20 Things I’ve Learned in Korea (so far)

  1. If a middle-aged person wants to talk to you in English on the subway, just let them do it. No matter how much you want to practice your Korean, I assure you they are just as persistent (if not moreso) with wanting to practice their English…especially 아저씨 (middle-aged men)
  2. Always have a fake name/email/address/phone number to give out to said persistent English-speaking Koreans. Some will chase you until you give it to them…especially 아저씨 (middle-aged men)
  3. You can definitely make it on Korea on free wifi alone, though this means you won’t be able to join reward programs or order food delivery.
  4. How to use your roommate’s food delivery app Yogiyo (on her dual sim phone) to order food.
  5. As soon as Sept 22nd passes, Korean dress in full fall garb, complete with turtlenecks, boots, and coats even if it’s still 75 degrees (F) outside.
  6. How to convert Celsius into Fahrenheit in my head (See here: https://lifehacker.com/5917331/quickly-convert-between-fahrenheit-and-celsius-without-a-calculator)
  7. How to make lemon ginger tea from scratch. It actually does help fight off colds, by the way!
  8. Crack your eggs carefully and never directly into a pan…there might be a chick inside….
  9. How to explain there is a baby chick (complete with feathers and beak) inside an egg to the poor student working at the convenience store.
  10. How to say vegan in Korean: 비건
  11. It’s a real struggle to cut dairy out of your diet when you’re in the land of bingsoo.
  12. Korean clubs are a bit different from the ones back at home (lol listen to me talking about clubs, haha) Some of my friends and I went to Madholic in Hongdae, and everyone was standing in lines and rows nodding their heads to remixed hip-hop. Not really much dancing, but tbh there wasn’t any room to dance, so….
  13. Oh, unless you go to NB1 or NB2. Lots of space, actual dancing happens. NB1 > NB2 in my opinion because there are fewer creepers.
  14. It’s extremely easy to get a boyfriend here. Nothing special. You change them like socks.
  15. If you speak Korean to the ladies giving out samples at the grocery store, not only will they encourage you to eat more samples, they’ll also give you free paper towels. After an hour in the grocery store, I had like 5 free rolls of paper towels.
  16. I don’t need to date because I get all the love and free food I need from Korean  아줌마 (middle aged women)
  17. Apparently 나는  애교가 많다. (It’s not on purpose, I swear)
  18. Listening to Korean radio is one of the best ways to practice your listening when you can’t be around Korean people.
  19. People still submit song requests to radio stations.
  20. My Korean teacher knows “It’s Raining Men” and can sing the whole song in Korean. (하늘에서 남자가 비처럼 온다면 좋겠어요…Hallelujah!)
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What’s Open During Chuseok?

This past week I had the opportunity to see Seoul the emptiest I’ve ever seen it. “How empty?” you might ask. Well, empty enough for Simon and Martina to dress up in costumes and dance in the streets:

That video was from several years ago, but I would say it’s still a good representation of what Seoul looks like after the mass exodus of hometown-bound Seoulites. Often called the Thanksgiving of Korea, Chuseok is Korea’s harvest festival; traditionally, this was when families came together and gave thanks to their ancestors for the plentiful harvest. Even today Chuseok is still a time meant to be spent with family. I heard that one tradition is to visit ancestral graves and clean them to show respect. On the morning of Chuseok, families hold memorial services in honor for their ancestors called charye, wherein freshly harvested rice, alcohol and songpyeon are prepared as an offering to the family’s ancestors. I’m not sure if every family still does all the traditional Chuseok festivities every year, but at the very least, everyone does seem to go back to their hometowns and enjoy a whole mess of delicious food. More recently, it’s become more common for people to give gifts to friends, family, and even business partners during Chuseok. If you go into any market, there are huge displays of gift sets containing a variety of goodies like cookies and traditional Korean snacks…oh and, spam. Spam is crazy popular. I know we (Americans) consider it junk food, but it seems to enjoy an elevated status in Korea. I would never ever want to receive spam as a gift (and what would you do with 10 containers of spam, anyway?) but hey, whatever floats your boat.

Photo source: http://asiasociety.org/korea/chuseok-korean-thanksgiving-day

Seeing as I am a foreigner in Korea without any family, I did not take part in any Chuseok festivities, but I did enjoy some staple Chuseok foods–songpyeon and jeon–with my housemate. We made the jeon together and bought frozen songpyeon from the store (too lazy to make it by hand…). We sat on our rooftop with some traditional ~spirits~ and had ourselves a good time.

