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!

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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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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!

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!

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!

The Good, the Bad, and the Squidly

So far I have received two conflicting pieces of advice about being a pedestrian in Seoul: one foreigner told me, “This is Seoul; you don’t need to worry about cars,” and another told me, “This is Seoul; you can die crossing the street!”

Thanks guys. Thanks so much.

I have noticed that although cars will not look like they’re going to stop, drivers will never hit you. However, I would never want to drive here; I think you’d have to be either suicidal or completely mad in order to try it. I’ve seen buses go through red lights if it didn’t look like anyone was going to cross, and apparently motorcycles and mopeds don’t have to abide by any traffic rules whatsoever. On the bus it seems like the bus drivers are having a seizure or something because it’s always lurching and swerving and you get thrown all over the place. Surprisingly, the percentage of traffic-related deaths in Korea, though higher than the U.S., is still below the world average (I looked it up!) Still, on days when the weather is nice I actually walk to school even though it’s over a mile and Yonsei is literally built on the other side of the mountain (so I do have to walk uphill both ways!) Better a long hike every morning than several near-death experiences.

What’s that? Did I say I was going to school? Maybe…

In fact, this week is orientation week. Well, more like Tuesday was all-day orientation and the rest of the week has been a mad scramble to get registered and sign up for classes and open a bank account and get my phone working and buy school supplies and figure out where the heck all my classes are and walk back and forth and up and down campus all day. So much fun! Throw in a little food poisoning on orientation day (I almost threw up on a bank teller!) and it’s been quite a party. Now now, don’t be all worried; I’m over it now. I think it was just that everything here is different – the air, the water, the food, the germs, etc – and my body put up a valiant effort for the first week or so but eventually the Korea cooties had to take over. Now I say bring it on! My stomach can take it… I think.

Today my sister sent me an email in which she told me she envisioned Korea like this:

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Wow! So cool! So beautiful! Unfortunately (although I can’t speak for the rest of the country) I think it’s only fair to warn you that a lot of Seoul actually looks more like this:

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Sorry to burst your grand illusions of Seoul, but unless you’re in one of the super-rich areas, like Gwangwhamun Square, things look like they’re falling apart. Sometimes there are construction materials just abandoned in an alley or whole bits of a wall eaten up by vines. In the neighborhoods it looks like everyone was in such a rush to build! build! build! that they stepped all over each other and then just sort of patched-up around it afterward. Often the sidewalks are mismatched or just unfinished.

Oh, and see how the sky in the bottom two photos is a little foggy? That’s the smog that blows in from China. Apparently it’s pretty bad this week.

Wow, now I just made Seoul sound like it’s some third-world country or something when it really doesn’t feel like that at all. Despite it’s rugged exterior, it’s probably the most modern city I’ve ever been to. I mean, Seoul probably has the best wi-fi of any city in the world: it’s everywhere! The people here are super fashionable (more on that another time!) and the public transportation is amazing. And when it comes to food and entertainment I think it must be against the law for any building not to have at least two restaurants, a salon, a supermarket, a boutique, and a karaoke bar. Seoul is also known for being very, very safe, and it definitely feels that way too. Also, practically everything talks to you. Trains and buses automatically announce the stops (okay, not that unusual), crosswalk buttons will tell you to “please wait”, cars will tell you they are out of gas, and I’ve even heard rice-makers announce when your rice is done cooking! Koreans are also super up-to-date on their technology; everyone, even the frumpiest old lady, has the newest, shiniest phone, and while both families I have stayed with do not have dishwashers, they do have really nice televisions and surround-sound systems.

Throw in all the palaces and ancient stuff as well and overall Seoul is super old and super new at the same time. People check their text messages while riding high-speed super trains on their way home to eat traditional foods whose recipes have barely changed in a thousand years. I think that’s pretty cool.

Oh my goodness, speaking of traditional foods, this is probably what most of you have been waiting for: my oh-no-good-lord-what-is-THAT-in-my-stew-oh-eww-I-can-NOT-eat-that-no-no-no moment

Spoiler alert: it was tentacles!

It started when Grandma and Grandpa (my host dad’s parents) came for the weekend. Grandma has this sweet, endearing little habit of adding strange invertebrates to every meal. First these little clam creatures started appearing in the deonjangjjigae. Okay, I could deal with that. I just ate around them.

