The Superpower You Can Cultivate: Foreign Language

This morning is a Saturday, and Saturdays are always a tough day to write a blog post. I dug through my purse to find my external hard drive, hoping that going over some old pictures would spark something that I could use. I quickly realized that I’d accidentally left my external hard drive at work and there would be no access to photographs until Monday. Shucks.

So, I headed over to the Daily Post, who has been posting different prompts for NaBloPoMo writers everyday. Most of these have been much more geared towards personal blogs, and I haven’t had a chance to use a single one yet. But the most recent prompt was a strike of luck. It read:

You get to choose one superpower. Pick one of these, and explain your choice:

– the ability to speak and understand any language
– the ability to travel through time
– the ability to make any two people agree with each other

Now, as a travel/expat blogger, I’m sure you can guess which one of these superpowers I would choose. Time travel, obviously! Jokes. No, I’m convinced that being able to speak and understand any language would be the ultimate superpower, for a myriad of reasons. I’m going to tell you about each and every one of them

Easier & Carefree Travel

This is a pretty obvious benefit. You could literally go anywhere in the world and find a place to sleep, eat and sightsee with minimal effort. Your safety automatically doubles, because if you’re lost you can ask for help, you can get warnings ahead of time about unsafe areas of the region and you are more likely to talk yourself out of any potentially bad situations. You can ask about bigger towels at some tiny, cheap motel and you can read the street signs in the area. Learning the language in a country you’ll be traveling in just makes everything, all around, way better.

A good Spanish word to learn is "Peligro", which means danger. Which is also not something you'd expect on a hill filled with bright yellow flowers.
A good Spanish word to learn is “Peligro”, which means danger. Which is also not something you’d expect on a hill filled with bright yellow flowers.

Hear People’s Stories

Sit down with your hostel owner and a cup of coffee and learn about his family, how he came to open a hostel, what makes him happy in life. Ask the person next to you on the plane where they’re going and what they do for a living. See an elderly Jewish grandmother in Germany and be able to listen to, understand and learn from her experiences in World War II. Ask a little girl what her favorite color is, her favorite book is and whether she has any younger siblings. People are fascinating and they have incredible stories to tell, especially those that live a different life than you. And from people like that, there are endless amounts to learn.

Always Find A Job

This reason is a bit superficial, but you instantly have job security. If you’re ever, and I mean ever, unemployed, speaking rare, difficult languages will solve your problem and quickly. Where there isn’t a translation position (which there always is), there are other corporate positions that just need someone to relay information between two global units of the same company. Talk about breathing easy!

Secret Eavesdropping

Oh, the things people say to each other when they’re alone… or think that no one can understand them. This one is especially lucrative, because you can always pretend you don’t speak a native language and hear both sides of a negotiation. Of course, this also comes with a downside: people say stupid, annoying things all the time. You’ll never again have the illusion that people abroad are less obsessed with the superficial than people in your country.

This line full of Korean people wanting to buy Prada is one example of conversations I'm happy not to eavesdrop on.
This line full of Korean people wanting to buy Prada is one example of conversations I’m happy not to eavesdrop on.

Insane Dreams

Have you ever had one of those bilingual dreams, where one person is speaking English and then in your dream you’re trying to come up with the German words for your response? And then French or Korean or Spanish comes out of nowhere and you wake up super confused? No? Just me? Well, if you can fluently speak and understand every language, everywhere, then you’re going to have some absolutely crazy dreams. That’s pretty cool.

Better Informed

You know when the news only reports one side of an international story? You know when all the newspapers all say the same thing, because there was only one person who was able to translate the Cantonese and that exact translation is the same source for every TV station? Speaking every language would put an end to these limited information scenerios. You could tune into foreign broadcasts, read the newspaper in Spain and even shoot out an email to a contact in Ghana. You would be the best-informed person around.

LEARN spanish travel informed
Learning Spanish means you can read about news in all of South America, from South American sources. That’s pretty valuable.

