Goodbye Korea

Well, this is it. My final day in Korea. And my final blogpost. I’m not even sure what to write. I feel like I should have something profound and inspiring to say but I still haven’t sorted out how I feel about leaving. Right now I feel ready to go home, get back to my life, and finally stop being a traveler and a foreigner. I’m looking forward to seeing my friends and my family and telling everyone my stories, especially the ones too crazy to publish in this blog (yes, there are a few!) At the moment, I am happy to be going home.

On the other hand I know I am going to miss Korea like crazy when I do. I’m going to miss the friends I made here (especially the ones I made in Busan) and the people (yes, even the ajummas) and the food (especially the food!) and the culture (though not the old guys who spit on the street or the squatter toilets), and Busan (especially the beaches) and Seoul (though slightly less than Busan, sorry!) and real kimchi. I’m even going to miss the crowded traditional markets that smell like fish and the pushy ajummas on the subway. I might even miss being looked at by people on the street and the open-mouthed stares of small children. Who knows.

I’m definitely going to miss Busan a lot. Not only because my friends are here, but also because of the atmosphere. I liked Seoul, but Busan is so much more laid-back and colorful. Hence my photo collection of whimsical street art:

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So… I guess the moral of the story is the nerd always gets the girl? I’m assuming he’s a nerd because of the glasses and the star on his onsie pajamas.

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And don’t forget the mountains!

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And of course, the Konglish.

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I kind of want that shirt. No… I REALLY want that shirt!

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Does this mean the customers are only chaste men or that the clothes so bad that anyone who wears them is subject to involuntary chastity?

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Previously tasted chicken?

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Uh…?

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So… no German women allowed?

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Sounds like a REALLY awesome water park!

I don’t really know how to do a final farewell so I think I might just wrap up with a few highlights from the last six months (wow, has it really been six whole months?!?)

I’ve eaten more new foods in the last few months than I can remember. 99% of it was delicious. The remaining 1% was strange invertebrates whose gummy texture completely overwhelmed any taste benefits they might have had. Most of the food I’ve had here burned away some part of my stomach lining (thank you Korean chili powder!) but it was totally worth it.

I’ve been renamed by the natives. You may now call me Dah-na. Though people in Busan tend to call me “Dina”, or they completely mishear and they call me “Jana” so honestly at this point I’ve almost forgotten my own name so you can call me whatever you want and I’ll probably answer.

I’ve experienced the best Korea has to offer: I’ve biked and picnicked along the Han River in Seoul…

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…climbed Bukhansan Mountain (barely!)…

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…strolled through both Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung palaces (as well as several temples)…

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…celebrated Buddha’s Birthday with a traditional lantern parade…

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…seen the view from Namsan Tower, vacationed in Jeju Island…

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Yakcheonsa Temple on Jeju Island: still one of my favorite places in Korea.

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…toured the DMZ…

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… and most importantly, eaten a lot of patbingsu!

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I’ve also experienced the daily life of Korea as well, like the traditional markets…

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…springtime in Seoul…

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…college neighborhood nightlife…

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…and sharing the street, subway, and bus with thousands of other people.

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I’ve learned basic Taekwondo. (And also forgotten much of it over summer break. Oops!)

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I spent a weekend in Japan while only using a grand total of 4 Japanese words.

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I’ve also been up to see the sunrise at Gwangalli Beach in Busan. This was one of my favorite moments in my entire time here.

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And of course, many other things that you’ve already read about. Or maybe you just skimmed it and looked at the pictures. Whatever, I’m not judging. But I do want to say thank you to all my readers. I appreciate you coming along with me on my travels… and for putting up up with a lot of weird humor, geeky pop culture references, and really bad Konglish puns. It’s been a good journey.

I would also like to thank my amazing host family for hosting me this last semester. They were always so kind and wonderful to me. And they put with with my awkward Korean for 4 whole months which is worth like a thousand million brownie points.

And finally, thank you to my friends in Busan who helped me celebrate my last week in Korea. I’ll miss you all, you crazy people.

I’ve heard that after a long time abroad, the returning culture shock can be just as bad as the original one. I know it will take me time to adjust to American life again, but I think I can get through it alright. If I end up a kimchi addict living in my parents’ basement I’ll let you know but I think as long as I cope better than this I’ll be okay:

(Silly Jack. You spent the first 4 seasons trying to get OFF that island!)

I do want to return to Korea someday. I don’t know when I will be able to come back, but who knows, right? So I’m not saying “goodbye”, just “so long for now.”

We’ll meet again, Korea. I know it.

또 만나자!

 

Oh My Ajumma!

Many westerners don’t know this, but Korea actually has three genders: male, female, and ajumma (아줌마).

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Literal definition: technically, any woman is an “ajumma” after she marries and starts having kids, but this term usually refers to a middle-aged woman. Calling a woman “ajumma” is similar to calling her “ma’am.” You can use this term for the women who sell street food, or the fancy housewives at the department store, or just any middle-aged woman whose name you don’t know.

Actual definition: the loud, pushy, and badly-dressed middle-aged women of South Korea. Ajummas can be distinguished by their permed hair, bright and mismatched clothes, and intimidating presence. You can find ajummas everywhere, but you often hear them gossiping and arguing in their gravelly old-lady voices long before you see them. Ajummas pretty much only exist in Korea.

Koreans have a lot of pressure in their lives: you have to be polite to everyone, you have to work/study hard all the time, you have to always be dressed fabulously… so when a woman becomes an ajumma she experiences a backlash from a lifetime of extreme politeness. Ajummas can get away with just about anything. They push and shove people on the subway, argue and gossip loudly in public, and dress terribly. The most distinguishing fashion features are the short, permed hair, visors and the flower-patterned pants.

Note: No matter how “ajumma” an older woman is, you probably shouldn’t call her “ajumma” to her face. It’s a little bit rude because you’re implying that she is rude, has a bad perm, and is poorly dressed and no woman wants to hear that (even if she is rude, has a bad perm, and is poorly dressed.)

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Ajummas can be found everywhere in Korea, but especially at the traditional markets, where you can see them arguing viciously over the price of groceries, and at any of the public parks, where they will be out power-walking at any time of day or night. You can also see ajummas hiking in large, loud groups at any of Korea’s many mountains. They’re also 5 feet tall but can mountain-climb twice as fast as any of you. No matter how good of a climber you are, when you’re hiking in Korea you WILL be passed by every single ajumma on the mountain, and they won’t even be breaking a sweat!

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So how does a woman become an ajumma? Koreans haven’t really been able to give me a straight answer on this yet. I guess it’s kind of like asking westerners how they know when to call a woman “middle-aged.” You just sort of know. But there are middle-aged women here who are technically ajummas because of their age, but they don’t have the ajumma style yet. And some of them never go through an ajumma phase. Personally, I think Korean women must just go to sleep one day and wake up the next day as an ajumma. To me that makes more sense than deciding to get a perm, a bad attitude, and terrible fashion sense. Many of you may have seen this comic before. I think it sums up the ajumma metamorphosis pretty well.

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They may not look it, but Korean ajummas are actually quite frightening. They are surprisingly strong for their size and they are not afraid to yell at you or bully their way into a good seat on the subway. Ajummas can also haul enormous backpacks full of kimbab (for a mid-mountain hiking snack) or several dozen shopping bags (full of brightly-patterned stretch pants, obviously.) Basically, ajummas are super-human and you don’t want to mess with them. I have been yelled at by ajummas a few times. I don’t think they were actually that angry, but ajumma voices seem to have only one volume: loud and angry, so even though their intention might have be completely harmless it still scares the crap out of me. I usually give them the deer-in-the-headlights look and then run away as soon as possible.

That being said, there are good things about ajummas too. Young Korean women can be very shy (which actually makes conversation in the cafe very difficult sometimes) but ajummas like to talk. Actually, they LOVE to talk, and that boisterousness can be very refreshing. It’s hard to have an awkward silence when there are ajummas in the room.

Oh ajummas. You can’t help but love ’em!

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Not my pic: stolen from internet.

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Also stolen from the internet. But this is soooo typical ajumma. Look at those visors!

Beating The Heat At Gwangalli Beach

What’s up y’all? Doing good? That’s great. Me? A little English tutoring, a little sight-seeing. I told you about my student, right? I’m teaching English to an ajumma (Korean for “middle-aged woman”. A post on ajummas later, I promise!). She is so sweet, and really grateful that I’m spending time with her every day. I’m just happy that I can show off how much Korean I know (though I do get the occasional blank look that tells me I said something really weird and undecipherable.) She even brings me snacks sometimes and we chat in Korean with two other ajummas who are also regular members.

