I’ve Gone And Changed My Name… Suck It Up Buttercup!

So, I realized it’s been a while since I shared some Korea stories. Here’s some quick updates:

I’ve started a taekwondo class that meets 3 days a week. It’s an international class, so we have a few foreign students and a few Korean students, and it’s taught in English. So far I’ve only been to a few classes but I’ve learned enough to know that I am NOT good at taekwondo. Apparently it takes a whole lot more flexibility than I’ve had in my entire life combined. The teacher says I’m getting better but I think he’s just trying to be nice. I think the true test of my skills will be when I can prowl dark alleys at night and singlehandedly beat up violent street gangs. Maybe next week? Definitely by next week.

The other week I took a field trip with my Korean Music and Culture class to the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts where our professor had gotten us seats at a traditional court music performance. I am not really a huge fan of court music because it’s reeeeaaallly slow so I went only because it was required. Actually, just getting there was the hard part. Turns out there are two Sinchon stations in the same neighborhood (why???) so by the time I figured out the right train station I was too late to catch the bus with the rest of the class so I had to take a taxi and even then I only got to the museum about 26 seconds before the concert started. Whew! Afterwards our music professor gave the class our own personal tour of the museum because she’s basically an expert on all traditional music (and she’s a famous Korean music composer, did I mention that?) There was an area in the museum where you could try out a gayageum (a 12-stringed instrument that looks like this and that I have heard is really hard to play) and our professor just sat down, tuned the gayageum (of course) and then performed for everyone in the museum. I’ll admit that was pretty cool. And then afterward she took the class out for noodles.

Here’s my class at the museum. I’m kind of hidden in there and it was a museum so I didn’t get many exciting pictures.

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And it’s kind of blurry, but here is me in front of a traditional Korean drum doing a traditional Korean pose.

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Last weekend I went on my first “MT” trip with my fine arts club. All the clubs here do an overnight Membership Training trip at the beginning of every semester in order to “train” the new members. Basically that means seeing how much they can drink. There were 45 students total and together we took a bus to a little camping site about an hour outside of Seoul where we stayed in a lodge overnight. We made dinner (rice and kimchi, of course, and grilled meat, yum!) and then we spent the rest of the night drinking.

I’ve seen some crazy drinking games these last few weeks, but even I was surprised when they told me we would be playing Monopoly! First of all, I can’t believe I’ve never seen drunk Monopoly before. Just the idea of it sounds 100 times better than boring old regular Monopoly, right?  Even so, it’s kind of hard to play a real game of Monopoly when you’re tipsy, so the older students made a simple version where all the properties were places on campus, and we played in teams of about 10 people. Each team started with several bottles of soju and the only rule was this: the game ends when all the soju is gone! All prices were paid in soju. If you landed on an unclaimed property you could buy it for a certain number of shots. If your team landed on another team’s property, you paid in shots. Sometimes the penalty was steeper: the other team got to give you one of their soju bottles! That meant you had to drink more to win, which meant drinking games in between turns as well. Korean students can turn anything into a drinking game. Even rock-paper-scissors.

I’m sort of hidden in these pictures too. I spy with my little eye… a pasty-white foreigner!

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Oh my gosh. Mom and Dad, I do other things besides drinking, I swear. And I don’t even drink that much, but it’s just such a big part of socializing here. I have actually found that it is much easier to have conversations after a few drinks. No, really. It’s very hard to just sit down and chat with someone when you hardly speak their language, but after a few drinks no one really cares if your pronunciation is off or if your grammar sounds like it was constructed by the Google translator. After a few drinks even I stop worrying about sounding like an idiot, so it’s a win-win. Besides, all the Korean students speak really good English and they really want to practice with English speakers but they’re usually too shy until they’ve had some soju. That’s actually when it gets interesting. This weekend I had this one guy ask me to tell him about my (non-existent) love life because he’s never had a girlfriend and he wanted to know what people do when they go on dates. I thought he was trying to ask me out but no, he just wanted me to talk about going out to movies or holding hands or something. It was actually really funny, partly because I was a little tipsy so a lot of stuff seemed funny at the time, and mostly because when he couldn’t remember a word in English he would make a face like he was constipated. Poor guy. I don’t even remember his name. Oops.

Speaking of names (and I’m super excited about this so I’m pretty sure I’ve told most of you already) my new friends gave me a Korean name! Wanna hear it? It’s so clever!

