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!

 

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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!

Hanglish: Do You Speak It?

Hanglish: the very entertaining combination of English and Hangugeo (한국어, which is what the Korean language is called in Korean.) Also known as “Konglish”, for Korean-English.

I have been waiting to do this post for a loooong while and I think it’s finally time, since I’m leaving Seoul at the end of the week. This is the best of the bad English (and just plain weirdness) that I’ve seen since I got here. A lot of it is from Seoul, but some are from Jeju Island, where they don’t seem to be as fluent in English. Enjoy but be warned: contains some language that is not safe for children or those with delicate sensibilities.

First up: the best delicacies in Korea…

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The Korean just spells out “nude barbecue” and not real Korean words, so I dont know what this really is. Sounds a little dangerous though.

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Are the marine products invited?

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I LOVE gristle on a skewer!

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“Dumplings served in floorcloth” and “ramen crevice”. Yum! Actually, the Korean translates to “red ramen”, but I am still not clear on what that is.

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I think I remember eating this…

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It comes pre-digested? Oh my gosh that takes so much of the work out of eating! I’ll take two please.

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Okay, this was actually in Japan, but still, someone is clearly confused about what BBQ stands for.

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Would that look something like this?

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Note: picture stolen from the internet after I searched “Octopus Possum” just to see what would come up. Copyright and blah blah blah.

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I think this was referring to some kind of corndog.

What else can you buy in Seoul? How about some beauty products…

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We actually asked the girl at the store if it was real placenta and she assured us it was the best sheep placenta money can buy. Yeah… I don’t care how “timeless” it is, I am NOT going to rub that all over my face.

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I kept hoping this was a translation mixup. Nope. They really sell snail cream… for when you run out of placenta.

Don’t forget to check out these places too!

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“special tourist zone” What?

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But Mom… they have live jazz!

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So tempting…

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Perhaps they were dictating?

For the fashionistas among you…

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I love this picture. Not because of the guy’s clearly fake college jacket, but because the girl behind him is all contorted in a way that is straight out of “The Exorcist”.

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Funny… they don’t have that department at my school…

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Forgot something on your t-shirt, maybe?

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It’s not that this doesn’t make sense, but I don’t know why you would put it on a hat.

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I’m curious: what constitutes a “kolon” sport? Maybe I don’t want to know.

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Sorry this picture is blurry. I was walking behind this guy in the subway station and I had to take the picture secretly. Can you still read that? I have found that most young Koreans know this word, but only as a general swear word. They usually don’t about it’s use as a verb.

And finally, sometimes you just don’t need words…

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Apparently Koreans are just more creative at using the potty than we are.

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Well, I’m off to study for finals. That’s all folks!

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!

Everybody Loves Taekwondo Fighting!

I think I may have mentioned a few times that I am taking a Taekwondo class here at Yonsei. (Okay, maybe more than a few times, because I’m really excited about it!) I’m taking an international class so we have people from all over the world and of all belt levels. In case you don’t know anything about Taekwondo (and I didn’t either until 3 months ago) here’s the basics:

1. It’s pronounced “tay-kwon-do”, not “tai-kwon-do”

2. The main purpose of Taekwondo is to stretch your legs as ridiculously high in the air as you possibly can and kick the crap out the other guy. When you fight it looks a lot like this:

3. The secondary purpose of Taekwondo is not to let the other guy kick the crap out of you. Follow these three rules and you’ll be a martial arts master in no time!

I came in with no experience (as did many students) so I started with a white belt. I looked something like this:

However, last Friday I finally took my belt test to show I can do the basic blocks, punches, and kicks, so I am now officially a yellow-belt! That means I am one step closer to mastering all four elements!

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Besides the regular exchange program (that’s the one I’m doing), Yonsei University has an intensive Korean language program where you can take Korean classes all day for 3 month sessions. The spring session started a little over a month ago, and so we got lots of new students a while back, including half a dozen of these adorable little Japanese girls. No, really, they are soooo cute. Like little dolls. Or like characters from a Hayao Miyazaki movie (think “Kiki’s Delivery Service” or “Whisper of the Heart”, not “Princess Mononoke”. Yikes, that would be scary!) Though I found out not too long ago that even though they don’t look like it, most of the Japanese girls are actually older than me, so they think am the cute one because I’m the youngest.