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(PC: housemate)

So, from left to right on the wooden serving plate, we have perilla jeon (perilla leaves filled with meat and fried) and zucchini jeon (zucchini tossed in jeon flour and fried) on the top row, shrimp jeon and goju jeon (peppers stuffed with meat and fried)on the second row, and meat medallions made out of the jeon filling on the bottom. On the right side of the serving plate, you’ll see a dish of japchae, which is noodles, vegetables and eggs tossed with soy sauce and sesame. The yellow and white balls above the jeon are songpyeon, which are rice cakes filled with with things like sesame seeds, chestnuts, red beans, etc, and steamed with pine needles (traditionally). Even the store bought ones were pretty tasty!

Other than this mini-feast, I had a pretty chill Chuseok. I was told that a lot of things would be closed because of the holidays, so I was relaxing at home for the most part. Sure, a lot of shops and small restaurants around the city were closed, but there’s still some fun to be had if you’re stuck in Seoul during Chuseok. Everland was having a special discount price for foreigners during Chuseok, but I didn’t get to go; I was kind of pissed that none of my friends were willing to go with me (I should’ve just gone by myself…!) Most major tourist attractions, cultural facilities, and department stores also seem to be open during the Chuseok holiday. Korea’s tourism organization releases a Chuseok holiday schedule every year, so if you’re going to be in Korea during Chuseok and need to get the skinny on holiday hours, hit up their website: http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/AKR/FU_EN_15.jsp?cid=2507616

I would have gone on a trip during Chuseok, but I hear that airports, trains, and roads are MOBBED with people. I was texting some of my classmates that went to Busan and Jeju Island and they said that both places were so crowded, that they wish they had just stayed at home. So, I absolutely don’t regret staying in Seoul for Chuseok…!

I’m Here to Exchange Languages, not Saliva

In line with being a proper student of Korean, I’ve been on the hunt for a language partner. I guess by language partner, I mean a native Korean speaker I can meet once or twice a week, who will let me fumble through embarrassing stories in Korean, correcting me as I go… someone who will teach me how to not sound like a textbook. And, if such a person would like to use half of our time together to practice their English, this is completely fine with me as well. Even better if we like each other enough to look forward to our weekly meetings and–dare I say–even become friends.

I thought it would be relatively simple to find a language partner, but I’ve realized that this is might be a tall order because so far everyone I’ve encountered is looking to exchange saliva or other bodily fluids, not languages.

To be fair, I’m probably not looking in the best places. The first place I tried was an app called HelloTalk, which lets you connect with native speakers of the language you want to learn. They’ve had quite a presence on YouTube lately, having sponsored several of my favorite (black, female) YouTubers (living in/visiting Korea). Both KennieJD and Megan Bowen (used to be a big fan!) made some videos about their experiences on the app. Of course, they said you get some creepers, but not everyone is blatantly trying to get into your pants. So, I thought I’d try it out. (Am I just a sadist?)

As advertised, I was quickly able to connect with a lot of Korean speakers. Unfortunately, most of them only wanted to message me in English, so I was kind of put off. Also, all of them were men. I got some messages from people who said they were really interested in African culture and African dance, so they wanted to be friends with me (sorry, can’t help you there buddy….) some avidly expressed their love of “Black music” (Dear God, I hope they don’t actually call it that in Korean….) and some conversations just went like this:

Him: Hi

Me: Hi.

Him: U r prety

Me: Thank you.

Him: Kakao?

Me: …….

Him: Hi

Him: Hi

Him: Hi

Etcetera. But there were two people that really stood out to me on this app. One was a guy we’ll call Horseface (My roommate named him.) He lived in Australia for several years, so his English is quite good, but if I message him in Korean, he will happily answer me in Korean. All in all, seemed like a regular guy on the app. But, once we switched over to Kakao it become more and more apparent that he wasn’t exactly trying to keep up his English. (He was trying to get something else up, y’know what I mean?) He kept bugging me for pictures, for one, and being way over the top with the compliments when I did finally send him a picture (OF MY FACE). But the icing on the cake was when we finally agreed to meet on a Saturday evening. To me, 6 or 7pm is a decent time to meet in the evening. So I asked if we could meet around then. He said that was fine. Then, a little voice in the back of my head told me to also make up a curfew so he wouldn’t try to keep me out so late. So, I told him I had to be back by 10:30, to which he replied….

Horseface:  Heyyyy, why the rush?

