February 25, 2011

streetfood.. an introduction

I haven't really written anything about Korean food, and since I have the vocabulary of a small child when it comes to food. I'm going to rely on pictures to tell the story. I'll just input what I can.

Hodeok (left & right) a Korean pancake filled with brown sugar and cinnamon. These are then fried, and are amazing. Sometimes green tea is added to the batter and creates a green pancake. They are my favourite street desert.

While I don't know the Korean name for this item (pictured right). It is similar to a type of corndog. The hotdogs on the lower left are rolled in the colourful batter and then fried.

(below left) This is the machine that makes a very popular Korean streetfood. It creates a cake filled with red bean paste and half a walnut. The two sides (red bean and walnut) are then pressed together and the cake is cooked. They are served hot, right from the machine, and are super cheap.

Callie (right) is eating some overcooked, waterlogged corn on the cob, and despite the fact that corn remains intact through digestion. This vegetarian delight is one of her favourite foods. 

Dokbokki (right) is a Korean favourite, and is probably the most common street food in the country. It is made from spicy red pepper paste mixed with rice cake and fish cake. Because it is so popular every vendor seems to have their own variation of the dish, some vendors add dumplings, others green onion. While these endeavors to differentiate may sound good, most of the flavours are washed out because of the intense heat from the red pepper paste. Don't eat this food with chapped lips, the burn will make you want to die. 

When I think of Streetfood my mind always wanders to hotdogs, or streetmeat as my father and I called them. While Korea doesn't have Schneider's hot dog carts. It does have it's own version of Streetmeat. Theirs comes in many variaties and flavours. The stickmeat (pictured right) is pretty common. They are basically mystery meat covered in sticky sauces and poppy seads. Some of them are good, and most are lacking in any nutritional value. The sausages (below) are really good, and a tasty latenight snack, the ones on a stick baffle me. I've never tried them, and they appear to be filled with ricecake. I've never tried them, although i'm curious.

Last weekend I found a stretch of kebab carts (above)(not turkish kebabs, western kebabs). They all looked and smelled amazing. The premise: You buy a standard kebab and then pick a sauce from her stand which she modestly covers the offering in. 

The sticks protruding from the broth (Left) have fish cake on them. The fish cake is cooked in a broth, which is free to drink, and doesn't really have a fishy taste. These are popular and commonly served as a side to dukbokki.

February 21, 2011

EC in 서울

I bought my ticket for Eric Clapton a couple of months ago, it happened to be the same day as the North Korean shelling of yongpyung island. (I wrote about a possible correlation). Well last night was the night I'd been waiting over a year for, my first concert in Asia.

Excited and eager I ventured to the Olympic Sports Complex, I arrived into a ghost town. Nobody was there, with panic starting to set in I scoured the grounds searching for the gymnastics gymnasium where Clapton was to play. It took around 40 minutes before I found that he was playing at a different Olympic site. Once I arrived at the right park, it took another twenty or so minutes to get to the venue because the cabby dropped me off at the opposite end of the park.

The show was scheduled to start at 7pm, and started promptly on time. Clapton was on the stage before we set foot in the building. While he gingerly played the first song (Key to the Highway) we rushed to find our seats.

The show was great, Clapton showed little signs of aging as he flew through several solos. Clapton himself however showed a lot of signs of his age, he looked old and tired as he doled out the aforementioned solos. (I took some video with my new camera and you can check out an excerpt of Cocaine). My favourite song, and Corwin's, was his extended version of 'Badge', in my mind it was his best solo, and is one my overall favourite songs of his (well Cream's). (check out the show's setlist)

The Olympic Gymnastics Gymnasium was a great venue, and our cheap seats gave us an excellent vantage point (photos above). The early start, and lack of an opening band, resulted an early exit. The concert was over around nine leaving plenty of time for a late dinner.

Considering the exercise I received before the show, Corwin and I went for pizza after it. I researched a place called UNO weeks ago while I was searching for Chicago Deep Dish Pizza (my personal favourite). This chain apparently created the dish, and has several locations in Seoul. A connection between my culinary choice, and concert didn't fall into place after we heard Clapton on the restaurant's airwaves. The evening seemed to come full circle and a great night was capped off, until they started playing NE YO.

February 18, 2011

8760 hours pt ii

A Challege

Before arriving in Korea I figured the strongest part of my resume was my travel experience. I was eager to promote to any school that ‘culture shock’ was not going to be a problem for me, and I can proudly say that up to this point, I was right. The thing is that I spend most of my time in an English bubble. On the average day I perhaps spend 30 minutes in situations where I have to deal with Koreans. The rest of my time I spend around fellow weiguks, and students with whom I chastise for uttering even the slightest Korean.