Anyway, the good thing is they’re here specifically to learn Korean, so I have people at my level to practice with! The bad thing is I’m expected to kick them during practice but they’re so little and cute that I just can’t bring myself to do it.

Our Taekwondo master, Master Kim (or “김 관장님”) is a pretty cool dude. He’s been doing and teaching Taekwondo for decades so he’s a 500th degree blackbelt or something. He is also into biking and mountain climbing and all sorts of other stuff so he likes to arrange weekend day-trips for us sometimes. Two weekends ago he took our class hiking on Ansan Mountain, which is normally an easy hike, but it just happened to be like 2 days after I climbed Bukhansan, so that was a struggle. Turns out Master Kim also has this thing for taking pictures. He organizes the same trips every semester (or sometimes twice a semester) and when we get to very specific spots on the mountain he makes everyone stop and pose for a picture. Later he showed us the photos from the previous trips and they were literally all the same, just with different students.

Even when we went out for lunch afterwards he snapped the SAME picture of his lunch, which was the SAME kalbi stew he has every time after a student trip to Ansan. Oh well, it’s not like I would ever complain to him about it because he can totally beat the crap out of me if he wanted to. I’ve already suffered an accidental kick from Master Kim during training and let me tell you, that was NOT pleasant. (Though, it was kind of my fault: we had an odd number of students that day and so I was paired with Master Kim for kicking exercises and we were facing each other and he specifically said that he would kick first and then I was supposed to kick second but I totally blanked and kicked anyway and so naturally we collided and Master Kim almost took out my kneecap but luckily he hit me about an inch to the left, which is the only reason I’m not confined to a wheelchair right now. For a practice kick, it was pretty painful.)

Anyway, here’s the pics from Ansan:

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In case you can’t tell, I’m the very pale person in the blue shirt. And fun fact: the woman in the hat and the guy to her right were just random hikers that Master Kim pulled into our picture!

Then last weekend we went biking along the Han River, which is one of those things you’re supposed to do as a tourist in Seoul so I was pretty excited. But again, Master Kim had to get those perfect photos so sometimes he would stop us just so he could run ahead and stand on a specific hill and snap a photo as we all rode by.

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We rode out for about 2 hours before stopping at a noodle shop for lunch. On the way back we were supposed to stop off at Seoul’s World Cup Stadium for another photo shoot, but one unlucky student fell off his bike in a particularly gravelly area and got really cut up, so we had to cut our trip a little short. On the bright side, I learned how to say “there is a lot of blood!” in Korean.

That’s all I have about Taekwondo for now. It’s been getting really hot lately so class hasn’t been as much fun when the gym you practice in feels like a greenhouse. It looks like the soul-crushingly hot Korean summer weather has finally arrived! I’ve heard it gets even more hot and humid and then July and August are monsoon season, where it just rains constantly (I am NOT looking forward to that!) It also doesn’t help that Yonsei has this “no air conditioning until June” policy, so the classrooms are really hot as well, and everyone in my Korean class is practically asleep by the end of the two hours. I think the lack of air conditioning has something to do with trying to save energy but honestly, I’ve seen how they crank up the heating during winter so if they’re looking to save energy I know where they could start…

Starting next week I only have two more weeks of class left, and during the second week we have two days off from school for a local election day and Memorial day, so really, school is pretty much over (at least, in my head it is.) I’m even soooo done with this semester that I’m leaving the country early next week! Bye Korea!

Did I scare you? Let me explain: when I got my student visa, the embassy gave me 4 months starting from my arrival date, which is the standard amount of time for a single-semester study abroad student. However, I came to Korea two weeks earlier than the average student (remember I took that language class?) so my visa actually expires right in the middle of final exams. I figured it was probably best not to get deported in the middle of finals so I had two options: either go through the immigration office and fill out lots of paperwork and pay some fees and possibly have major translation problems and then get a 30-day extension, or fly to Japan for a day, give up my alien registration card, and come back on a 90-day tourist visa. Hmmm… paperwork or weekend trip to Japan…

Surprise: I’m flying to Osaka next Sunday!