I’m going to let out a little of my teacher side, now. While it’s probably impossible to learn all of the 6,000 or 7,000 languages in the entire world, it’s totally possible to cultivate a little slice of this superpower. Just by virtue of being able to read this, you’re already able to communicate with nearly 10% of the entire world (a little over half of those people speak English as a second language). If you learn Mandarin, just one second language, you’ve just upped your percentage to 20-25%, depending on that ESL overlap. If you learn Spanish, with 406 million native speakers, you’ve just racked up another 5% of the world with whom you can have a conversation, not adding in second language learners.

You see what I’m saying here? You can actually have 1/4th of a superpower, if you want. Yeah, it’ll take a few years of hard work and looking like a fool (with your pants on the ground! Sorry. Couldn’t resist.) And true, it’s not something you can mindlessly do, you’ll have to put in the time and effort. But you could have one fourth of a superpower! Isn’t that awesome?

That’s why I’ve written a language resource page for Korean and shared other updates on my life, while studying other languages. If other people are inspired to study a foreign language, then they are actively making their own lives better. I’ve experienced these benefits firsthand and they are real. They are significant.

And for me, all of those reasons are what keep me going in my own language studies, be it German, Spanish or now Korean. It’s always, always been worth it. And I can promise it would be for you, too.

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Photoessay: Stunning Sunsets in Rural Korea

My area, particularly Waymok Beach is actually quite famous within Korea for its incredible sunsets. I live a few kilometers from the famed beach view, but my view of the sunset is usually pretty stunning, regardless. Framed by seemingly endless rice paddies, some beautiful cloud formations and a distant ocean, I’ve managed to capture a few killer shots. I also took a little trip to the nearby seawall to capture the photographs with the pagoda in them.

So enjoy this assortment of the most gorgeous sunsets I’ve seen in my area, and my attempts to catch them on camera. Whoever said that the countryside was boring obviously didn’t look around long enough to catch these beautiful moments.

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IMG_0831 R ED

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IMG_0884 R ED

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Language Misadventures: How I Adopted and Unadopted a Dog Before 8am

I’m all about going with the flow, saying yes to opportunities that present themselves and diving in when I have no idea what I’m doing. This has brought me nothing but interesting opportunities, if not sometimes mildly uncomfortable, but always something manageable and usually a good life experience, to boot. But this morning, that tendency lead me to end up in the most absurd situation imaginable. I still don’t believe that just happened. It’s not even 9am, but I need a beer.

It all started last week, Friday, at 6:15am, as I made my way to the exercise track near my school with Mary in tow. As is usual, some Korean ladies on their way to… somewhere… stopped me and asked about me and my dog, commenting on how cute she is. One mentioned that she had dogs at home, but one died. We spoke in Korean, which means that I was understanding the gist of everything, but would occasionally miss a sentence but could struggle through. For some reason, which I couldn’t correctly comprehend, they (or she?) wanted to meet me. I reluctantly agreed to meet the following week, at 6am, in front of the school. Maybe they or she wanted to meet to exercise with me? One lady or two? To show me her dog?  To feed me kimchi? Who knows. I said yes and figured that I’d find out Monday morning what exactly we were meeting for.

Oh boy, was I in for a surprise.

Monday morning, I groggily dragged myself out of bed at 5:45am, knowing that I was supposed to meet this lady whom I knew nothing about for unknown reasons in 15 minutes. I threw on an exercise outfit, put Mary on a leash and we headed out into the freezing cold. She was nowhere to be seen, so I headed to the track to begin running. About 6:30am, one question of mine was answered as I saw one figure walking towards me with something in her arms. The sun was still hiding and a full moon was shrouded in dark, ominous rain clouds, but as I got closer I was able to see that she was holding a dog. A cute, white, shaking, adorable little dog wrapped in a blanket like a baby.

We conversed in Korean, in which I understood really just one thing. This was her dog, and she had kept her promise to meet me. (Indeed!) She asked me a question in Korean, which I guessed to mean “do you want to hold her?” I motioned “holding” and we were both a little confused, and I said yes. She repeated this question, I said yes again. That verb I don’t know, it must mean “to hold”, right?

Damn me and my “yes.” I didn’t know it yet, but I had just agreed to keep her dog and raise it with Mary.