You may now call me: Yu Dana

Here’s how you spell it: 유다나

Let me explain: Koreans tend to have a hard time pronouncing my name and they usually call me “dah-na” instead of “day-na”, which is kind of weird because all the sounds in my name are all sounds that actually exist in Korean so it shouldn’t be that hard to say. It’s not like my name is “Zach” or “Jeff” or “Steve”, which would be really hard for Koreans to say because there are no ‘z’ or ‘f’ or ‘v’ sounds in Korean (not to mention it would be kind of weird if my name were Zach or Jeff or Steve. Maybe a better example is Lizzie or Sophie or Victoria, though I don’t think I could pull off any of those names either.) Regardless, at the MT some girls decided that the name I’ve had for the last 21 years was just no good anymore and that since “you are Dah-na” my new name should be Yu Dah-na, and so that is how I introduced myself all weekend.

When it comes to names, I know a lot of you might be under the impression that all Korean last names are either Kim, Lee, or Park… and you would be pretty much right. Although there some other last names, like Kang, Jang, Yoon, Choi (pronounced “chwe” not “choy”. Koreans are really confused about why we do that), Jeong, Moon, Shin, Oh, Yu, and Han, something like 1/4 of all Koreans have the last name Kim. For a little perspective: the most common last name in the U.S. is Smith, but it only about .9% of Americans are actually named Smith (I looked it up!) Anyway, when 1/4 of the people in your country all have the same last name, you have to come up with super original first names, right? There are a few common first names here, but usually when I’ve been in a big group of people all meeting each other for the first time (which is quite often, lately. Remember I told you Koreans will go out drinking with just about anybody?) people have to repeat their names like two or three times for the other person. It’s like if I was introducing myself to you and I said my name was something really uncommon like “Butterlily Sparklepants”, you would probably do a double-take, question whether you had accidentally walked into a My Little Pony convention, and then ask me to repeat myself. You know how in American schools you’ll often have two “Julie”s or “Emma”s or “Alex”s (or in one case I know of personally, four “Jacob”s) all in the same class? I mean, you can barely have twelve kids in the same cabin at summer camp without having repeated names (hint: it’s always “Rachel”.  Anyone else ever notice that or is it just me?) Well, so far I have yet to meet two Koreans with the same first name, so 5000 brownie points for originality!

Also, spring has finally come to Seoul! When I first got here back in mid-February the weather was butt-freezing cold, but now it’s usually a pleasant 18-20 degrees!

Don’t worry, that’s about 65 degrees in Fahrenheit. There are tons of flowers blooming. Specifically, the four types of flowers that they have in Seoul: forsythias (개나리, “kaenari”), azaleas (진달래, “jindallae”), magnolias (목련, “mogneyon”), and cherry blossoms (벚꽃, “beotggot”). Though I know them mostly as the little yellow flowers, the little pink flowers, the big white flowers, and the oh-my-gawd-they’re-everywhere cherry blossoms. I was looking forward to summer, but I’ve since heard that the summers here are hot and humid and horrible.  But for now, yay spring!

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Wait, You Mean You DON’T Have a Refrigerator Just for Kimchi?

When you sit down for a family meal in the U.S. you’re given a knife, a fork, and a plate. In Korea, you’re given chopsticks, a spoon, and a bowl of rice. It’s not a question of “would you like rice with that?” but “what do you want with your rice?” The spoon and chopsticks always go on your right with the chopsticks on the outside (unless you’re left-handed.) Everyone also gets a bowl of stew. Don’t want stew? Too bad! It goes on the right side next the utensils. In the middle of the table is a main dish and a bazillion side dishes, called “ban chan” (반 찬, it means “half dish”, or something like that.) In my house there’s usually at least two types of kimchi, maybe some dried fish or squid, some veggies with accompanying dipping sauces (more on that later), and dried seaweed. The dried seaweed is eaten with plain rice and it just adds a little flavor, like putting salt on popcorn.

 

When you eat you just eat out of the middle with everyone else. That is, if you’re good enough with chopsticks to avoid flinging your food all over the place (which I am, most of the time.) You just pick out what you want and bring it back to your rice bowl to eat it. Korea is definitely not a place for germaphobes because the double-dip rule here is non-existent. In fact you’re expected to double dip. And triple dip. And keep sharing chopstick-cooties with the whole family until you are full or run out of rice. Your meal is done when you are full or when you have no more rice. You don’t have to finish all your rice, but I think it must be considered rude to keep eating just the special food without some rice at the same time. If my family sees me eating from the main dish after all my rice is gone they will offer me more rice.

