Category Archives: Korea

Seventeen Weird Things That Aren’t Weird in South Korea

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This entire post is going consist of generalizations and over-generalizations (if those are even two different things?) Of course all of us know that weird is relative, and one set of cultural norms isn’t objectively less strange or more weird than any other.

That said, there are a lot of things found in the daily life of your average Seoulite (which is really the only part of Korea I can speak to) that might be surprising to your average westerner (or at least North American.) And with that in mind, I present the following list.

Thanks to Nahid for helping me come up with some of these items.

919mq5tx0zL._SY355_Ramyeon (also known as ramen) is popular, as you’d imagine. But it is maybe even more popular than you can guess, possessing perhaps the social cache of coffee in the west. Banks give you ramyeon gift sets when you sign up. popular Kpop stars endorse particular brands, optometrists and phone shops give away ramyeon too.

 

  • Crazy, Shut Up. Due to stigmas against mental illness, crazy isn’t really said much. In the west, or at least in the US, crazy is a very common description: “Last night was so crazy,” “That’s a crazy song,”  etc. Not so in Korea, and calling someone crazy is considered rude. (This is changing though and it’s becoming more acceptable.)
    However, telling someone to be quiet or, much worse, to shut up, is considered the height of rudeness. I taught little kids who would swear in English, “Oh my god this shit” but they wouldn’t dream of telling someone to shut up.

BillboardPlastic Surgery. In the west, there’s still a slight taboo against plastic surgery. Not so in South Korea, which is number one in the world (just beating Brazil). It’s a common gift to 16 and 18 year old girls as a coming-of-age present. Plastic surgery tourism brings tens of thousands of visitors every year. And when I was teaching Buddhists, all of the women (in their 50s+) said they had or would consider getting plastic surgery.Subway stations, especially in affluent areas, have many, many ads on the walls

  • CCTV Other than in your house and (possibly) in the the bathroom, you’re always on tv. Perhaps this is the reason crime rates are relatively low. Thieves and muggers both have been caught, weeks later sometimes, by police who followed them over a long series of surveillance videos.

soaponastickWashing hands after using the bathroom. Women and men alike use this time for a variety of purposes–to examine their reflection, possibly re-apply makeup or straighten their hair. Almost never to actually wash their hands. Culturally hand-washing is almost a non-existent concept. (I brought a bar of soap to my school bathroom during the MERS scare, and it lasted for 11 months.) This can be frustrating when you have to line up behind several people absorbed in their own reflections waiting several minutes for the chance to reach the water that no one else is using. (When there is soap, it’s a cool blue soap on a stick)

  •  Not just for the Toilet. Rather than use a discrete system of paper products–toilet paper for the loo, napkins for the table, tissue for runny noses, paper towels for the kitchen, etc, South Koreans have all those things, but they use toilet paper for all such purposes. Which makes sense, but for many westerners it’s odd the first time to see toilet paper on restaurant tables or clutched in student’s hands. Toilet paper is so useful that it is mostly sold in large packs–18, 24–and is a common housewarming gift.
    Additionally, toilet paper itself often isn’t for the toilet. Much of the plumbing in Seoul is old and not built to handle 25 million people’s bathroom needs. So you have a separate “used paper” trash in your bathroom that you take out with your regular trash. I know what you’re wondering and, yes, Seoul does smell very bad in the hot summer sun.

    8024956668_4fe644297a_mPigeons Admittedly, pigeons in Seoul can look incredibly manky, as close to the pigeons that you know as Gollum is to, say, Merry or Pippin. Both Koreans, especially women, act like they’re in Hitchcock’s The Birds when a Pigeon even gets close. They scream, run away, wave their arms and flee in the other direction at the approach of a pigeon.

  • Movie Snacks. Koreans have adopted the large cineplexes of the west and even improved them, with things like 4dx being standard options for new releases. Instead of popped corn with artificial butter (which is also a pretty strange snack if you think about it) they prefer dried squid as their go-to movie snack. Like popcorn, it’s also popular at amusement parks or really anytime.

mr pizzaHis and Hers food.  I have been to a few health food restaurants where they serve one kind of rice to men and one kind to women. There is even a pizza chain dedicated to serving women’s pizza (although for some reason it’s called Mr. Pizza). And it’s not as simple as women are assigned diet foods and men get more substantial portions–I think it ties into traditional medicine.

