Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Q & A: Meeting Taboos, Babies, Food

I feel like I should try to get an advice column, it's so much fun answering questions. Heehee. More from formspring:

What is the biggest NO NO you could do when meeting new people in Korea?

Essentially the same "no no"s you would find with human interactions everywhere--don't throw things, yell, frighten, shock, or embarrass them. If you trespass on Korean culture a bit, I find that Koreans are very forgiving of foreigners, especially if you've been in the country a short time. More forgiving than most expats I've met are of Koreans violating Western sensibilities (in Korea!!!), which is rather shocking since Westerners are supposedly more "open-minded."

One thing that Koreans do take rather personally (in my opinion) is the refusal of food. If someone offers you something to eat, you are being very rude not to take it, even if you're full or don't like it. Take it. Eat a bite. It probably won't kill you. (Although I draw the line at meat, dried squid, ojingo, and the roasted silkworm larvae, bondaeggi).

If you'll be here awhile, ask a lot of questions about how you "should" do things your first few months to learn the normative cultural interactions. Ask a variety of people. Imitate people of your same age and gender as much as you can. Try not to be confrontational until you've learned how to bring up differences of opinion in an appropriate way. And please don't be racist and judge all Koreans on the basis of the behavior of a few unsavory characters. I sure wouldn't want to be judged as an American based on Paris Hilton.

For teaching in schools, Jason of Kimchi Icecream had a great post about some of the more subtle interactions at the office/in the classroom for those new to Korea: Cultural Taboos and Native English Teachers in South Korean Public Schools.

Are you and your husband trying for kids? If so, what is it like having a baby in Korea?

Not at the moment. Moving to another country in two months with no jobs makes life too unstable for starting a family. My friend Gwen recently had her first baby here in Korea, though. She assures me that having a baby in Korea is pretty swell. Although take the attention and interference from ajummas that you got on a daily basis as a foreigner here and quadruple it if you walk around with a half-Korean baby.

There are a LOT of cultural ideals built up around birth and children in any culture, but remember that Korea is a land with a very low birthrate, despite the near-worship of motherhood and children, so they have more baggage than most countries. Also remember that within roughly three generations (by Western counting, meaning a 20-year generation difference, not the 10-year difference Koreans often use to refer to "generations") went from being like a third-world country to a fully developed one. Most 30-somethings here were born at home, not in hospitals. Many 50 and 60-somethings had siblings that died within the first few years of their lives. Koreans are not skeptical about gynecologists at all because they have LIVED what a big difference having medical access for births makes.

What foods do you miss the most living in Korea?

After being here for three years, not that much, really. I've adapted to what's available. I've learned to make (using some substitutions) most things I craved like hummus (though I would kill for some pita bread...yum!), burritos, and Indian-style curries. It can be hard to locate some ingredients and lacking an oven limits my cooking pretty substantially, but otherwise I don't feel the least bit deprived these days.

When I first got here, I found it hard to buy only seasonally available fruit (I can be kind of picky about fruit, but I've gotten better), to pay that much for real cheese and wine (only available at Costco... though now sometimes showing up at HomePlus and Emart), and having such a limited selection of pre-made sauces like salsa and spaghetti sauce. Also there is no diet coke, only coke zero and coke light and neither are really all that good.

Still... would kill for a really good traditional Mexican style restaurant in Daegu and will dance in the aisles with glee of Safeway, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe's at the availability of quality whole grain products.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Q & A: Travel in Korea

Formspring seems to be blowing up now. Which is awesome. I'm happy to answer your questions, but it takes me a bit to get to them all thoroughly. I prefer to answer one at a time. Also, you can send questions via e-mail, as always.

If someone were to go to Korea, what are a few must see places to go?

I never got the chance to blog about it properly (but I did upload my photo album), but my visit to the DMZ changed my entire perspective on Korea, its history (especially recent), and on my own country's military operations abroad. I don't think there is anything like it anywhere else in the world, and given what's been happening lately, it may not be around for much longer. I would venture to say that for a tourist in East Asia, it alone is worth the side trip to Korea. The USO in Seoul offers the best tour around--you get to go into the restricted Joint Security Area (판문점) with the blue buildings that they're always photographing for the news.

Other than the DMZ, "must see" recommendations would depend highly on your travel preferences. One of the best tourist trips I made here for the culture was to Haehoe village in Andong to see the traditional mask dance. I adore temples in the mountains, but others find them dull and too similar after one or two. My favorites include Haeinsa, Bulguksa (both UNESCO World Heritage Sites; while in Gyeongju for Bulguksa, check out the other sites), Yonggungsa (one of my banner pictures is from this temple...), and Daewonsa. Jogyesa is great if you hit it around Buddha's birthday when it is covered with lanterns. The palaces in Seoul are worth a look, as is the Jongmyo shrine. I loved the Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon, but it's not everyone's cup of tea.