 

My family is a bit… um, intense about food. Or, I guess just my host mom is. My host sisters, on the other hand, eat like starving velociraptors. It’s a struggle to keep up with them at mealtime, and they are both skinny little things so I have no idea where they put it all. But anyway, eating with my host mom is a little frustrating. A typical meal goes like this:

Host Mom: “Here’s your rice. Eat a lot!” (I think that is just the Korean way to say “eat up” or “enjoy your meal.” Also, all dialog is in Korean but I’m translating for you, isn’t that nice of me?)

Me: “Thank you. 잘 먹겠습니다!” (“jal meok-kess-seumseumnida” literally means “I will eat well”. Koreans always say that before a meal. And after the meal they say “잘 먹겄습니다!”, or “jal meok-eoss-sumnida”, which means “I ate well.” The more you know…)

(Also, those Romanized words were literally the hardest things I’ve ever had to type. I was getting all confused and my brain was thinking the “j” key, but my finger went to the “w” key because that’s where the “ㅈ” is. 아… 너무 힘들어!)

After you say the magic words then we eat: me at normal speed with adequate chopstick-wielding ability, and my host sisters at super-human speed, wielding their chopsticks like this:

Soon I finish my rice and I’m pretty full, but host mom will have none of that!

Host Mom: “Do you want more rice?”

Me: “No, no. No thank you.”

Host Mom: “I’ll get you more rice.”

Me: “No really, I’m full. No more rice.”

Host Mom: “Are you sure?”

Me: “Yes, really. I am very full.”

Host Mom brings out a plate of dessert anyway. Usually it’s some kind of fruit and lately it’s been strawberries, and who can say no to ripe strawberries?

It’s very strange: Grandma (my host mom’s mother, not the other grandmother with the affinity for clammy, squidly creatures) also spends a lot of time trying to force me to eat. Several times I have literally just finished eating breakfast when Grandma tries to get me to sit down and eat another meal. And Grandma can be quite scary for someone who’s barely 4’9″.

Now that the weather is getting warmer I’ve discovered Host Mom’s favorite pastime: power-walking around the neighborhood. More specifically: guilt-tripping the rest of the family into power-walking around the neighborhood. She’s really into her “diet.” And her family’s “diet.” And my “diet.”

Host Mom: “Let’s go walking! It is good for your health and diet! Come on, let’s go now.”

I figure it might be fun to see some of the neighborhood, so I went out with Host Mom and one of my host sisters. Koreans seem to be really into public exercise, so in our neighborhood they built a path out of that squishy track-material alongside a creek and all along the path there are little stops with simple exercise equipment for working out your arms or abs. We spend an hour or so walking and host mom power-walks like a boss! I’m really glad I’m like 500 feet taller than the average Korean because if my legs weren’t twice as long as my host mom’s I don’t think I would have been able to keep up.

Finally we get home and I’m tired from walking, tired from a full day of school, full from dinner, cramping from exercising on a full stomach, and ready for a little break from tiger host mommy.

Host Mom: “Who wants dumplings?”

Itsatrap!

What?!?! Is this some kind of trick? Why are we having dinner 2.0? Are you going to make me go running afterwards?

My host mom is also weird about how I eat food. In Korea I guess the typical way to eat bulgogi (불고기, marinated, grilled beef) is to make little lettuce wraps out of it. You start with a piece of lettuce, add some rice, bulgogi, a little bit of sauce, and then roll it all up and eat it all in ONE BITE. Apparently there is no other acceptable way to eat a bulgogi lettuce wrap. It’s considered better to stuff the whole thing in your mouth all at once, nearly choke on the thing, and get saliva and meat juice all over your hands than to eat it in two or three polite, normal-sized bites. Normally a small lettuce wrap wouldn’t be too big of a deal, but as I’ve been told by my dentist many times, “don’t let anyone tell you that you have a large mouth.” (Thanks Rose!)  Also, my host mom only gives out huge, larger-than-my-hand sized pieces of lettuce, and when you roll that up into a ball it turns out to be a lot of lettuce. The problem is, if I try to rip the lettuce in half Host Mom stops me because it’s “not delicious” that way. If she catches me putting less rice and meat in my wrap, she makes me add more because otherwise it’s “not delicious.” If I don’t put in enough sauce it’s “not delicious.” If I put in too much sauce it’s “not delicious.”  My food life is starting to look a lot like that video a few paragraphs up. Am I free to eat? Am I?