Me: Oh, I haven’t really talked to my parents since I’ve been here, and they’re really missing me. It’s the only time that works for them (LIE LIE LIE)

Horseface: Oh, I see…Well, we can hang out when you have more time.

Me: What? But if we meet from 7-10, that’s three hours… isn’t that enough?

Horseface: I was hoping we could hang out longer.

Me: How long did you want to hang out, exactly?

Horseface: I dunno….just depends on how well he get along 😉

Me: I think 3 hours is more than enough if we’re meeting for the first time.

And then I didn’t hear from him for a while. GURL, these people think they’re slick. Puh-leaze. Anyone with two eyes could see straight through that “I just want to spend more time with you” cutesy act. And then he had the nerve to pull a classic f*ckboy move and text me at midnight two weeks later, saying “Heyyyy. It’s been a while. Wanna hang out tonight?”

What did I say to him? The world will never know. Because he was blocked and deleted. NEXT.

The other guy I met on HelloTalk seemed quite normal. We messaged once or twice per day in Korean, just talked about our hobbies or what we did that day. We ended up switching to Kakao after 3 weeks of using HelloTalk and then things got weird. (I feel like shit gets real on Kakao…)

He went from chill to desperate real fast, girl. He messaged me good morning and told me to eat breakfast everyday. He texted me mid-morning and said “good luck with school”, asked me what I would eat for lunch, what I planned to eat for dinner. It was kind of creepy, to be honest, so I just started lying about everything I did (It’s still language practice, so who cares?) If I said I was going to a cafe, he would say 그 카페에 가고십네~ If I said I ate soondubu jjigae for lunch he would say “Ah I wish we could eat together…”

I didn’t mind talking to him, or meeting him in person, honestly, but because he didn’t have a profile picture on Kakao and he later admitted to me that his profile picture on HelloTalk was a fake, I didn’t know if I was actually talking to a 29 year old Korean guy or some 60 year old ajusshi. I know you can’t always trust photos, but somehow it was even creeper that he had no pictures and absolutely refused to send me one when he’d seen my profile picture and asked me to send other pictures before. So I stopped answering him, hoping he would cool his jets.

When we started chatting again–about hiking, this time– I thought everything had gone back to normal. But when I mentioned that it’d be nice to go hiking again soon, he sent me: 같이 가요! 같이같이같이같이같이같이같이같이같이같이같이같이같이같이!!!

Sooo…that sat unread in my inbox for a long while….

Honestly, I’d like to have a female language partner so maybe I won’t run into these issues as often, but they don’t seem to be as responsive on HelloTalk, which is a shame. I think it might be better to go to language exchange events so I can get a read on people in person. But even then, events like those have a reputation for drawing people who are looking for dates… *sigh*

Surprisingly, the closest thing to a language partner is a guy I met on Tinder, who has a girlfriend and actually just wants to practice his English with me. He teaches me Korean slang and is actually really nice. No creepy vibes at all so far! One point for Tinder….? (It’s got a lot of strikes too though…!)

 

 

 

 

“That’s Just Asia”

Well ya’ll, I might’ve spoken prematurely when I said I couldn’t have asked for a better housemate. In my defense, she did come bearing gifts and she DID offer to handle the cooking for the household and she DID buy me bingsu for my birthday, so I might’ve been a little biased when I spoke. One thing that happens when you meet someone decent in a foreign country is that the pace of your friendship is accelerated– the honeymoon phase of friendship hits you fast and hard, you open up to each other too fast too soon to imitate the intimacy of (real, stable) friendships back home, and just as quickly, you’ll hit the sink-or-swim part of the friendship, in which flaws are exposed, you find out you have opposing values, and you might even start arguing. The reality of spending the rest of the semester with this person looms large…and I’m looking for a life vest so I can jump ship.

We don’t have any problems when it comes to day-to-day living. She’s very clean. She’s not loud. We have opposite schedules– I wake up at 7:30 everyday and (ideally) go to bed around midnight and she wakes up at noon and goes to bed some time between 3-5am. It’s not our opposing schedules that create a problem, it’s her habit of blaming every difference we have on the fact that I’m American and she’s Singaporean. For example, this girl loves shopping, like big brand names. When she comes back from shopping, eager to tell me all the name brand bags or shoes she’s bought, I just nod and smile. I think she’s almost offended by how little I care about a bag or shoes; several times I’ve said to her, “I just never thought things like brand were very important; I just buy what I like.” To which she replies, “Well, I guess it’s just because you’re American, but welcome to Asia–bags and brands are important here. So, get used to it.”

