August 30, 2011

the good samaritan...

A couple of months ago a friend of mine accidentally left her Iphone in a bathroom. The phone sat there for 15 minutes (or so) before she was able to return to the stall, only to find a toilet. She called and texted the phone countless times hoping someone would answer it, yet no one did. In most countries this would be the end of the story, and she would have been out a cell phone. For three days all seemed lost, and as she was about to buy a new Iphone, she received a call; someone had found her phone, and wanted to return it. It did take a couple of days, but common decency was able to prevail. That same friend of mine went on to leave her laptop on a train a couple of weeks later. This time to have it turned into 'lost and found' and she picked it up within hours of losing it. While she may be forgetful, there were still two people kind enough to turn these items in instead of pocketing them for themselves.

Those are just two short examples, yet I feel that they are a pretty decent reflection of the crime that I have experienced here. It is almost nonexistent, Koreans are very caring people. This minuscule amount of crime seems to be validated through reported crime statistics. The crime rate in Korea is lower than both Canada and the United States (link). One thing to keep in mind though is that the data isn't totally up to date (2002) and I feel that Mexico should be higher. BUT Korea has one of the largest cities in the world, and is still able to rank below Canada (which doesn't have a city to truly compare to Seoul).

Honestly, most of the crime that I have experienced in Seoul has been around other foreigners. Even US state reviews of Korea warn about tourist areas (although still commend Korea for being a country with low crime). Their definition of tourist areas applies to Itaewon (mostly), and other areas of the city where foreigners congregate. I feel that it's more the foreigners (and not Koreans) in some of these areas that are perpetrating most of the crime. While hanging out in tourist areas early in the morning (the non-traditional tourist hours of midnight - 7am) I have known friends who have lost purses and jackets, even when they have been locked up in a locker. While hanging out in non-tourist areas you can leave purses and jackets in booths, and tables out in the open, and return to them later on. The biggest form of theft that occurs here is when people drunkenly take the wrong jacket, which isn't really theft, because your jacket is usually with another member of your group.

This is not to say that Itaewon et al. are slums and dangerous areas you should avoid. They are simply the areas of the city where I've actually experienced crime, and the state department also recognizes this (I swear  I had no influence on this). These parts of the city are great, and offer some of the best foreign food such as Indian, Thai, Mexican and North American (the best breakfasts can be found here, as Korean breakfast doesn't quite fill the void of bacon and eggs). Anywho, even walking around these parts of the city I've always felt safe, and always kept my wallet unguarded in my back pocket.

I've found that pretty much walking anywhere in the city, regardless of time, is a safe action. I have witnessed some street fights, never feeling uneasy about them, as Koreans usually keep to themselves during this process. I once walked right through the middle of one unscathed. I am a guy, and 192cm (6'3"), so that may have something to do with my feelings of ease. But I've never ever felt uneasy in Seoul, unlike some of the other countries, and metropolises I've ventured to. While I was in Europe there was countless times that I put my wallet in my underwear, including a time where I spooned my backpack in order to keep it safe from gypsies. I've even experienced times in Toronto (Canada's megacity) where I felt that I didn't belong.

In spite of this praise, about crime in Korea, and that Koreans are good Samaritans. I accidentally left my Ipod touch in a cab last week. I emailed it, left a posts on the cab companies lost board, and I had friends send me KakaoTalk messages (if you haven't heard of KakaoTalk, you should, especially if you have a smartphone! free texting anywhere in the world!) Anywho, the Korean cab driver did not check the email, reply to the wall post, or to any of my friends on Kakao. Instead he wiped it, and likely pocketed it for himself. sigh...

August 19, 2011

reuse & recycle...

The Seonyudo islet is a tiny strip of land that rests in the middle of the Han river. This piece of land was first utilized in 1978 as a sewage treatment plant, and provided tap water to residents south of the Han river. Things worked that way until 1998 when the Seoul Metro Government started to shut the plant down. The city wanted to figure out at a way to turn the land into something useful once the plant would be completely shut down in 2000. After some deliberation and thought, the city invested a lot of money (16 billion won) into the island to create Seoul's first recycled park. The idea of recycling land for parks was later used at World Cup Stadium, where a landfill was converted into one of the cities largest, and nicest parks.