But not everything is “not delicious.” Sometimes I am perfectly happy eating something a certain way (usually how I saw my host sisters eating it) and Host Mom swoops in and tells me “No no no. Eat these two things together. Now it is more delicious.” Or “Put some kimchi on top; it is more delicious.” Jeez, like I don’t know what kimchi tastes like by now.

She is the same way about sauces: every side dish has its own sauce and you’re not allowed to dip something in the wrong one (according to Host Mom. If you do it’s “not delicious.”) It’s okay to dip vegetables in the sweet red sauce but not the salty red sauce. The salty red sauce is only for dumplings, the slightly darker red sauce is only for meat, and the spicy red sauce is only for lettuce wraps. Did you catch all that? Host mom also likes to control how much sauce I put on things, which can be a problem when half the time I end up fumbling my chopsticks and drowning my food in the sauce anyway. Yesterday I was eating some naengmyeon (냉면, cold noodles. Actually, “myeon” means noodle, which is why we have “ra-myeon” noodles.) Anyway, Host Mom watched me like a hawk just to make sure that I mixed the mustard sauce in correctly and that each bite had a proper mixing of noodles and vegetables. Meanwhile, my host sisters are indiscriminately gulping down whatever food they want like ravenous wolves. I like my host mom, but she cares way too much about what I eat.

At least I can snack on whatever I want. Usually there is yogurt or fruit in one of the fridges. That’s right, my family has two fridges. The one on the left is the daily-use fridge and the one on the right is the kimchi fridge. What, you don’t have a kimchi fridge? You barbarian! Don’t you know that anyone who’s anyone has a separate kimchi fridge? Oh well, while you’re mourning your lack of proper kimchi refrigeration, I’ll just be here sneaking dipping sauces past tiger-mommy!

So… Soju?

In case you hadn’t heard, drinking is HUGE in Korea. Every time they come up with a list of the world’s top drinkers (and by “they” I mean whoever is lucky enough to have a job where they get paid to go around the world and liquor up), South Korea is always near the top. Drinking is basically their main method of entertainment. Well, that and karaoke bars (노래방, “no-rae-bang”, which literally means “singing room”) but I’ve noticed that most noraebang patrons are drunk anyway. Here’s what the guide books will tell you about drinking in South Korea:

  1. Never pour your own drink
  2. Always pour others’ drinks first before your own (usually starting with the oldest person)
  3. If you see that someone’s glass is empty, fill it
  4. Hold your glass with two hands when someone is pouring for you
  5. When in a small group, the oldest person usually pays

And on and on… Dos and don’ts. Beer or soju? (Korean rice wine, though I’ve heard that these days I think it’s mostly made with potatos.) Tips on how not to offend an entire country of people, blah blah blah. Boring!

This is what the guide books DON’T tell you about drinking in Korea:

  1. Koreans REALLY like to drink (okay, maybe that was already obvious)
  2. Koreans will take you out drinking even if they barely know you
  3. Sometimes you go out in groups of 30+ people
  4. Drinking is done mainly for the purpose of getting drunk fast
  5. Lots of drinking games occur, usually with much singing and shouting
  6. Heavy drinking occurs on any night of the week (even if you have class the next morning!)
  7. You may go into the bar as strangers, but you all leave as best friends!

Let’s back up a little bit: on the first week of school Yonsei had a student club expo and I ended up signing up for the fine arts club. This was partly because I like art and I’ve done quite a bit of it back home, partly because I was looking for a way to meet people and practice speaking Korean, but mostly because they caught me wandering around at the fair, made me sign some papers, and then gave me candy. Everyone likes candy.

So far there has been a lot more drinking and socializing than painting. A LOT more. Actually, so far we have done absolutely no painting whatsoever.

Hmm… I’m starting to wonder about this club.

Anyway, after the first meeting the group leaders took everyone (like, all 35 people) out to a bar in Sinchon (신촌), the local neighborhood. Sinchon very popular with students and the whole place is just full of restaurants, bars, and noraebangs. It was only about 7:30 when we started but the bar was already packed with (completely drunk) students. It took us forever to get seated: not because there was nowhere to sit, but because the group leaders wanted to make sure that each table had a proper mixing of males and females before we started drinking. I still don’t know if this was just to get the new club members to meet each other or if drunk match-making is a standard Korean practice but I can tell you that there is no difference in drinking expectations between guys and gals – both drink waaaaay too much.

