusing) while it lasted.

8/10

This injeolmi bingsu is from a cafe near Sungshin Women’s University. With real milk ice, two layers of injeolmi goodness, and plenty of red bean to go around, you don’t even need condensed milk to power through this bingsu. The milk ice and sprinkle of soybean powder strike the perfect balance between earthy and sweet, and the red beans keep things mildly interesting. Plus, no danger of choking on a spoonful of powder! Yay! In a nutshell, this bingsu has it together. It’s professional. Solid. Dependable. It’s the bingsu in a well-tailored black or navy blue suit. The kind of bingsu that could do your taxes.

8/10

This is a mango cup bingsu from Meet Fresh, and may I say that it is the most attractive and impressive of their cup bingsu selection, judging by the display at their store. This is the only one that comes with sorbet and other non-fruity goodness on top. The quality of the ice is the same as any regular Meet Fresh bingsu, so texture does not disappoint. However, the flavor at the top is very weak, and I had to rely on the actual mangoes for most of the flavor. They were so sweet…too sweet….and a little mushy. As in, 5 seconds away from being rotten. Some were even turning brown. About halfway through the bingsu, however, is another layer of sorbet (I’m guessing) which is flavorful enough to revive the body of the whole dish. Basically, this one started off a little shaky, but definitely gets better as you eat it. And the improvement happens fast enough so that you don’t throw in the towel early. Maybe just go to a store with fresh mangoes. Because this Meet Fresh was not so fresh.

8.5/10

This is an Earl Grey bingsu from a cafe called Goddess near Ewha. The ice is beautifully shaved into fancy layers; though the ice may look a little brittle, the layers fall away under the spoon smoothly like over-priced Urban Outfitters curtains. Don’t mistake thin ice for weakness of flavor. This was truely like eating a (sweet) London Fog, and the blueberries on top are a nice touch. It looks bare because all the toppings came on the side: crunchy rice granola, red beans, and frozen cranberries (read: they were more like pebbles.) Usually, I love toppings but these conflicted greatly with the smooth, light texture of the bingsu, so I did without them. Even the condensed milk (which I love) seemed to overpower the Earl Grey flavor. It’s hard not to feel elegant when eating this bingsu. So classy y’all.

9.5/10

This is the specialty bingsu from 별다방 미스리!  I had this bingsu for the first time in early June, before the bingsu diary existed. It’s only fitting to close my last bingsu review with this one. This one includes a hodgepodge of toppings: watermelon, kiwi, bananas, Chocolate frosted flakes (??), almonds, granola, rice cake (떡), red beans and (I think) vanilla ice cream. Basically, it’s a whole lot of EVERYTHING and is sure to please even the pickiest of your friends. Eat it section by section, mix it together….the possibilities are endless. The fruit is sliced into small pieces for maximum mix-ability. Every spoonful is delightful. With so many toppings, it’s hard for me to comment on the quality of the ice in detail, but I can say it’s not crunchy. It kind of stays in the background. Most of the sweetness in this bingsu comes from the ice cream, so when it melts, the vanilla flavor permeates the entire dish and it’s just sooooooo great. No condensed milk needed. No complaints here. Nope. None. This felt like eating a big bowl of cereal, actually….I like extravagant breakfasts okay? Don’t judge me. That’s rude.

There were a lot of fantastic bingsu recommended to me, and several shops I saw myself that I didn’t have the opportunity to visit; I’m positive there are billions of bingsu treasures hiding somewhere in Seoul and all over Korea. (I’m looking at you, Jeju.) My bingsu review days were cut short by my departure from Korea, but be rest assured, my bingsu mania still lives on! I shall return!

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So Long, Sogang

It’s difficult to believe that my 10 weeks at Sogang have come to an end when I feel like I just arrived in Korea yesterday. Final exams and interviews were held this past Monday and Tuesday and by Wednesday the culmination of all our (hard?) work was handed to us on a single sheet of paper. My test and interview scores were high enough to land me in Level 3 if I were to continue studying at Sogang, which I severely regret not doing. Each Korean program approved by Light Fellowship has its pros and cons: After seeing Ewha’s campus, and hearing about their classes’ cultural excursions, I regretting not going there; after envying the improved vocabularies of friends who had studied at Seoul National, I wish I’d chosen the university closer the the glitz and glamor of Gangnam. Sogang has its weak points, but I see why it would be perfect for those having finished L1 and L2 Korean at Yale.

The focus on listening comprehension and speaking quickly produced results outside of the classroom. As time went on, my ear steadily began to untangle the gibberish of my host family, Koreans on the bus, waiters and waitresses into long strings of distinct words, many of which I did not know the definition of, but I could parse sentences and identify grammar structures to look up on my own later. The grammar you learn in Level 2 at Sogang is very common “building-block” grammar, so whatever I learned in class naturally made its way into conversations at home as well. There’s a noticeable difference in the way I communicate with my family now. Actively listening, asking small clarifying questions about the meanings of words and of course inserting remarks like, “oh, that must’ve been tough” or “you must be relieved.” I certainly feel friendlier and more equipped to talk to native Koreans.