In 2004, the Seonyudo Park opened with many pieces of the sewage plant remaining. Parts of the plant were completely destroyed while others were converted into theme areas and gardens. The former pump house was converted into a cafe, and is the only place you can buy food on the island. One of the resting tanks was revamped into an amphitheatre, while several others currently house varieties of water plants. The park is also home to a museum on the history of the Han River, and a greenhouse filled with botanical plants. To increase acces to the park the city constructed a bridge cleverly nicknamed 'rainbow bridge'. The nickname is clever, because at nightly when it is illuminated by various coloured lights, it looks like a rainbow (aparantly). I have never seen this bridge, or island, at night, so I can't really offer any colourful commentary about it. I hear it is a big reason why the island is popular with couples.

I first stumbled upon this green space while on a bike ride along the river. My friend and I were not able to visit this refuge due to a strict no bike policy, and we didn't have locks, so I vowed to return. It would take me a further three months before I would return to this spot. I didn't know it's name, nor did I even really remember where it was. A random trek to the river in search of the island paid dividends. I found and somewhat fell in love with the park, and the gardens contained within. It's all based on escapism, I love the idea that I can escape to place like this in the mega city known as Seoul.

This park is a renowned romantic spot in Seoul, couples usually flank the pathways on blankets with picnics, and the bridge at night (as previously mentioned). It is also an extremely popular destination for photographers. The Pillar garden? (I have no idea what it's called) is a hot spot for photo shoots. I haven't been able to stroll past it without people dressed up in some sort of costume or period attire being photographed. Apparently numerous Korean celebrities have also done photo shoots at this spot.

In the times that I have been I have seen some girls in some very interesting costumes. I'm assuming they are some sort of anime costume. They weave through the pillars with ribbons and laser guns firing. On my last visit I happened to notice an entire group of men dressed in American military uniforms with air-soft guns and gas masks. The thing that this area does really have going for it is this dystopian image of a future overgrown with (meticulously) manicured gardens. 

I've come to use the island for similar reasons, while not actually doing photo shoots. I come to the park to fool around with my camera. I have had a lot of fun while playing around with my camera and the different theme areas on the island. There are so many different textures and surfaces on the island which create interesting photos. While I haven't come to the island for any romantic excursions, I can see how it earns the reputation. At the very least it is a great place to come and hide from the hustle and bustle that is Seoul.

 take me there:
  • Subway Line #9 to Seonyudo station (exit 2) walk straight, and walk across the Rainbow Bridge.
  • Subway Line #2 to Dangsan Station (exit #1) then bus (605, 6623, 6631, 6632, or 6633) getting off at Hanshin Apts then walking across the Rainbow Bridge
  • Subway Line #2 or #6 to Hapjeong Station (exit #8) then bus (604, 5712, 6712, or 6716) or walk to Hanshin Apts then walking across the Rainbow Bridge

August 12, 2011

a time suck...

*disclaimer* This post is not a rant about my working conditions, or in-school environment. It is a tale of how I realized a shift in pleasure in my life, because of the extra demands my job places upon me. I do love my students, they are impeccable, amazing, and for the most part, intelligent. If it were not for them, and a few exceptional co-workers I'd be crazy by now.

I've always lived with the mantra that I would like to work to live, not live to work, and for the most part I've been successful. Any time I've spent in N/A over the past three years was spent working simply towards the goal of traveling, or living as I became to view it. My first year in Korea could even be described with the same basic premise. Although I did not leave the country at all in my first year, I spent the majority of my time exploring Seoul, and Korea, in general. I had a nice balance working in the afternoon, and enjoying my evenings. My weekends were also free, as was my mind. I was able to do as I pleased, and as many problems as there were with my last job I was able to escape them nightly, and two full days a week.