For nature--hike a few mountains and see some beaches. I have not been to Seoraksan in Gangwondo nor to Jirisan in Jeolla (the two most Koreans love on the peninsula), but I feel like I'm missing out because a lot of the "lesser" mountains have been some of my happiest trips in Korea. It's hard for me to dislike a beach, even the super crowded ones in Korea. We have a trip planned for Jeju in August and I expect I will add this as a "must see" upon return--my one and only un-blogged, un-photographed trip there was a one night Swing Camp and it was enough to make me fall in love with the island. For natural beauty in Korea, I've yet to find something to top my trip to Somaemuldo via Geojedo.

For cultural experiences, Seoul offers taekwondo demonstrations and classes for pretty cheap. You should also check out Insadong. There is nearly always some kind of local festival happening somewhere and they are usually quite fun. I think an all night out on the town (and Koreans really do party ALL NIGHT, they're wild!) should include a good Korean jeon shik or dol seot bap restaurant, a noraebang (singing room), and makkoli jip or soju house (I prefer the food at makkoli jip)--not necessarily in that order. Visit a mungujeom (stationary store)--trust me... it's worth it.

Blog readers, help me out here! What else is a "must see" in Korea?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

What's the best part of living in Korea?

Wowee... my first formspring question. I'm a cool kid now, right?

And what a doozie it is. I have three years of blog entries about the best parts of living in Korea!!!

Obviously, the best part has been the relationships I've made here--my husband, his family, our friends (both Korean and expat), my swing club members, my taekwondo and Korean language instructors and classmates, my students, my co-workers, local shop owners, my doctor and his nurse and all the ladies at the International Clinic at Dongsan Hospital, neighborhood kids, random ajummas on the subway, my vet and his wife, taxicab drivers--nearly all of my interactions with people in Korea have been overwhelmingly positive. Being a foreigner makes you a natural object of curiousity and interest for many Koreans, and being an open-minded, culturally sensitive, genuinely interested resident in your host country turns that curiousity into lasting and powerful relationships.

Other than that, I would list different things on different days. Today, I like how low-stress my job is that I can spend all day Sunday reading three books and not worrying about school tomorrow (and yet my job is very fulfilling for me). Yesterday, I would have said how much I love hiking here when Min Gi and I embarked on a three hour adventure that began with a trailhead a five minute walk from our apartment. Before that I might have mentioned the extensive and efficient public transportation system, the many varied entertainment and activity options in a big city like Daegu, the ease of domestic travel, the accessibility of fruit and vegetable markets, the fact that I learn something new everyday, the relatively low cost of living, the obsession with cuteness that both sickens and fascinates me.

Honestly, the expat lifestyle here is what makes Korea so great for me. It's a culture that is very demanding on its own participants, and I'm not really sure I'd like it if it were my own culture (especially as a woman), but as a sort of privledged insider-outsider, it's an easy, comfortable fit.

Ask me anything

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Finances in Korea: 3 years later...

Many young people from the U.S. (and Canada and England and Australia and New Zealand and South Africa) select South Korea for their ESL teaching adventure because it promises a decent financial payout: relatively high salaries for a relatively low cost of living with lots of perks (free air or a bonus in lieu of air, cheap health care and low taxes, free housing or housing allowance, severance "bonus" every year, refund of pension money, proximity to other popular travel destinations in Asia, etc.). While I took a substantial pay cut to come here, for many others money was the name of the game.

Although my main reason for coming to Korea had very little to do with money, I decided to see how I've done the last three years and whether my decision to live here for the last three years was half the "win" financially as it has been personally.

In the U.S., as a teacher, I made between $36,000 (first year, straight out of school) and $43,000 (my third year with some extra duties like yearbook and after school test classes a couple days a week). Now, I would make more (depending on the district I chose and how much of my Korean experience they count probably between $50K and $60K) because I have completed my master's degree. Of course, this is assuming I can find a job in the current market... which may not be possible.

In Korea, I've made between a little less than $20,000 (my second year when the exchange rate for the won went crazy) to a little under $30,000--these figures are including housing calculated out as part of the salary, yearly bonuses and plane tickets, and extra classes/duties at school as part of that figure. I did not do private lessons (illegal for most ESL teachers here, but still common), which could have substantially increased my earnings here in Korea. I also chose jobs for reasons other than salary. I was offered substantially more by other schools, but chose the schools I did for personal and professional reasons. I'm saying earnings-wise, I could have done better if I'd cared to.

