October 30, 2011

so... wanna pick some apples?

a simple idea that sprouted anxiety, bore fruits of confusion. It all culminated in the tale: So, you wanna pick some apples?

It starts on a Monday, the loneliest of days, with a group kakao message (kinda like texting). The text was simple, so... do you want to pick some apples? While I didn't answer the question with a simple answer. I much rather beating around the bush on questions than actually answer them, it's a personality trait. I had every intention of answering yes that very day, it wasn't until the push became Wednesday that I committed.

The simple plan however was fraught with subtext. You see comrades, my friend who sent the text was not the person actually planning the trip (nor is it the person pictured above). She left the planning in the hands of her employer; a villain so veraciously vile and villainous that she appears to the naked eye like to be a nice old lady (screams in the background). In the days post-commitment I was exposed to elevating levels of cognitive dissonance. First came the demand for my Alien Card number, and for those unaware it's basically my SIN number, and not something lustfully thrown around.

This action left my friends and I to question the validity of the tour. We heard rumblings about not actually being able to keep the apples that we selected. Our thoughts grew into worries about our purpose, and what exactly was about to occur. A seemingly innocent joke about migrant labour quickly took root. It doesn't take much to realize that I am in fact a migrant worker. It was an oh fuck moment I assure you. Other comparisons arose in the fact that this 'adventure/day labour' started at 7:30am.

With expectations of riding in the back of a pickup truck, I dressed warmly. In fact I did my (totally unplanned) best to capture the essence of my assumed role. I didn't shave, wear deodorant or worry about my greasy hair. I wore layers that could slide off in case of physical exertion. What I didn't do was check the weather (which called for rain, all day), and dressed entirely in absorbent material.

What transpired was so unexpected, that all I could fathom doing was aimlessly wander around (which I sort of got into trouble for doing). We had been signed up for the worst bus tour imaginable. At the ass crack of dawn we piled onto a bus, and were held captive for the next 12 hours. We weren't told anything really, the tour was conducted in Korean. I started to feel like I was on a Korean reality show as my fellow travelers applauded gleefully from the opening moments of the trip. I would like to say more about the trip, but I will offer it to you pictorially. I'd like to see if you can figure it out, remember I signed up to go apple picking.

3 hours in, an oriental medicine museum. (no apples, but!)


5 hours in,  a traditional Korean folk village. (Beautiful trees, but no apples upon them)

8 hours in, a national park. (more beauty, including Mulack, and more trees! but still no apples)

10 hours in, APPLES!
(we had 20 minutes select them, had to pay extra, and we spent 21 minutes being choosy. Which held up the tour) 


12 hours in, and not pictured, the bus driver grinded the front end off a Toyota Rav4. He took a turn too tight, and the front end of the car fell victim the days randomly strung together events.

Overall, it didn't seem like a tour, it seemed like a series of pit stops. There didn't really seem to be a theme to the day. It was like, hey, there is a museum in that direction, a folk village over there, why not go to that park over yonder and finally, let's stop on the side of a highway (literally, we did) and let people pick apples while the bus drivers take a smoke break.

While the outcome of the day was expected, I did walk away with 6 apples. The price I paid for those apples was astronomical. In the end each apple cost $4 and took 2 hours each to pick. Not a great return either financially or time wise, but proof of a veraciously vile and villainous... villain that lurks inside all nice old ladies (even though she was super nice and bought us lunch).

October 25, 2011

it's not like i've stopped eating...

치즈 돈가스 (Cheese Donkasu) 

I know the tator-tots look good, but i'm talking about the mass covered in jalapenos. It's not traditionally Korean, in fact it's a Japanese dish. It's a deep friend pork cutlet, with mozzarella cheese stuffed into the middle of the pork, hence why it has cheese in the name!

The meal is great for hangovers, and typically whenever you want a large piece of deep fried pork(some people have that craving). The breading they use is very comparable to a tempura batter, light and flaky.  Most donkasu comes covered with thick gravy, and sits like a lead weight in my stomach.

These photos were taken from my favourite donkasu restaurant near my work. The batter isn't any different, but the toppings are what makes this donkasu special. It's covered in a light soy sauce, with jalapenos, onions and shredded cabbage. It was easily the best I'd ever had. The  meal was cheap as well with a price tag of $6.50. Unfortunately this restaurant has become another victim of turnover, and is now a doll and flower shop.  

                                                      산낙지 (live, or raw octopus)

This is a Korean dish, and not an overly common one either. I've been told that it is a popular touristy thing to eat, and it's understandable. This marks the second time I have tried the grub and I sucked my parents along to try it as well. 

