May & Miss Carly’s Return

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May 2014 was a cacophony of embroiled emotions. I had a blast experiencing the return of one of my favorite people on this planet, Miss Carly Teng (for a three week stay), and enjoyed the spring weather. On the other hand, the duration of my stay in Korea is nearing its end, which is spawning a well of sadness, anticipatory stress, and a struggle to stay present-minded. The following blog will review the joyful happenings of May and discuss some of my non-cajoling thoughts.

The above picture is of Canuck Bear- a present from my closest Chinese Canadian friend, Carly. Carly landed on Friday May 2nd and she stayed at my place for her first weekend. When I opened the door to let her in, it felt like I had just seen her the prior day. Effortlessly, our raunchy jokes, feminist-themed dialogue and fits of giggles returned as if they had never left.

Her first night in town happened to be the very same day as my departure for a southern Korean island tour (which will be featured in another blog posting), so we only had time for BBQ and inebriation. Upon return from the 4-day trip, many of us went out in Hongdae for makgeoli and jeon: Carly, Tom, Chantel, K-dragon, and Ariem. Below: Pre-dinner selfie and the gathering.

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John and Andra met up with us after dinner to drink in what is a children’s park during the daytime, and a raucous crowd of university students in the evening, who happened to be viewing the band from the roof top while drinking.

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We followed up beer and makgeoli with a classic Korean activity- noraebang singing.

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Above right: Our taxi driver on the way home from Hongdae had an interesting display of model cars complete with a mini-spotlight. Below: Ellie and I spent the day river side, walking in ‘nature.’ Please mind the grayness of the sky in all the pictures of this blog. Recent weather forecasts often indicate a temperature of mid-80s Fahrenheit and smoggy haze. Is ‘smog’ or ‘haze’ even a weather term? Permanent pollution is more like it, but no worries, only half of my friends so far have experienced severe allergies, skin reactions and chemically-induced, premature balding. I hope I am not not next! If one misses the bright ‘natural’ colors of nature, Seoul always has a modern solution- just show actual nature pictures on an artsy display wall at the city’s largest park.

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On the self-labled Fashion Street, ‘interesting’ fashion choices are made… The plaid clad individual on the left is a man. In my opinion, those pants are too tight, even if one is into the skinny jean craze. There is no rain forecasted. His girlfriend seems less concerned than he is about the sun. They are adorable though, right?
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There are 55 days left before I leave Korea. I have been having a hard time keeping my swollen heart, brimming with gratitude, belly laughs, travel memories and professional/personal development, inside my chest cavity. As each day drops from the calendar like a heavy gong in a silent, non-suspecting room, I can feel the ligaments and bones holding my heart in place tear and fracture as each are painstakingly plucked from their delicate bow. My pillow is damp from many tear-filled moments before my fitful angst, midway between sleep and awake, where I seem to exist these days. I stopped taking pain management medication, sleeping pills and muscle relaxers because I want to be viscerally present for this detachment process; ironically, in the course of being ‘present’ in my progression, I have been carrying the bewildering weight of so much anticipatory stress. My to do list is pages long, and recently, I have been to many places, but not much seems to get done. I have seen many people, but no one in particular. I feel constant haziness, as my norm waking hours become a struggle to opaque the future moments that I want to avoid.

I hate goodbyes the way most people hate moving, for they are painful, seemingly unnecessary, and logistically labored. I happen to be saying goodbye and moving. In my own detested syntax, and Papa Bear’s least favorite of my vernacular, Fuck MY Life. Not literally or even figuratively, of course, as this last year and a half has been the best of my life. Have I enjoyed the last month? Of course! … as you can see from the pictures and blogged documentation. Do I want to move home just yet? No. But before you emote shock, let me explain. It’s the access to hundreds of restaurants, museums, cultural experiences, and like-minded expats. It’s the way I am a privileged resident. It’s the softness of Theo Puff’s (my student) skin when he leans on me and Stephanie’s little hand in mine. It’s the collaborative work environment with an intellectually stimulating boss in meetings who is then mostly hands off about the classroom. It’s the hardy laughs every day from my coworkers and my stunningly brilliant students.