My conversation skills better have improved, considering 2 of the 4 class hours are dedicated to speaking. In this class we read and reread and reread the book dialogues before practicing them with our tablemates, classmates, and the teacher. We spent the other hour making our own sentences using the featured grammar points, usually aloud with a partner or as a class. Writing the sentences on paper was something we could do on our own time, but it wasn’t required. This class was more or less predictable and the example conversations very staged. I wish there had been more variety in the activities we did, like board games or other methods (besides repeating the dialogue) to help the vocabulary and grammar stick.

The other two classes were also repetitive, but the writing class more so than reading/listening. The entire writing class was basically spent using featured grammar to make longer descriptive sentences. We pretended to be journalists and wrote articles, we crafted stories and wrote about many unfortunate circumstances and memories, both real and imagined. Everyday it was the same pattern: practice sentences in class and brainstorm ideas for a specific topic, and then write on that topic for homework. Lather, rinse, repeat. The reading/listening class was slightly less repetitive only because it alternated between listening exercises and reading comprehension. This was also the class which introduced us to facets of Korean culture from superstitions, fairy-tales and traditional culture, to manners, food and the processions of Korean weddings and other major holidays. Occasionally aided by a powerpoint and other posters and pictures, the teacher of this class was the most lively and the hardest to understand because she didn’t dumb things down as much as the other two. It is a listening class, after all.

I would also say it’s true that Sogang’s program is less intensive than the others on Light’s list. Classes aren’t difficult. If you pay attention, you’ll be fine. There wasn’t much homework other than daily writing and completing the workbook, but again, this wasn’t absolutely required (aka: a very, very, very small percentage of your grade) However, doing the work certainly helped me feel better prepared for the exam (especially the writing one). I would also say the pace of the class is medium-slow. We spent way too much time practicing a fixed conversation with our partners instead of learning new things. But this is strictly my opinion; others in my class felt differently. Some thought we didn’t spend enough time on the grammar or that it wasn’t explained well. There was a lot of irritation and rants about potholes in the program that I had to grin and bear. I feel like a jerk for saying that it was actually a pretty smooth ride. I’d already learned a decent portion of the grammar from Yale’s Korean teachers, who threw in extra grammar just to keep things interesting. It was easier for me to remember the Sino-Korean words because of my background in Japanese; in fact I think we could’ve learned more vocabulary. By the end of the summer I felt my ability to use grammar had improved, but I didn’t have the words to put into the grammar structures.

Light Fellowship already knows this and had set up an individual class for over-ambitious students like me, who wouldn’t know how to shut up and take a gut class if lives were threatened. I met two hours a week with a Sogang instructor from Level 4 who tailored the individual class towards what I wanted to do. But she did it her way. I told her about wanting to learn more vocabulary, so she brought packets of vocabulary words from Level 3, explained them to me in Korean, made me memorize them and then tested me on them within the same hour. And then again the next time we met. It was a lot to do that I didn’t want to do. I could sit down and memorize vocabulary words myself, and it kind of bugged me to have to learn these words on her time and then watch her suck her teeth if I missed one on a quiz. I don’t mean to vilify her. She was actually a lovely and very funny woman who laughed with her whole body. Slap the table kind of laughter. She had to take off her comically-large glasses and wipe off her eyes kind of laughter. But I didn’t like being force-fed vocabulary when I’ve already spent all day repeating after teachers and reading from lists. The last thing I wanted was another hour of that with all the attention solely on me. I had to understand her Korean because I had to answer her because I was the only one there. On the plus side, I got one on one preparation for both my midterm and final interviews and if I had a clarifying question about something in class, I knew who I could go to. At our last class together, she patted me on the shoulder and gave me a cookie, so there’s that. It was nice to have a teacher who seemed personally invested in my improvement. Not saying my regular teachers weren’t, but students were kept at a very polite distance. Hell, even students kept other students at a polite (almost cold) arm’s length.

My restlessness towards the end of the Sogang program had nothing to do with the monotony of the classes, but everything to do with my classmates as they tried to cram three months of companionship into our final few hours at the graduation ceremony: selfies, videos, shoulder-patting, arm clinging, half-lies like ‘I’ll miss you’ and ‘Let’s keep in touch.’ Even our teacher, who had been plainly that– not a friend, confidant, or did anything more than strictly was necessary–smiled tightly throughout the whole affair. Maybe I’m just projecting my own feelings, but it looked like she wanted to end the madness and go home. Can’t blame her. The atmosphere of my particular class was a bit competitive and divided. Japanese students stick with Japanese students and somehow manage to make everyone else feel like a foreigner when technically they’re also foreigners. We’re a class of foreigners who should’ve bonded over our love for Korea, but instead it became more and more apparent that people in our class were looking for our differences rather than our similarities. Not all nine people in my class were like this, of course. Some formed loose, convenient bonds over K-pop and girl-talk and went out to lunch and Starbucks together. But to put it in a nutshell, we were a class of co-existing cliques.