  • Packaging. When you buy a box of ten cookies, the package is wrapped, as are each of the cookies. Even fruit is shrink-wrapped as a matter of course, even BANANAS, which drives me, um, bananas.

trashTrash cans/Rubbish bins are a scarce sight indeed around the city. You can walk hours without seeing one. Because of this, there are piles of trash on the street that become defacto trash piles. Anyone unwise enough to have a basket on their unattended bicycle will likewise find it full of trash. Many foreigners fill their pockets or purses until they finally encounter a receptacle.  (Why are there no trash cans? It is said  because that way North Korean Agents can’t use them for bombs, but it is also said that the real reason is that there used to be many more but too many people used them for their personal trash to avoid paying for trash pickup at your home.)

  • Funny. Never does this mean something that makes you laugh. No, it’s simply a form of the word fun, and can be used like “so much fun.” It actually is more intuitive than the way we use the word, so I’ve stopped correcting my students.

5596039b-905b-4076-ab27-785fcf5a74b9PDA. It’s really not okay to hug or especially kiss your significant other in public. But holding hands is okay! And not just couples, but same-sex friends. Old men, little girls, teen guys, business men, mothers out shopping with other mothers, it’s just kind of a cool thing here. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s not a strange thing to happen.

  • Unique Situation It’s become a bit of a meme to mock this, but for some reason this is something that many Koreans say. Something like “I will be late today. Please understand my unique situation.”  Maybe the closest expression in English is “bear with me” but then again maybe that’s not very close either. It’s a weird bit of Konglish that doesn’t really make any sense but that many people use.

facemaskFacemasks You wear a facemask either when you are feeling sick, or when you are not sick but everyone else is. Other times are in spring (Yellow Dust Season, when the winds blow sands from the Gobi desert throughout the city) or on a high pollution day or when biking along the river. In other words, any day is a good day to wear a mask. The one time I wore one, back when I had the swine flue, it was really hard to breath and vastly uncomfortable, but I guess its something you get used to.

  • Names in red. As a teacher, I have a red board marker, a blue one, and a black one. Never, never never can I use the red to write a student’s name. The reason: Traditionally the names of the deceased were written in red on registers, gravestones and plaques to ward off evil spirits so now  using red to write a name means they will die soon or you want them to die.

adjummaGetting shoved. Personal space is fetishized in the west, but isn’t much of a thing in Korea. If you are in between an adjumma and her seat on the subway, she won’t even think twice about shoving you out of the way to get to her seat. For you to react to this shove in any way would be considered very rude indeed.

 

There are lots more things I could cover but I think that’s good for now. If you want to add any, please tell me in the comments.

Budget Yeti: Veggie Shopping in Korea

That old myth about going out in Korea being cheaper than cooking at home keeps cropping up and it always bothers me. Granted, many food items here are expensive, and costs keep going up. But it’s still cheaper almost every time to cook at home.

In Seoul, it pays to shop seasonally here. Unlike North America (and probably other places) there is a seasonal shift to produce prices here. Apples are super cheap in September, for instance, and now is Hallabong season. I think this is a good thing, environmentally of course but also habitually. Now some of these seasonal surpluses are strange to my eyes (why oh why is strawberry season in January?) but overall it’s a good system.

The area I live is kind of adjumma central–there aren’t really any bars or even noraebongs. In their place are lots of little markets though, and many good places to stock up on fruit and veg.

And stock up I do. The below list was all purchased at a biggish mart, which isn’t the very cheapest place around but it has good selection. Here’s a look at a week’s worth of veggies for two people. The total price is a little high because it’s a big bag of garlic but even still you can see how cheap it is.

Now this isn’t a complete meal, of course. You’d probably want to get a carb like rice (around $5 for a kilogram, or maybe $7 for 800 grams of brown rice) or udong (about 50 cents a package) or pasta (about 2.50 for 450 grams) or if you venture into Itaewon you can even get something exotic like basmati rice or couscous, though those start to get more expensive.

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A Typical Vegtastic Meal

The shiitake give you a little less protein than your standard mushroom, but not to worry. A big block of fresh tofu is about 2 dollars or the smaller, packaged ones are usually around 1 dollar.