She also loves taking pictures….of everything. We can’t get on the subway or the bus without her whipping out the camera. You might think, “Well, Carmen, maybe she’s just excited…it’s her first time in Korea, after all.” Well…it’s not. She’s been to Seoul 7-8 times, so none of these common city views are new and yet, snapshots of everything, all the time. She’s even taken several photos of me without my permission and sent them to some other friends in Korea and at home. I’ll let the manic tourist picture-taking slide, but when I confronted her about taking pictures of me and sending it to people I don’t know without my permission, she said, “Oh, I didn’t think it was that big of a deal….it’s very normal in Asia.”

(That gives me flashbacks to that time a group of Chinese tourists chased me around Gyeongbokgung to take creeper pics of me, but whatever….)

Once, she promised to take me to a store in Hongdae that I was having trouble finding online. Halfway there, it started to drizzle a bit and she insisted we go home right then because she didn’t want to get sick. “You said the store is like….5 minutes away from here. Can’t we just run there and take a quick peek, so I know where it is at least?” I asked.

“No,” she insisted, covering her head with her hands and turning towards the station, “If a drop of rain touches my head, I’ll have a fever by tomorrow. I’m not getting sick for this.”

“I don’t think you’ll get sick if we just run there now….”

“I guess you don’t understand because it’s an Asian thing, but in Asia people get sick from the rain.”

I wanted to say, “Oh really, because YOU are the only person on this entire street freaking out about a little drizzle. Every other ASIAN person here is completely fine.”

It’s not that I have a problem with her wanting to stay out of the rain. I don’t have a problem with her liking brand names, or liking photography. The problem is that every time we disagree about something, she’s quick to blame it on “cultural differences” when it’s really just her own personality quirk. Yes, I know that in Korea and Japan (maybe less so in Japan…?) brand-names, how you dress, what car you drive is extremely crucial to how other people see you. In America, though, there are also tons of people who also think brand names are very important and will judge you (perhaps less overtly) on what bag you’re carrying, or your shoes. I can easily run off a list of friends who care deeply about brand names. She had an equal chance of meeting an American who REALLY cares about brands.

Similarly, people who live their entire lives through instagram, snapchat, etc, are all over the freaking world, so the obsession with taking pictures isn’t an “Asian” thing. I wish she would just own up to it and say, “Yes, I am one of those people who will never put down the freaking camera (phone).” Instead of speaking for the entire Eastern Hemisphere.  I’m very sure there are people living in Asia who don’t feel this compulsive need to record every single moment of their lives on camera.

Most of all, I’m reluctant to categorize “Asia” as one big culture. When she says “That’s just Asia or it’s an Asian thing,” I think she’s speaking from her experience of Singapore, China, Malaysia, and maybe even Korea, and other countries I know she’s lived in or visited very frequently. But these aren’t the only countries that make up Asia. What about Japan? Countries in Southeast Asia? What about India? After being exposed to its diversity, it’s hard to think of Asia as this one big homogeneous blob. I’m not saying that these countries don’t have anything at all in common, but it irks me when she uses such a broad brush. There’s no way I’m going to travel to Indonesia or Nepal expecting it to be like Japan. Korea and Japan, though often lumped together, are radically different. Hell, even Okinawa, Japan, and Tokyo, Japan are worlds apart.

At the same time,  her experiences growing up and traveling in Asia as an Asian (Chinese-Singaporean, to be specific) person are valid. Clearly the culture she was raised in values things like brand names and photos and being terrified of the rain, and she has incorporated those values into how she lives. How can I respect that while also telling her, “No, that’s not all of Asia, sometimes, it might be Singapore, or it might be just YOU”?

 

 

All Aboard the Housing Struggle Bus

Finding suitable (student) housing anywhere already comes with its own drama, but it’s compounded if you’re searching in a foreign country. If you come to South Korea to study Korean for the first time, chances are you don’t know anything past the basics, and usually, the basics don’t include questions like, “Are all utilities included? If not, which ones do I have to pay separately?” “Is there a curfew?” etc. Then, even after you move in, there might be something about the place that’s still not quite right. Maybe there’s a cloud of funk that permeates the room every evening, maybe there are roaches or water bugs, etc. A lot of students who come here play musical chairs with apartments and dorms for the first two weeks or so, trying to find the right place for them.