I won’t be gone long (only about 24 hours) but I’ll have enough time to spend a long afternoon in Japan and be back the next day in time for Korean class. I kind of wish I had more time to spend there but the only words I know in Japanese are “domo-arigato”, “wasabi” and “kobayashi maru” and I don’t even have a travel buddy so I’m going to play it safe this time. (Okay, I also know “konichiwa”, “sushi”, “bonsai” and “bonzai!” for a grand total of 7 words, so I should be able to get by: I don’t believe in no-win situations.) I will tell you all about my trip when I get back!

Then after that I’ve got a few final exams and then summer vacation! I’m planning on spending the summer doing a work-stay in Busan (more on that later) so I should keep this blog updated through mid-August. For now, here’s a Konglish pun:

In what country do people have 4 arms?

네팔!

(Hint: copy and past “네팔” into an online translator. Read result. Then add a new line (not just a space) between “네” and “팔”. Read result. Realize I made a really clever pun. Laugh until you pee!)

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 2: Trolling in the DMZ

Previously: two weeks ago my parents came to visit me in Korea. We spent a busy day seeing half the stuff in the Seoul tour book, and then I sent them off by themselves on a 4-day countryside tour. Now they’re back in Seoul. What kind of crazy adventures will we get into this time???

We started with a tour of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea (affectionately known as the “DMZ”.) There’s not a lot of comic relief going on up in the DMZ, so I’ll keep it light by throwing in a few Kim Jong-Un memes:

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Unfortunately, my parents and I were not in a joking mode that morning either. You see, we had to get up at 0 o’clock in the morning after spending the night on beds like this:

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That is a room in a traditional Korean house (called a “hanok” house) that’s been turned into a bed-and-breakfast. The beds are basically mats on the floor. My parents had a hard time, but I was actually pretty comfortable. Maybe I’ve finally fully adjusted to Korean life!

The tour was in English, so most of the other tourists were American or Canadian, and for me that was the first time hearing that much fluent English in over two months and it was reeaaalllly weird. After a whole day like that I was really starting to miss the bad Konglish I’m used to hearing.

The DMZ is about an hour drive north of Seoul, and it refers to the 2 kilometer buffer on either side of the border between North and South Korea. In the DMZ there is a military base for both sides, but they’re only manned by a few guards (at least that we saw.) On our side are U.S. and South Korean soldiers, and on the other side are North Korean soldiers. After a quick info session (where they tell you not to acknowledge the North Korean soldiers, or wave to them, or point at them, or make silly faces, or hand gestures, or suggestive winks, or any other kind of nonverbal communication that might be considered fraternizing with the enemy), they took us to these buildings:

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The tall building in the background is the North Korean clubhouse. (No girls allowed!) The blue buildings in the front are used for talks between the two sides. Each one sits directly on the border, exactly half in South Korea and half in North Korea. I actually got to step onto the North Korean side, so technically I’ve crossed into North Korea! I even took pictures on the North Korean side:

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Aw man! I just realized I didn’t get my passport stamped! Bummer.

But what’s up with those soldier guys, right?

Those are the South Korean soldiers. They’re known as the ROK, which stands for the Republic of Korea (the official name of South Korea.) By law, all men in South Korea have to spend two years in the ROK sometime between the ages of 18 and 35. Typically, most guys will wait until they’ve completed 1 or 2 years at college (just to get the prerequisites out of the way), and then enlist. After 2 years they come back (super buff and now a much bigger hit with the ladies!) and finish their degrees. Everyone in the army takes an aptitude test that helps decide where they get posted and if you happen to be a black belt in Taekwondo and you have the right aptitude, you get placed in the DMZ. Lucky you!

These guys stand like that for hours at a time. I never saw them move. Not once. They stand in the same spot every day and watch North Korea.