When it comes to the other staff, we recently lost a few members (we’re all travelers, remember. People come and go often here) so it’s been really quiet and the energy in the cafe is just not the same. Hopefully we’ll get some more fun people soon. We miss you guys!

And finally, I know I’ve said it a bazillion times, but it’s hot here. So hot. And humid. Literally every day is like that face-melting scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. And when it’s not hot and humid, it’s slightly less hot, raining and humid. Fun combo.

Despite the heat, I’ve still made it out and about this week. And although I’m not much of a shopper, I checked out some of the best shopping in Busan. The shopping scene here varies tremendously. First, you have shopping malls like Shinsegae (신세계 백화점), the largest department store in the world.

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Nine floors of shopping, eating and entertainment, including the famous SpaLand sauna and an indoor ice-skating rink. I was just at Shinsegae this weekend, but sadly I forgot my bundles of hundred-dollar bills so I wasn’t able to buy much.

Fortunately for those of you with skinny wallets, there are other options. Do you like haggling with old women over the price of kimchi?  Do you enjoy shopping for strange-looking vegetables out of the back of a rusty old truck? Do you prefer to choose your own sushi, still-wriggling, from a bucket of lively eels? Well then, Bujeon Market (부전 시장) is the place for you!

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I found myself here the other day pretty much by accident. There is a major subway station called Seomyeon (서면) where I’ve spent a lot of time underground while transferring between train lines, but I had never actually been above ground there, until last week. I stumbled across this very lively market. Okay, make that “village.” I’ve seen traditional markets like this in Korea before, but Bujeon takes up several blocks. It’s huge! And there was sooo much food. I know you might think there is a lot of produce at American grocery stores, but I wandered down a back alley behind some of the stalls and there were garages (that’s really the best way to describe the storage rooms) that were just PACKED with bags of onions or watermelons or cabbage or radishes or chili peppers. I’ve never seen anything like it. Unfortunately I didn’t get any pictures. There are a lot less foreigners in Busan than in Seoul, so I stand out even more here, and I definitely looked suspicious creeping around in the secret back-alleys of a Korean market. A lot of the stall owners gave me weird looks.

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Kimchis!

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Hmmm… all dressed up and nowhere to go… Maybe I’ll go gaze at some seafood…

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On my day off I decided I needed a break from talking to people all day (sorry, guys) so I hopped a train early in the morning and went out to Beomeosa Temple (범어사). I was a little bit skeptical at first because I’ve seen so many Buddhist temples since coming to Korea and I already saw the other famous Busan temple, Yongungsa, but I was glad I went. Beomeosa is bigger, more beautiful, and more impressive than Yonggungsa, and it’s up in the mountains so it was a little bit cooler up there and more quiet and peaceful. And definitely far from home. It took me two train lines, a bus-ride, and and hour and a half to get there.

The first people I saw when I got there were all dressed like this:

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I don’t know if you remember my post about climbing Bukhansan Mountain with my parents, but when we first arrived at the bottom of the mountain that day, everyone around us was dressed like that too: sturdy hiking shoes, fancy exercise clothes, climbing poles and gloves, backpacks full of kimbab… I’ll admit I had a slight panic moment when I got to Beomeosa. Was another “hike” going to turn in to a mountain climb?

Fortunately the temple itself was only a 5 minute walk from the bus stop. Whew! But those of you who like climbing, there are trails up the mountain. And several little hermitages that offer temple stays (for a hefty price, obviously.)

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The pathway to the temple was lined with these turtle monuments (see the turtle creature at the bottom?) I assumed they were some kind of grave markers. Commemorating really kick-ass Buddhist monks, perhaps?

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Please. Everyone knows the world rests on the back of a giant lion-turtle!

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Either a monument to a monk… or a gravestone from the Korean version of Oregon Trail. “Here lies Becky Sue. What a shame she caught cholera, was attacked by bandits, and eaten by a bear. Rest in peace.”

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This gate is supposedly a big deal because of the supports. There are four columns, instead of the usual two, and they are made of stone. Also, it’s very easy to walk around it, so not much of a gate, really.

The impressive thing about Beomeosa is that it’s really more of a temple compound, instead of a single temple. There were at least a dozen halls, and probably a lot more little prayer rooms that I didn’t see. The temples are still being used, so some areas were closed off to tourists. There were actually many people praying there when I was visiting. And I caught a glimpse of some airbenders… I mean, Buddhist monks.

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Many of the temple’s congregants were elderly. It doesn’t look like Buddhism is especially popular with the younger generations. Though it could just be that the remote location of Beomeosa and the super fashionable dress code (tunics and baggy grandma pants) dissuade a more “hip” crowd from attending.

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Ha ha! Sneak-attack photo! I like his shoes. Very traditional Korean.

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Just some mountains…

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These guys again. Someone has a thing for figurines.

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White Lotus???

And of course, no attraction in Korea is complete without a little Konglish. I walked through the wisteria gardens a little bit. They were nice enough, but gregarious? Not so sure.

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There are two famous beaches in Busan. The larger and more well-known is Haeundae (해운대, which I think I mentioned one or two posts ago), but my apartment is closer to Gwangalli Beach (광안리) which is a little less popular, but offers a great view of the Gwangalli Bridge. Also, there is a public walking path along the water from my neighborhood to the beach, so I’ve taken to jogging there in the evenings (the only time when it’s not so hot that you’re sweating buckets as soon as you walk out the door.) It’s really nice because the bridge is lit up at night, and the rest of Busan is out power-walking along with you.

I apologize for the crappy pictures, but hopefully you’ll get the idea.

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Pun time! (I told a bunch of these to one of our Korean roommates and we had some good laughs… though everyone else just looked a little confused. Their loss!)

What do you call a 5 year-old onion? 오년!

What did the bread say when it ran into a wall? 빵!

Until next time guys!

Seeing the Sights, Sighting the Seas

As promised, I’ve been out exploring Busan. Last weekend I went with some friends to Yonggungsa Temple (용궁사) at the north end of the city. I mentioned before that Busan is sort of spread out, at least compared to Seoul, so going anywhere by subway seems to take a whole lot more time. Getting to Yonggungsa took over and hour and included a 30-minute bumpy, slightly nauseating bus ride. The temple itself was not as grand as some of the ones I’ve seen (okay, maybe after Yakcheonsa Temple on Jeju Island nothing impresses me anymore) but it was still pleasant. Also, the weather was pretty muggy. I have some friends here from Taiwan who tell me I’m crazy and that this weather is nothing compared to Taiwan, but when you’re practically sweating to death it’s not very helpful to hear.

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Secret Tunnel to the temple! Secret, secret, secret, secret tunnel!

Yonggungsa is also built right along the seaside cliffs, so it has a great ocean view. That also explains the name “Yonggungsa”, which I think means something like “sea palace temple.” IMG_0990 IMG_0994 IMG_1000 IMG_1005 IMG_1007

These little figurines where hidden all around the temple. Most of them were Buddha statues, but these little guys are supposed to be good disciples showing off how well they study Buddhism. Except for maybe the little guy on the far right. He’s clearly the class slacker. IMG_1009 IMG_0991

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Recognize the two little guys in the bottom right-hand corner? Those are the Grandfather statues from Jeju Island!