I’m a part of a large school; where there has been a revolving door of 14 other foreign teachers, equal that in bilingual Korean teachers, and a handful of support staff. English is a very large part of my day. I’ve heard stories of weiguks being the only teacher in a school, with very few others around capable of speaking English. I feel that they are truly tested by the rigors of culture shock. I’m pretty fortunate, but because of my bubble I occasionally feel like an outcast on the fringe of Korean society. I can get by with the little Korean I know, but I mostly rely on Corwin, who is a linguist master.

Although my large school seems to allow me to escape the grasp of culture shock, it created a challenge. I work, play, and live with a small group of people. Office politics can always be a tricky thing to navigate, especially when it plays out in your living room/bedroom/bathroom/kitchen (they are all the same room in my house).

This environment brings about a place where my coworkers are relied upon heavily as friends. In theory and reality the two don’t typically mesh well. Most articles written about the topic suggest distancing the two because it’s better to have separate work and social lives. Although, at every job there are always exceptions to the rule (I currently hang out with some exceptional people). The problem a lot of the time is a lack of common interests.

Believe it or not, most teachers here have little in common. True, we are all English teachers, and presumably we like to travel. Yet travel has such a broad definition, and we all have different circumstances that landed us as English teachers. I’m a business student seeking asylum from the economic crisis while testing the teaching waters. There are others in my workplace looking for a year off after graduating college, some looking to save money, a couple real teachers, and a few like me seeking asylum from unemployment. With varying majors and reasons, finding friends instead of acquaintances can be difficult.

Gossip, however is universal, and is an easy way to create bonds in large groups. (personally I prefer to create bonds through combined trust) Within the small English bubble that I live, work, eat and sleep in, gossip can be a destructive force. Some personalities in the bubble thrive on the phrases ‘did you hear what so and so did” and walk with the swagger, 'I know something you don't'.

This isn't a phenomenon brought out because of Korea, it exits everywhere. I've just found that my English bubble brings about an inability to escape it. To be honest, I would prefer to have a lot more culture shock and a little less banter.

I prepared my resume, and came to Korea expecting culture shock to be my largest challenge. I find it extremely interesting that that has not been the case, and I've instead had to deal with gossip. I have learned this though: travel skills are non transferable, they don't really apply to teenage drama.

February 15, 2011

8760 hours pt. i

I walked into the lobby of a motel confused; I thought I was supposed to be taken to the apartment I would call home for the next year. Instead, I was in the lobby being greeted by my then to be, and now current, employer. She wasn’t alone; there were also two girls from Canada whose experience in Korea started only a few hours before mine. That night we were all smiles after a pitcher of beer, and a bottle of soju.

I never really got to know the two girls I met in the lobby that night. One of them would be fired from my school a week later in a now semi infamous potato chip heist. She would later find another job, but left that contract before Christmas. The other girl fell victim to a freak accident and broke her leg as she was celebrating her birthday. The slip also exposed the business side of Korean Hogwans, as she was viewed expendable and shown the door.

It was a sad ending to what started as a great beginning in Korea for those two. Yet I remain, and on the anniversary of my arrival I realize how much I’ve learned in 12 months. In memoriam I’m going to write a three post series as I prepare for my second 8760 hours (one year).

a correction

my grandparents were given an up to date printed copy of all the blog entries for Christmas (thanks Dad!). That led me to re-read some of my posts, and realize how my perception of this country has shifted. I called them the other day and my grandfather said to me “Sean, any Koreans reading those (blogs) might be unhappy that you imply they are all drunks”. Well, I’d like to change that.

My original posts  all seemed to originate from the same place, and rice beer is a helluva drug. I originally treated Korea as an extension of college, and thought the country was simply a giant party. I wrote about drunken Koreans and plastered weiguks, unaware and naïve to my surroundings. I had true friends openly tell me that three sober days in sixty means you have a problem. I shrugged them off and replied ‘Korea is all about drinking’. My rebuttal was easy because I only surrounded myself with people who drank; bearing witness to an alternative wasn’t clearly visible through the bottom of a shot glass.

I’m not saying that I regret that period of time; I had some great fun (I was smiling in the pictures I don’t fully remember). I was also fortunate to meet some amazing people, some stuck around and others I’ve unfortunately lost contact with. During that time I crafted a somewhat inaccurate view of Seoul to those who read my blog.

I wrote about consistently seeing drunken Koreans, and that was easy because I’m in Korea, much like you see Russians in Russia, and Canadians in Canada. You are also likely to be around drunken people if you are in fact drunk yourself. While Korea does have extremely lax drinking laws, you can purchase and consume alcohol anywhere at any time. I think a problem is encountered when you abuse that privilege. Just because you can drink on the subway doesn’t mean you always should, and for months I did.