So in those three years, what have I accomplished financially? I dug up my old money file from June 2007 to see.
+ $20,000 less debt, including NO MORE credit card debt
+ Retirement accounts worth approximately the same--which considering I couldn't contribute to them at all since 2008 (no U.S. income) and the market crash in that time, that's a small miracle I wasn't even expecting
+ Getting married--paying cash for our 150ish person wedding was pretty awesome
+ Relocating to a new country with a cat
+ Two lovely vacations to Southeast Asia--my solo trip to Vietnam and the honeymoon to Cambodia and Thailand
+ Two trips back to the U.S., one for three weeks that included Min Gi (who did pay for his own plane ticket)
+ A great deal of travel within Korea
+ Getting a U.S. permanent resident visa (green card!) for my husband (not cheap!)

By the time both my husband and I arrive back in the U.S., we will be able to add the following:
+ Relocating to the U.S. with 2 people and 2 cats
+ Another $500 less debt or so
+ A 4-day, 3-night trip to Jeju-do (Korea's Hawaii... so they like to say)
+ Emergency cash savings of about $7,500-$10,000, pretty dependent on the exchange rate over the next few months

Considering that I've also had a major hospitalization in that time, I'd say that's pretty much a "win" all in all. Especially considering that I only really started "trying" to be more frugal a little over a year ago when we decided to get married (I'd always wanted to be debt free when I got married... I did not achieve that goal, but I didn't do too badly).

I've been pretty focused the last few months on the negatives of my financial picture (still owe a shocking amount of student loan debt and expect to be unemployed in the U.S. for a substantial and indeterminate amount of time, therefore lacking in health insurance, independent living space--yup, we're living with the 'rents for a bit, and forcibly delaying our desire to start a family until we're a bit more stable), that I've completely ignored the fact that I've managed to pay off so much debt and do so many things I never thought I'd be able to "afford" in the last three years.

With the larger salary in the U.S. (once I finally get a job!), I can probably pay down my debt a little faster, so I have a goal of being free of grad school debt within two years of gainful employment (the undergrad loan being at 1.65% interest, it seems silly to pay that off as quickly when I'd also like to have a bigger emergency fund, starting a family nest egg, and some savings for Min Gi to start his own business when we return to Korea in 4-5 years).

If you've been reading this blog, you already know what a "win" Korea was for me in the personal development and growth area... but until I sat down and crunched the numbers, I hadn't really appreciated how much of a win it was financially, too.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Jeollanam-do Part 2: Daewonsa and Tibetan Museum

Small chipmunk on one of hundreds of red-capped Buddha statues at Daewonsa Temple.

People who've never been to Korea ask me if it is a nice place to visit. I have a hard time answering. Korea is full of history and beauty and charmingly delightful people--all things that should make it an ideal place for the adventure tourist. However, I tend to say that it is an awesome place to live and a good place to visit if you know people there, but that it's probably not the greatest place in the world to just travel around with a backpack for a few weeks. Although lovely and relatively unknown to the backpackers of the world, Korea remains a country that is a touch overcrowded (though not with tourists and lacks the tourist infrastructure of other Asian countries which can be both refreshing and frustrating for the lone traveler). What's more though is that Koreans have limited self-appreciation of the kind of cultural sites that appeal to such foreign tourists. One is more likely to be directed to a plastic reconstructed "historical village theme park" by the locals than to the preserved ruins of the actual former kingdom a few kilometers down the road; to gaudy and badly-run festivals and tourist villages than to local markets and active village communities that show the true daily life of rural Korea. Until the Korean tourist department realizes the general dislike Western travelers have for such falsified experiences (the worst I've personally seen was a museum in Jeju of preserved insects set up in carefully done dioramas that depicted scenes from Hollywood movies with not one bit of English information about the local insects of Korea. I still have nightmares about praying mantis ET), the country will be obscured and overshadowed by its Far East neighbors who have figured out how to get our tourist dollars.

Fishing Dragon. Temple detail at Daewonsa.

So even as relatively under traveled and undiscovered to the Western travel world as Korea is, it's not often that I feel like I've stumbled upon hidden travel gems here. One such time was our trip last year to the small island near Geoje-do of Somaemul-do. Certainly without the benefit of my own transportation, my travels are often limited to where the bus goes (which in Korea, luckily, is almost everywhere!). However, very far from the beaten path--off a poorly marked "scenic highway" and well outside any real city's limits--lies Daewonsa and the connected Tibet Museum.