And then there were bigger, lumpier clam creatures. Still okay, I can handle that, no big deal.

And then at breakfast this morning there were tentacles in my stew and that’s when I was like, “nope. Nope. I do NOT do tentacles. ESPECIALLY not for breakfast. Thank you but no thank you, Grandma.”

I mean, I’ve seen tentacles in food before and it never grossed me out, but this was my first time staring at them in my own bowl and contemplating putting them in my mouth, contemplating what the texture might be like… if the little suckers would get stuck in my teeth… Maybe some of you love to eat squidly appendages but it was too much for me. Luckily no one seemed interested in force-feeding me, so I just tried not to look at my suckered little friends waving at me from my stew (the smug little things!) and tried to look enthusiastic about eating rice instead. Dinner was better, but Grandma kept forcing me to eat dumplings. I don’t know if she was worried about me not eating as much earlier or if she just wanted revenge because I didn’t eat the lovely octopus she cooked.

Alright now, let’s give your gag reflex a break and move away from the seafood. Have I mentioned Korea’s latest musical obsession? Strangely it’s the “Let it Go” song from the movie “Frozen”. They play this song everywhere. I’ve heard it in the train stations, while walking by shops, while eating at restaurants, as peoples’ ring tones and finally, just now in the school café. There was even a TV advertisement for the Olympics that played it in the background. I’ve never seen anyone over the age of 5 so in love with a song from a Disney movie but they just adore it here.

Oh, and more fun examples of American media here in Seoul: I’ve seen posters for the movies “Robocop”, “Hercules”, “Nonstop”, “Pompeii”, and that new Kevin Costner movie where he’s a retired spy or something. They seem to be really fond of our action movies. I’ve also seen a TV spot for the Korean rendition of the musical “Wicked” or “위키드”, but Glinda looks kind of funny when she’s an Asian woman in a blond wig. Sorry.

Not that I have time to go see musicals this week because school starts on Monday! I have met a few international students already and honestly… I don’t like them that much. It’s weird but when I see another American or European (actually I can usually hear them first, they’re pretty loud and obnoxious) I’m torn between “omg you speak English be my best friend!” and “eww you repulse me, why are you such an obvious tourist?” Now I sound like a major hypocrite but seriously, most of them know almost no Korean so they’re walking around saying, “anyoonghaysay-yo!” and being generally ignorant.

Damn foreigners. Who needs ’em anyway.

Let Them Eat (Rice) Cake!

Okay, so I lied. I was going to wait until this weekend to write another post but I just have so much to tell you all! Luckily I haven’t forgotten anything because I have been keeping track of my daily activities in my journal. Yes, I have a journal. No, you can’t read it. It’s in Korean, so most of you won’t know what you’re reading anyway. I figured what better way to improve my writing than by practicing a little bit every day. Right now my Korean is still pretty limited so each entry is like; “Today I saw an old palace. It was beautiful. I ate bibimbap. I eat kimchi on the train. I eat kimchi in the rain. I like kimchi, Sam I Am. I eat it with green eggs and ham.” Yawn!

Anyway, about that palace… After class on Tuesday I went with two other international students to Changdeokgung (장덕궁) Palace. It’s weird; you can just be just strolling through some neighborhoods (wondering if you’re a little lost, maybe) and then you turn the corner and BAM! Humungous Joseon dynasty palace right in the middle of Seoul. And ‘humungous is not an exaggeration: Changdeokgung has several giant courtyards and gates and throne rooms, and apparently it’s only a fraction of the original compound that existed hundreds of years ago. Changdeokgung was the major clubhouse for the emperor and his buddies since like 1400 or something. This isn’t supposed to be a history lesson though, mostly I want to impress you with the incredible detail that went into dozens of buildings. Take a look…

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In Korea, the homes are traditionally heated by heating the floor, rather than by hot air from the ceiling. This kind of floor is called “ondol” (온돌). In Changdeokgung, all the buildings are about half a story off the ground, and here is one of the little cubbyholes where the servants would keep the fires going to heat the palace. So cozy!IMG_0047

Continuing this week’s tradition of doing traditional things, yesterday I took a Korean cooking class at the Tteok Museum. The class was offered through my language program and I went with several international students from my Korean class. Tteok (떡) means “rice cake” and yes, there is a museum dedicated to rice cakes. Apparently there are over 200 kinds of traditional rice cakes, all of which I will tell you about right now.