On the way home from Yonggungsa we stopped off at Haeundae Beach (“hay-oon-day”, 해운대), the biggest and most popular beach in Busan. It was a little rainy that afternoon so thankfully it wasn’t too crowded. The water was way too cold (for me) to go swimming so we just took a short nap on the beach. IMG_1015 IMG_1014 IMG_1013

On Wednesday I had the day off again so I decided to check out Gamcheon Cultural Village. Gamcheon is a village where many Koreans refugees fled to during the Korean War. They settled in this valley and started building homes. Unfortunately no one thought to hire a professional neighborhood planner so the houses got built all over the place like some mismatched Lego village. The good part is that everyone was so considerate of their neighbors that none of the houses block the view of any of the others. The result is like some little coastal European village with cobblestone streets and winding alleyways. In 2010 (I think) they decided to totally revamp the entire village and the residents painted their houses very bright colors. Now it looks something like this: IMG_1018 IMG_1021 IMG_1055

To get to Gamcheon Village you have to take the subway for 20 minutes and then a bus up the mountain to the actual village. And when I say up the mountain, I literally mean up the mountain. I was in this tiny little village bus speeding straight up some crazy steep hills. I thought city driving was bad but this was practically suicidal!   Once you get to the top you can look down into the valley and see the whole village. In the distance you can even see the ocean. It’s strange how rural Gamcheon feels. On the mountain next to the village people still farm like they have for generations. But no matter how rustic the village is, everyone still has a smartphone and high-speed internet. Still, the lack of high-rise apartment buildings and department store advertisements is refreshing. IMG_1057 IMG_1061 IMG_1060 IMG_1029

Even though it is a tourist attraction, normal people still live their everyday lives in this village. Visitors are asked to be respectful of the residents, and stay on the main path but I got lost down several twisty alleyways and wandered into private backyards more than a few times. Thankfully no one saw me. Whew! Part of the renovations included installing more street art. This is part of why Gamcheon Village is so famous. A lot of people come to take pictures of the art, especially dating couples. IMG_1020 IMG_1028 IMG_1036 IMG_1046 IMG_1048 IMG_1050 IMG_1052 IMG_1054

They are also really into these fish: there must have been hundreds of them. I think they were painted by children (maybe village residents?) and put up all over the village. I thought they were super cute. IMG_1022 IMG_1026 IMG_1034 IMG_1035 IMG_1064

Eventually they combined into one massive monster fish! IMG_1043

As for cafe work, everything is going well. I’ve gotten to know the staff and some of the members better, which is nice. Also, since I’ve joined the cafe there have been several new members who don’t speak English very well (or at all) so I’ve sort of unofficially been assigned to them as tutors, because I’m one of two staff members who actually speaks Korean. Most of the less fluent customers are middle-aged women who feel a bit out of place in our mostly-college-student cafe, so they really appreciate that I sit and talk with them. Plus they always tell me I’m pretty which is nice. There is one middle-aged woman who just started taking English classes just a few weeks ago and I’ve been helping her a lot. It feels like too much responsibility to help someone learn a new language but I’ve been getting help another staff member who has experience teaching English (it’s funny, actually. The non-native English-speaking staff are often better at teaching grammar and stuff because they actually learned it in a classroom setting. I’m just like: “yeah… I think I’ve heard of a gerund. That’s a type of burrowing rodent, right?”) So between her teaching experience and my Korean skills we are (slowly but surely) helping this woman learn English. I know this sounds cheesy but it’s been really rewarding.

And not to toot my own horn (just kidding, I’m going to do it anyway) but some of the members get really excited when they meet me because I am the only American volunteer in the cafe, so they think my English is more “official” and they say I am easier to understand. Sorry to my fellow staff-members from Ireland and the UK: your accents are cute and all, but mine is better! So, I’ve realized that the amount of humor in my posts is steadily decreasing. I will try to fix that. I think it is just because I am so tired. I spend all day talking (introvert, remember? Talking is hard!) and I’m also studying Korean in my free time. I realized how lacking my vocabulary is so I’ve been trying to memorize 5-10 new words every day. Also I’ve been spending a lot of time socializing (ooh! Scary, I know!) Often I’ve been up talking with my roommates until the early morning hours or going out with my Korean roommates. I especially like going out with them because when I speak better Korean after a few drinks and also they don’t notice how awkward my Korean is after they have had a few drinks. Unfortunately, when I’m drunk I start talking to foreigners in Korean as well, and my friends tell me the next day that no matter how much they told me they couldn’t understand I continued to speak Korean to them. However, the other day I realized that if I want to be fluent I’m going to either have to get over being shy and practice more while sober or become an alcoholic. I’ve decided on the first option. (Whew! Mom, aren’t you proud of me?)

Hanglish pun of the day: Once there was these two friends, an Australian guy and a Korean guy. One day, the Australian saw his Korean friend standing in the distance and he called out: “Oi, g’day mate!” The Korean friend responded: “Hey, who are you calling a cucumber?”

(Foreigner translation: the Korean word for “cucumber” is “oi”. And it sounds a little like “oy”. Man… why do I have to explain for you guys. It ruins the joke!)

Seoul-long, And Thanks For All The Fun!

Well, the time has finally come: after 4 months I am leaving Seoul. Tomorrow morning I am taking the bullet train to Busan, where I will spend the rest of summer break doing a workstay in a language café/hostel. That means I will be working in the café in exchange for accommodation and meals. For those of you who have never heard of a language café, it’s a café where people (usually college students) can go and hang out with native speakers of different languages and practice speaking. They’re pretty popular here in Korea because they’re a good way to try out real conversations outside of a classroom setting. Most (but not all) cafes here are for English-Korean exchange.

And Busan!!! Busan, the second largest city in Korea, is located on the southeast coast, all the way across the country from Seoul. By bus it takes about 4 hours, but the bullet train can make it in 2.5 hours.

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From what I’ve heard, Busan is like the smaller, more relaxed version of Seoul. Okay, when I say “small” I mean only 4 million people live there, instead of 10 million, so it’s still pretty big. Also, Busan has a lot of beaches. Beaches! Based on their reputations I kind of have this mental image of the two cities as neighbors in similar houses, except Seoul would be the guy who hosts sophisticated dinner parties, and Busan would be that guy who has awesome barbeques on the weekends. I don’t know how accurate that is, but that’s just how I imagine it. I will be able to tell you for sure after I move there.

The best part, though? This is Seoul’s subway map:

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And this is Busan’s subway map:

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It’s so quaint!

Also, Busan is supposed to be milder than Seoul, weather-wise. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this already but Korean summers are hot, humid, and tend to be sort of monsoon-y. I’ve already started to experience some of that heat and humidity and it is NOT fun. Korean summer weather is so crappy that the 1988 “summer” Olympics in Seoul were actually held in September. And although we’re not into full monsoon season, there have already been some of what K-mom calls “showers”, which are basically torrential downpours that last for several hours. I honestly have never seen harder rainfall in my life (it rained through my umbrella last night!) and the streets are practically flooded in minutes so I can’t imagine how the monsoon can be any worse. Unfortunately, it looks like I’m going to find out the hard way.

Anyway, as a goodbye to Seoul, I’ll just wrap up with a few highlights. Okay, maybe just a few last things I haven’t shared with you yet. Oh! Like some of the weird questions I’ve been asked over the last few months. My first week I was here I was approached by a 100-year-old man in the subway who told me (in English); “you are beautiful. Just like my baby”, and then just walked away. Another time a guy in the school cafeteria told me he was impressed with my “eating habits”, as I was eating some doenjang jjigae. Thanks, I guess? A few times Korean students asked me if I am married, because they say I look older than I am. I think it’s mostly an Asian thing, because even the Japanese girls in my Taekwondo class look like they’re 20 years old when they’re really closer to 30, and they assumed I was older too. Also, the other day in computer graphics class my professor wanted to know the difference in pronunciation between “color” and “colour” and even though I explained it was just a different spelling for the same word, no one was satisfied until I had demonstrated how to say “colour” with a British accent.

Seoul is home to my favorite street foods, like egg-bread (계란 빵, “keran bbang”):

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Note: not my picture. I stole this from the internets. I seriously doubt anyone will sue me for copyright, but there you go.

It’s really just an egg cooked in a sweet bread but it is soooo good. I also like the corn-on-the-cob, (it’s special glutinous corn, so it kind of tastes like rice but everything in Korea, by law, has to have some rice in it) and the spicy chicken skewers and the little pancakes that are shaped like fish and have red bean paste inside, and the hoddeok pancakes that have brown sugar and nuts inside… oh, so tasty. Seoul has also introduced me to some of the weirdest foods I’ve ever eaten in my life. Mostly squidly things, but also pig’s feet (족발, “jok-bal”), and the deceivingly-named “potato soup” (감자국, “kamja-guk”), which is actually more like pig spine soup. The meat was really good (like soft pot-roast) but eating it reminded me a little like that one scene from “Predator”.

Leaving Seoul also means saying goodbye to my friends. I’ve become close with some of the other foreign students, but I’m really going to miss my Taekwondo classmates. I don’t know if it was the shared exercising, or having to kick each other over and over, or making fun of our instructor when he would do this high-pitched scream every time he kicked (you’re supposed to yell, but his was a little extreme), but we became pretty close. There was this one girl who spoke Chinese, Korean, English, and Japanese, so she started out as our master translator, but kind of turned into the mother of our little group.