Add it all together and a big, healthy meal with local produce is only a couple of dollars. There’s just not any restaurant that can compete with that. The cheapest comparable is a bowl of kalgooksu, which at a cheap place is around 4 dollars for a big bowl. For less than 4 dollars, this equals 4 bowls so it’s quite a bit cheaper.

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By contrast, this meal from Osegye Hyang, which had mandu, soup, and a gluten/rice dish (plus banchan) costs about 22 bucks.

Now I understand most people want a little more variety in their lives than daily iterations of the same meal. And not everyone is willing to make the effort to cook every night, even when they’re tired. Those are different reasons, though, from the tired old falsism that it’s much cheaper to eat out than cook at home. (And not very good reasons, either, in my opinion, although that’s neither here nor there.)

Yes, things are considerably more expensive now than they were 5 years ago but it’s still possible to cook for yourself and still not break the bank. That’s all for this installment of my rant. Thanks for listening!

Best of 2016 in pictures

Just like last year, I spent almost the entire year in South Korea, with a short trip to Japan constituting my only traveling. (And other than a trip to Seoraksan in the spring, I haven’t even traveled around Korea much this year; my weekends are filled with writing, playing RPGs, and writing.)

If 2015 got me back on my feet, 2016 sat me down at the table and fattened me up. It’s been a great year of urban wanders and veggie cooking. I’m still trying to figure out what’s in store for 2017, but it seems like it should have a bit more travels.

Anyway, here’s a picture from each month for the year.

January 2016

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January – The Frozen Wasteland of Yeoido

January – Yeoido gets quite a few visitors for the fall leaves, a lot more for the spring cherry blossoms, and even more in summer time for riverside picnics. Winter is, by contrast, empty and silent. Which is perfect for stark, chilly winter strolls.


February 2016

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February – Ice Turtle

February – For Sollal (Lunar New Year) I went on a writer’s retreat at a little area outside Seoul called Petite France. Petit France is kind of an underwhelming mini-theme park (with no rides) dedicated to The Little Prince.

After the conference, Nahid and I wandered around the area and climbed a small hill, where we discovered this frozen turtle fountain which was just above an ice festival.


March 2016

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March – Best Cake Ever!

March – Continuing the tradition of a birthday hike, a small group of friends took a quick jaunt up Namsan. Once there we ate some incredible Cookie Cream Pumpkin Spice cake from Plant before heading back into Itaewon and HBC for some live music. Good birthday!


April 2016

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April – Suwon Hwaseong Fortress

April – This spring went by quicker than ever, but a visit down to a friend in Suwon meant a day of walking around the fortress walls followed by an immense feast of Indian food and a round of Game of Thrones the board game. You can’t really see in this picture, but the trees were just bursting with blossoms. I’ve been to Suwon several times but this was the most beautiful of all.


May 2016

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May – Seoraksan’s Buddha

May saw my only trip out of Seoul, a return to my favorite part of Korea. We hiked up to Ulsanbawi, which was everything you could ask for: foggy, stark, dramatic, and squirrel-infested. But it was this friendly Buddha on the way up that really encapsulates the Korean mountainside.


June 2016

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June – Cozy vegan restaurant nestled in Insadong

June – With the dearth of vegan restaurants in Seoul, the discovery of Ose Gye Hyang was a beacon in the wilderness. It’s not a Loving Hut, but it’s owned by the vegetarian food company Vegifood that supplied Loving Huts with their supplies. I’ve been back a few times and for my money it’s the best vegan place in Seoul. (Plant is awesome but doesn’t really do Korean food).


July 2016

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July – Abandoned Bball Court in Children’s Grand Court.

July was hot as balls, and yet Nahid and I spent the weekends wandering far from the safe confines of aircon. One day led us, loaded with books and portable water coloring kits, (respectively) to Seoul Children’s Grand Park we spent a sweaty few hours wandering around and listening to the chorus of cicadas before sitting down to read and paint (respectively.) The discovery of this post-apocalyptic basketball court was just a bonus on our way out.


August 2016

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August- Toyoma Restored Castle

July – I’ve blogged about my disappointment with my big summertime trip to Japan, but the more time that goes by, the better the trip gets in retrospect. I guess that’s how it always works. Anyway, wandering around Toyoma was great practice in exploring a place I had no expectations of.