While I was applying for jobs last November and December, I interviewed for various schools, and various positions. I was honest with them, and expected them to be relatively honest with me as well. I was aware that schools were going to embellish a few details, but most people can see through bullshit. I decided that the company I chose was the best considering they had a great reputation, seemed to push aside the bullshit and give me honest answers. During the interviews I specifically asked about the work/life balance. I was told that my work would be challenging, yet I was assured that few teachers brought it home with them. I was told that my work could be tackled during office hours. This answer turned out to be a fairytale.

I write this entry in the midst of a three day long weekend. A time when I should be worried about bus schedules, hotel reservations and the how weather is going to be. Instead I find myself concerned that I will have to mark 55 essays, and complete 109 student behavior comments. I'm really curious how things got to this point. I now begrudgingly live to work, and this shift in mantra happened slowly at first.

A few months ago I jokingly worked on comments while attending a Nexen Heroes Baseball game. At the time I was still relatively new to the company, and thought nothing of the inconvenience. I was then starting to fall behind on the 60+, 5 paragraph, debate essays that I'm required to mark once every couple of weeks. Again I thought little of spending a Sunday afternoon in a cafe gleefully marking. I have several places in Seoul that I enjoy hiding, and casually spending time in.

I've found that it has all come to a head in the past couple of weeks. I regularly find myself with little to talk about. I fumble around conversations that used to come normally to me. I find that I spend most of my time talking about work, thinking about work or actually doing work. I am also not talking about what I do from 1-9; I'm talking about all the hours in between shifts. My weekends are often ruined by the pressure of work. I feel this immense guilt because I'm not marking the stacks of essays that pile up. I'm completely aware this is wrong, and that my work life should not impede or ruin my social life.

I most recently spent my 7 day 'vacation' staring at my apartment wall attempting to remove these feelings of guilt. What I guess I'm trying to say is I'm in shocked how this shift happened. It doesn't even feel like a shift, it feels like a takeover. I always thought that working to live was a lifestyle (and choice) that workaholics had, or people who loved what they do. I realize that is an extremely naive statement, yet it's not something I ever really looked into. I was too busy enjoying the laid back lifestyle I was previously accustomed to. Slowly but surely, like a magnet, I've been sucked into an abyss of never ending work. Every time I conquer one hill, another arises to take it's place,. The funny thing is that it's usually the rewrites of the first hill I climbed. My feelings of guilt, of not doing work in my spare time, have to be indicators that I'm not working to live, and that the table's turned. I wasn't even aware that work could have that much power, and influence, to organize a coup.

In the shadow of this revelation, I find myself staring at a beast. A beast that doesn't want to be conquered, or step aside for my lackadaisical existence to once again thrive. I think that the saying 'It's better to have loved and lost, than to never have loved at all' shouldn't be bound to relationships alone. I feel that it can, and should be applied to what you do. If it wasn't why would our teachers/professors preach this cliche to us?  Along with 'Find something you enjoy doing, and carve out your piece' I think they are right.What I hate about it all is that I feel that what I enjoy doing is carving a piece out of me...

August 07, 2011

햄버거 hembeogeo, not hamburger...

A review: Jacoby's Burger

I've never really done a review of a restaurant in Seoul. I find my vocabulary is rather limited when it comes to food. I mean I teach my children adjectives, and how to correctly order and sequence them. Yet I find myself at a loss when I attempt them use at all. I was recently recruited to write a piece on street food in Seoul. I was really excited, although I was informed that my photos would not be included in the publication. I sat for weeks staring at a blank page. I couldn't find a way to connect what I saw in the photo to words. I had some stories, and in hindsight perhaps that is what they wanted. While my review is not going to be on street food, or even Korean food.