More temple detail. Notice the tiny, individual artwork on each supporting beam as well as the roof artwork that runs along the wall panel. This is not the typical level of detail in Korean temples.

Rather understated for something so unequivocally lovely, Daewonsa features natural and cultivated beauty (indeed I saw more wildlife in a temple than I've ever seen before) and temples of extraordinary detail, very well maintained. The atmosphere is unusually mysterious and reflective (although this could be because we arrived at the start of the temple-stay silence period, but I think it's also the design and intention).

A preserved example of intricate Tibetan sand art housed in the museum.

It's also notable because one of the leading monks has a fascination with Tibet and the Buddhism of Tibet and has collected so many varied and eclectic artifacts and information from that country that it is now housed in a separate, lovely, three-floor structure devoted to informing Koreans about the country and culture. Especially strange is the basement "death experience" where you learn about Tibetan Buddhists' understanding about death and you can go through a zen-like exercise where you "die" to come to an understanding yourself. Min Gi was too afraid. I was about to do it, when a family with two young children wandered in. Somehow dying in front of children who were shyly saying "hello" and staring at me seemed a bit too awkward, so I ultimately declined.

Overall the temple is well worth the long trip out there. If we'd had the time, I would like to have done the temple stay, but we were unprepared for the meditation and silent reflection and fasting that they had on the schedule. So we continued on to Gwangju for dinner.

See more from our Jeollanam-do trip:

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Jeollanam-do Part 1: Boseong Green Tea Fields

Min Gi and I hiking up the mountain of green tea bushes in Boseong

Min Gi and I ventured out to Jeollanam-do for the first weekend in May with the promise of a green tea festival in Boseong and some other interesting tourist stops. While we had originally planned to spend a full two days exploring the province, Min Gi's back spasmed overnight (the one that landed him in the hospital two days later), so we came home early on Sunday.

Green Tea Ice Cream: True Love.

First stop: Boseong Tea Festival (interesting although somewhat disappointing for a Korean festival--the "performances" were mostly karaoke by local people and the demonstrations other than the sorting tea leaf one--which was too expensive at 10,000won, though it did include the tea you sorted as a parting gift--were rather lackluster and too crowded) and the nearby tea fields on a large plantation (much less disappointing and the snack shop offered green tea ice cream, among other goodies).

The cedar trees on the plantation were striking and lovely.

Although I'll write next time about Part 2: Daewonsa and the Tibetan Museum, you can check out the full album from our trip here:


Saturday, June 19, 2010

Suwon Fortress (화성) -- UNESCO World Heritage

The wall meanders through the city for 5.7km, with several gates visible along the way.

Near the center of Suwon, a satellite city on the Seoul subway line known for some excellent colleges, is one of Korea's World Heritage sites. Built in the late 1700s, the fortress at Suwon, Hwaseong (화성), is one of the most modern celebrated accomplishments of the Joseon dynasty. Including this trip, I have now been to six of Korea's nine sites, including both of Gyeongju's sites on the list--Bulguksa and Seokguram (together they count as one site) and the historic areas and Namsan (together)--Jongmyo and Changdeokgung (somehow I never did blog about this one) in Seoul, and Haeinsa.

The first part of the trip was a bit of a steep hike up a small mountain.

On the way to our visa interview at the U.S. embassy in Seoul, Min Gi and I decided to check it out.

The signal beacon--for communication about attacks and location of the city.

Water passing through what I thought was the prettiest of the gates, Hwahongmun.

As you can see, the weather was perfect for the hike around the outside. We got some really stunning views of Suwon city, watched Korean children and Taiwanese tourists learn Korean archery, and engaged in general silliness, as you can see:

Bad idea, hon.

Check out the complete album for more:

Suwon Fortress (화성) -- UNESCO World Heritage

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Spicy Black Bean Soup

Chock full of veggies! (The color comes from the tomatoes, unlike most soups in Korea where the red is from the spicy pepper flakes/paste.)

I had some black beans from cooking burritos in the past, but as I'm leaving in 2 months and don't plan to go to Costco to get other ingredients I need for burritos (like tortillas and salsa), I decided to find some other black bean recipes and try them out. This is the second time I've made this heavenly soup. It is one of the most delicious, healthy, filling, and just plain awesome things I've ever cooked in my life. It has a hearty Western-style soup flavor, all with ingredients relatively easy to find in Korea.

I was inspired by two recipes on the web: mainly, I adapted Vegan Black Bean Soup from AllRecipes, but I also borrowed some ideas from Black Beans and Rice at Casual Kitchen, one of my favorite food blogs for all kind of reasons.