If you decide to watch the video(below), you can see the plate move. The octopus was alive a few minutes prior and nerve impulses keep the tentacles twitching, and suckers um... sucking. While not an easy meal to eat, as you to first catch the tentacle, and then make sure the it is fully chewed. You will often find the suckers sticking to the roof of your mouth, and the sides of your teeth.

Honestly, I can understand the fascination with this food, and why it's a popular tourist hang out. But the meal itself is pretty tasteless. There isn't much taste to octopus, it's just a squirming version of undercooked calamari (oh, and not fried of course cause it's raw, duh!).

My parents liked the novelty, and my father was impressed (below) . My mother spent most of the meal shuffling in her seat and gawking at my father and I. She wasn't as open as my friend who decided to give some love to the octopi (right). OCTOPUS LOVE!!

스파게티 (okay, that says sepagehti, and this is an Italian place...)

Jenny's Cafe is a tiny restaurant in Hongdae that serves some of the best Italian food I've had since coming to Seoul. It's usually hard to get a table, and that's usually a good sign in any city. All the food is served with bread that is baked at their bakery (not pictured) which is also amazing. 

I really wish that I could give more words to accompany the pictures, but the food is great, and most of you are aware of what Italian food is. The fettuccine (right) was great, with a thick sauce that was heavy on the cream, and very filling. Actually most of the food in the restaurant's food was rich in flavour, texture and left your pants stretched.

The interior of the restaurant (large above) is really cool, and fits with most niche restaurants in Hongdae, they all have their thing, and this restaurant isn't any different.

The risotto (left) disappointed my friend, as they said they didn't use the proper rice. I have no idea what this means, but I'm sure from all the Hell's Kitchen episodes that I've seen that it would mean that Gordon Ramsey would throw it on the floor. The gnocci (below) was great, and much like the fettuccine, filling.

Finally, we have a salad (right) that was unreal, and as great and as colourful as it looks. Didn't you know that colour is a flavour? my students would agree anyway, if you don't understand I've been away too long.

A friend of mine once pointed out that I travel by eating desserts. I remember desserts more than any other meal when I travel. Anywho, All of these shots are taken at Coffee Labratory in Hongdae. A coffee shop I've shown before, and one of the highest ranked coffee shops in Seoul.

Above, you can see affogato,or espresso and ice cream. This was amazing, although I prefer the ice mocha (right). Basically the perfect summer drink, haha, opinion.

October 18, 2011

same same... just korea (pt. xi)

Giving less/Giving nothing
Taxes and tips in Korea 

Taxes have the ability to put many people to sleep, or create a furious debate. I'm fully aware that most of you aren't accountants, and I don't intend to put anyone to sleep. I also don't want to create a debate or infuriate anyone with the low taxes I pay here, so I'm gonna steer clear of that as well.

What I want to focus on is Value Added Tax (VAT).In Canada, and the rest of the world, it is the money that the government makes off of the sales of various products. In Korea that tax isn't added to most products at the till (as is the case in NA/Europe). In Korea the listed price for a product is the price you pay at the register. I am not sure if the tax is sometimes added into the price of a product, but there are places that add it after the fact, confusing? yes.

Anywho, this concept would have been greatly beneficial for me as a child. When I was in middle school I remember straining my mind over the 7% tax that was added to my King Size Snickers bar (1.09 before tax 1.17 after tax). I hated that my enjoyment of the savoury chocolate, peanut and caramel covered nougat was delayed because of math (I was a chubby and lazy so what!). I would have become much chubbier with the sense I saved if I grew up in Seoul. First, the chocolate bar wouldn't be a stupid price ($1.09 what kind of asinine price is that? I hated HiHo Gas and Grocery) and second, I wouldn't have to do math ( I can blame no one here but myself, I got antsy while holding chocolate).

Korea is a different story, in everyday life the VAT is mostly non-existent. I have mostly encountered the tax, when out dining in foreigner friendly areas of the city. Even then, the tax wasn't always charged. It is becoming more and more common due to new government regulation, in 2011 the Korean government started cracking down on interact purchases ensuring the VAT was added. Like many things in Korea there are some ways around the new law. I'm aware of numerous establishments that only charge the VAT on card purchases. Basically giving more support to the cash is king rule.

Living in a society where a tag is god is pretty awesome. Although it creates a situation where when extra charges are added you feel ripped off. I've been told that Koreans often feel this way, and question why they have to pay more than the ticketed price. I think that it's understandable for them to be sceptically. I rarely notice that a VAT has been added and am usually caught off guard when it is. People in this country don't want to pay more than the price on the shelf, it's a learned behaviour and one that's tough to try to implement. Again the only areas of the city I've encountered these charges are in foreigner friendly areas, places where people have dealt with added taxes regularly. This brings about an interesting question though. If the listed price of a product in Korea is the actual price (no added taxes) then were does the standard of tipping get introduced?