Honestly, I have no idea how people do it. Long flights already leave me tense, tired, and weary; searching for housing as soon as I arrive would just compound that stress. To make my move to Seoul a bit smoother, I decided to take a room in an “international dorm” in Sinchon, which had been recommended to me by several past Light Fellows. This “international dorm” is more like an apartment, and from the pictures online it seemed like a clean, convenient place to stay. I know this sounds ominous, like I’m about to tell you all the pictures are a lie, and there were bugs and roaches, and my next door neighbor is a screeching banshee, but no, it’s actually okay! Even though the room I reserved looked bigger online and the place wasn’t spotless when I arrived, I don’t think the apartment was severely misrepresented on the website. HowEVER, I did have a bit of a heart attack when the landlord demanded I pay 6 months worth of rent as soon as I arrived. Mind you, he never told me how I should go about paying, even though we spent at least a week or two talking about the moving-in procedure and the content of the housing contract. So, for him to blindside me like that was just rude, in my opinion. I only has one month’s rent on me. I don’t carry $3,500+ with my while travelling, and there’s no way I could have a Korean bank account after being in the country for a few hours. And he did not seem keen on waiting for my to get my life together. Long story short, I told him I would only be staying for 3 months; I took as much as I could from an international ATM for several days until I had enough.

Meanwhile, there was a game of musical chairs happening with the other bedroom in the 2-bedroom apartment. The Indonesian girl who was supposed to occupy the other room of the 2 bedroom apartment copped out at the last minute and decided to stay in her school’s dorm. The next day, a French girl moved in to take her place. She seemed nice, but our conversation was limited because her English wasn’t that great, and she had no interest in learning Korean…? Even though she’s in Korea….? I offered to teach her how to read hangul and say basic greetings, but she turned the offer down, insisting that she didn’t need it. So, what is she going to do for communication, you might ask. Well, her solution was to talk to everyone in LOUD, BAD, SLOW ENGLISH. (Head, meet desk….repeatedly). After suffering through a couple of hours of her complaining about why Koreans don’t speak better English (omigodomigodomigod learn Korean) and about the spicy food (WHY ARE YOU HERE?) I wondered how I was going to make it through the rest of the semester with her. Good news is, I didn’t have to. The next day, I came home in the early afternoon and all her stuff was gone. After confirming that we had not been robbed, I messaged her asking what was up. Turns out, she had a family emergency and might have to go back to France but she needed to hear more from the doctor first. When she told the landlord this, he told her to just move out. ASAP. Pronto. Immediately. And he kept her deposit.

Needless to say, I didn’t want to get attached to the next person who moved in because there would be no guarantee that they would stay for the whole semester. But 3 really must be the charm. The 3rd girl moved in the night the French girl was (viciously) kicked out. She’s from Singapore (so she speaks perfect English!) She warmly greeted me at the door, brought be souvenirs from her home country, and even offered to buy odds and ends for the house that night. Since she arrived, we’ve had great adventures at the grocery store, local market, and Daiso. She can even cook, y’all! I don’t think I could’ve asked for a better housemate. As long as we’re together, maybe we can survive this crazy roller-coaster that is 유학생 생활.

The Case of the Missing Homesickness

Around this time last year I was humming an impromptu victory song to celebrate the end of CET Osaka in Japan as my classmates and their Japanese language partners fought to keep tears out of their goodbye speeches. My speech was short and sweet, my smile bright. People looked on and said, “That Carmen, always happy, even times like this!” Yes, I was happy. To get the heck out of there and onto the first plane bound for the States. Plagued by terrible homesickness since week three of my Japanese program, I scoured Osaka for tastes of home: a decent cheeseburger, southern-style fried chicken, sweet potatoes, a decent hug, the smell of cinnamon. At that time I sorely regretted not bringing pictures of family and friends with me. I wildly searched for, and held on steadfastly to anything that connected reminded me of home, as if it could transport me there.

