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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Beating The Heat At Gwangalli Beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kimchis!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Just some mountains…

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These guys again. Someone has a thing for figurines.

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White Lotus???

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time guys!

Seeing the Sights, Sighting the Seas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eventually they combined into one massive monster fish! IMG_1043

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

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

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

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

American Werewolf in Busan

It’s been a week since I moved into my workstay in Busan so I think it’s time for an update, don’t you?

Most of you are probably unfamiliar with the concept of a language café, so I’ll start there. Basically, Koreans pay a membership fee (like you would for a gym), and they can come in the café whenever they want and chat with foreign staff members (us.) Members come pretty regularly. usually a few times a week, some almost every day, and they typically stay for several hours. And although most of the members come to practice English there are a few who are learning Japanese or Spanish as well.

Besides the managers, the staff are all traveling volunteers, like me, and they are literally from all over the world (though everybody speaks English.) Out of the dozen or so staff members none of us are from the same country. Many of them have traveled all over and are really fascinating people. I think this job attracts very easy-going, mature people who like to travel and make new friends, so we all seem to get along pretty well so far.

Those of you who know me well know that I am generally an introverted person. Usually after spending a lot of time with other people I need to go home and recharge and avoid all human contact for several hours. So you can imagine that for me, the idea of doing a job where I’m supposed to talk to strange people for 6 hours a day every day was only slightly less mortifying than when there’s a spider in your room and you turn away for like 1/100th of a second to find something to kill it with and when you turn back the spider is gone. I was honestly really worried about how I was going to do this job, but the first day of work it took me about 5 minutes to get in the groove of things. It’s actually a bit like spiders: the Korean students are generally more shy of you than you are of them, so you just have to smile and be friendly and make them feel comfortable. Also, the fact that I can speak Korean is really useful for helping the less experienced students. So far I’ve been having a ton of fun.

Even though my job is great so far, the more I think about it it’s actually a very strange job. Basically I’m being paid (okay, not really paid. Compensated with food and housing) to be friends with random Koreans. Our job is to be super friendly with everyone and make sure that all the café members get to participate as much as they can in the conversation. We usually spend most of our time at a table but the café has board games and foosball and a pool table too if members want to do something else while they chat. Basically we have to be charming and make sure the customers have a good time (and yes, I know how that sounds. Don’t worry, we’re forbidden from dating members.)

The amazing thing is that you actually do become real friends with the Korean members. A few days after I got here two staff members left to continue their travels and both staff and members were very emotional. I think when you spend that much time with someone every day for several weeks it’s hard not to become real friends.

The language café is located in a busy college neighborhood (a lot like Sinchon neighborhood, where I was staying in Seoul), so we’re surrounded by bars and restaurants and loud drunk people at all hours of the night. The owners of the café also own two apartments in a building just around the corner from the café. Both apartments have enough bunk-beds to sleep about 25 people (yeah, it’s crowded. I share a room with 3 other people, though some of the rooms have 8 people.) One of the apartments is the “hostel”, which is used for backpackers and other guests, and the other apartment is for the staff, so that’s where I’m staying. We don’t have enough staff to fill all the beds so there are also Korean students living here for the summer. It’s a good deal for them because they get a cheap place to stay that’s close to school AND free English tutoring all day long, and it’s cool for us because we get to make friends with Koreans who aren’t café members (and maybe be invited out for drinks and karaoke, like I was two nights in a row. It was fun while it lasted, but not a good idea in the long-run: I’m sooo tired.)

The staff also has to clean the hostel and the café, so another part of my job includes cleaning shifts a few times a week, but I don’t mind too much. I get two days off per week, in case you were worried about me working too hard.

And Busan? Oh Busan… I’m pretty acclimated to Korea by now so the biggest shocker for me was the Busan accent. Apparently no one thought it was important to warn me that they speak really different in Busan. It’s so different, in fact, that I actually have a hard time understanding people (good thing my job is to speak in English, right?) Some of my Korean roommates explained to me that they consider the Busan accent to be “manly” and the Seoul accent to be a bit “girly.” They say that Seoul-ites think people in Busan sound too aggressive when they speak. I’ve noticed that the Busan accent is less “sing-songy” than the one in Seoul, so to me (and my English brain) it feels like the difference between a British accent and an American one (except that we all know Americans don’t have an accent.) I think Americans would think of a British accent as more posh and “girly” than ours. As for the culture, Busan-ites seem a bit more boisterous than Seoul-ites. I’ve noticed that people are louder on the subway and they bump into you a lot more. My personal bubble took a beating this week.