And of course, leaving Seoul also means I will be saying goodbye to my host family: Host Dad, K-mom (my tiger-mom of a host mother), and little Host Sisters. I never got to practice taekwondo with them but considering that they could break all the bones in my body with one pinky finger it’s probably for the best. If I’ve been a little silent about my host family so far it’s because I didn’t want to share too much of their personal information on the internet, but we have grown close. Not super super close, but I will miss them when I leave.

I might even miss scary Host Grandma a little too. Have I told you all about Host Grandma? She’s under 4 ft but she’s got an attitude and she’s always ordering me around in Korean with this gravelly old lady voice that I can’t understand so mostly she ends up pushing me around until I figure out what the heck she wants. It’s quite frightening when Host Grandma yells at you.

Even though I still can’t understand Host Grandma, my Korean has gotten better, I promise. I can actually have a conversation now! Okay, maybe a really simple, kind of tedious conversation, and maybe I speak better after a little soju (it really all comes down to confidence… or lack of inhibitions), but at least people can understand me and I can sort of understand other people (as long as they don’t talk too fast.) I am able to communicate most of my wants and needs, which is a big improvement from when I first got here and I just sort of blindly followed people around because I didn’t really know what was going on. I couldn’t follow a thing anyone was saying. People would talk at me and I would nod like I understood, but really it was a bit like this:

Yep, pretty much sums up all my attempts to speak to Koreans.

Also, I can understand a little bit of Korean TV now too… except for the “King of Ratings” skits on Gag Concert (it’s an SNL-type show, except that the skits follow the same format every week, so you get to see the same characters each week and they build up really good running jokes.) “The King of Ratings” is about a producer who tries to improve the ratings on his television show by adding more drama. Why don’t you take a look and see how much you can make of it (and make sure you watch until the end to see the special guest stars!)

I watched this with my family on TV a few weeks ago and later I had to search like crazy to find a version with subtitles because I had to know what the heck was going on! (If you want a basic translation message me, or check out the subtitled version and skip to minute 41.)

You know how you can be totally surrounded by background conversation and be able to completely tune it all out… until someone says your name? Then you’re instantly alert, right? I’ve gotten like that with a very particular Korean word, “waygook-in” (외국인), which is the Korean word for “foreigner”. You hear this word a lot as a foreigner in Korea, and I’ve gotten really good at picking it out of random background noise. It’s a generally a sign that someone is talking about me and they don’t want me to know. Nowadays though, I can tell when someone is talking about me AND what they’re saying (like the other day when my host sister was telling her friend that I eat watermelon seeds and how weird that was.)

Wow, this has kind of turned into me rambling about random stuff. It’s not like I’m leaving Korea for good yet, just moving on. And I’m ready to be done with school and do something different. So, here’s to Seoul. May we meet again someday!

And a pun: What do you call a motorcycle you can’t ride?

못타사이클!

Ha ha ha ha ha!

그리고…

줄리엣: 이 글을 읽고 있으면 한국에 즐거운 시간을 보내세요! 우리는 서울에서 만나지 못 해서 아쉬워요!

The Good, the Bad, and the Weird

I know this is super cliché, but time really flies. I am about to start final exams and I realized I only have a little over a week left here in Seoul! Can you believe it’s been 4 months already? It really doesn’t feel like it.

I also realized I’ve been telling you all a lot about what I’ve been doing, but I think I’ve been slacking when it comes to Korean everyday life. A lot of things that have become really commonplace for me might seem weird to you, and I think it’s time you all know the good, the bad, and the weird about living in South Korea. Let’s start with the good stuff.

The Good

The food. I don’t think I can stress enough how amazing the food is here. I love it. When I come home I’m going to make myself Korean food all the time, or at least pour gochujang sauce on all my non-Korean food. Everything here is spicy, but it’s a flavorful spicy, not just burn-your-mouth-and-make-you-cry spicy. I’m actually worried about how I’m going to adjust to bland American food when I get home. My parents were here for two weeks – only two weeks! – and they said the food tasted overly bland for a while after they got home.

Also, the food makes you skinny. Literally. It’s very hard to get fat on traditional Korean food, and there are very few fat people in Korea. Most of the foreign students I know lost weight after they got here.

The people. Koreans are super friendly. You can tell that sometimes people are a little reluctant to deal with you because you’re a foreigner, but I think it’s mostly because of the language barrier (sometimes when I hang out with the art club they will all be talking really fast and then someone goes “what about the foreigners?” and then you can tell everyone is thinking “oh crap, how do we explain that in English?”) My host family and everyone I’ve ever met here has been nothing but incredibly polite and just super wonderful in general. Not to mention Seoul is the safest city I’ve ever been in. Several times I have been completely lost in strange places and I’ve never felt scared or threatened. It’s because of the whole Confucian society thing where the group comes before the individual: everyone sort of lives by the old “do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you” motto. I’ve even seen girls fall asleep on the subway because they don’t have to worry about anyone stealing their purse. Now, I’m not saying that you should completely abandon all common sense if you come to Seoul, but you don’t have to worry about stumbling into the wrong alley and accidentally walking into a gang fight or something.

Super adorable babies. And really well-behaved children. During my entire time in Korea I don’t think I’ve ever seen a kid throw a tantrum. Kids here are not as spoiled as some American kids; they work hard, study hard, and have healthy extracurricular lives. And they turn into pretty good adults too (see above). I think this is definite proof that the world could use a few more tiger moms.

Seoul’s amazing public transportation system. Clean, efficient, fast. The only problem is that the trains and buses can be REALLY crowded sometimes, but Koreans are polite and try and make room for everyone.

Inherent fashion sense. All the people here dress very fashionably, girls and guys, and NO ONE wears sweatpants in public (sorry American college students!) I think if you did, someone would ask you why you are wearing your pajamas outside. Having amazing style seems to be something that Seoul-ites are born with. Maybe there’s something in the water. Actually, I know there’s something in the tap water because everyone says not drink it, but does it cause extreme fabulousness? I’m not sure, but Koreans always dress classy.

Korean dating. This goes under the “good” category because it’s sooooo cute! When you go out to coffee shops or patbingsu shops you can always see lots of dating couples. Often there’s a lot of hand-holding and cuddling without too many PDAs. Also, sometimes couples will dress up the same when they go out. You’ll be walking down the street and all of a sudden a guy and a girl walk by in matching pink t-shirts or identical bright yellow baseball caps and you’re just like, “aww… look who’s on a date!”

Korean TV. Everything on TV is generally pretty family-friendly. Korean shows range from romantic comedies to crime dramas to those soap operas that my host grandma really like, but you can be sure that nothing is worse than PG (okay, maybe a mild PG-13). In America when people talk about “Korean dramas” they usually mean the 20-episode romantic comedies. They’re very predictable and really sappy but super cute, so it’s no wonder they’ve become popular over there. Even Korean reality shows are nicer than ours: usually they show a bunch of people having fun and doing goofy things, instead of a bunch of people fighting and swearing, like in our reality shows. On the other hand, Korean movies can be pretty mature (think gritty thrillers like “Oldboy” or “I Saw the Devil”, though I haven’t actually watched them, or horror films like “A Tale of Two Sisters”, which I watched late at night in a dark room: bad idea!) but their TV is very wholesome. I like “Running Man” and “Gag Concert“. For movies, I recommend this one, especially if you like westerns and Quentin Tarantino movies (but make sure you watch the Korean version, because the international version cuts out the ending and totally changes the movie!)

Also, I’ve discovered music that is not mainstream Kpop. Meet Busker Busker and enjoy some happy music:

The Bad

Public spitting. Yes, you read that right. In Korea, people– okay, not people. Men. It’s always older men – spit on the street willy-nilly. It’s almost become an art form: first he has to spend a little while hocking it up, drawing up as much phlegm as possible as noisily as possible, and then he has to find the perfect spot on the sidewalk where the most people are going to accidentally step in it, take aim, and fire! I don’t understand why this is okay. I mean, Koreans don’t even let you wear your shoes in the house, but they’re okay with snot all over the sidewalk (though maybe snot all over the sidewalk is why they don’t allow shoes in the house. Hey, I know how we could fix both problems at once!) To me, this is the least socially acceptable thing outside of murdering someone in broad daylight or playing the bagpipes within 50 miles of another person, but hey, if you’re going to hock a loogie on the street you might as well put some effort into it, I guess.