It's summertime in the city, and as much as I love Korean food. I'm not sure how well a lot of Korean dishes translate in the summer. There is nothing that I have found that equates the taste and essence of summer quite like BBQ does. I like BBQ, and perfecting grill marks on individual grains of rice would be monotonous, and not really my style. Yet I love grilling unusual fare, I once successfully BBQ'd pierogies, with onion and kielbasa skewers, anywho, off topic.

Hamburgers are one of the foods I first think of when it comes to summer and the BBQ. I don't think that this is really a concept that is lost on many N/A expats. It's a food that we (well not really me, but as a landmass) created. This review is also in somewhat of a rebellion against an expat magazine article. The article was about the 10 best burgers in Korea (inform yourself!). Although restaurant reviewing and sampling is all subjective, and people have differing tastes.

I believe the best hamburger I've had in Seoul is from Jacoby's, an institution that was not even included in the previously mentioned article. The place is located in Haebangchon, an area which has quickly become one of my favourite places in the city.

Here the burgers are made fresh and to order. This often leads to a long waiting time, yet this place is not fast food and good things do come to those who wait. Another advantage of this made to order system is that the beef slaughter system in Asia differs from the one in N/A. The beef used in Jacoby's is from Australia, and it doesn't follow the same mass production methods utilized by the USDA and CFIA. To some people you may wonder why this is important, it basically means that you can enjoy medium rare burgers here! Instead of having to burn the fuck outta the thing.

The burgers here are pricey, but I figure they are well worth it. I've always had this mantra that if you want something done right you have to pay for it. If you want crap you can always order from McDonalds or buy shit from China. Craftsmanship is something that takes time, and shouldn't be taken lightly. At Jacoby's the food is well constructed, although is not earthquake proof, and will fall over if the plate is shaken. All the meals in the pictures range from 10,000 to 14,000 including cola. Fries are considered an extra (add 3,000), and considering the size of the burger if you are really hungry, then by all means order them. I also hear that there vegetarian burger is good, I'll have to take the rumor on that one. I've never eaten any, so even if I did try it here I wouldn't have the faintest idea what to compare it to.

When it comes to flavour, the food here is great. You can actually taste meat in the burger unlike many other places I've been to in Seoul. I find that a lot of the competition in Korea seem to follow a mundane formula when they make their patties, and they don't include anything to compliment the meat. At Jacoby's your patty can come with rosemary or garlic, which add to the taste and texture of the meat. The shape of finished product also brings back memories of my father's burgers. They aren't flat, they come out looking more like oblong baseballs than flattened hockey pucks.

There are a handful of choices when it comes to toppings at Jacoby's and you can enjoy everything from a basic burger, to a designer burger on steroids. The more willing you are to test your palate the better, and Jacoby's has offerings that stir the imagination. From pineapple and guacamole to chilli and chips, along with numerous cheeses you can dress up your burger as exotic as you'd like.

One knock against the place is that food arrives off kilter. It's actually something I've become used to in Asia, they aren't really great on time planning meals. It does become rather bothersome when you travel here in groups. Mostly because the burgers are so juicy that one person is all greased up before others get their shot to moisturize their hands/arms/ lap (if you're unlucky) with burger drippings.

Some may say that the price, and waiting time should be considered a knock as well. I differ from that, mostly because I'm writing about good food, not quick cheap food. I think that if you are going to have a 'best' of something price shouldn't be a huge determining factor. The waiting time can be annoying when you are hungry, or watching other people grease up. I still don't see it affecting taste, the restaurants improper time management skills has little to do with the food, and perhaps it's better that these burgers are delivered randomly instead of waiting patiently under heat lamps.
How to get there: Noksapyeong (Line 6) take exit 2, when the road forks stick along the wall with the Kimchi pots. Walk about Two blocks up, and It will be on the right side of the road.

August 05, 2011


Around this time last year I was hobbling around Seoul. I spent my days on crutches, and evenings with my leg in the air. For those of you who are new, I dislocated my knee playing beach volleyball. I wrote about the experience in a three part series (read! pt.I, pt.II, pt.III). The hospital visit was atrocious, and I think has subsequently seriously hampered my recovery. While I have improved by leaps and bounds, my leg is only 85% a year later! I can run short distances, although not in the gym yet. I also have yet to receive any clearance to participate in sports.