Wednesday was actually my first full day off so I got to take a little subway trip and finally see some more of the city. I went to the famous Jagalchi fish market

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Very fresh, obviously, but I opted for lunch at the less-fishy market across the street. I’ve told you about hoddeok pancakes, the fried donut-like cakes filled with nuts and melted brown sugar, but they’re typically a winter treat so I was really surprised when I found them here in Busan. Not only are Busan hoddeok filled with the same brown sugary goodness, but when you order one, the little old lady at the street cart opens up a separate part of the pancake like a pita and scoops in a different, special sugary nut mixture with lots of sweet, crunchy seeds. It was 80 degrees out but I ordered a piping hot hoddeok anyway… no regrets!

Just up the hill was the Bosu Book Street, which is a quaint little alleyway of tiny shops filled with crazy amounts of books.

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I even found a few familiar titles, both in English and Korean.

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That’ would be “Merida and the Forest of Magic”. Sounds a lot more exciting than just “Brave”, if you ask me.

I crept around the neighborhood for a while and then followed some random stairs up to the top of the hill and was able to see a pretty good view of the city. Busan, unlike Seoul which has one city center and is situation between several mountains, is built around several mountains, so it’s sort of divided into several large areas and it’s really throwing off my sense of direction. I miss knowing the lay of the land. Seoul was MY city, you know?

I only have a few weeks here but I suspect I’ll get to know Busan just as well. I still have yet to go to one of the beaches. There are also some great hiking mountains and temples around here as well. And since Busan hosts the Busan International Film Festival in October every year, there are supposed to have some really awesome movie theaters here. If there was anywhere you should spend a rainy day at the movies (and rainy days ARE coming!) it should be Busan.

Though I think I’ll be happy if I just figure out what the heck everyone is saying!

Oh! But I heard this great family joke:

가족!

Ha ha. I’m so funny!

Japan Without A Plan

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

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Joint locks don’t work on invertebrates!

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

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

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

I can’t speak Japanese.

I can’t even READ Japanese!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My favorite part is that kid in the background!

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

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It’s a chipmunk!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sucky sucky!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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*sigh* We started out so naive…

Yeah, we were SO wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And just a few final pictures…

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The Bestest Buddhist Temple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…to the whimsically facial-haired…

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

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

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

And then we entered the main hall.

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Buddha and his mini-me’s.

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

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

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

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

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For some reason this guy always got watch duty…

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

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

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

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And my personal favorite picture:

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Ooh! Something shiny!

Bam! 끝!

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

Skipping School With My Parents, Part 3: Jiving in Jeju

Riddle me this: what is approximately the same size as Maui, covered in volcanoes, and smells like citrus?

It’s Jeju Island!

Jeju (제주도) is South Korea’s most famous island; partly because it’s pleasantly warm and tropical, partly because it’s got lots of cool volcanoes and lava formations, partly because it’s got lots of open space for doing things you can’t do on mainland Korea (like riding horses!) but mostly because of bellybutton oranges.

The oranges are called Hallabong, after the most famous (and largest) volcano in Jeju, Hallasan (한라산, or Halla mountain.) Hallabongs look like regular oranges except that they taste way better and they have large outie bellybuttons. This makes hallabongs surprisingly easy to peel and inspired their unusual name. See the resemblance?

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Uncanny, right? Jeju is also known for these “grandfather” statues. They’re everywhere. Some were made by ancient Koreans and some were made just last week to stick next to the tourist stops, but they’re all carved out of the same volcanic stone.

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My parents and I flew into Jeju early on a Friday morning, ready for a nice, relaxing weekend. You can get there via a short, one-hour flight from Seoul, which is really convenient. Trying to rent a car in Jeju… not so convenient. The rent-a-car guy apparently thought it was a better idea to communicate via translator app than by just speaking a little bit slower in Korean (he was trying to translate whole sentences at a time, which is never a good idea between Korean and English). We finally did get a car… but then we had to drive it. Or rather, my dad had to drive it. In Jeju. Where traffic laws don’t exist, apparently. Once you get out of Jeju City, every so often along the highway there are just blinking red lights at the intersections and we never really figured out what that meant because half the time the other cars would stop and half the time the other cars would just speed right through. We’re kind of afraid that the Jeju police will track us down and in a few months we’ll have millions of won worth of traffic tickets to pay.