Tipping as a practice has been used since the invention of money. It was used in England (and elsewhere in Europe) and spread to its colonies during England's reign as the world superpower. During this time a class structure did exist, and it was seen as customary for people to tip their social inferiors. The concept was frowned upon in the states once they beat the British, and attempted to remove their former employers class based system. However, the working class would swallow their pride, and tipping has since evolved to what it is today, in both N/A and Europe.

The invention, designation and usefulness of tipping was something that has spread through NA/Europe, especially in the restaurant realm. It hasn't been something that caught on very well with other countries. One study by Cornell University proclaimed that minorities with no history of tipping in their culture will tip poorly (ex Mexico) or not at all (ex Asia). In the article Cornell also refers to a tip rate of 15-20% , which confirms I'm also a thrifty guy tipping at around 10%. But their belief that tipping is mostly a Caucasian phenom isn't too far off considering its origins. According to other market research most other ethnicities are also regarded to have poor tip etiquette, while most research ends there, or attempts to get people to divvy up more cash. I'm going to offer a possible Korean explanation.

I'm going to continue to use the food service industry as an example, as it is the area where most people regularly come into contact with tips. In Western culture people can make a living, and sometimes a great one off of the tips they make from a restaurant. I know many who have put themselves through university off the gratuities of others.

For Asia the concept is new, and it becomes a struggle of new ideas clashing with cultural beliefs. During the time that the tip culture was evolving in the rest of the world (hundreds of years ago) most of Asia was practicing isolationism, trading with few countries, and not allowing foreign ideals to ruin their established order. In the past century Korea has been held back from the world stage through its occupation by Japan, followed shortly by a devastating war. Korea has spent most of its time rebuilding itself with little time to focus on cultural revolution. This leads to a disparity, the view that we have toward wait staff in NA / Europe is a different one that is held in Korea.

The current situation in Korea is that you have a society with little value placed on service. Good service is not usually rewarded, therefore not usually provided. Dining in Korea is different because of the lack of service. Your server doesn't do rounds, or spark up idle chit chat. If you need something you hit the Chogi yeo button on the table and a server comes when you need them (I personally like this better, but whatever). The wait staff in Korea seem to be filling a roll more than they are providing a service. There isn't table side bill service, and in many cases (galbi) you are cooking the food yourself. When you give cash for your bill, every cent is returned, and there isn't a doe eyed stare expecting more. If you attempt to leave extra money you are often greeted with question rather than acceptance. "Why won't you take your change?"

The cultural lag is one that is pretty simple, the Korean populous does not like paying more than the stated amount. It's been that way for a long time, and the past 20 years has not seen the widespread introduction of anything different. Did the kings and queens tip their servers years ago? no, it was something that took time to become an established social norm. Korea has spent a lot of time and energy becoming a major global player, and some norms take longer to adopt. Why would there be tips when a role is being fulfilled, instead of a service provided?

This also applies to most other sectors where tips are usually provided. My father was greatly impressed that cabs will return every penny, and even concede some change if the meter barely runs over. He proclaimed to have never experienced that in any city he's ever visited. Again the cabs in Korea are perceived as filling a role, not providing a service. The cabs in the city have undergone some massive changes that somewhat reflect this ideal. Cabbies are now supposed to be paid hourly by their employer, and not on commission from their fares.

(Conclusion)This culture is not used to adding money to a ticketed price, coupled with a service industry that is more simply filling a role than anything else allows for this society to work efficiently without tips. I think once the new generation (the one obsessed with western culture) grows older, there will be adoption of more tipping in the culture. In the time I have been here I have started to see more and more tip jars appear in bars. Not that I've been throwing money inside of them, but they are around, and bound to catch on.

October 14, 2011

4-1 for the win...

As the calendar rolled over to October, and the leafs started to fall to the ground... oops, I should correct my grammar. As the calendar rolled over to October, and the leafs planned yet another Stanley Cup parade route... shit I got distracted that time... okay one more try. As the calendar rolled over to October and the leafs, which were once green and prominent, shrivel and (continue their) spiral to the ground (better?). I have been able to renew my subscription to the wonderful, magnificent, tremendous NHL Centre Ice package. I boasted about my purchase last year (you've got a fan in me), and I kind of wanted to refrain this year. BUT two reasons sprung me into action.