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The two soldiers on the side stand half-exposed and half-behind the building so they can signal to their superiors with their hidden hand in case they see anything suspicious. And also to make themselves less of a sniper target (though apparently they don’t care too much about the guy right in the middle.) Yeah, not a high-stress job at all.

(When our American soldier tour guide first told us about the “rock” soldiers I thought he was referring to the way they stand there all day without moving, but apparently he was talking about the “ROK” instead. I still think of them as the “rock” soldiers. Doesn’t that just sound so much tougher?)

That small concrete line you see in the picture above is the official border line. Oh, in case you were wondering what would happen if you tried to run north: basically, the ROK soldiers could stop you if they wanted (they are Taekwondo black belts, after all) but most likely they won’t bother with that and they would just shoot you instead. Though it’s not like you’d be much better off in North Korea, anyway.

Whoa, that was dark. Sorry. Here, have a laugh:

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We only saw one or two North Korean soldiers standing outside, but apparently there are more that hide out in their club headquarters just across the border. The American soldier giving us our tour said that sometimes the North Korean guys will stand by the windows and make rude gestures. Also, sometimes they creep through the woods and do the hokey pokey over the border (one foot in, one foot out…) while singing “na na na na na na” as well as other, non-G-rated taunts (the American soldiers said they’ve learned lots of good Korean insults this way.) North Koreans are pretty much trying to provoke our guys into starting a skirmish so that they have an excuse for a full-scale retaliation. The American and South Korean soldiers have orders not to start an international incident so we’re probably all safe for now, but it gets pretty boring up there so it’s a good bet that on any given day all the soldiers are just sitting around insulting each other’s mothers.

We actually got to see into North Korea, too. A while back they built a town they call “Victory Village”, which was really just for propaganda to show how fine and dandy everything is over there. Apparently up until a few years ago there were enormous loudspeakers set up in the town that broadcasted North Korean propaganda 24 hours a day. It was supposedly so loud you could hear it on our side of the DMZ. Nobody actually lives in this village though, and most of the buildings are fake, like movie sets.

What surprised me most was that South Korea has a village in the DMZ too. It’s called Daeseong-dong (대성동) and the main difference between its northern counterpart is that this village existed here before the Korean War and there are actually people living in it. The villagers are mostly rice farmers, and although they’re a bit isolated from the rest of South Korea, they have this great flagpole that’s 320 feet tall and a flag that’s almost 300 pounds. The flag was donated to Korea by the Olympic committee after the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. However, North Korea decided they didn’t like to be one-upped so they built their own flagpole… that’s 525 feet tall and carries a 600 lb North Korean flag. The flag is literally so heavy that they have to take it down when it rains, otherwise it will be torn in half by its own weight. A bit of a nuisance for a town with no people in it but hey, at least it looks good, right?

We learned from the tour guides that most Koreans these days don’t actually care too much about reunification. It’s just not a priority for them. The people who still have family in the North would like to see the two Koreas united, but their numbers are dwindling. Also, the people in charge of the DMZ are kind of hopeful as well. If you pay attention to the news at all you’ve probably heard of the joint Korean factory? Well there’s also a train line that runs north that would theoretically take passengers between Seoul and Pyeongyang. They built the last station as close to the border as they could, but it’s never been used. We bought tickets though, just in case:

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Finally, the last thing we saw was the tunnel. Back in the 70’s and 80’s the North Koreans tried tunneling across the border and they would have put troops through them except that the tunnels were discovered and barricaded. We got to walk down part of tunnel #3, but we weren’t allowed to take pictures there, just in case they were leaked and the North Koreans get to see of what kind of barricades are down there (hint: a series of moats with live crocodiles, electric eels, and those fish from the Amazon that swim up your pee-pee!) The scary thing is that even though 4 tunnels have been found, they suspect that there are many more they haven’t found yet!

Anyway, like I said before, although the South Koreans are cautious (hence the mandatory military service) nobody is really worried about a North Korean invasion. Korean students here have told me that (and I’m paraphrasing a little) “oh, we can totally take them.” Also, my Dad read somewhere that although North Korea’s army makes up 40% of their population, their economy is so trashed they could only afford to feed their troops for a week or two.