Don’t get me wrong, I do have some pretty exciting things to look forward to when returning to the USA. I look forward to hugging my best friend, Papa Bear, for the first time in 19 months. I look forward to gliding the blue hull of my kayak into the cool morning calm of a Minnesotan lake and gingerly sliding my finger tips into the refreshing water. I can’t wait for the first bite of Chipotle and to obtain two new kitties for the Kelly household! I have worries about the status of Chris and my relationship, about how my presence will rock the boat for my parents’current synergy, and how willing my parents will be to let me cook. I am anxious about taking the GRE again, relearning French, applying to phD programs, and finding work that I am as passionate about as teaching. I will miss the city, my friends, the children. I will feel lonely and not safe in America for sure. I equally look forward to and dread the moment that I will walk down an empty road for the first time. I have so many family, financial, and future obligations at home that seem so daunting right now. Above all, I will miss traveling.

I constantly say this to Chris at home, and I mean it: I know the kids won’t remember me and that’s truly ok, but I will remember each of them forever. I will remember their infectious smiles, handwriting, creative stories, awkward farts in class, lessons on picking noses, them laughing with me and at me. I have taught each of my students about being great academics, and hopefully also life lessons about responsibility, striving for their personal best and having a mindset of gratitude. Most moving though is what they have taught me.

I have learned to talk and think slower. I have learned to be compassionate towards these little work machines that Korea keeps pumping out. I often witness that they believe anything is possible and their blatant naivety is intoxicating. They are little humans that will shape the future and hopefully use their wealthy privilege to progress Korea into a more egalitarian society. Every moment counts. It only takes one marvelous or horrendous experience to sear the brain and emotions forever. Teachers are so respected here that I choose my words and my life lessons very carefully. I feel that I matter. I hope they feel that from me too.

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Above: my Teacher’s Appreciation Week loot- coffee, a tomato, a flower basket with roses, carnations & a card, strawberry juice, bunt cake, muffins, Belgian chocolates, fine tea & coffee set, carrot juice, and an art flower creation. I’m spoiled and I love it! I don’t teach to get presents, but I can’t say that I mind the benefit!!

Chris has wondered why it is that I love any and all presents so much, to the extent that I request them to be given consistently, without reason or rhyme? Surprisingly, even though I like fashion and shopping, I don’t do it that often and I am not a very materialistic person, compared to many of my peers. I often prefer spending extra money on experiential activities and traveling than on clutter, and yet I get giddy with gifts. I have traced this pleasure back to growing up with a gregarious, expressive father and an emotionally muted, hardworking mother. My mom worked long hours to provide for our family. My dad and I spent many nights by the TV, eagerly darting our eyes out the window at the corner of our cul de sac every time we saw a vehicle, hoping that it was my mom’s headlights coming around the bend. Being understandably tired, she would often sigh and plop down on the bed to change before joining us. When she came to the living room, she would often say that she had gone out on her lunch hour and got me something- a highlighter, stickers, snacks, etc. I didn’t really care what she got me (I certainly did not care about the monetary value), but I was so excited that she thought about me and I couldn’t wait to tell all my friends the next day at school, “look at what my mom got for me!!” To this day, when someone thinks of me and buys me something as a token of their affection it makes me so joyful!

Below: Diva crown day with my favorite- Theo Puff.

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Below: Night out with Carly, her boyfriend Greg, Andra, Ellie, John, Areim, and Eunha at Chez Maak. Chez Maak is one of my favorite trendy hip spots for makgeoli and jeon (savory kimchi pancakes).

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Below: We are off to our second place and phase of drinking for the evening… or as Korean’s say Ee cha… to argue the merits of national defense.

It’s no secret that Koreans are some of the hardest workers in the world.  From a young age, one spends his or her school days buried in books, memorizing endless pages of material, and hopping from math to English to art academy.  There’s very little time for play, or childhood even.  Things don’t change much by the time one reaches the workplace.  Of the cities across the globe, those working in Seoul put in the most working hours per week on average. Efficiency has nothing to do with it, but because of their propensity to work hard, they find it necessary to play hard, too.  And very few can play as hard as Koreans do.

When living in or visiting Korea, it becomes obvious fairly quickly that nightlife in Korea is a big deal.  Drinking and going out is as much of an integral part of Korean culture as kimchi.  As in many places, university students and twenty-somethings flock to nightlife districts like Hongdae, Gangnam, and Itaewon to escape the imminent pressures of life and to get buzzed on cheap drinks and celebrate their youth.  For the career man (or woman), going out is a way to maintain social connections and is often unavoidable and obligatory in many workplaces.  But, unlike in the West, evenings of binge drinking occur just about every night of the week and rather than throwing back a few brews in one particular restaurant or bar, Koreans party in cha, or rounds, moving, drinking, and eating in various places.