First, my friend and I made a bet. I know that it's early in the season to make bets as teams have barely hit their stride, but our two teams were playing each other. The bet was on the Flames/Canadians game, and we spent the previous days toiling over possible wagers. I settled on a South Korean flag that would fly on her desk for the remainder of the season. You might wonder why a SoKor flag and not a flames one? Well she lives in Calgary, and a Flames flag would allow her to get away unnoticed. Besides people are bound to ask why she's flying the Taegeukgi, in a predominantly Korean free work environment. This fact is bound to make her relive the moment more than any Flames flag would. Oh, if it was a blowout, she would have had to use a Korean Kpop calendar as her primary one for 2012, could have been worse.

The second reason is more cheerful than the first (in terms of my day to day enjoyment), you could say it's a game changing reason (much like Calgary's second powerplay goal, and eventual game winner). For the time being I am fine watching games on the west coast. But, when NA starts hoarding sunlight I lose out on third periods. In Seoul we don't believe in being greedy, we don't need to save daylight, apparently we get enough to waste (a rant I'm sure I've made before, I just don't remember where/when). When the time zones change I'd get all the buildup without a satisfactory pay off. WELL, as cliché as it sounds there is an app for that! The new NHL GameCentre app now comes with streaming NHL games. It is a feature they have rolled out for the 2011-2012 season. I am now able effortlessly able to stream HD quality video of live NHL games right on my current bundle of toy (iPhone).

In fact! I watched most of the Flames/Canadians game on my iPhone simply because I could! (also my laptop is a little cumbersome in the kitchen while I'm cooking) The video on my iPhone is surprisingly clear, and comes without lag. I also have access to both home and away broadcasts, very similar to the version I use on my laptop. For those people concerned about the data charges I'm sure to rack up, don't. The 3G network in Korea is amazing, and unlimited data plans are inexpensive. I pay $60/month for unlimited data and 300mins talk time (another win!).

Now when NA decides to hoard UV I don't have to miss the all important final frame. I can now watch the video at work while I prepare for the onslaught of tiny voices. For a second year in a row, $22/month has supported the fan in me!

October 10, 2011

boiling frog...

I  have such a hard time throwing a football, I don't get it. I think myself into confusion, and when I throw a good spiral I jinx myself. My thought process is kind of as follows. Remember it's not a baseball, it's not a baseball.. okay wind up (like a baseball) grip the laces (kinda like a baseball) at the top of the throw, release. I try to remember what Tom told me as well "If your arm feels weird when you throw it, you know you did it right". However, my arm wouldn't feel weird and the ball would wobble through the air. I'd remember in hindsight that I forgot to point with my lead foot where I wanted the ball to go (again something I learned while playing baseball). I continue with this internal monologue every couple of seconds, and only occasionally would the ball would flow aerodynamically through the air. 

With my skill level, and the unpredictable bounces that accompany any drop of a football, it didn't really surprise me that on Saturday my friends and I were able to carve out a section of grass amid thousands of spectators. While some observers were keen on watching us, and a few children joining us (above), most were there to witness a firework display. I attended this fireworks festival last year, well I partially attended. My friend and I left halfway through because of the insane amount of people gathered. There were no fewer people this year, I just arrived early enough to not be as bothered (think frog in slowly boiling water scenario).

I realized that the pot was becoming full when the 3G network in the park stopped working. It's the first fault I've ever found with any Korean technological system. There were simply so many people in the park attempting to use 3G, that the network couldn't handle the workload. Oh, this overload occurred at around 4pm, four and a half hours before the fireworks were scheduled to start. It was around this time that our football playground became cramped, people would drop their mats (Koreans sit on mats when they sit outside, then they take off their shoes and sit on the mats, while outside. It's strange, I know and I don't have an explanation beyond Korean's aversion to anything 'dirty') and claim victory over their piece of dying grass.

As the people packed in along with the darkness, it was almost time for fireworks. I spent the final hour or so playing around with my camera. Armed with my new tripod and a few tips I picked up from the internet, I positioned my camera where I thought the fireworks were going to be. It turned out that I was a little further away and incorrectly aimed than I originally planned (as you can see from the pictures, above and below). In the end I got some great shots, but was prevented from so many more because of the distance, and the fact that I took all the photos using a 2 second timer (anticipation! YAY).

Leaving the event was a nightmare, as fine as I was with being slowly boiled by spectators, I wasn't fine with being trampled by pedestrians. My friends and I waited at least a half hour, and the stampede out of the park was still flowing steady. The subway station at the park was shut down due to congestion, and the bridge across the river had streams of people flowing towards Hongdae. I went against the flow, and returned home. The problem is that I was still traipsing along with a couple thousand other people avoiding the bridge.