Not to be deterred by silly things like classmate bonding (pfft, who needs that?) I still say my time at Sogang was overwhelmingly positive and productive. With my new ability to parse Korean, I could stand to study Korean for a little bit on my own. Watching Korean dramas and TV shows would actually serve as good listening practice and a source for useful new vocabulary. Since soil of my mind has been well-primed, I feel like I could soak up a whole book of Korean grammar right now. I still have a long way to go, but I’m excited about continuing my study of Korean. Unfortunately, since I have Japanese placement tests at Nanzan in about two weeks, I have to put Korean down and pick up Japanese once again. Oh how it has suffered! Korean words come to my mind faster now! How traitorous I am, how low!

Culture Shock It To Me

I used my week-long vacation from Korean class to make a trip to Japan, where I learned that Japan is the worst place to relax. Feeling the pressure to maintain the careful balance of Japanese society– to do things the Japanese way–caused enough tension to warrant another vacation to recover from my vacation (but that didn’t happen because… school). Having been to Japan once last year (for 10 weeks), I am under the impression that you must leave and come back to Japan to understand that it is a very…..unique place. That may induce neurosis.

Ready…Set…Apologize

In Japan, you must apologize for everything. When I stopped at the airport 7-11, I found myself apologizing for giving the cashier a hundred dollar bill for my three dollar purchase. In Japan this isn’t uncommon, as carrying large denominations of bills is the norm; I’ve been told that convenience store cashiers are used to it. I wasn’t sure if the slight look of panic on her face was because of the bill or who was handing over the bill. Either way, I apologized.

You must also apologize for creating a situation that would warrant an apology. My AirBnb host in Kyoto was a wonderfully sweet woman who brought me fresh fruit everyday after I’d come in from sight-seeing. After a day of hiking, I’d hopped straight in the shower. When I got back to my room, I was greeted by a flurry of bows and apologies. She was sorry for bringing me fruit while I was on the shower, and went on about how terrible she felt that the peach was discolored now. She apologized for not bringing it sooner. And then I apologized for being in the shower. The peach was still a lovely color. To this she replied, I’m sorry.

It’s no surprise that I look like this every time I go to Japan:

People even bow while they’re on the phone. It’s pointless to bow when the other party can’t even see you, but it’s the principle. When you say sumimasen or gomen nasai, there’s a bow that comes with it. It’s practically ingrained in the lexical entry.

Even the buses are polite

I’ve written about the special terror that comes with riding the bus in Korea. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think public transportation is supposed to scare you at least a little bit. Kyoto bus-drivers are so polite it’s scary. In his low hissing voice, he warns passengers when he’s coming stopping or taking off. He apologizes for abrupt stops and announces the name of each bus stop even though the pre-recorded voice tells you several times before arrival. This pre-recorded voice also warns you when the bus is turning left or right, which is followed by ご注意ください (please be careful). After being in Korea, I didn’t know whether to think this was hilarious or incredibly pitiful. After all, this politeness slows the buses down considerably. Can you believe buses in Kyoto stop at every red light? The nerve. How will I ever get anywhere on time? I could get to my destination faster if I walked.

Public transportation is eerily quiet. No one is talking with friends, swearing/cooing at their significant other, or calling their children failures. There’s no drama to be had. I thought I would appreciate being able to hear myself think, but it just made me stress more about keeping quiet. I also became hyper-aware of what they were doing so quietly. People watching is in Japan is a bore. It’s especially difficult to people watch when everyone is watching you.

Staying under the Radar

At every turn in Japan I’m reminded that I’m a disturbance, a blockage to their well oiled and smoothly running wa machine. People stare and comment; they make extra space for me on the train that I don’t need. They struggle to remember their middle school English to tell me I’m sorry or to piece together directions that I asked for in Japanese. By making a show of accommodating me, I feel more pressured to fit in, but the more I try to do that the more impossible it seems. It just compounds the original stress. I’m not any less foreign in Korea, but no one cares if I’m trying to fit in or not. They go about their business: people don’t make extra space for me on the bus or train; every little brush of skin does not call for I’m sorry. I do not have to apologize for existing.

When people ask me how my experience in Korea differs from my experience in Japan, I must admit that despite my Japanese being light-years ahead of my Korean, I’m more comfortable in Korea (read: Seoul). I could see myself staying here for a longer period of time, a year or two. People who live in Japan for years on end baffle me. Perhaps you must let Japan settle in your bones.