Someone poured me some soju and we ordered snacks for the table. I’m not much of a drinker (boy am I in the wrong country!) but soju doesn’t taste bad, it’s kind of like a flat soda: very smooth and easy to drink. Apparently too easy to drink because I’ve heard stories of foreigners accidentally drinking a whole lot more than they can handle and then making absolute fools of themselves. Not exactly my idea of a fun night out, so I spent a little while trying to figure out how I could sip my drink and make it look like I was drinking along while actually avoiding getting too drunk.

Cue the drinking games!

Apparently the only acceptable way to drink soju is via many, many shots, so drinking games are a must. I was sitting at a table that ended up being mostly foreign students, but we had one native Korean student who taught us several games, most of which involved some kind of song or complicated hand clapping or quickly adding up numbers in your head – all things that would be nearly impossible drunk, and were nearly impossible for me sober because I have like zip-zero hand-eye-brain coordination. I’ll admit though: I fudged (not cheated, I never cheat) on some of the games so I wouldn’t have to drink too much. Sometimes if I lost on one of the first rounds of a game I’d pretend I didn’t know what was going on so we would just count it as a “practice” round and go again. I got away with only taking 3 or 4 shots (so much for my plans for subtly sipping!) I think the rest of the international students were just as wary of the alcohol as I was because somehow our Korean host lost practically every round and we ended up getting him totally drunk. Ha ha, no regrets. Seriously though, I had a ton of fun.

As you may have guessed, our table didn’t really get too crazy, but there were some that did. The table next to us had about twice as many empty bottles of soju as it did people, and then another table started playing a game where (as far as I could tell) everyone took turns introducing themselves by shouting as loud as possible and then taking a shot of soju. Don’t ask me how you “win” that game. There was another group of students about as large as ours that started playing some game where the guys tried to see who could do the most squats while carrying a girl piggyback. Afterwards both the winners and the losers took shots. Seeing a theme here?

Unfortunately I had class at 9:00 the next morning (that’s early for a college student, okay?), so I had to find a good way to excuse myself early. Luckily the conversation started to die down a little bit, payment was collected from the group to cover the drinks and snacks, and some people started getting up to go. Perfect! Looks like the evening is winding down and I can go without being rude…

…but no! What’s this! We’re just changing seats! Oh no, my friends, the party is just getting started! The night is not over until every combination (permutation?) of people have drunk together! Our Korean host was replaced by another equally drunk Korean student. Eventually I did excuse myself, and everyone was very understanding. Our new host was even so kind as to curse out my inconsiderate professor for holding 9 AM class… and in English too! If only I was so accomplished at swearing in a foreign language after 3 bottles of soju! Ah, my life would be complete.

Yonsei University: Week 1

Hey there! It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I’ve been up to quite a bit in the last week, so hold on to your butts!

Monday: class started. I couldn’t get into the history class I wanted because of a time conflict but I got into a class called “Traditional Korean Society and Modernization” which sounded like it would cover some of the same stuff anyway. The class was “eh”, but I met these really nice American girls who have already been here for a semester and they were kind enough to let me ask them all the questions I had about the school and life in Korea. They said that if anyone comes up and asks you if you are Russian, you should say no and run away as fast as you can. I guess a common occupation for female Russian immigrants to Korea is prostitution, which makes them (and thus, white women in general) very popular. Lucky me!

Tuesday: because of another schedule time conflict, I had enrolled in Korean Music and Culture. I don’t know anything about music aside from playing the clarinet for a few years in middle school and owning an iPod, but the class was supposed to be for absolute beginners so I thought well, why not? The teacher spends a lot of time singing and banging on drums, which is pretty entertaining. And she said she cancels class a sometimes because we take field trips on the weekends, so it could turn out fun. I also found out that unlike Western music, which is mostly written in 4/4 time (4 beats to one bar, in musical notation), traditional Korean music is typically written in 3/4 time, which might explain why I find it hard to dance to. Not that I can dance anyway.

Then, in the afternoon I went to my artificial intelligence class (computer science major, remember? AI sounds sooo cool!) I was really excited to finally get to do some real learning!

In Korean.

Turns out the class was NOT taught in English.

Yeah… that was fun.

Roll call went something like this:

“Kim Min-Soo”

“Here!”

“Kim Ji-Hu”

“Here!”