Jeju is not a big island, so we managed to drive around half of it and stop for plenty of excursions along the way to our final destination – the city of Seogwipo (서귀포, pronounced “saw-gwee-po”) on the island’s southern coast. Here are some of the highlights from our weekend:

Manjanggol (만장굴) Caves. Jeju is actually made up of several (hopefully dormant) volcanoes, which created these cool lava tubes that run for miles under the island. You know how in the states there are a bazillion rules protecting every single little stalactite and stalagmite and you’re not even allowed to shine bright lights on certain rocks for too long because you might accidentally scare some poor piece of algae? Well, Koreans don’t have that problem. They set up a system of lights in the cave so that you could actually see everything when you walked through. Lava makes some really cool formations when it cools: at the very end of the tunnel is a place where the ceiling broke while lava was still flowing, so hot lava poured through the roof and made a… well, I guess you would call it a lavafall.

Ilchulbong (일출봉) is probably the second-most famous volcano on Jeju. While Hallasan is in the center of Jeju, Ilchulbong started off separated from the main island until it erupted and made itself a nice little lava land-bridge. Ilchulbong is quite impressive when standing at the bottom. The photos don’t really do it justice, but here you go.

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We thought it would take us forever to get to the top, but again, the Koreans went and made everything really convenient by building stairs all the way to the top. I guess it was a nice day for hiking because we were joined by several busloads of tourists. (Did I mention Jeju is like the Hawaii of Korea? It’s everyone’s favorite tropical getaway spot.)

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Hey there, Mom!

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At the top is a giant crater. Because, you know, volcano!

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Wow, Mom sure likes taking pictures. Say “kimchi!”

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The Jeju inhabitants used to have this annual tradition of throwing maidens off the top of Ilchulbong as a human sacrifice to appease their capricious and impressively-bearded sea god, but now they have a tradition of not doing that.

Okay… you got me. They didn’t really do that. But the mountains and lava-cliffs do inspire that kind of “god of chaos” feeling.

By the evening of the first day, my parents and I finally made it to Seogwipo and checked into the hotel. We were completely exhausted, but we had to go into town to find dinner, and then we ended up taking a walk to Saeyeongyo Bridge (새연교). At night it lights up like this:

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On the other side is the tiny Saeseom Island (새섬도). We took a nighttime stroll through the woods and snacked on hallabong oranges in the moonlight. The kind of thing that would have made a romantic date… if there weren’t three of us. And two of us weren’t my parents.

The next day was our busiest. First we checked out two waterfalls, Cheongjiyeon (청지연) and Jangbang (장방.)

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Aww. So picturesque!

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I think we liked Cheongjiyeon better. It’s in the middle of a forest and it’s very pleasant, while Jangbang falls over beach-side cliffs into the ocean, and you have to climb over a bunch of rocks to get there. Note: Cheongjiyeon is not to be confused with the nearby Cheongjeyeon, which is known as the “Pond of Heaven’s Emperor”. Legend tells that the Emperor of Heaven’s seven sexy nymph handmaidens used to sneak down to the falls in the middle of the night to bathe. You know, ‘cause taking a bath outdoors amongst the curious mortals is so much more fun when you do it with six of your closest friends. We did come across the handmaidens’ bridge though.

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“Oh, la la la. Isn’t this lovely? I just happened to forget my seashell bikini but good thing I brought my mini harp!”

If you like museums, Jeju Island is the place for you! There’s a museum for everything here: The Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum, the African Art Museum, the Body Museum, the Greek Mythology Museum, the Trick Art Museum, the Sex Museum (yes, that’s actually a thing.) However, if you like cuddly, tacky and slightly bizarre (okay, really bizarre), the Teddy Bear Museum is a must see. I think I’ll just let the pictures do most of the talking on this one, but basically they had recreated everything from historical events to celebrities to famous works of art all with teddy bears.

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The “teddycotta” soldiers

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Knocking down the “bearlin” wall

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I think, therefore, I bear.

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“Bearfast” at Tiffany’s

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After the Teddy Bear Museum the three of us felt like we needed to do something a little more cultured (and a lot less cheesy), so we finished off the day at the magnificent Yakcheonsa Temple. However, this post is already too long and I have a lot of pictures from the temple, so I’m going to put it in the next post (very soon, I promise.) So in the meantime…

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Cool lava formations. Though, I’m pretty sure this is where Leonardo DiCaprio washes up on shore in that first scene in “Inception.”

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Mom actually drowned while posing for this photo. You won’t be seeing her in any more posts.

This guy is called Yongduam, or Dragon Head Rock, because the Jeju-ians believe it looks like a dragon. There’s a whole legend (and I’m paraphrasing) about how the dragon stole some pearl from somebody important but he didn’t quite make it to the sea before he was cursed and turned into stone.

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I don’t know… to me it doesn’t look that much like a dragon, but it does remind me of this:

That’s all folks!

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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!