Infrequent post-potty hand washing. Along with badly-stocked public restrooms. It’s not uncommon that you’ll come out of the stall and discover that there is no soap in the dispenser and no paper towels. It’s also not uncommon to just see other people skip the hand washing process altogether, even when there is soap. (My host family always washes their hands though, so don’t worry!)

Lack of public trash cans. There are just never enough trash cans around. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought street food and then when I have to throw away the cup or the wrapper I absolutely cannot find a trash can. A lot of streets have trash lying around too.

Beauty standards. People here put a lot of effort into their appearances and it’s expected that you always look good. It’s not that uncommon to see girls whip out a mirror on the train and fix up their hair or makeup. Even guys will be checking their reflections in the train windows. I said before that Koreans are always well dressed, but they sort of take personal appearance to an extreme level. There are mirrors literally everywhere (cafeterias, elevators, etc) so that you can always check your reflection. Also, in the younger neighborhoods there are like a dozen makeup stores on every street. I understand wanting to look good, but in Korea you’re pretty much obligated look fabulous all the time no matter what.

Also, you may have heard this before, but Korea is the plastic surgery center of the world. People from all over the world come here for a little “fixing up.” A lot of girls get plastic surgery, and pretty much anyone you see on TV (guy or girl) has had some work done. The most popular procedure for girls is supposedly getting their eyelids “fixed” so that their eyes look bigger. Nose jobs and getting your jawline chiseled into a V-shape is also pretty popular. Koreans aren’t shy about plastic surgery either: there are ads for plastic surgery or Botox or liposuction or weight-loss programs on every bus. You may have seen this picture of the Korean beauty pageant contestants from last year. No, that’s not the same girl with different outfits and makeup: those are 20 different girls who have all bought the same face.

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The weight standard here is also a little shocking. It is easier to stay thin on a Korean diet, but people here are almost too thin. Guys and girls (especially young people) are obsessed with being really skinny (which is weird because Koreans are always eating.) I don’t know, all the beauty stuff doesn’t actually bother me all that much, but I guess growing up in this kind of culture might be kind of stressful.

Being 5’6” in a 5’3” country. I could never live in Korea permanently because I literally cannot buy shoes in this country. I can find clothes without too much difficulty, but I would either have to get all my shoes specially made or order them from abroad. There is an international district called Itaewon that’s supposed to have foreigner-sized shoes and clothing, but the shops there are mostly for the American guys at the nearby military base, so I guess it’s nice if you like army fatigues. (Though Itaewon has a lot of foreign restaurants, which is kind of fun!)

Korean group culture. If you’re in the group, you are totally accepted. If you are out of the group, then it can be really lonely. Korean culture is very group centered, so being an outsider (or an introvert) can be kind of tough. I generally don’t make friends quickly (I’m not a psychopath or anything, just sort of introverted) and as a foreigner it has been really hard to make friends with Koreans. I realize this is sort of a contradiction because I’ve been saying how warm and friendly Korea is, and that’s still true, but making lasting relationships with anyone other than my host family has been really difficult.

The Weird

Squatters. No, not homeless people squatters (I’ve actually seen very few homeless people in Seoul.) This kind of squatter:

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It’s always a bit of a surprise when you walk into a stall and find one of those waiting for you. I thought they might have been left over from the days when squatting was the popular way to go, but you can see them in the newer buildings too, so I don’t really know what their reasoning is. Maybe they’re saving money on porcelain? I found it to be a bit uncomfortable and difficult to uh… balance yourself when you’re uh… you know. Perhaps that’s why there are little help buttons in each stall. I wont lie: I’ve been seriously tempted to push one, but I’ve never done it because I don’t know who will show up. The cleaning lady? An ambulance? Ghostbusters?

Also, I’ve never seen this but my dad told me that the cleaning ladies don’t close down the public restrooms before coming in to clean. He said that they just come in and start cleaning, even if there are men using the bathroom.

Everyone does everything the same, and they do it together. For example, on Children’s Day my parents and I were walking through Gwanghwamun Square and not only did hundreds of families bring their kids to the park on the same day, but every single one of them brought paper and crayons and all the kids were drawing pictures of Gwanghwamun Gate. Every single one. When we went hiking on Bukhansan, everyone was dressed in the same hiking gear and they all brought kimbap for lunch. Also, I’ve had kimbap all over this city and 99% of the time it has the same ingredients. No one ever changes the recipe. When you go to a restaurant, all the silverware is the same. The dishes are the same (from the hot-bowls for stew to the little silver, metal water cups and rice bowls.) The napkins are the same. The brown plastic boxes they keep the chopsticks in are the same. Even the Tupperware that people keep kimchi in is the same: clear with blue lids. I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea.

Fruit is always eaten a specific way. My family always cuts up apples and peels the skin off. Under no circumstances may you eat an apple any other way. (My Taekwondo friends have told they do the same thing in Japan too. In fact, one of the little Japanese girls saw a foreign student taking a bite out of an apple while on our biking trip and she told me it looked really weird.) Also, even though we like avoid the seeds in a watermelon, some Americans will just eat them if we come across them, no big deal. However, Koreans go to great lengths to pick out all the seeds before eating the watermelon. They absolutely will not eat a watermelon seed. I confirmed this with my Japanese friends too. They told me that eating the seeds will give you a stomach ache.

Lots of touching. In Korea there is a lot more physical contact between people of the same gender, and very little guy-girl touching (unless you’re dating, of course, then they get very cuddly.) In general, there’s a lot more touching of arms and shoulders and faces than we are used to. For example, girls who are friends will hold hands or link arms and walk down the street while shopping. Okay, that probably isn’t that weird for girls, but Korean guys are the same way. Guys who are friends will walk down the street with their arm around their buddy’s shoulder. They’ll grab each other on the arms or shoulder or hug their guy friends and it’s not considered weird at all. It was a little hard for me to get used to the girl-touching. Sometimes I would be talking with a Korean girl and she would just start playing with my hand and I would be thinking “I barely know you why are you touching me???” but that’s just how people bond here.

Although everyone is very fashionably dressed (see above), the unspoken dress code is a little strange: girls can show off scandalous amounts of leg and it’s still considered classy, but showing off too much shoulder, back, or cleavage is “too sexy.” Korean girls will wear skirts that are so short they can barely walk up the stairs but they will always wear a cardigan over a tank top, even when it’s 85 degrees out. In America it’s almost the opposite, isn’t it? We seem to be okay with showing off your shoulders, but really tiny shorts are considered kind of slutty. But it’s hardly like Korean women are “oppressed”, and no one will ever stop you on the street and bother you about what you’re wearing (Koreans are so nice!), it’s just that girls have figured out that they would rather look “cute” than “sexy” and it works pretty well for them (see below.) Also, being able to walk down the street and not be subjected to the fleshy, jiggly parts of large people is a huge plus (my goodness, American girls could learn a thing or two here!) Hmmm… I should have put this under the “good” category.

Aegyo. Pronounced like “egg-yo”. Aegyo basically means “the cute thing Korean girls do when they want their boyfriends to do something for them.” This video sums it up pretty nicely:

(Just so you know, “oppa” is what a girl calls her older brother, but the term can be used for your boyfriend or any close guy friend who is older than you, like your older brother’s friend, your friend’s older brother, your older sister’s boyfriend, etc. Basically, it’s any guy you can pull aegyo on.)

To me, the thought of doing aegyo to a guy is absolutely horrifying. First of all, it would be just ridiculously embarrassing. Secondly, I could never pull it off anyway. Though Korean girls do it so well that it’s basically a super power. Or creepy mind control. Either way, once an aegyo-pro starts working her magic she can get a guy to buy her anything!

And finally, the weirdest thing is just the fact that this guy exists:

Yes, that is a Korean reggae singer. His name is Skull. That is all.

Japan Without A Plan

I’m back from my 30-hour excursion to Osaka! In case you’re just joining me (or if you just forgot), I had to leave South Korea before my student visa expired so I could come back as a tourist and have 90 more days. (Good thing too, because my original student visa expired right in the middle of final exams and being deported does NOT look good on your student transcript!) The thing is, Japan has this reputation of being sort of crazy…

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Joint locks don’t work on invertebrates!

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Here’s the funny part: only one of those people is a Japanese girl in a wig and excessive makeup. The other five are Pokemon.

…okay, make that really crazy! But I figured as long as my vacation didn’t turn into Battle Royale, I could handle any kind of adventure!