“Kim Seong-ho”

“Here!” (No seriously, half the class were Kims!)

“Park Woo-jin”

“Here!”

“Da… Dah-na Ru… Dah-na… uh…”

“…here” I figured that was me.

*every single person in the class turns*

Later I did a little checking and found out that my other computer science class was not in English either. I dropped both classes pretty quick. Oh, and then I dropped my phone in the toilet. At least it was clean.

Good on ya, Dana.

Wednesday: changed my schedule so I have classes that are in English and count towards my major. Good! I ended up in that history class I wanted, but it turned out to be super boring and now it’s too late to change. Bad! And I got food poisoning again. Very bad! All the food is all so delicious that I can’t not eat, but occasionally my stomach goes “Whoa, hold up girl! I do NOT know what that is! I don’t feel like digesting that today. Try back in 48 hours, m-kay?” These last few days I’ve been surviving on toast and walnut pie.

Thursday: had my first real culture shock trying to explain biscuits to an Australian student. It went a little like this:

“Of course I know what biscuits are. Like cookies, right?”

“No biscuits. Like biscuits and gravy.”

“Why would you put gravy on a biscuit?” Finally, a few of us Americans showed her a picture.

“Oh, so it’s a scone?”

“No, it’s like a scone but it’s more like a really light, fluffy, flaky dinner roll. You can have it with butter or jam for breakfast or with gravy for dinner.”

“Why don’t you just eat a dinner roll when you want a dinner roll and a scone when you want a scone and just leave the biscuit out of it?”

Touché.

Friday: more class, and then watching enviously as all the other international students head off to enjoy their Friday nights while I go home to sleep off this sickness. Besides my stomach I’ve been getting headaches too and I think it’s because my brain is overworked from trying so hard to understand everybody all the time. Ugh, it’s been a long week. Plus, there are two ways to school: take the lurchy, horrible bus the long way around, get off at the south end of campus and walk 15 minutes to the Korean Language Institute building (because seriously, the international dorms and the KLI building are super far from main campus) OR just take the back way and walk it for 25 minutes. I’ve been doing a lot of walking.

It’s been pretty hard so far to make friends. Mostly because there’s a bit of a language barrier between me and the Korean students, and a distance barrier between me and the international students (since they all live in the dorms and I live off-campus.) You tell them you live in a homestay and they all say “Oh, how is that? I was thinking about doing a homestay. Is your family nice?” and then they never want to talk to you again. Ha ha, joke’s on you because I have native Koreans to help me with my grammar homework! Also, the international students like to drink, but I’m not a big drinker and they drink a LOT apparently. I just hope they don’t drunkenly admit to being Russian. And finally there is the fact that I feel like I’m going to throw up on everyone I meet, but other than that I don’t see what the big deal is. Jeez guys, make friends with me already.

Finally, about the squid: So I had a few other people (here and at home) tell me that squid is actually very tasty and I realized that the way I must look to them is probably how a person who won’t eat chicken because it is too exotic would look like to me. Therefore, I would just like to add that I have eaten squid here (albeit dried squid) and I genuinely do not like the taste. Ha! I do really like this one dried-squid side dish though, but mostly because it’s slathered in spicy stuff. So I guess I will eat squid as long as it doesn’t look, feel, or taste like squid. Other than that it’s delicious!

Oh yeah, the computer science class I ended up taking is computer graphics, and on the first day the professor showed us an example of how computer graphics is used in animation. The video he used? The “Let it Go” song from Frozen! And did I mention I’ve heard about a dozen little kids singing the “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” song?  It’s like there’s no escaping this movie!

And now you too must suffer the same! Enjoy!

Meeting the Family… and Hundreds of Other People

So, just a short update about my weekend. Do you remember me telling you about how Grandma and Grandpa came to visit a few days ago? Well the occasion was actually Grandma’s birthday, and so on Saturday morning my whole family packed up several coolers of food (mostly kimchi) and drove 3 hours outside Seoul to a mountain resort for a family celebration. Typical mountain resort: ski mountain, golf range, spa… oh yeah, and indoor water park. Sweet! The mountains were a little bare but still pretty, and it was nice to be out of Seoul and enjoying some fresh air. First we moved into the hotel room: it was a nice 3-bedroom suite which would have easily fit my host family of four plus me and Grandma and Grandpa. And then an aunt showed up with her family and moved into the hotel room. Okay, getting cozier…

And then an uncle and his family showed up…

And then another aunt and her family, for a total of 20 people! Everyone slept there overnight too and I’m still not sure how we fit everyone. We probably broke the space-time continuum but everyone seemed comfortable.