While I wasn't completely inaccurate in some prior entries, it isn’t unusual to see stumbling Koreans on the sidewalk at any time of day. What I neglected to mention is that they were often engulfed and ignored by surefooted Koreans busy with their lives. Every culture is likely to have drinkers, and with Seoul having one of the largest and densest populations on the planet, coupled with a superb public transit system, they are going to be more visible here.

I mentioned previously in this post about being naïve to my surroundings, in the first six months I was. Reputation in Korea is very important, and weiguks have an awful one. I’m sure if there was data reporting the amount of alcohol abuse in Korea (on a per capita basis), weiguks could easily outnumber any ethnicity in the country. That is our famous reputation, as drunks, and I perpetuated that for most of my beginning months in the country. Most foreign teachers are in their twenties and the prime demographic to alcohol producers around the world.

It was a lot easier to see that Seoul was a vibrant city when I wasn’t wandering dark lit streets. This city is brilliant, and there are far more activities than power drinking. I don’t want to be taken wrong here though! I’m not denouncing drinking, or those who drink, as I’ve actively searched out micro brews in Seoul (a post co-written with Corwin is in the works). I just wanted to set a record straight that I spent months wrongfully reporting. I am a part of a demographic in Korea that abuses alcohol more often than Koreans.

February 10, 2011

same same... just korea (pt vii)

Obligatory Chocolate (an explanation & more)

This year marks the first Valentine’s Day in memory that I'm actually looking forward to, and it has little to do with my current relationship status. My excitement revolves around business, specifically marketing. Valentine's is a marketing success story in Asia. The roots of this success can be traced back to 1936, Japan. In that year a cake and confectionary company started to actively promote the holiday to foreigners. By 1936 the Japanese had already occupied Korea for 26 years, with this info I think it’s fair to assume that some marketing endeavors probably floated across the Sea of Japan.

Valentine's Day in Korea has since become a true Hallmark Holiday (Definition: A “Hallmark holiday" is a disparaging term, used to describe a holiday that is perceived to exist primarily for commercial purposes, rather than to commemorate a traditionally significant religious or secular event). Although cards don’t traditionally see a spike in sales, and neither do flowers. Chocolate, instead reigns supreme. So rather than Hallmark Holiday, I’m dubbing the phenomenon a Hershey Holiday. As interesting as a shift from cards, to chocolate is, it’s not why I’m interested in Valentines this year. As I mentioned above, it was marketing, and due to an ‘unfortunate translation and marketing error’, Japanese (and Korean) women thought they were the ones to buy chocolate for men.

Decades later Valentine’s Day in Korea remains an antonym to the western Celebration. I think it’s fascinating that on the Hershey Holiday, Corwin will face social pressure to buy me chocolate instead of the other way around.

Truthfully, I don't really care if she does get me chocolate; I've never actually liked Valentine’s Day, I hate the obligation that I never agreed to, and therefore love the marketing blunder that put the shoe on the other foot. The Japanese have a fascinating history with the holiday sprouting around the giving of obligatory chocolate, women giving chocolate to co-workers, and not just loved ones. That concept doesn't seem to have migrated as well as the foundation for the holiday in Korea. But another Japanese holiday, which did migrate, was created from the ashes of obligatory chocolate.

White day, or Reply Day, is a day of retribution started in 1980s by the National Confection Industry in Japan. On White Day men are expected to return the favour to the women who gave them chocolate on Valentine’s Day. The name, White Day, sprouts from the colour of the chocolate given on this Hershey Holiday. However, Chocolate is not the largest seller on this holiday, instead the main seller is non chocolate candy, such as Scotch Mints. I will thus change the Hershey Holiday term to Scotch Mint Holiday, all whilst keeping the definition of Hallmark Holiday.

For those of you that are single, and love to have your 'anti' valentine's day parties. I have good and bad news for you. First off, the good news, you get your own day! The bad news is that you have to wait until April 14th to get it. The Korean equivalent of an anti valentines celebration is aptly called 'black day'. If you did not receive chocolate on Valentine's Day, candy on White Day, or give for either occasion. Then the Black Day custom is to flock to Chinese restaurants and eat 자장면 (jajangmyeon), or black noodles. This is a holiday invented by the Koreans, not the Japanese, and is therefore mostly celebrated on this peninsula.

With three months in a row all celebrating the 14th of the month, I started to wonder if something was up. That it couldn't purely be coincidence? Could it? Intrigue led me to Google, and Google led me to the official Tourism Korea website. A subsection of the website listed the “Fun & Romantic Holidays in Korea”, according to this article the 14th of every month has a different celebration. At first I was shocked, but for a culture in which couples buy matching clothing, I concluded that it this was not really that out of place.