Generally, a night out involves four cha but big nights out can take party-goers all the way into a fifth.  Depending on who you ask, each round should be at a specific kind of place, but because we are foreigners, we don’t really follow those rules. I have never made it past 3 cha, and all nights are not necessarily in the following order. They are easily interchangeable.

Il-Cha (Round 1):  Dinner and Drinks

Koreans usually begin their nights out at a barbeque restaurant.  There’s something about Korean barbeque that encourages drinking.  Perhaps it’s the sight of the fatty slabs of samgyeopsal (pork belly) or the smell of burning charcoal. A few bottles of maekju and soju are ordered almost immediately upon sitting down.  There are quite a few drinking games that encourage taking shots of the Korean firewater from the iconic green bottles. Most of our nights start with BBQ, but on this particular one, we started with round 2.

Ee-Cha (Round 2):  Bar or Hof
Koreans usually order in sets when in groups and the bill is typically picked up by one person, as “going dutch” is practically unheard of in traditional Korean culture.

Sam-Cha (Round 3): Another Bar or Hof
Sam-cha is more or less the same as ee-cha, except at this point, everyone is boozed up.  This is the point where folks let out their frustrations or problems with one another, as anything said while intoxicated is essentially “forgotten and forgiven” the next day.  Hofs are common hangouts for round three, as anju (drinking food) must be purchased with drinks.  Said snacks are usually consumed with the intent of decreasing the chance of a morning hangover.

Sa-Cha (Round 4):  The Main Party
Round four typically involves dancing.  There are plenty of big, flashy clubs throughout Seoul but there are also some cool underground places that are pretty chill but allow for dancing and mingling if its desired. Patrons sit at tables in caves or dance to indie electronica.  Fortunately for the night owls, most clubs and bars such as these stay open until the wee hours of the morning, or at least until the first subway trains start running.

O-Cha (Round 5):  Karaoke
Karaoke is a national pastime of Korea. Karaoke isn’t something that is done in large groups of strangers here; instead, noraebangs are businesses of individual rooms, allowing private parties to sing their hearts out.  For the most part, noraebangs are extremely tacky with their neon flashing lights and cheesy decor. People drink a few beers, shake tambourines, and sing (or try to) a very random mix of songs.

By the end of o-cha, most are exhausted and head home (or to the nearest sidewalk) for a few hours of sleep before making it to class or work the next morning.  I will never understand how Koreans work so hard and play so hard at the same time. As time and Korea progresses, however, many companies are working to stamp out the excessive drinking culture.  Employees are beginning to take a stand and some have even gone so far as to sue their employers for being forced to drink. It’s great to know that measures are being taken to combat binge drinking in the corporate environment.   

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Below: Jesse’s 31st birthday- 12 of us went out for dinner to have dak kalbi.

Dak galbi is a popular Korean dish generally made by stir-frying marinated diced chicken in a gochujang (chili pepper paste), sliced cabbagesweet potatoscallionsonionsperilla leaves, and tteok (rice cake) together on a hot plate. Dak galbi appeared after the late 1960s as an inexpensive anju (food that is eaten while drinking) in small taverns, on the outskirts of the city to replace the comparatively expensive gui dishes which are grilled over charcoal. The dish spread where the livestock industry thrived and offered fresh ingredients with no need for refrigeration. It is also a popular dish for university students who are on a low budget, because it is relatively cheap and served in abundance. Despite the fact that its name means chicken ribs, there is no rib meat in dak galbi. 

Next, we went to a ‘uniuqe’ dive bar that I probably will never frequent again. It had very aggressive English swear words plastered everywhere. I know I am a walking hypocrite given that I repurpose many of these words on a day-to-day basis, but I am more of a lounge type person, if the experience involves drinking only.

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Below: A Saturday picnic at the park near the river. These pictures sorely misrepresent the at least 50 people in attendance of 5 birthdays at the park (Bri, Ben, Jesse, Bama, Jeff). The week before the park get together, I had been complaining about alcohol being uncomfortable to drink on a hot day. Wine is for dinner, cheese or lounges. I don’t drink beer ever, but if I did it would make me feel bloated. And hard liquor just makes one hotter. So… I decided to make my own refreshing mixed drink: Lemon Rosemary Cucumber Spritzer.

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One Sunday, I went to the Hapjeong cafe area with Chantel…

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Above right: The first Psychiatric Services sign, building, or otherwise, that I have seen in the past 1.5 years. Stigma surrounding mental health is still overwhelmingly oppressive here.

Below: My favorite summer dessert- Patbingsu!!