Anywho, lets go back in time, the weekend after I dislocated my knee was the somewhat infamous Mud Festival in Boryeong. At my last school there was only one other teacher who missed the event (12 of 14 going). I couldn't attend because I could barely walk, let alone enter a slippery mud world. My fellow outcast was able to walk, she just hated white people at that point in time. Once my friends returned home I heard a somewhat scathing review of the event. I had heard that it was nothing but a bunch of infantile drunk expats, gallivanting around in the mud. I believe that some of the people included in last year's tour attributed to the review, but it was still awful enough to almost dissuade me from attending this year.

The event wasn't on my mind, or on my calender this year, and I was fine with that. My plan to skip the event was thwarted when an offer I couldn't refuse entered my Facebook inbox. I got bus, accomodation, and food for less than the price of a return train ticket to Boryeong. The Mud Festival self is held over two weekends (well I'm sure it's also on during the week but I'm sure it's lame), and my Korean class was headed the second of these weekends. I was hoping that a different weekend and crowd from the aforementioned review would change the outcome. My current co-workers went to the first weekend, and actually complained about the expat infusion.

I arrived excited, like a child at a carnival (There were actually some carnival rides in Boryeong, I stumbled upon them at 2am, and decided the Viking ship sounded like a good idea).  Every fifteen feet along the highway there were flags promoting the event. When I finally hit the boardwalk some dissapointment set in, I witnessed very few mud people. I mostly saw Korean families strolling around the boardwalk eating ice cream. What I didn't realize was that the beach was huge, it spread across most of the horizon. The Mud Festival, while much celebrated, was tucked away at the far end of the beach. Almost as if it had been hidden there, like an over advertised embarrassment to the community. Yet there at the end of the beach, an inflatable kingdom celebrating mud stood. It wasn't as big as I was expecting, (that's what she said) but it was neatly confined and ruling a small segment of the beach.

Outside of the venue you could paint yourself in mud (literally), this was completely free, although not really invigorating. In order to truly become a mud person, you had to pay admission to enter the inflated kingdom. Inside there were many attractions where you could fully cover yourself with little effort required. My favourite of these sites was the prison. The basic idea was to stand inside this (non inflated) room and get buckets of mud thrown at you. I went in multiple times, and at one point got mud inside my eye. An event that required a 3/4 of a bottle of visine to 'save' my contact lens. I was however, happily covered head to toe in mud while standing in front of the bathroom mirror!

I stayed away from the inflated activities due to my knee. I love bouncy castles, but the possibility of slipping was immense! I would visualize a mistep that would land me back into another ER nightmare. I wish I didn't have to worry about shit like that, but without having a fully healed knee I didn't really want to take the risk. I did watch as several of my friends partook though. They would line up patiently and wait for their opportunity to battle each other in obstacle courses, or elaborate tug o war competitions. Or they could line up for mud fights, and mud pits, which were over-sized inflatable pools.
My first day at the event I didn't really notice that there were Koreans everywhere taking photos. I walked around oblivious to their presence. It wasn't until the second day that I noticed, and remembered their attendance. I don't know why but I somewhat found it creepy, first off, they were inside the entrances (so they paid admission). Second, They stuck to the perimeter like a paparazzi mob.  I can't really comment to negatively as I was there on my second day taking photos myself, but I thought their presence was a little extreme.

In the end, my review differs greatly from the one I received. Although I did mention before that I originally thought the crowd involved was a large part of the scathing review. I was also surprised to see that the event was much more family oriented than I orgininally believed it could be. While alcohol is always present in Korea, it wasn't a centerpiece. I didn't run into drunken idiots, although I wasn't on the look out for them. My group was respectful and the event was as amazing as you could imagine being covered in mud could be, rich in vitamins.