Most of the days are pretty self explanatory and the website (link) gives a short blurb on each (although no indication about the origin of these days). I'm just going to mention a couple of standouts, at least from my perspective!
January 14th: Calendar Day, Couples exchange planners and calendars and mark important events on them. I was unaware of this when this day slipped by. I'm left without a calendar and I always forget when mother's/father's day is.

June 14th: Kiss Day, kiss everyone you meet. I propose a swap in purpose with December 14ths Hug Day.

August 14th: Green Day, Couples seek nature and relax, yet this is during rainy season, so make sure you bring an umbrella. Singles drink soju to drown their loneliness. You might wonder, ‘why do singles drink soju on green day?’ The answer is easy, although not obvious to those not familiar with soju, soju bottles are all tinted green. It doesn’t really matter what brand or whether it’s plastic, glass or tetrapack, all the packages are green.

December 14th: Hug Day, this is the day where you hug your partner to chase away the cold. I think this holiday and June 14ths Kiss Day should be swapped. It should be hug everyone you meet, not kiss them, and kiss your partner to chase away the cold instead of simply hugging them. Although it turns December into a make out holiday, I think it would be much more socially acceptable to walk around hugging people than it would be going around kissing them. This is also besides the fact that some Koreans wear masks, to cover their mouths to prevent the spread of germs, so kiss access can be limited.

February 04, 2011

I am not alone... in the universe...

Believe it or not blogging is a popular pasttime in Korea. It seems that almost every 'teacher' that arrives in Korea does so with the desire to share experiences via blogs instead of actually telling people what we saw. In this case we are all story tellers, and all stars in our own right. Most of our blogs come loaded with opinions and clustr maps, which is a fancy way of tracking those who visit (it also creates global christmas trees, yay).

I teach in a large school so there are several blogs and photo sites maintained to varying degrees of tlc. So, check them out, they are always open, all interesting and offer differing viewpoints on our exotic experiences.

Considering that pictures are worth a thousand words, you can make up your own accounts of what is contained within without the authors help.

      Check em out, yet keep coming back ... ... ...

      February 03, 2011

      retirees dole out cash...

      Over the next couple days Grandparents around Korea will give cash for bows to eager grandchildren. I know that you might be thinking that this is some scheme concocted by the Korean government in the same tradition of the American 'cash for clunkers' program. I assure you however, that this is not the case. If anyone was inspired, it would be the Korean cultural tradition inspiring the frail American car industry. 

      '음력설날' (Eum-nyeok Seollal, englishee = Lunar New Year) or,
      '설날' (Soellal, englishee = New Year) for short, is a three day holiday in Korea that falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice. Last year it was my first weekend in Korea. It is a holiday in which the entire city shuts down, and I'm pretty serious when I say the city shuts down. In passing I say that Calgary shuts down for the Stampede, but that is to party, get hammered, and pass out. More or less Calgary enjoys a white collar shut down, while Seoul becomes a ghost town. last year, I remember having a very difficult time finding any food as families flock out of the cities into the countryside to visit with their relatives. This can be verified after an 'hour' bus ride took two and half hours to complete yesterday.

      The 'bowing' I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago refers to'세배' (sebae). This is a Korean cultural tradition where children honour and wish their elders a happy new year. They utter the phrase '새해 복 많이 받으세요' (saehae bok manhi badeuseyo) which translates to 'please receive many blessings in the new year', and perform a single deep bow while dressed in hanbok (traditional Korean garb). Grandparents are not the only elders that are bowed to, children bow to aunts. uncles, and parents as well. The 'reward', if you could call it such is crisp clean money. 

      My children snag more dough through their bows than I do in a couple months of work. Considering that most parents cannot affort the tuition for this kind of education, my students can hardly be considered the average in Korea (post looming on that subject matter). Either way, my students cash out on this holiday. I spoke to several students who earn a couple thousand dollars in a couple simple minutes. I can't vouch for any confirmed numbers, but a couple students proclaimed amounts bordering $10,000. These are children with large families, and my children won't have to worry about this for long as Korea the lowest birthrate among developed nations (1.2) consider Canada (1.66) and the replacement level fertility rate is 2.2.

      The Koreans have adopted 'western' holidays into their culture, Valentine's Day for example is a marketing success story in Korea (stay tuned... blog upcoming!). I'd seriously like to propose Seollal to Hallmark. It could be a great way to redistribute the wealth in the tough economic conditions experienced worldwide. Hear me out, when the Baby Boomers (1946-1964) start to retire, they will do so with more money than any generation before them. If Hallmark and I could hash out the details we could arrange for children to bow to their elders in an effort to redistribute the cash. This plan has major problems, as the money would only stay within families, so if your whole family is out of work, or prominently blue collar, you may only receive rug-burn for improperly performed sebae.