This year, thinking about my departure from Korea brings on a twinge of panic. It’s hard to believe I’ve been in Korea for two months now, and even harder to believe I don’t miss home as I thought I would. Though my friends send “I miss you; hurry back” and “what am I going to do without you?!” messages, my replies aren’t filled with the desperation they were last year. I don’t really miss home. I’m not saying my stay in Korea has been an absolute dream, but the road has been rather smooth, unmarked by emotional breakdown pit-stops, culture shock potholes, and what-am-I-doing-with-my-life detours. The car engine hasn’t sputtered on a lonely sob and given up the ghost. I feel I have a home right here. Seoul is a highly developed (and kind of Westernized) city where it’s easy to find some home comforts:

Bread and coffee. There’s a wonderfully air conditioned coffee shop every five to ten steps you take in Seoul, each with its own unique atmosphere. I’m not addicted to coffee, but if you expect me to get up everyday at 6am and be functional enough to speak and think in Korean for 5 hours straight without a little boost, you’re not playing with a full set of Bocce balls. (Kudos if you get that reference.) Usually, coffee just as overpriced as it is in America, you can be a mildly outraged by the price of a latte here too! The iced vanilla lattes from my host sister’s favorite cafe taste just like the ones from a Belgian cafe on my college campus my roommate and I frequented. Additionally, there are “French-style” bakeries everywhere in Korea, meaning easy access to morning pastries, which is really all I ask for. The bread keeps me from being defeated by the great rice barrage.

Soul food. Korean food reminds me of Southern cuisine: neck bones, ox-tails, chicken feet, ribs, fried chicken, delicious morsels covered in savory sauces. Here, they also eat things that stink up the house for days at a time. With enough flavor to sucker punch you and enough spice to make your nose run. The food is so good, you must eat seriously, head down, working your chops. You must stop to wipe your face. Afterwards you must pick your teeth and nap. Or have a slice of watermelon if it’s summer (sound familiar?)

Community. Koreans are very group-oriented. There are strong bonds between family members, circles of friends and co-workers; members of these sub-groups make it a goal to look out for one another, making sure everyone else looks their best and functions at their best. Having been accepted my host family, they baby me sometimes, asking what/when I ate, where I’m going and for how long, even giving me unsolicited relationship and medical advice. (Sometimes a little too honestly: “Where did your S-line go? Maybe you should exercise more!”) Mostly, they want to make sure that I’m happy, comfortable and healthy. It’s lovely to have this kind of support system in Korea where it can be really difficult to make friends. There are people who genuinely care about me here, so I don’t have to cling so much to people at home, who couldn’t fix my problems for me if I had any, anyway.

People-watching. I spend a lot of time watching people to learn about how to do things in Korea properly but mostly I do it because it’s fun. You don’t need to speak a word of Korean to recognize the love-sick expression on a guy’s face when he’s texting his girlfriend, or to understand that a woman is upset with her boyfriend, or the brief look of panic when the first raindrop falls and someone realizes they’ve forgotten their umbrella. Also, the side-eye game in this country is strong. It’s like I’ve found my people!

When I had to wait way too long in the line at the bank, I caught the eye of another woman who had been waiting longer then I have, and by the grip she had on her sweater, I could tell she was growing dangerously impatient. Our gazes met across the room, and we both shook our heads at the same time. I had to laugh. My life here is filled with moments like that, and is helping me to realize that despite language barriers and culture differences, we all are just the same, aren’t we?

All Aboard the Korean Chopstick Struggle Bus

I’ve always believed a tourist should look up dining etiquette for the country they’re visiting so as to not offend and disturb the locals (more than they already are). As you read in my previous post, The (wo)Man With(out) a Plan, I didn’t practice what I preach this time. Maybe I was lazy: I’ve been to Japan, so I know the basics of chopstick etiquette and therefore (I thought I knew) general etiquette when eating in Asia. Not quite the case. Korea has very different dining etiquette. I learned about this in detail when we covered a chapter in class about Korean table manners. But what we learned in class didn’t always match up to what was done in at home with my host family. Like slurping. Supposedly, you’re not supposed to slurp, but nearly everyone I’ve eaten noodles with in Korea slurps. Loudly. So what rules must be kept and which ones can be fudged?

The first thing Westerners will probably notice (and cringe at) is the fact that Koreans eat from the same dishes in the middle of the table. For a germaphobe like me, this was an absolute nightmare. I don’t want someone’s mouth germs swimming in my kimchi jjigae. Ew.  When I first came here, I rushed to put food on a little side plate for myself, but I stopped that after a while. Eating from the same dishes is just something you’ll have to get used to; you’ll feel more like part of the group if you do. I haven’t gotten sick yet, so I guess it’s okay.

Use the spoon for soup/stew and rice; use chopsticks for everything else (banchan, meat, etc). I’ve seen people eat rice with chopsticks, so I wouldn’t say this is a hard and fast rule, especially when eating at home. I think it depends on what you’re eating. If you don’t have soup at the table, you probably won’t need the spoon, so instead of constantly switching between the spoon and chopsticks, it’s easier to just eat the rice with chopsticks. Don’t use a used spoon for side dishes, by the way. And don’t put rice on the spoon first and then put that in the soup. Do it the other way around.