The early forms of patbingsu consisted of shaved ice and two or three ingredients: red bean paste, tteok (rice cakes), and ground nut powder. The first patbingsu could be found in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). Government records show officials sharing crushed ice topped with various fruits. Some historians believe that the dessert originated from a Chinese tradition of eating snow or ice topped with fruit juices, but Korea disputes this origin. The modern forms of patbingsu are reputed to originate during the period of Japanese occupation (1910-1945) with the introduction of a cold red bean paste dish. However, the combinations of red bean paste and shaved ice is a Korean invention. During the Korean War (1950-1953), foreign influence led to the inclusion of ingredients such as fruit cocktailice cream, fruits, nuts, cerealsyrups, and whipped cream

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Below: Holy Geek out moments with John in Gangnam at Kakao Talk Cafe!! The following animated creatures are a set of extremely popular emoticons used on a texting application in Korea: Kakao Talk. I use this application ALL the time, even to talk to many of my friends back in the USA. It is completely free and so fun to use. The digital has become physical in this fun, quirky cafe.

Can you guess which one is my favorite character? Bossy Neo- the blue cat! Neo is a prim and self-oriented cat who cares for no one but herself. She is obsessed with her black bob cut wig, which is one source of her confidence. Frodo (the brown dog) and bossy Neo despise, yet love each other. You can always find them together but they are usually fighting- like cats and dogs! At the end of the day, they always find ways to settle things, no matter what.

Chris’s favorite emoticon is Jay-G, the one with the blonde afro and sunglasses. Jay-G always makes it a point to get his afro done fresh and his suit crisp. He is a secret agent who finds inspiration from his largest idol, Jay-Z. Although Jay-G tries to portray an image of a calm, cool-headed and professional dude, he is actually as clumsy as a bear and has the heart of a pussycat who is hungry for affection.

John graciously lent me money to buy a few souvenirs 🙂

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Below: John and I bought tickets to the 29th annual Korea World Travel Fair. The purpose of the fair is to promote tourism around the world by highlighting global costumes and cultural performances, as well as offering petite food and drink samples.

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Below: John and I met a sassy Kenyan Masai leader who travels around the world promoting tourism. We had a fascinating conversation with him about his job and the effects of tourism on cultural degradation, education expansion, and promotion of human rights issues within his tribe. He was an excellent English speaker and was passionate about promoting education not tied to ministry and about ending the crisis of female genital mutilation and HIV within his community. He gave us two of his bracelets and his card. I hope to meet him again some day.

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Below: Two Thai performances. Ironically, Chris and I never got to see one in Thailand, so this was especially awesome!

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Below: Okinawan, Japanese dance and drum team performance.

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Below: I am featured wearing an Afgahani lapis lazuli stone necklace. The procurer of the stone and jewelry maker is sitting in the picture. I wish I had bought it!!

Lapis lazuli is a deep blue stone with golden inclusions of pyrites which shimmer like little stars. This opaque gemstone has a grand past. It was among the first gemstones to be worn as jewellery and worked on. At excavations in the ancient centres of culture around the Mediterranean, archaeologists have again and again found among the grave furnishings decorative chains and figures made of lapis lazuli – clear indications that the deep blue stone was already popular thousands of years ago among the people of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia, Greece and Rome. It is said that the legendary city of Ur on the Euphrates plied a keen lapis lazuli trade as long ago as the fourth millennium B.C., the material coming to the land of the two great rivers from the famous deposits in Afghanistan. In other cultures, lapis lazuli was regarded as a holy stone. Particularly in the Middle East, it was thought to have magical powers. Countless signet rings, scarabs and figures were wrought from the blue stone which Alexander the Great brought to Europe.

Lapis lazuli is regarded by many people around the world as the stone of friendship and truth. The blue stone is said to encourage harmony in relationships and help its wearer to be authentic and give his or her opinion openly.

Lapis lazuli is a rock that mainly consists of diopside and lazurite. It came into being millions of years ago during the metamorphosis of lime to marble. The small inclusions with their golden shimmer, which give the stone the magic of a starry sky, are not of gold as people used to think, but of pyrites. Their cause is iron. The blue colour comes from the sulphur content of the lazurite and may range from pure ultramarine to a lighter blue. At between 5 and 6 on the Mohs scale, this stone is among the less hard gemstones. When polishing this stone, one must handle it gently on account of its modest hardness.

As they did more than 5000 years ago, the best raw stones still come from the steep Hindu Kush in the north-east of Afghanistan. The lumps of blue rock, extracted from the inhospitable mountains by blasting, are brought down into the valley in the summer months by mules. Nature also created deposits in Russia, to the west of Lake Baikal, and in the Chilean Andes, where the blue rock often has white or grey lime running through it. In smaller amounts, lapis lazuli is also found in Italy, Mongolia, the USA and Canada, Myanmar and Pakistan.