She motioned for me to walk with her, which I did, wondering when I was going to hold her dog like I’d just agreed to do. A question I am well accustomed to and understand clearly, always, she asked me where my house was, and we started walking towards it. I understood at this point that my run was over. Answering, I told her where I lived, at which point I gathered that perhaps she was going to leave the dog with me for a time. To play with me at my house? This was turning out to be more than I’d hoped to agree to.

Mary doesn’t even like other dogs, how are we going to play together at my place?

She told me about how she loved the dog and her younger sibling also loved the dog, but no one else in her house liked her. It was a sad tale, and I felt her pain. I answered a weird question about where my dog sleeps, which now in retrospect, was a question about where poor little Parry would sleep. “Oh, you really speak Korean very well, Sally!” she said. She asked when she should visit, which I assumed meant pick up the dog and take her back.

Suddenly I wasn’t so sure at all what I had agreed to. The verb “방문” means, very clearly, a visit. Not a return. A visit.

Confused, I carried a swaddled dog in one arm and pulled Mary on her leash back to my home. Mary hadn’t yet noticed that I was, indeed, carrying a dog and hadn’t commenced her usual aggressive barking when another canine is near. She was oblivious. I was also oblivious. And really, really confused.

Parry wasn’t in my house more than ten minutes before she shit on the floor.

As sweet as little Parry is, there is no way I want to have an unhouse-trained dog in my house, even to play. Even if her little white tail is dyed orange. It wasn’t even 7am yet, but I figured I could use some help from a Korean speaker. I called my boyfriend, woke him up, and was yelled at for telling this stranger my house address. I don’t even know her! Now she knows where I live! It’s a weird situation, what if she’s trying to farm my organs or something! His grumpiness, unclear morning thoughts and paranoia about my safety combined into an unfortunate combination. I sent him a picture of Parry and the lady’s phone number, amid cleaning dog shit off my floor.

Mary finally noticed that there was another dog in the house, and barking hell broke loose. I shut her in the bedroom, separate, and mentally apologized to all my neighbors that weren’t up already for work. She was one unhappy puppy, clawing at the door and barking, even though little Parry didn’t respond one bit.

I poured myself a very much needed coffee.

After a few minutes, my boyfriend called me back and I was not prepared to hear what he had to say, as the official translator. I’d ignored my deepest suspicious, that I was supposed to keep this dog, because it seemed like way too strange a scenario to be real. My gut already knew, though. This lady that I had met twice, randomly, had given me her dog to keep. She couldn’t afford to raise it anymore, because extra family had moved in recently and they didn’t like poor little Parry. She thought I would be a good candidate, because I already had a dog and like dogs and I’m nice. Apparently I had gone along with it the whole time.

I had accidentally adopted a dog.

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My official translator then communicated to her that it wasn’t possible for me to keep little Parry; I have dog allergies (true, Mary is hypoallergenic) and I’m leaving soon for the USA. I had misunderstood. I thought I was just supposed to play with her for a little bit and then give her back. I thought I was babysitting. I, sadly, can’t keep the dog and raise her. Mary doesn’t even like other dogs. I’d meet her at 7:50am and bring back Parry, and she’d have to find a different home if she couldn’t keep her.

I literally burst into a fit of laughter, because I didn’t know what else to do.

I also felt stupid, stupid and really stupid for somehow agreeing to keep her dog and simultaneously really guilty for letting her hopes down. In my guilt, I put together a little package of dog food and grape juice packets as an apology gift. An “I’m sorry I pretended to speak Korean, adopted your dog and then unadopted your dog immediately afterwards,” gift. I got a fair warning from my boyfriend to not say “yes” to questions that I don’t understand and a nice apology for yelling at me when he was tired.

I continued laughing.

As Mary barked repeatedly, still scratching at the door, as the little white dog pissed on her own blanket only twenty minutes after shitting on my floor and as I continued to try and choke down some caffeine so I could understand what was happening in my absurd life, I laughed out loud until it hurt. I bellowed.

7:50am, waiting outside my school, I held little Parry in my arms as she shivered in the cold. The same Korean lady walked up, a big smile on her face of amusement (and probably a little hidden disappointment) and took Parry back. I handed her the bag of goodies, my apology gift, which she graciously accepted as well as my apology, in Korean. She didn’t try to say anything else in Korean to me, probably out of fear that I wouldn’t understand. Her fears were grounded in a very recent reality of huge misunderstanding.