I flew out Sunday morning on a little Japanese airline called Peach. It was super cute and everything was decorated in pink (though thankfully not Hello Kitty, because I know there is a Hello Kitty airline in Japan and to say they’ve gone overboard in their decorating is a serious understatement.) I got in to Kansai airport around noon and then I had to take the train into Osaka proper. This is when I started to notice something.

I can’t speak Japanese.

I can’t even READ Japanese!

Holy fish out of water Batman! What the heck have I gotten myself into?

Fortunately the ticket machines at the airport had an English setting (some of the machines in Osaka, I later found out, did not!) so I was able to buy a ticket and somehow I managed to get on the correct train. I also bought some mochi (squishy, delicious Japanese rice cakes with yummy bean paste in the middle) from a convenience store and that made everything a little bit better. Generally I find sweet bean paste makes everything a little better. The train ride itself took a little over an hour, and I even managed to transfer halfway through. Looks like all that subway riding in Seoul has paid off!

My first stop was at Osaka Castle (or “Osaka-jo”. I don’t know how to spell it in Japanese though.) It’s basically the main attraction in Osaka and it looks like this:

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Pretty impressive, right? The castle itself sits on a gigantic stone base and it’s surrounded by two large moats. Even the biggest Korean palaces have several walls but they don’t have moats. I think this tells you a lot about Korean and Japanese culture, at least historically. The Koreans wanted you to be impressed when you walked through the gates on your way to meet the king. The Japanese wanted you to be impressed when you stood far away and wished you could meet the king.

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The view of Osaka. Notice how it’s a lot flatter than Seoul. I wouldn’t mind that.

The inside of Osaka castle has been turned into a museum dedicated to the history of the castle. Basically there was a king inside the castle with an army, and some dude outside the castle with a bigger army and he really wanted the castle and so there was a super huge battle with lots of samurai and dragons and orcs and even some of those flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz.

The castle is in the center of a huge public park, which is full of nice biking paths and ponds and plum orchards and old gates and secret shrines. It also seemed like the popular place for street food vendors, struggling musicians, and street magicians. And also the local bird-of-prey enthusiast club, apparently. I have no explanation for why these guys were just chilling in the park with large carnivorous birds, other than that Japan is crazy.

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My favorite part is that kid in the background!

Though those were not the weirdest pets I saw in that park. Do you see what this guy has on the end of that leash?

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It’s a chipmunk!

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This guy was walking his pet chipmunk! You know what, if I had a pet chipmunk that was leash-trained, I would probably go show it off in the park too. But I would stay away from the guy with the owl.

After touring the castle and the park I hopped back on the train and headed toward the main Osaka station. I figured if anywhere was supposed to be the main part of town that would be it. Turns out it was more like the breeding ground for overly large department stores. You come out of the train station and all of a sudden you’re in this hive of enormous, multi-storied department stores all connected by skybridges and completely packed with people. Seoul can be pretty crowded but in Osaka there were definitely a LOT more people so it was a lot crazier. I’d say if a Seoul train station was controlled chaos, this was barely controlled chaos! Even so, I still felt that safe-ness that I feel in Seoul. There are probably only three countries in the whole world were you can be a woman traveling alone who doesn’t speak a word of the language and those countries are South Korea, Japan, and the magical land with the dancing penguins from Mary Poppins.

Anyway, I took a look in maybe like two stores before I realized that I couldn’t afford anything, even if I spent all the cash I had on me (which was yen, by the way. Also, to go from Korean won to dollars you divide by 1000. To go from yen to dollars you divide by 100. For a while I was really thrown off and I kept thinking that everything cost 10X less than it actually did.) Everything was soooo expensive! I honestly don’t know how the Japanese clothe themselves without going broke. I decided I would rather be fed than fashionable, so I found my way down to the main street and started looking for something to eat.

Before I went to Osaka I did some internet searching and the one thing that kept coming up as a must-eat was this thing called “okonomiyaki.” Okonomiyaki is like a mix between a pancake and a latke, and it’s sort of like the Japanese version of a Korean jeon (pancake). However, unlike the Korean version, which uses green onion as the main stuffing ingredient, okonomiyaki is made with shredded cabbage instead. Then the chef puts in whatever other little tasty morsels he wants (usually other veggies or sometimes squid or bacon pieces), fries it on a stove top, spreads super-secret special okonomiyaki sauce on top, adds a few swirls of mayonnaise, and then sprinkles some more secret spices to top it off. Another typical topping is shredded dried fish, which mostly just adds a little salty flavor. It’s basically the most delicious thing in the whole world and it looks like this:

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The cabbage in the batter makes the whole thing a bit puffier than a regular pancake, so it stays nice and soft in the middle and doesn’t get fried all the way through. Also, you’d think mayonnaise would be gross but it’s a special Japanese mayo that’s much tastier (I think we would call it aioli). Also, if you go specifically to an okonomiyaki restaurant (yes, such a thing exists!) all the tables have little metal hot-pads in the middle of the table that are there for the sole purpose of keeping your okonomiyaki hot while you eat it. That way, each piece is literally hot off the grill.

I loved it so much that I even ate it again for lunch the next day, meaning half the meals I ate in Japan were okonomiyaki. No regrets!

That night I took the train back from Osaka to a little town called Izumisano. Originally when I planned this trip I was planning on leaving on an earlier flight, so I wanted a hotel that was near the airport. I ended up making a reservation at this little mom’n’pop motel (or in this case, super cute and tiny grandma’n’grandpa motel) near the train station. They hardly spoke any English (and I only spoke 4 words of Japanese: “yes”, “no”, “hello” and “thank you”) but once I showed them the reservation receipt we got it all worked out. I think they were used to dealing with confused foreigners on their way to the airport, so they even had a little homemade brochure about Izumisano showing you where to find food, how to get to the airport, etc.

The next morning I decided to check out the town. If you’ve ever seen a Hayao Miyazaki film (okay, one that actually takes place in the real world) you might have seen scenes like this:

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The weird thing is that many of the houses in Izumisano even had those exact lion handles on their gates. Kudos for attention to detail, Mr. Miyazaki.

After walking around Izumisano all morning, I can see where he gets his inspiration…

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Wouldn’t it just be awesome to live in a house like this?

And those are just regular homes! If anyone thought it was weird that I was just wandering through their neighborhood taking pictures of their houses they certainly didn’t say anything. Sometimes I would come across these shrines (or at least I think they were shrines) and the gates were open so I would just go in and walk around the gardens.

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I looked it up: the inscription on the statue on the right says “Tweedle Dee” and the one on the left says “Tweedle Dum.”

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It was really quiet that morning and the few people I did see were mostly older folks but strangely enough none of them gave me a second glance, as if random white people always come creeping around in little old Izumisano. Also, most of the people I saw were on bicycles. In fact, so many people in Japan ride bicycles that there are parking lots just for bikes.

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Based on my brief experience, the one thing I can say for sure that Japan does better than Korea is pastry snacks. Korea has a lot of coffee shops (including this major chain called Paris Baguette that is everywhere!) where you can get croissants and bagels and “toast” and other breakfast items, but they’re usually kind of dry, the way bread normally is. Japan on the other hand, is really into nice, soft, squishy rice cake treats that usually have sweet been paste in the middle. I already mentioned mochi, but basically you can just walk into any old 7-11 store and find rows and rows of delicious-looking, prettily-decorated pastry snacks. I ended up with these little kabob thingies for breakfast that turned out to be soft, sticky rice balls covered in sweet honey sauce.

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Okay, that’s all the food pictures you guys are getting. This isn’t Instragram or some such nonsense. But I will just add that Japan is really into deep fried street food. One time I ended up snacking on some fried lotus roots and this thing called a “cloud dream” which was basically a ball of soft glutinous rice (like the rice dough mochi is made of) that was fried in batter. Yum, deep-fried rice!

Sadly, two days was about all I could take in Japan. I think mostly it was the language barrier. Even for an introvert like me, who could theoretically spend a whole weekend hiding away watching Netflix in my room without missing human interaction even the slightest bit, it was a little disappointing not being able to communicate with anyone beyond “me Tarzan, you Jane”-level. But I did get to work on my acting skills by practicing exaggerated pointing and facial expressions, which was a plus.