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I was privy to an adorable moment while sitting and waiting for John to finish his canoodling with the Guam performers. The little teeny boppers above were instructed to stay off of the red carpet until she returned. The students’ consciousness of their red barrier lasted less than 30 seconds.

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On the last weekend of May I enjoyed a day trip north of the river to Dongdaemun for scrumptious yukhoe (raw beef) and jeon (mung bean pancake) with my Korean friend, Yoobin.

Yukhoe (pronounced ‘yook-way’) is a variety of raw dishes in Korean cuisine, which are usually made from raw ground beef seasoned with various spices or sauces. It is basically a Korean steak tartare. Usually the most tender part of beef is used. Yukhoe can be made with a variety of meats, such as liverkidney, or heart. The ingredients are thoroughly cleaned and salted, then rinsed and dried to remove unpleasant odors. Yukhoe is assumed to have been introduced from China into Korea during the Mongol conquests in Goryeo period, and was popularized in the Joseon era. Thin slices of tender beef are soaked to remove blood before being finely shredded. The shredded beef is then marinated in a mixed sauce of chopped spring onion, minced garlic, pepper, oil, honeypine nutssesame, and salt. Its dipping sauce, chogochujang includes chili pepper condiment mixed with vinegar and sugar that can be altered to taste with pepper or honey.

Meat in Korean cuisine has highly detailed classifications regarding freshness, quality, and part differentiation for specific cooking methods. Since yukhoe uses raw beef, freshness is the most important criterion. For yukhoe, it is recommended to use beef no more than one day after defrosting, and traditionally should not be aged more than one day after slaughtering. Regular Korean yukhoe customers often patronize trusted restaurants or butcher’s shops which have well-known, high-quality beef distributors.

Since 2004, the Korean Government has run the Beef Traceability System. This system requires ID numbers with the age of the Abanimal of origin, supplier, distributor, the beef’s grade, and butchering date and originating butchery. Most of the good beef restaurants in Korea list their beef’s information on the wall.

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Above: The Dongdaemun Design Plaza, also called the DDP, is a major urban development landmark in Seoul, designed by Zaha Hadid, with a distinctively neofuturistic design characterized by the powerful, curving forms of elongated structures. The landmark is the centerpiece of South Korea’s fashion hub and a popular tourist destination. The DDP features a walkable park on its roofs, large global exhibition spaces, futuristic retail stores and restored parts of the Seoul fortress. The DDP has been one of the main reasons for Seoul’s designation as World Design Capital in 2010. Construction started in 2009 and it was officially inaugurated on March 21, 2014.

The Samsung designed DDP has received mixed reviews. The futuristic design is a bit lost in the city where recent modernity meets tradition. Hundreds of local market owners were displaced in the process of clearing out enough space to complete the project, so the expectations were high. People wanted to see something that was worth removing their history, culture and market. The project was extended further than expected, and it is still a little unclear as to the purpose of the space. Personally, I thought it looked like a stylized UFO landing and that it looked neat enough, but my perspective was soured when I realized what was removed to make this modern structure possible.

Below: Funny shopping finds and traditional baby Hanbok.

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Inside the plaza, were many innovative, artistic products for purchase.

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Above: Testicle chair. Below: Patbingsu again! I can’t get enough!

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Recent Reads:

Anil’s Ghost is a Sri Lankan murder mystery. I highly recommend Comfort Woman, but do not read if you are already depressed, because it will take you to a lower depth. In this horrifyingly haunting realistic fiction, the reader follows a daughter and mother as they experience the history and consequences of being a sexual slave for the Japanese military. The novelist lyrically describes the PTSD associated with sexual trauma and depicts the hopelessness of a child living with a mother in the midst of psychosis. Whittington was my favorite by far. It follows the lives of two cats- one during the time of the Plague and one set in the present day midwest. The sensory depictions are detailed and spot on. The historical basis of this fictional tale adds to the learning experience. Finally, Joey Pigza Looses Control is a needed piece in our modern day diagnosis-obsessed times from the perspective of a young person with ADD struggling to decide if medication is right for him. The author artfully and accurately describes the symptoms as they would appear from the child’s perspective, affecting his personal, athletic and academic lives.

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Information from this blog was collected from: Wikipedia, www.myseoulsearching.com, Korean Tourist Organization, www.gemstone.org.

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