I walked into work, still in disbelief, recounted the story to my early morning class and took a moment to breath. By 8am, I had accidentally adopted a dog and then unadopted her. This story was one for the books.

Sometimes, I don’t believe my life.

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Sorry, Parry, it just wasn’t meant to be.

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I would ask whether you’d ever accidentally adopted a dog before, too, but I feel like I’m alone on this one.

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Your Crash Course in K-Pop

If you’re anything like me before I came to Korea, you figure that Korea probably makes its own music, but you know nothing about it. This is your crash course in Korean Pop music, or K-Pop. It’s weird, it’s wonderful, it’s sung in both English and Korean and it’s kind of a big deal. Dive in. Your life may never be the same.

Image is Everything

This isn’t surprising in Korea, where image is already important. In music videos, it’s ten times more important. Everything you can imagine is done to the maximum: hair, makeup, set and backgrounds and more than anything, fashion.  This is pretty similar to any culture, but this is Korean style. Dialed up, it can look crazy. Oh and most of the artists have huge budgets… so it just gets insane.

Example: Hyuna – Ice Cream

Coordinated Dancing Rules

Remember Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” and N*Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye”? How awesome were those dance moves? If you’re a fan of coordinated dance, then you’re already a fan of K-Pop and you don’t even know it yet. While the USA music video industry grew out of their coordinated dances phase, the K-Pop world just made them bigger and badder than ever.

Example: Girls’ Generation – I Got a Boy

Boy/Girl Bands

Did you notice how many girls were dancing in the last video? They weren’t all back up dancers… that was the actual group. Girls’ Generation is one of the most famous artists with a million people in it (okay, so there are nine) and the boy band EXO, between their Korean and Chinese members has 12 people. INSANE! Most groups are less, and the magic number seems to be about 6. And if you haven’t guessed this yet, yes, the Boy/Girl Bands and coordinated dancing pretty much go hand in hand.

Example: BEAST – Bad Girl

Single Girl Singers

The alternative to the groups, are the solo singers, which are almost entirely women, with few exceptions. They sing plenty of sad ballads about being heartbroken or lonely, but there’s always the occasional single girl mantra or happy song. These tend to come and go in fame, one hit wonder kind of artists, sadly. Some of them are extremely talented (even if their choice of ballad is not).

Example: Lee Hi – It’s Over

K-Pop Fans

I’m going to put this simply: K-Pop fans can be obsessed and insane. More than you’ve ever seen. Belieber fans on cocaine. It’s a little bit cult-like and people all over the world go crazy for K-pop. If you’re not 300% in love with an artist’s music, it may be more stressful than fun to go to a concert, since K-pop obsessed teenage girls are known to scream, push, kick and let nothing get in their way of a potential sighting of their idol. God help you if you’re accidentally in a public space when a K-Pop band shows up to do a signing and fan meet… you will not be able to move and your ears might break open.

Example: A news story about international K-Pop Fans, one of which shows off her tattoos of the group ‘Super Junior”

It’s a Machine

Here’s a fun fact: K-Pop celebrities are fully manufactured. Scouted out in elementary or middle school school, the label takes them under their wing and makes them “trainees”. For years. Rigorous singing, dancing, music, English, everything under the sun lessons and a full-time life dedication are required. For years. And then when the label decides you’re ready, you pop out into the popular music scene like an egg freshly hatched. Awww, so cute. Except kind of torturous…

Example: This guy that was a trainee explains his daily schedule (in English, don’t worry!).

G-Dragon

Yeah, you’ve heard of PSY and that’s great, but in order to know anything about K-Pop, you NEED to understand who G-Dragon is. He is the biggest deal, biggest name, most famous, most insane and most arrogant, with a lot of reason. He’s legend. In his earlier videos, he’s androgynous as all hell, why does he look like a woman now? A man? Who knows. He doesn’t care. Basically G-Dragon doesn’t care about anything, except for his music, which he makes incredible. I could keep explaining, or I could just make you watch this music video.

Example: G-Dragon – “미치Go” (or “Go Crazy”)

Because he’s G-Dragon, here’s a second video: G-Dragon – One of a Kind

Congratulations, you’ve just graduated from your crash course in Korean pop music! YouTube can provide all advanced lessons on the subject.