Since age is crazy important in Korea, you show respect for the oldest person at the table by letting them eat first. Don’t start eating until they do, and try to keep pace so that you don’t finish eating before them; getting up from the table before your elders is rude. This rule applies when you’re eating out with a group, like at 회식. At my house, at least, my host cousin (who’s 19) will start eating before my host parents and leaves when she feels like it. I can’t say for sure when/where you must follow this rule, it’s probably better to take cues from the people you’re eating with.

The rice bowl goes on the left and the soup bowl goes on the right. This is one rule I thought only applied in a formal setting or at a restaurant, but it also applies at home. Once I was eating with my soup on the left and rice on the right, and my host mother reached all the way across the table to switch them for me; I didn’t think it mattered, but it does. Everyone else had their dishes placed the same way. When I talked to my host family about it, it seems that placing the dishes this was is just more natural, so you can get the soup in your spoon first and then the rice. I wonder what you’re supposed to do if you’re left-handed…?

Reaching over people’s plates to reach the food is okay in Korea. (This kills me on the inside). On several websites, it says you’re supposed to ask people to pass you things, but I’ve never seen Korean people do it. They just reach right over. Sometimes my host mother will rearrange the dishes on the table so it’s easier for me to get a specific banchan, but this is because she thinks I’m bad at using chopsticks. And let’s be honest, I was bad at using chopsticks. Korean ones, that is.

If you’ve seen Korean dramas (or are Korean), you probably already know that Koreans eat with long metal chopsticks and spoons. These chopsticks are different from the ones I’m used to using in America or Japan, which are shorter, thicker and wooden or plastic. Since Korean chopsticks are made of metal, they’re slippery and heavier, which completely throws off my chopstick game. My host family constantly reminded me, “Oh, right, you’re a foreigner. You don’t know how to use chopsticks,” and gave me a fork, but in my head I screamed, “NO. I can use chopsticks. Yours are just weird!” Luckily, I have the hang of it now, so they’re not trying to give me a fork at every meal, but I can’t help wondering why, of all the countries that use chopsticks, Korea is the only place where people use metal ones.

So I asked around. The most popular answers were:

  • Metal chopsticks are more sanitary, as they can easily be washed and reused again, unlike wooden ones where food particles and germs can sink into the grain.
  • There’s a lot of grilling involved in Korean cuisine, and you eat straight off the grill in most cases, so of course you want to use a material like metal that won’t catch fire.
  • Online I read that way back when, royalty used pure silver chopsticks because the silver would change colors if the food had been poisoned. Eventually commoners wanting to imitate royalty began using metal chopsticks.
  • Using these kinds of chopsticks make you smarter and more dexterous?? According to this article on Slate.com titled The Seoul of Clones:

The Chopstick Theory of Scientific Supremacy goes like this: Koreans eat with narrow, metal chopsticks. Nabbing grains of rice with slippery, steel sticks requires a surgeon’s dexterity. That’s why Koreans have mastered extraordinarily precise “micromanipulation” of eggs and embryos required for stem-cell and cloning research. Westerners with their clunky forks—and even other Asians with their thick, grippy wooden chopsticks—can’t hope to compete with the dexterous Koreans.

When it comes to the length of the chopsticks, I have my own theories. Since people share dishes, it’s only natural that the chopsticks are longer so people can reach food in the middle of the table. It’s also a huge faux pas to hold the rice bowl or soup bowl in your hand as you eat, both in a public and private setting. I found this interesting because it’s perfectly fine in both China and Japan. Moreover, it seems to be bad manners to bring your face too close to any food dish. When I asked my host mother about why this is not okay in Korea, she said “Eating like that is fine in Japan, isn’t it? But that’s the way dogs eat.” Woah now. Did she just insinuate that Japanese people eat like dogs? I can’t say whether she meant it that way or not, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she did, considering the prevalence of anti-Japanese sentiments in Korea. But I’m not touching that topic with a 39 1/2 foot pole. Er, chopstick.

They Call Me ‘괜찮아 보아’

As previously mentioned in the post where I introduced my host family, my host sister is the only one in the house who speaks any English, so the first few weeks I stuck to her like glue. She was my buffer, taking in their indecipherable Korean questions and fielding them to me in a mix of dumbed down Korean and very simple English. We had almost every meal together because I couldn’t understand a word her parents said. I spent most of dinner letting their conversations wash over me as I concentrated hard to use those metal chopsticks; occasionally my host sister told me the gist of the conversation, and with all the lively facial expressions around the table, it was impossible to feel excluded.