Just kidding! Did I scare you? I only made two kinds of rice cakes yesterday: kkotsangbyeong (꽃상병, or “flower mountain rice cake”) and the less-interestingly-named pumpkin cupcake.

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See how the little cakes look like a little flower on a mountain? There is actually sweet red bean paste in the middle. Yum. They were very sticky. Hard to believe that it was all made out of rice.

(Sorry for the bad photos. I’m not… yikes, I was going to make a reference here but I realized I don’t actually know any famous photographers. Let’s just say I’m not an expert, saavy?)

And I wore a traditional hanbok. Not my best look, but it was comfy.IMG_0053

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In case you can’t tell, in the photo above, I’m the one on the far right.

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Tasty as it is, rice is hardly a sufficient meal, so later I found myself in need of nourishment (in fact, I’m starting to notice a potentially disturbing lack of protein in the meals here) so I sought out the sketchiest, hole-in-the-wall dining establishment I could find. It was a one-room mom-and-pop joint run by too-much-makeup grandma and much older, very tiny, shriveled-up grandma. This was my chance to finally try doenjang jjigae (된장 찌개), a stew made with fermented soybean paste. I had heard about deonjang jjigae for a while, but it turned out to be not my favorite dish. Oh no! The first thing I’ve had so far that wasn’t super delicious! Oh well, it was still nice of the stew’s resident fish to share it with me, even if they did stare at me with little dead fish eyes the whole time.

Oh, I almost forgot! Yesterday I also met my first Korean actor. Kyung Hee University invited Lee Sun Ho to visit our class. Never heard of him? That’s okay, me neither. He showed us a list of all the dramas he had been in and I had never heard of any of those either. My first famous person and I’m not cool enough to know who he is. Whatever, my English is better, so I’ve got that going for me.

Ha, but you think all that is exciting wait until you hear about today!

Today…

…after class…

…I went home…

…and took a nap. It was beautiful. Seems like I can only handle so much adventure at one time.

Other than the time difference, I have been very surprised how stress-less my trip has been so far. Oops, let’s not jinx it though; I’m sure in a few weeks I’ll have an emotional breakdown and start craving American food and fluent English conversation. Maybe I’d better start scoping out where to find Ben & Jerry’s, just in case. Although, Baskin Robbins are very popular here, surprisingly.

But seriously, it is so easy to get around in Seoul. The trains really are amazing and I actually could write a whole post on just the trains and all the weird stuff I’ve seen on them, but I’ll save that for another time. It is unbelievably freeing to be able to leave in the morning with just my train card and $25 worth of won in my wallet and know that I can go anywhere I want, entertain and feed myself for several hours, and then come home again perfectly safe with cash to spare.

Ha ha. Hear that? That is the sound of my mom starting to hyperventilate. Don’t worry, I keep an extra 50,000 won (about $50) hidden on me at all times. However, I have never felt unsafe, even when traveling alone. There are a lot of a people though, especially at the train stations, and everyone is scurrying around like crazy while watching K-dramas on their cellphones, but somehow they all manage not to run into each other. People do look at me, but no one stares On the other hand, no one seems too impressed that I know my way around a train station either. I get treated with more or less the same indifference everyone else gets, but it’s not a cold indifference. It doesn’t feel… scowl-ly, I guess is how I would describe it. People are in a hurry and seem to acknowledge that everyone else is in a hurry and if someone shoves you a little bit on the train it’s not because they are mean, it’s just because they have somewhere to be and they have to be off the train NOW. Actually what is most incredible is that it is never more than 5 minutes between trains. I don’t think they even make train schedules because I haven’t seen any.