A couple notes first: I don't track amounts very strictly when I cook. I have a good sense of how some flavors balance each other, but I often add a LOT more garlic and spices as I go to alter the flavor. The instructions here correlate to what I used this time, but you can use more or less or change some veggies and spices to suit your own tastes.

Everything but the beans...wow!


About 1.5 cups dried black beans, soaked overnight, drained, and then cooked with just a bit of olive oil and salt added halfway through cooking (if you have never cooked dry beans before, this is kind of tricky... do some reading on the internet)
1.5 onions, roughly chopped
1 carrot, sliced
3 large stalks celery, chopped
1 small green bell pepper, chopped
1 can of corn
4 large tomatoes (chop two and a half, preserving as much of the juice as you can and blend the remaining 1.5)
4 tbsp olive oil
about 1/2 cup red pepper flakes (this is a sub for chili powder using Korean 고추가루)
2 tbsp cumin (I found this at a "global market" in Korea)
3 spicy green peppers
4ish tbsp crushed/smashed garlic
pinch of black pepper powder

So... once you've prepped all your beans and veggies (this takes awhile) you can begin:
1. Heat a large soup pan over low heat and add the olive oil, onions, carrot, celery, bell pepper, and garlic. Sautee for about 5 minutes.
2. Add the beans and the corn and about 2 cups of water. Stir well. Add all of the spices. Cook for about 5 more minutes.
3. Add the tomatoes (chopped and blended) and the spicy green peppers. (While #1&2 are happening is usually when I chop the tomatoes, so they'll go in not all at the same time--like 1/2 a tomato at a time).
4. Cook for 20-30 minutes on low heat.
Tip: Taste at about 10 or 15 and add more spices as you like.

This yielded about 12 bowls of soup for us (which we will go through in like 3 days... seriously it's that good). Be warned that eating two bowls in the same meal is painfully filling.

Serve with rice and enjoy!!!

P.S. Bonus ingredient: A Min Gi to remark how amazing a cook you are and do all the dishes when you're done. I highly recommend this. ;-)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Immigration Update

You can read about our immigration journey thus far here and here.

Min Gi just called me from Seoul where he turned in the blue form and my dad's I-864 (the Affidavit of Support) form, W-2s and tax papers for the last three years along with a birth certificate and passport copy for proof of dad's U.S. citizenship (I didn't go with him this time). The ladies at the embassy said that barring anything crazy, Min Gi should get the visa some time next week.

With less than two months until my departure date and less than three months until his, this is a big relief. When the papers arrive, we will bust open the nice Australian bottle of wine we got as a wedding present from Sarah. An occasion well worth the celebrating.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Break Time!

Min Gi likes to watch TV. I prefer to read or mess around (even occasionally write) on the computer. Sometimes in the evening, we will spend a few hours each doing our own thing--him in the living room, me in the bedroom.

Well... every 30 minutes or so, Min Gi will pop into the bedroom and shout "Break Time!"

Apparently break time means dancing for 2-5 minutes. Or attacking the kitties together. Or kissing.

Being married rocks.

Hey, everybody: BREAK TIME!

Saturday, June 12, 2010


Well, blog. I have to apologize. I've been seriously neglecting you. And worse, my lovely, captive readers (perhaps not so captive these days) have been left in the dark. And you deserve an explanation. A good one.

But here's the thing blog, I can't give it to you. I'm still in Korea, loving Min Gi (marriage is pretty damn awesome), having wonderful mini-adventures (most recently a picnic outing with the in-laws to a little town called Gachang, full of Dae Gaya historical stuff), but I just can't blog about it. I have something huge weighing on my mind that for privacy reasons, I cannot blog about. Well, at least not fully. I have hinted about it before, but coming full out and discussing the inner workings of my neuroses would cause a lot of unnecessary pain to people I love. And so half-blogging about this, and blogging about other things that are rather trivial to me at this point in my life feels like lying.

Unfortunately, not blogging about it (or at least not writing about it) seems to be increasing my depression and causing regular meltdowns (most recently an hour spent on the phone with my mother crying about stupid stuff). This has become unacceptable. So I've decided that I need to write. I will not be writing here about this stuff, but I believe that by writing about it privately, I will release the crap that's been keeping me from writing about anything else and be able to return to updating you about the details of saying goodbye to my home for the last three years and moving a new family to America in the middle of a recession.

Sorry I cannot be more honest with you, blog and blog readers. But at least now I'm being honest with myself. I hope it helps me get my voice back.


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