The first time I had to eat dinner with the family without her, it was like having the training wheels yanked off your bike way before you were ready. While you were on the crest of a hill, for instance. In the rain. Without knee-pads. I’d resolved to sit and eat in silence, but my host mother asked me about my day: what I ate, what I’d learned in class that day. Before I knew it, I was talking to her about how comfortable life was for me in Korea, how I actually quite enjoyed taking the bus, my experiences with Korean food, and who I missed most from home and why. Though I couldn’t catch everything, I was able to come up with an appropriate reaction to whatever she said. She surprised me by saying, “You listen and understand much better now than you did before.” And that’s when it dawned on me: Holy crap, she’s right. Weeks ago I probably couldn’t even have understood THAT. (Did I mention I didn’t have to focus on using my chopsticks? Another development she happily commented on.)

Gradually, my host family began to ask more questions about my preferences and how to accommodate me such as: “Do you want more rice? Water?” “Which banchan do you like best?” “Sorry we can’t afford to eat a lot of meat. You want to eat some, right?” To all of the questions my answer is 괜찮아요 (I’m good/okay/dandy) and to the banchan question 다 맛있어요.This mellow attitude of mine caught them by surprise and has earned me the nickname 괜찮아 보아. ‘No matter what, everything is 괜찮아 with 보아!’ as my host sister puts it.

Part of me wanders what they expected me to say. Perhaps something like, “I’m American! I need hamburgers! I need meat! Take this gochujang away and bring me KETCHUP. Vegetables? HA. Beneath me!’  The other part of me is just as surprised as they are. I’ve eaten squid, octopus, unidentified fermented vegetables, even watermelon (!!!!) without batting an eye. Usually I would have pasted a fake smile on my face and suffered through watermelon quietly, or chewed the octopus tentacle until I could spit it out discreetly, but I’m genuinely okay with some things now. I’m learning to let things be okay.  (This still does not apply to hot and humid weather….I’m not THAT chill yet.)

This new-found ability to kind of parse Korean (un)fortunately means my family actually expects me to respond to what they say instead of just answering questions.There have been some things I’ve understood that I wish I hadn’t. Some things that aren’t quite 괜찮아. One day on the subway my host sister kept motioning to two foreign girls on the train; one girl had her hand on the other girl’s shoulder and they were talking in low tones. I thought she was asking me what they were saying because they might’ve been speaking English, but I couldn’t really hear them and I didn’t really care, so I just shrugged. Later at the dinner table, she retold the whole event to her aunt, who then shared her own story about two guys were were wearing couple clothing on the train and sharing earbuds. The moment I connected the dots– why my host aunt’s story was relevant to what my sister said and what my sister meant in the first place– my host aunt turned to me and said in English, “Ugh, that’s disgusting! Isn’t it 보아?”

I couldn’t believe my ears. I hoped that I’d misunderstood somewhere, somehow. In that split second when I was deciding how to respond, a myriad of feelings flashed across my heart, and I can only pray none of them showed on my face: shock, disbelief, anger, confusion. I almost wanted to kick myself for being surprised. I knew that homophobia (or denial of homosexuality altogether) was a very present force in Korea, but lulled into comfort by my food coma blanket, I didn’t think my wonderful loving host family would be included in that number. More than anything, I was heartbroken. The same woman who said to me in English, “We are all same under God. You. Me. Everybody.” was the same woman who fixed her face in such a gruesome manner to say “Ew, disgusting.” like she wanted to spit. Those pictures didn’t match up.

I guess I took too long to respond, and they simply moved on to another topic. The brief anger I felt dissipated as the moment passed and was replaced with a strange, warm calm: Compassion, maybe. Pity, perhaps. Love? I hope one day they can find it in their hearts not to be so hateful, and what better way to inspire that change than by showing them love and compassion? Sometimes I think back to what I could’ve said, but I can’t properly articulate my feelings on the matter in Korean. Even if I could, my opinion wouldn’t change their stance and I would’ve just alienated myself for nothing. There would’ve been an awkward rift between us for the rest of my time here. Though I felt a little prickly at the time for staying silent, in this case I’m glad I didn’t say anything; words spoken in anger have never really solved anything after all, right?

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.

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.