Oh, and every time we finished seeing some part of the DMZ, there was always a gift shop. Leave it to the Koreans to take a secret North Korean assault tunnel and turn it into a shopping experience. You could buy anything from your basic “someone who loves me went to the DMZ and all I got was this lousy t-shirt” to Kim Jong-Un bobble-heads.

Dont worry, I got you all t-shirts!

Stay tuned for part 3: Jeju Island – if you can dream it, they’ve probably already built a museum for it. Also, belly-button citrus!

(P.S. I got my parents to send me their photos from that first day, and I’ve added them to my previous post. My dad only takes photos in raw format or something so once he emailed them to me I had to download them as .dat files, open them in a pdf viewer in order to convert them to jpg, and then use Internet Explorer to upload them to WordPress. When I used Chrome the browser would freeze up and I had to restart my computer at least 3 times. Anyway, it was a pain in the butt so the least you could do is go check out the photos.)

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!

A Very Merry Buddhist Birthday

Here’s a riddle for you: Who’s been dead for 2000 years but still has birthday parties?

Answer: Buddha!

(Edit: So, apparently when most people read this they thought of Jesus, which actually makes more sense. I’ll just clarify then: Jesus is 2014 years old. Buddha is a little over 2500 years old. Though technically this is only his 6th birthday, if you start from his latest reincarnation as a wild and carefree Shetland pony.)

Whether you picture Buddha like this:buddha4

Like this:

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Or even like this…

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Ermagherd! Berhdda!

…it’s time to break out the cake and presents because Buddha’s birthday is less than a week away!

Yay!!! Are you excited? I’m excited! Koreans are so excited they held a lantern festival last weekend, because a week of celebrations is soooo much better than just a single day, right?

The lantern festival parade was in the evening, but I went early with some friends just to make sure we would get a good spot. Actually, we got there like 6 hours early and ended up hanging around the local neighborhood, Insadong (which is a major touristy shopping street), and creeping on people in Tapgol Park (탑골 공원), like these brightly dressed park-goers:IMG_0185

And these fine gentlemen of the swanky hat club:IMG_0187

And this guy on a picnic with his granddaughter:IMG_0217

And also this dapper old fella:IMG_0199

The whole city is decorated with these lanterns right now:IMG_0194IMG_0196IMG_0197

And this is Insadong. Eventually there were so many people you could barely move! We saw quite a few fun characters this afternoon; a few monks, lots of people in traditional Korean clothes (한복, “hanbok”), and even a few nuns. I think there must be extra karma floating around on Buddha’s Birthday because as I was taking pictures of random people on the street, there were photographers taking pictures of me and my friends too. It may have been for tourist sites or something, because they often like to show foreigners having fun at Korean events, but I’d like to think I’m just that charismatic.IMG_0226IMG_0233IMG_0237IMG_0240

Yum! Traditional Korean iced tea (from Starbucks!)IMG_0234

And then the parade! Some parade people had already set up rows of seating and they just let us sit down wherever we wanted. We ended up in the second row.

There were hundreds of participants in the parade, each with at least one handheld lantern. Some people were in modern clothes, but there were a lot of traditional outfits as well. And a lot of monks too.IMG_0266 IMG_0285IMG_0268IMG_0283IMG_0318

But the best part was the floats!

(In order from “okay, that’s kind of cool, I guess” to “Oooh! Aaah! Special!”)IMG_0345IMG_0290IMG_0271IMG_0270IMG_0357IMG_0288IMG_0263

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(In case you can’t tell, that’s a baby riding a large, fanged fishy thing. Because that electronic toy that makes farm animal noises is too lame.)

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The peacock moved its head, open and closed its beak, flapped its wings, and moved its tail feathers!

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This dragon breathes fire!!!

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Omg seriously! It freaking breathes fire!!!

Ha! And you thought YOUR birthday party was cool because you rented a bouncy house!

Until next time 🙂