But that afternoon, when my host sisters asked if I wanted to go to the water park (the oh-so-cleverly named “Ocean World”) I was like, “yes! Anything to get out of this can of sardines, this is waaaaay too crowded!”

Good thing the water park was less like a sardine can and more like a sardine flash mob in a tiny sardine closet under the stairs.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen more people in a smaller space in my entire life! I guess the hip winter excursion is to drive up into the mountains just to hang out at Ocean World because the whole country had come up for the weekend. Though after a while I realized that the crowd didn’t feel like crowds do back at home; it was a bit more like the crowds on the train in Seoul, where people bump into you and push you a little but it’s not uncomfortable or claustrophobic. Maybe it’s just because the people here are a bit smaller than the people back home, both in height and width. Well… mostly width. Also, Korea is generally more modest than America – girls generally won’t show off too much cleavage or upper back/shoulder (although, strangely enough, scandalous amounts of leg is okay) – so everyone either wore a one-piece suit or a shirt over their bathing suit.

Oh, and they have this weird thing about hats. You know how up until the 60s or something girls always had to wear swim caps in pools? I think people were worried about hair in the drains (though I would have been worried about the men’s hair too, especially in the 60s, but whatever.) Here in Korea you can either wear a swim cap or throw on a baseball cap. It was so weird; the whole park was wearing baseball caps. I think at this point it’s more of a fashion statement than pool-drain protection, really, because people still had long hair spilling out underneath their hats anyway. Still, overall the park was very nice and family-friendly and my sisters and I had a great time.

Well, until their little cousins showed up. There were three girls: a little 8-year-old and twin 10-year-olds (the mischievous Fred-and-George-type twins, not the creepy Shining-type twins) and then we LOST them in the water park because they kept running off and my host sisters and I finally had to leash them with their lifejacket straps. If anyone noticed an awkwardly tall foreigner dragging around a little Korean girl by her lifejacket they certainly didn’t say anything.

That Korean modesty does NOT extend into the dressing rooms though. Unfortunately, the locker rooms are no less crowded than the pools and you’re expected to casually bare it all. I guess it’s the same in the famous Korean jjimjilbang (찜질방) saunas but when you see jjimjilbangs on tv you only see the part where the characters are clothed and enjoying a refreshing drink in a steam room, NOT the part where people are strutting around in the showers like it’s fashion week in Paris. You get over the awkwardness eventually but it is harder when you’re the only non-Korean in the entire resort. Some of the really little kids actually gaped at me, open-mouths and everything. Wow, um… nice to meet you too, small naked child.

While we were off frolicking in the wave pool, all mothers in the family had started cooking. It was amazing! I think there were five of them in that little tiny hotel kitchen, but they coordinated with military-style precision and managed to pull off the most incredible meal I’ve seen yet. Someone even brought one of those flat, portable stove thingies and we were eating freshly-cooked bulgogi right off the grill. I swear, if you ever go camping in a remote desert bring my extended host family along because the women can probably pull off a full-course traditional Korean meal MacGyver-style with nothing more than a paperclip, a piece of string, and a Styrofoam cup.

After dinner and cake we played a game in which 4 teams of players take turns throwing sticks. It’s more fun than it sounds, I swear. Each stick has a side with characters on it, and you get a point for each stick that lands character-side up. My family called the game “do-ge-geol-yut-mo”, (or some combination of that) where each word represents one of the possible point combinations (“ge”, for example, is two sticks facing up and two facing down), but Wikipedia calls it “yut-nori”. There was also a board with spaces on it and we moved some pieces around and sometimes teams had their pieces knocked off by other teams and I still don’t know what that was all about but it was fun anyway. The whole family was super nice, though I think I’ve only heard Grandpa speak maybe 4 times in as many days, and Grandma keeps trying to force strange food down my throat. I feel kind of bad that I’ve gone and repaid their hospitality by completely forgetting most of their names. There were probably a bazillion cousins! That’s okay, I know the little cousins forgot my name too because they talked about me as “the foreign girl” in Korean.

They also thought I couldn’t understand them.

You should have seen the looks on their faces when I answered back!

Yep, better be careful if you let me into your country; I’ll crash your birthday parties and abuse your children! Muahahahaha!