And now here’s where I get really deep and philosophical, guys. Sometimes I’m walking along the street or sitting in class not really paying attention and I think, wow, here I am with all these other foreign students, far from home, experiencing another culture and learning a new language, how cool is that? And then I realize that these people are from literally all over the world, and I get this feeling like I’m part of something bigger than myself and I feel really big and really small at the same time (sappy, I know. Shut up.) I am actually part of that mysterious “globalization” that you learn about in high school social studies, but it doesn’t feel like as modern as that. Instead, I feel like an explorer! I am part of a centuries old custom dating back to those old silk road merchants, or vikings, or Christopher Columbus, or those Polynesian fishermen 6,000 years ago who may have made it to all the way to Mexico on straw boats (Yeah right National Geographic).

I am the next Marco Polo and children all across the world will be shouting my name in swimming pools. Just you wait.

Day 1… Or, How My Cafeteria Food is Better Than Yours

I woke up only slightly dead this morning. Still sick, still pretty tired. Anyone who saw me must have thought; “yikes! What awful place does she come from that leaves you red-eyed, pale and sickly looking?” I don’t mind too much because all the food here is delicious. Literally all of it. In the dictionary under “Korea” should be written nothing but “The country where Korean people come from and WHERE ALL THE FOOD IS DELICIOUS! YUM YUM!” Because seriously, if you don’t like soondubu jjigae (soft tofu stew) you are a godless heathen.

I met my host family for the week:  I now have a Korean mom, dad, and 6th grade brother. I also have a miniature poodle that forgets I live there and barks hysterically whenever I exit my room. The family also has a daughter but she is off attending high school, in Idaho of all places. This morning my host mother made me the most elaborate breakfast I’ve ever seen: rice (of course) and stew and sausage and kimchi and eggs and other little side dishes. Yum!

I started language classes this morning at Kyunghee University. Out of 12 people in the incoming group, wanna guess how many were American? That’s right, just me! Yay! My fellow orientation-mates are from China, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Japan. We had a quick orientation and a placement exam, which put me in a class level that was about half review, but the teachers thought I would have more fun if I didn’t have to study my brains out for the next five days, and the next class up was completely beyond me anyway. I’m kind of glad it turned out that way because now I can just practice having conversations and get into the groove of things and not have to worry about overloading my brain until I go to Yonsei U. next week.  My class is part of a longer language program that started a few weeks ago, but I was able to join in okay. I have classmates from literally all over the world, and the most outgoing person in the class is a German girl who has already mastered English and Japanese. She’s got a lot to say and 4 languages to say it in.

I bought lunch today for 2,8000 won! That’s right: 2.8 THOUSAND! It actually comes out to about $2.64 and it was probably the best $2.64 I’ve ever spent, because (surprise!) everything was delicious. I immediately went straight for the Korean food, but you would be surprised how many of the other foreign students won’t eat it because it’s “weird” or “too spicy”. I’m sitting there surrounded by these little tiny Chinese girls who pick at their rice and I’m slurping down tofu stew and bulgogi (grilled, marinated beef) like there’s no tomorrow. Ha! Their loss!

After class I was paired with another foreign student and we met our tutor buddies; I now have two girls whose sole purpose in life is to show me around Seoul and chat with me in Korean. They are taking us to one of the old palaces on Friday.

After class I had to make my way back home… by train… by myself! I could have sworn we took line 1 on the way out, but the map didn’t show my station on that train, so I spent several minutes wandering around a little bit until I honed in on the one white person in the whole train station. At last! Someone who looks like he knows what he’s doing, and he probably speaks English! But no, he just looked like he knew what he was doing, so I found a train conductor/expert person who pointed me to the line 3 train and saved me from a surprise trip to who-knows-where. Narnia, probably. Or John Malkovich’s consciousness.

The trains are crazy busy. The overhead announcement for each train arrival is preceded by some kind of musical diddly ranging from traditional Korean tunes to trumpet fanfare, which is kind of cute, but there’s like a million people on each train at any given time and they all push and shove their way past you to get on. Nevertheless, I rode the train like a pro and got home in time to make kimbap (like Korean sushi. Think rice rolled in seaweed with stuff in the middle, but usually without raw fish, like real sushi) with my host mother. Had some tea, and now off to bed at (gasp!) 7:30. Whew!

Oh, want to hear a pun? I promised puns!

In Korean, an egg is called 계란 (geran). So, what did the bus driver say to the egg?

“Hurry up and geran!”

Comic genius!

That’s all for now. I will have an update at the end of the week. Until then, go enjoy your next meal knowing it’s not as delicious as mine!