September 2016

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September – Mini Hike in the hills behind Insadong

September – Insadong keeps on popping up as my favorite place, month after month and year after year. It must be my favorite part of Korea, or at least one of them. This little hike is just an amendment to the proper one but the views from here are pretty cool.


October 2016

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October – Olympic Park and Lotte Tower

October was hot and autumn never really arrived. On the night before Halloween, I took Nahid to Olympic Park where I read “Shadows Over Innsmouth” to her as it slowly got darker and colder. Spooky! The Lotte Tower is doomed to collapse in ruin and tragedy, but for now it looks pretty cool.


November 2016

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November – Forest Temple

November – Fall went by oh-so-quickly this year, though I got out looking for leaves every weekend. This photo from a hill behind my house is one of my favorite views of Seoul.


December 2016

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December – Yeoinaru Station

December traditionally is kind of let-down in this series, but this picture was taken while we were filming a Cyberpunk short film that I wrote. A great entry for one of my best Decembers yet.

Past years: 2009, 2010, 2011,  201220132014 and 2015.

Yeti Eats: Vegetus

There’s a new vegan restaurant open in Seoul, and it’s even conveniently located in HBC.

The space is nice, and compared to Plant, it’s positively palatial. There is a beer/cider fridge for those who want to wash down their meals with something intoxicating. The service is great too.

But for me it’s not a very good value. The prices are high and the portions are low and unlike Plant, it mostly tastes like stuff I can make. Take the Burrito Bowl, which at 12,000 won is not cheap. It’s almost entirely rice and lentils, with a little bit of sauce and cut up cilantro. For that price, it would be nice to have seitan or tempeh or well anything other than literally the two cheapest foods in the world.

I hate to be negative about any place, especially a vegan place, especially here in the land of omnivores. And the veggie burger was good. But I don’t know if I’ll go back, not when Marrakesh has a vegan sandwich for 5000 won just 5 minutes down the street.

Yeti Daytrips: Vegan Fiesta in Hongseong Village

Improbably, it was a facebook add that informed me about a Vegan daytrip. Well, FB must know I’m vegan and in Korea, but still it kind of surprised me. It was through a website called Playplanet, which I’d never heard of but looked kind of cool. The daytrip was expensive, but these things are in Korea, and just look at that menu. It looks like something my sister would eat in Portland, not the kind of grub available in Korea.

 

It started off with a long bus ride, then some “Traditional Korean dying” (which we hippies called tiedye.) The coolest part was for the yellow die we just used turmeric, which smelled pretty awesome. We then met some village elders who told us they used actual Ducks to eat the pests and thus go organic , and it is working well enough that 2 million tourists a year descend upon the town of 230 people to witness it. There are little statues of ducks throughout the village too.

Then we went to a fashion show put on by disabled Koreans while we drank lotus tea and ate Hangwa (Korean traditional cookies.)

 

The food, when it came, was pretty great. Buffet style in a historic Joseon dynasty house with no electricity and live musicians playing violin and a traditional korean instrument that sounded suspiciously like a kazoo.

 

 

But the whole thing was kind of weird too. Like, early on we learned that none of the people hosting the event were vegan or even interested in veganism. Frequently they filmed us and asked us questions about what we thought about s0-and-so. The people acted a bit strange and it almost felt like we were going to be recruited into a cult. While we were eating, the brought cameras and lights on us and asked us to sum up the experience in one word. So strange. In the end, we suspected (strongly) they were secretly making a promotional video for a catering company. Or something like that.

I dunno. It was a fun trip, and the food was good, but the bizareness of it kind of outweighed the postives. So all-in-all, pretty much your prototypical Korean experience.

Vegan Seoul – 2016

The last time I blogged about being vegan in Korea, it was 2011 and the world was a different place. Veganism was growing in popularity in Seoul. There were vegan buffets, more every month it seemed, Loving Huts with all kinds of options, Purely Decadent had dedicated stores and was even available in some convenience stores. It was an exciting time.

But in many ways, it seems the  great vegan experiment is over. All but two Loving Huts are shuttered and gone. The buffets are closed and forgotten. The top 5 restaurants I blogged about in 2011 are all long gone. And it’s not a surprise. Korea isn’t really a place that vegans prosper. It’s more surprising that it even tried to catch on here.