Another weird thing was that I started missing Korea really quickly. When you’re learning a language, the new-language part of your brain kind of goes into hyper drive. I know this because ever since I started learning Korean, I’ve been hearing Korean in other foreign languages. I was at an Indian restaurant one time and my brain kept struggling to interpret the Hindi music playing in the background. I swore I could hear Korean words in there. Also, I went to an Italian restaurant with my family once and I kept reading the Italian words on the menu with Korean pronunciation. My brain assumes all gibberish is Korean and it’s trying to translate for me, bless its little heart, but I just end up with a headache. It’s like listening to this as a native English speaker:

Doesn’t that just hurt your brain? You feel like you should understand it but you just can’t. Japanese really doesn’t sound all that much like Korean, but my brain spent two whole days trying to make sense of it and then getting frustrated when it couldn’t.

That settles it then: as soon as I am fluent in Korean I’m going to learn Japanese. When I do, the first thing I’m going to do is fly right back over there and order me some okonomiyaki!

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Sucky sucky!

Skipping School With My Parents, Part 4: Of Patbingsu and Mountain Climbs, Of Cabbages and Kings

Previously: my parents and I spent the weekend in Korea’s Jeju Island eating oranges, enjoying the scenery, and crashing a Buddhist temple. Now we’re back in Seoul!

I don’t know if any of you remember, but during my first week in Korea I went to a palace in Seoul called Gyeongbokgung Palace. Unfortunately, on that day I got there just a little bit too late, so two of the three main gates were open, but the actual palace was closed. Finally I got to go back with my parents and see the whole thing, but we ended up going during Children’s Day (the holiday that’s like a second Christmas for Korean kids), so the whole rest of the country had the day off and it was crazy crowded. Even so, it was fun all the same.

Just as a little reminder, here’s what Gyeongbokgung looked like back in February when it was cold and miserable…

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Brrr! These days it’s much nicer. (Please, don’t mind all the random people.)

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The building below is called Gyeonghoeru (경회루), but I call it the Party Plaza. It’s a large pavilion that one of the kings built out in the middle of that large pond for the sole purpose of holding really impressive state banquets. Unless you want to swim out there in your party clothes, if you’re not invited, you are NOT getting into that party. Also, I can’t remember if it’s true for this particular pavilion, but in most of the palaces the floors in the meeting halls had several levels, each one a step above the last, and if you were less important than your fellow nobles then you had to hang out on the lower levels. The king sat at the top level surrounded by rice cakes and bonbons, naturally.

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Turns out that when Seoul has the day off, everyone goes to the same place: Gwanghwamun Square (the large area right outside the palace.) You know how you always see those pictures of cities (usually in Asia) where the streets are just packed with people and cars and bikes and rickshaws and cows and who-know-what else and you can’t imagine how people can even move? Seoul was a little bit like that today, except everyone was so polite and my family can all see over everyone’s heads so it wasn’t really that claustrophobic. But maybe this pic will give you an idea of how crowded it was. This was taken just crossing the street.

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That evening we had tickets to see Nanta. Have you ever heard of Nanta? It’s probably the only show in the world where there’s a cabbage “splash zone”.

Nanta is a (mostly) non-verbal performance that’s a mix between a cooking show and Stomp. Sounds weird, right? It tells the story of three chefs (along with their boss’ completely incompetent nephew) who have to cook an extravagant wedding banquet in a very short time. However, Nanta is also a musical! Throughout the entire show the chefs play traditional Korean percussion beats with improvised instruments that they find in the kitchen (knives and cutting boards, metal bowls, trash cans, etc.) Throw in some action scenes, a little romance, acrobatics, magic tricks, some audience participation, and a whole lot of comedy and you have Nanta! The performers were very talented (the beats were super catchy and nobody ended up impaled on a cutting knife, so I’d call that a win), and they also made us laugh a lot.

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Oh yeah, and things get pretty crazy when you try and chop vegetables and play percussion on the cutting board so if you sit in the front at a Nanta show watch out for flying food!

Earlier during the day my parents and I had seen a “Texas” bar near Gwanghwamun. Curious about Korean Texan fusion? So were we, so we went back there for dinner after the show. Instead of steak and hamburgers like you might expect, they seemed to be under the impression that Texan food consists mainly of sweet potato. We had sweet potato quesadillas (yum!) and sweet potato balls with a dollop of peanut butter on top. I know it sounds really weird but it was surprisingly delicious!

The next day was finally Buddha’s actual birthday so we wanted to do something really memorable and very typical Korean… and boy did we! Read any guidebook and it will tell you that Koreans’ favorite pastime (besides drinking soju) is hiking, so my parents and I decided what better way to spend the day than by spending it like the natives. Early that morning we took the subway out of the main Seoul and up to Bukhansan (북한산) National Park, just north of the city.

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The view from the bottom. Bukhansan National Park is apparently the most visited national park in the world, with 5 million visitors annually.

Everything started out pretty good. Once we got to the mountain we just followed the signs toward Baekundae Peak (백운대). They said it was only about 4 kilometers to the top, which we figured wouldn’t be too bad.

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*sigh* We started out so naive…

Yeah, we were SO wrong.

Koreans take their hiking very seriously. Any time you go to a park or a hiking trail there are always a bazillion people all dressed in super fancy hiking clothes and carrying the very best gear… and now I know why. It turns out that when Koreans say “hiking” they really mean “a very strenuous hike over rough terrain for the first half of the trail, then mountain climbing over large boulders for the second half, and then just when you think you’re done, you have to literally haul yourself up the bare-rock mountainside with a rope.” I don’t have that many pictures of the way up because I was too busy dying from exhaustion, but to give you an idea of how steep it was, just know that the average “hike” has about a 10-15 degree incline. The path to Baekundae has a 30 degree incline. It was like climbing stairs the whole way… if those stairs were uneven and slippery and made of large boulders.

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The worst part was that pretty much every other hiker on the whole mountain passed us on the way up. There we were trudging along, huffing and puffing, and these people just breeze right on by.

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Note: this are not the people passing us on the mountain. This are people at the bottom waiting to get on their tour bus. The people on the mountain were moving way too fast to get a good photo.

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I swear the obnoxiously bright colors must be mandatory or something. And notice how most of the hikers are middle-aged or older? Now THAT is embarrassing when you’re barely able to pull yourself up over the next boulder and a dozen 60 year-old women go breezing by on little short legs while carrying heavy backpacks. The only consolation we had was that once we finally got to the top, we didn’t see many older ladies, so they must have given up somewhere along the way (ha ha ha!) And speaking of the very tip top, the only way to get there is to pull yourself by a rope for the last couple hundred meters.

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The entire hike to the top took us about 3 hours. We had no idea it would take that long so all we brought with us was some water, three oranges (hallabong we brought back from Jeju) and three small granola bars. Thankfully we were spared from having to resort to Donner-party tactics by some fellow hikers who took pity on us poor, unprepared foreigners and shared their kimbap with us. We were able to have a small picnic and enjoy the view.

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There are no guard rails or anything over there. People are just super careful not to fall off.

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837 meters up, 4.2 kilometers (though I’m 99% sure that was a lie. It was at least twice that!) I hated every minute of the way up, but just being able to stand on the top like that made it worth it!

Getting down took us at least another 2 hours. Starving, dehydrated, and physically exhausted, we finally made it back without dying, which I would say is a pretty good accomplishment. We immediately went straight back to the hotel where we fell in a vegetative state for several hours.

Oh, let me just backtrack for a second. The day before we went hiking my parents were like, “Oh, Dana, why don’t you ask your host family which mountain they recommend for hiking,” and I was like, “Yeah, good idea. I’ll ask.” But then when I got home that night my host parents had friends over and they were drinking and by that point everyone was kind of drunk and so I decided it might be a better idea to just take a look and see what the guidebook recommended, which is how we ended up picking Bukhansan. The next day, after I got back from hiking, K-mom was all like, “What? Are you crazy??? Bukhansan? That’s like the steepest mountain in all of Korea why in the world would you hike Bukhansan?”

Thanks K-mom. You got drunk and now I’ve developed an irrational fear of stairs. Thanks a lot.

Anyway, we rewarded ourselves with a fabulous dinner of grilled kalbi (beef ribs), which was quite possibly the most satisfying meal I’ve ever had in my life, and then some patbingsu for dessert.

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Oh my gosh have I told you about patbingsu yet!? Patbingsu (팥빙수) is like the Korean version of shaved ice, but it’s sooooo much better. It’s a bowl of really finely shaved ice with red bean paste on top, along with whatever other toppings you want, like fruit or chocolate. The ice has a little bit of milk in it which keeps it from freezing as hard as regular ice, so it’s really soft and almost like ice cream. If you ever find patbingsu back home you MUST try some!

