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!

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 🙂

 

The Korean Language – Where the Verbs Are Verbs, and the Adjectives Are Also Verbs

There are many great mysteries in life. Where do we go after we die? Are we alone in the universe? What is the purpose of Stonehenge? Does Bigfoot really exist? Where in the world is Carmen San Diego? Why is the sad cebu sad? (Ha! Now there’s a reference!)

Unfortunately I don’t have the answers to all these questions (that’s what Wikipedia is for!) But what I do have is some insight into the deepest mystery of all (cue cinematic simultaneous thunder and lightning): the Korean language.

Now, if you’re a 한국사람or a 재미교포 you can stop reading now because most likely you already know all this and it’s probably better if you don’t watch me try to explain complex grammar to the 외국인; it might get ugly. But, I promised that I would keep you all up to date on what I’m up to and since all I’ve been doing this week is studying Korean in preparation for my midterm exams, I’m going to try and spin that in the most entertaining way I can. Hopefully this doesn’t get too confusing (or boring) for you guys. Keep in mind this is also simplified a LOT. You’re not going to be fluent by the end of the next couple of paragraphs but you’ll be able to say you know something about a foreign language that you didn’t know before.

First of all, as you may have guessed from the title, there’s something a little different about Korean adjectives… and that’s because they’re technically verbs. That’s right: dot your “i”s, cross your “t”s, and don’t forget to conjugate your adjectives! In the present tense both verbs and “adjectives” are conjugated pretty much the same, though they can differ a little depending on the grammar form. So for example, in English we have the adjectives “sneezy”, “sleepy” and “dopey”. In Korean they would translate to the verbs “to be sneezy”, “to be sleepy” and “to be dopey” (though I don’t actually know if these adjectives really exist in Korean.)

The number one rule in Korean grammar is that all sentences (and phrases) must end with the main verb (or adjective, since they’re treated like verbs.) This would explain why, if you’ve ever heard anyone speaking Korean (or listened to Jin and Sun yell at each other on “Lost”), you might notice that most of the sentences end in “yo.” To a non-Korean speaker it sounds like “blah blah blah blah yo” or “blah blah blah blah seyo”. Before you were probably like what the heck? But now that you know all sentences end with the verb you’re probably thinking why are they just saying the same word over and over again? Is there only one verb in Korean? Actually, the verb changes, but the “yo” is added on for politeness. It shows respect for the listener.

Let’s clarify the respect thing a little bit. In Korean, there are different methods of speech based on the status of your listener and the status of the person you’re talking about. If you’re speaking formally, like giving a speech or a report or talking to an older person in a formal setting then you use the highest form of speech. When speaking to someone who is older than you, or who is your age but you don’t know them that well, you use the polite form (that’s the “yo” verb ending.) If you’re talking with a close friend or someone who is younger than you, you can relax and drop the “yo.” Each of these forms can be adjusted to reflect the status of the person you’re talking about as well. In case you’re interested, here’s an example (that “Lost” fans might appreciate) where you can hear the difference. Notice how the younger speaker adds the “yo” at the end but the older speaker doesn’t?

It’s actually not too confusing once you get the hang of it, but I tend to forget when I’m speaking because I’m used to using just the polite form in class. Sometimes I end up speaking too politely to my host sisters (who are younger than me), and occasionally I’ve slipped up and been informal with my host mom, but I don’t think I offended anyone too badly. They kind of expect that foreigners will mess up a lot. However, I have heard that there is a double standard for Korean Americans. If you are of Korean descent, even if all you know how to say is “hello” and all you know about Korean culture is “Gangnam Style”, Koreans will still expect that you speak fluently and know all the Korean customs. Then they get really disappointed in you if you don’t. Sorry guys.

Whew, thanks for hanging in there guys. Learning Korean can be hard. For example, there are two verbs that mean “to be” in Korean. One is used for statements in which you equate one thing to another thing, like if you say “that animal IS a dog” or “my favorite food IS bulgogi.” The other one is used for statements that show existence of something, like “there IS a pencil on the table” or “there IS a chopstick up my nose.” See the difference? Now that’s not confusing at all!

And for my 한국사람, a pun, just for you:

할아버지는 여자친구를 어디서 찾았어요?

E-할머니!

ㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ

Because I Promised My Mother I Would Take Pictures…

There has been a serious lack of pictures in my recent posts and I don’t know about you, but reading is sooooo much more fun with pictures. That’s why they don’t have kids books available on tape. Imagine how ridiculous “Green Eggs and Ham” would be with just the words.

It’s especially beautiful in Seoul right now because of all the cherry blossoms, so here’s some photos from my weekend.

A very windy picnic by the Han River. It was actually so windy that we ended up leaving after about half an hour. Those girls are on their phones because we were all looking for another place to eat.10009803_10152371546822386_1089928615_n

The Yonsei campus:IMG_0117IMG_0119IMG_0114IMG_0103

On Sunday I went hiking on Ansan (An Mountain, “san” means “mountain”) with my host mom. Ansan is right next to our neighborhood and it was a pleasant (but very windy) 1-hr hike to the top. The whole mountain was covered in cherry trees and bazillions of happy picnic-ers. I swear the whole city was hiking Ansan today.IMG_0134IMG_0130IMG_0131IMG_0129

Me and host mom. She’s the tall one in the pink jacket:IMG_0127IMG_0141IMG_0137

The view from the top. You could see all the way to Gangnam!IMG_0144IMG_0150 IMG_0149 IMG_0147

Other than that I’m not up to a whole lot. Just school and homework and taekwondo class. And watching Kpop Star with my host family (go Sam Kim!). Kpop Star is like the Korean version of American Idol except the judges are way nicer. Today they narrowed it down to the top two singers (who actually both happen to be Korean-Americans, so sometimes they revert to English in their commentaries and I get really excited because I can actually understand what’s going on.)

Until next time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You may now call me: Yu Dana

Here’s how you spell it: 유다나

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Host Mom: “Do you want more rice?”

Me: “No, no. No thank you.”

Host Mom: “I’ll get you more rice.”

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

Host Mom: “Are you sure?”

Me: “Yes, really. I am very full.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Host Mom: “Who wants dumplings?”

Itsatrap!

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

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

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

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

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