Honestly, even though rents are expensive I think the market for veggie and vegan food is ready to expand. A restaurant that sells vegan mandu and ddukbokki could make a killing, I think. Plus there aren’t any mock-meat Indian, Thai, or Chinese restaurants that could clean up. It may take time, and the vegan market will  skew away from Koreans and toward foreigners for a long time, cutting out so many potential customers. But the opportunity is there.

Anyway, until then, here are some of the best places to eat as a vegan in Seoul. It’s not a comphrensive list, but all of these places are pretty awesome.

Plant

Location: Itaewon

This is probably the most famous vegan place in Korea, and it’s as tiny as it is delicious. Although it can be hard to get a seat, and the portions are, too my taste, both a bit expensive and a bit small. But it’s a great haven and the baked goods are incredible. I got my birthday cake here and it was so good it impressed my omni friends.

Baker’s Table

Location: Gyeongridan

I haven’t actually tried the vegan sandwich, but the baked bread is so good. The Focaccia (tomato or garlic) might be my favorite edible thing in the whole city. You can also get hummus at High Street Market (about a 20 minute walk away) for a tasty little sumthin’ sumthin’.

JULY 2016 UPDATE: I actually will never go to the Baker’s Table again. Last time I went, the focaccia was so old and stale that I could barely eat it. Well, no worries. I went back and ordered the vegan sandwich. They cooked the vegetables in bacon grease, like a lot of bacon grease. I can’t recommend them as a vegan option anymore.

Taco Loco

Location: Sinchon

Thanks to some friends who introduced this place, it has become my favorite Mexican in Seoul. There aren’t too many vegan options, but if you order the veggie burrito without cheese it’s totally happy. It’s a bit cheaper than other Mexican places, plus the burrito comes with avocado.

Cafe The Bread Blue

Location: Sinchon

A weird name, sure, and it’s a little expensive. But this place is cool; like a typical Korean bakery but everything is edible for vegans. They have cool little cups of parfait and soy milk for all their coffee drinks. The cafe is cozy and a fun place to, say, play a board game.

Subway

Location: Everywhere

Not the first place you think of, but given that most of the vegan places in the city are either in Sinchon or Itaewon/HBC this place is a bit of a oasis. In order to get a vegan version, order a veggie sandwich with no cheese with Italian bread and hot chili or sweet chili or sweet onion sauce. This is a cheap and cool option and Subway has saved my fakin’ more than once.

Petra Palace

Location: Itaewon

A long time ago


There are a couple of other restaurants I’ve been to but don’t have pictures of, including Jack’s Bean in Hongdae. Also, at least some Paris Baguette’s carry a Quinoa Lentil Bean Salad.

Also every vegetarian or vegan who lives in Korea probably knows about Iherb, but it’s an awesome source for nutritional yeast, Braggs, herbal tea, quinoa, oatmeal and so much more. Here are some of my scores this year.

 

While it’s harder to be a vegan in Korea than it was even 5 years ago, there are plenty of places to go. Especially in the Hongdae/Sinchon and Itaewon/HBC area. It’s not 2011 anymore, but hopefully it’s better than just convenience store apples and pringles.

 

A Typical Week in Teaching

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Leave the Class for one minute and there’s poo everywhere. Poo shoes!

One of the questions I asked for one of my classes on their monthly Speaking Test. They are one of my favorite classes. This kind of shows how funny and weird they are.

 

The question is: What do you like about your best friend?

Student 1: “She is very high nose.” 

She thought this was a completely satisfactory answer so I gave her 3/5 points.

Student 2: “She has very straight, very black hair.”

Better grammar. And who am I to quibble on the importance of straight hair in friends? 4/5

Student 3: “She is very kind to me.”

Perfect. 5/5

Student 4: “He is very smart.”

This doesn’t seem funny but the look he gave me was like “You know what’s up.” 5/5 and he wasn’t done.

The next question: What is an important quality in a friend?

Student 4: “Money. I think money.”  (His look: “You still know what’s up.”



In another class with lower level students, they learned about twins. I asked them if they knew the word for three brothers/sisters born at the same time.
One girl, Marsha, who is preternaturally smart, shot her hand into the air.
“Trio,” Marsha said confidently.
“No,” I said. “But that’s very close. In fact, the word starts with tri.” I said, writing TRI on the board.
All the kids raised their hands simultaneously.

“Trins,” they all said.

Me: “Oh. That’s actually better than what we use. Good job class.”