The next day I actually had to go back to school (I was still pretty exhausted from our mountain climbing the day before, so that was a rough day) and then the day after that was my parents’ final day in Korea. We spent the morning hanging around the Insadong market and eating our favorite street foods before saying our farewells. Mom and Dad, thank you for a fantastic time!

And just a few final pictures…

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The Bestest Buddhist Temple

I promised I’d tell you guys about Yakcheonsa, so here we go.

Yakcheonsa (약천사) is the main Buddhist temple in Jeju. I guess there are other Buddhist temples that are bigger, but Yakcheonsa is supposed to have the largest main hall out of all the temples in Asia: five stories full of beautiful and elaborate decorations.

Remember, this is still back during the weekend right before Buddha’s birthday, so there are lanterns and people everywhere. And this is Jeju, so the temple grounds are covered in palm trees and hallabong orange trees. It looked and smelled absolutely beautiful. Honestly, if I were to become a Buddhist monk and I had to pick a temple in which to spend the rest of my robed life, it would be here, in Yakcheonsa. Oh, did I mention it faces the ocean? We kill for that kind of waterfront property back home.

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On either side of the main temple plaza are towers (one houses a large bell, the other, a drum, which they use for certain rituals) and also little mini-shrines, including the Hall of 500 Arahan. (I had to look this up, but an “Arhat”, in the traditional Sanskrit, is someone who has achieved nirvana, but didn’t quite reach Buddha-level enlightenment.)

In the center of the Hall of 500 Arahan is a statue of Buddha, naturally.

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But the rest of the hall is filled with these little guys. I’m not sure if there were actually 500 of them, but each one is supposed to represent a real-life enlightened person from back in the day.

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Just like those Chinese terracotta statues, each one is completely unique. They ranged from the majestic dragon tamers…

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…to the whimsically facial-haired…

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I don’t always surf the internet but when I do eyebrows.

… to the slightly confused about the purpose of chopsticks. (I wonder if he found anything interesting in there.)

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Look at that face! Pure bliss. Oh yeah… that hits the spot.

And then we entered the main hall.

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Buddha and his mini-me’s.

There was no one on the upper levels, but we snuck up there anyway.

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The walls are covered with murals that show scenes from Buddha’s life. I’m not sure what is happening in any of them, but my parents could probably tell you. The next week they were visiting a temple in Seoul and a random passerby took them aside and explained the whole story of Buddha’s life.

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Such detail! They even remembered to put the little butt-cracks in Buddha’s feet!

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This is Buddha’s entourage (aka, the warriors who protected Buddha.)

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For some reason this guy always got watch duty…

There were some really creative characters in some of the murals.

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I wouldn’t normally mess with a vicious-looking snake, but I DEFINITELY wouldn’t mess with a vicious-looking snake with arms! Yeah, nope.

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And don’t forget the girls from the Mickey Mouse club.

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And my personal favorite picture:

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Ooh! Something shiny!

Bam! 끝!

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Stay tuned for Skipping School with my Parents, Part 4: Would you pay someone to throw cabbage at you? We did!

Skipping School With My Parents, Part 1: Tour Guide For A Day

When I first told my parents I wanted to study abroad in Korea their first reaction was “um… why???”

Their second reaction was “um… what about Kim Jung-Un???”

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If you think it’s hard being the only fat kid in the second grade, try being the only fat kid in your whole country!

(In case you were wondering, South Koreans are’t the slightest bit worried at all about North Korea, and if they’re not worried, I’m not worried. They’re more concerned with taking over the world with subconscious messages hidden in popular K-pop songs, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Once I convinced my parents and started planning out my trip, they started to look into Korea too. Turns out there was a lot of stuff they were interested in seeing and doing and then they were more like “ooh! We’re coming too!”

And that’s how my parents came to visit me in Seoul for two weeks.

Let me tell you, it’s a lot of pressure being someone’s personal tour guide, especially if that someone is your parents. I kind of went into Mother Hen mode for a while. I worried a bit about setting them loose in a foreign country where they don’t speak the language and where they can’t even read anything, but mostly I worried about feeding them. I didn’t want to make them eat anything too weird, but I also didn’t want to feed them just bibimbap and bulgogi for every meal. When someone comes to visit you in a foreign country for a short time you only have a limited number of meals to impress them with the local cuisine so you really have to work hard to make each one count (especially since Seoulites are crazy drivers and you could die pretty much anytime you cross the street so each meal literally could be your last. Choosing what could be another person’s last meal is a big responsibility! )

Food-wise everything turned out pretty good. But the trip my parents planned was so busy we actually had to take a vacation from our vacation on Jeju Island. This was their basic itinerary: arrive in Seoul, spend one day in Seoul, take a 4-day bus tour through the Korean countryside, come back to Seoul, spend 3 more days in Seoul (with a DMZ tour thrown in, just for fun), then hop a plane to Jeju Island, spend 3 days in Jeju, fly back to Seoul, spend 3 more days in Seoul and then fly home the next day. Whew. No problem, right?

Luckily, the Jeju Island weekend was a 5-day weekend for Koreans: Monday off for Children’s Day (which is basically like Christmas but without the tree or Santa and with just the presents), and Tuesday off for Buddha’s Birthday (lots of Buddhist chanting, no tree, no presents.) I didn’t join my parents for the countryside tour, and there were one or two other days when I was like; “yeah, I should probably go to class today,” but other than that I got to play hooky with my parents!

Let’s start with Day One.

My mission (which I accepted with gusto!): tire my parents out so they adjust to Korean time. First we went to Namsan Tower (남산탑), which is like the Space Needle of Seoul but it’s built on a mountain (fortunately you can take a cable car to the top) and nobody wears socks-and-sandals (ugh, Seattlites.) After just a short elevator ride to the observatory you can look out and see the whole city from the top, which is awesome. However, Namsan has become the go-to spot for Korean couples, so it’s basically a monument to cheesy high school dating. On the patio at the bottom of the tower, couples can write their names on a padlock, clip it to the railing, and then throw away the key to signify their everlasting love (yuck!) The entire length of the railing is covered in layers and layers of padlocks. Like, a bazillion padlocks. If you’ve ever watched a Korean drama, you’ve probably seen a cheesy Namsan date (though not “Boys Over Flowers”, where the male and female leads don’t actually like each other and then they get locked outside of Namsan Tower after it closes. And by the way, there is totally a path down to the bottom of mountain so it’s kind of their own fault they stayed up there all night in the middle of winter. Just saying.)

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Like I said: cheesy high school dating.

And that wasn’t even close to the end of our day. My parents and I also checked out the famous Namdaemun Market (kind of sketchy, not our favorite), Myeongdong neighborhood (a bit more swanky), and Deoksugung Palace. Deoksugung is the smallest of the 5 major palaces in Seoul, but it was the most peaceful, and we got to see the guard-changing ceremony, which was kind of cool. There were all these guys in traditional Joseon era (Korea’s medieval period) costumes and they’re a bit like the guards at Buckingham Palace in London, so they won’t move no matter what goofy faces you make at them. Koreas are generally too polite to mess with the guards. Though it may have been because these guys were carrying swords and longbows, I don’t know.

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A dude in traditional Korean costume… and my mom doing a traditional Korean pose (you’ll see a lot of that in our pictures.)

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My parents’ hotel was in Myeongdong, so we hung out there that evening. Myeongdong is a really popular shopping district, so there’s lots of boutiques and makeup shops and yummy street-food carts. The makeup stores all sell escargot cream and from what we could tell from the badly translated English on the package, it’s either made from snails or snail slime and you’re supposed to rub it on your face for smooth, healthy skin.

No thanks. I think I’d rather look like the wrinkly, watery backside of an elephant than put that on my skin. Anyone who’s spent their childhood accidentally stepping on slugs with their bare feet (ME!) knows you definitely don’t want to put that on your face.

So, after that brief introduction to Korea, I bid farewell to my folks and sent them off on their countryside tour, where they actually were fed bibimbap and bulgogi for pretty much every meal. Even so, I got occasional texts messages from them saying how beautiful the countryside is…

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That’s a tea farm, I think.

… and how nice the people are. My parents kept getting approached by Korean university students who needed to interview foreigners for a class project.

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My parents are so evil: they made all the shy Korean students take photos with them.

Welcome to Korea, guys!

Stay tuned for Skipping School With My Parents Part 2: How I stepped over the yellow line at the DMZ and caused an international incident!