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What do you think of K-Pop, do you like it? Is it insane? Do you want to sign up to be a trainee and slave away for years, too?

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Pepero Day in Korea

Today’s blog post was a no-brainer, because it’s one of my favorite holidays in Korea: Pepero Day! Yes, the holiday is totally invented by corporate magnates who wanted to sell more of their Pepero. Yes, there is no real meaning behind the holiday, and it’s only on November 11th because 11/11 looks remotely like four Pepero sticks in a row. I get it, I’m buying into the system and it’s stupid, etc… but look. I’m a teacher, so I’m pretty much exclusively on the receiving end of this tradition. So celebrate it, I will! I love Pepero Day!

In Korean, it’s spelled 빼빼로, which if I do say so, looks adorable.  Pepero is actually a brand name and it’s also acceptable to buy the competing brand named Pocky. (Like when you buy Puffs instead of Kleenex and still call it a Kleenex.) Pepero are essentially just pretzel sticks, unsalted, and dipped in chocolate. They come in multiple flavors and this year, they came out with some pretty rocking new ones. I received just the classics, though.

Today's bounty of deliciousness.
Today’s bounty of deliciousness.

The typical flavors are: plain chocolate or chocolate with pieces of almond in them. An older but less popular flavor is the reverse of a classic Pepero, where the chocolate is inside of the tube. The new flavors are pretty awesome: strawberry, melon (surprisingly incredible), and the best flavor ever and ever and ever, cookies and cream. There may be another flavor I’m missing, but it doesn’t matter. Oreo.

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Creatively called “white cookie” in Korean. Nom.

So the tradition itself is really quite simple. Buy Pepero and give them to someone. The boxes even have blank space for writing notes on the back to the lucky recipient, if you’d like to go so far. So when 11/11 rolls around and it’s Veteran’s Day in the USA, maybe the best way to remember those brave souls is to give them a box of Pepero, available for purchase on Amazon, of course.

Happy Pepero Day, Happy Veteran’s Day, oh and Happy Birthday to my little brother! I love you almost as much as I love “white cookie” flavored Pepero.

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Mini iPhone Photoessay: A Week of School Lunches

[See also: Rebe’s Week of School Lunch
& An Entire Blog Dedicated to Korean School Lunch (Eat Your Lunch-ee)]

Ah, school lunch. Growing up, it was the time of day almost everyone looked forward to. Worry free, Mom or Dad would hand me either a bag lunch or money to buy something in the cafeteria. Once I began living on my own, I realized that cooking food for myself was much less easy. Mostly just time consuming. Dislike!

And when I came to Korea for my first big-girl job, I was thrilled to find that lunch was provided. During the week, even if I failed completely during breakfast and dinner time, I’d at least have one balanced, good meal to keep me going. Well, they are usually good; though there are moments when I wonder who thought cooking pickles with spicy sauce was a good idea. Or who would think spaghetti and rice and a soup with deokk (rice cake) in it was a balanced lunch. Anyways, I digress.

My goal was to photograph a week’s worth of lunches. The plan failed quickly and completely when forgot about it on Tuesday and Wednesday. Thankfully, I found some backup photos of school lunch from earlier in the year, so the project was salvaged! Please pretend that this was a consecutive week, you know, for congruency’s sake.

Monday

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See the upper left hand corner? That’s what I’m talking about. Pickles in spicy something is just gross; thankfully this side dish doesn’t come around too often. Top middle was deokk (rice cake) and mini hotdogs also covered in spicy pepper paste (gochujang). The rice is just rice, and the soup was pretty much the best soup I’ve had all month. Beef and assorted root-y vegetables. Soup saved the day on Monday.

Tuesday

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In the top left, we have Korean “pancakes”, which are kind of scrambled egg circles. Vegetables and seafood are mixed in. The top middle is one of my favorite side dishes, beef and hard-boiled quail eggs. The top right, you’ll notice I was still trying to pretend that I liked kimchi (this was a back-up photo from February), which by now I’ve given up on. Rice, as usual, and a light soup with fried tofu balls and some white things. Honestly, it’s been 16 months and I still don’t know what those are slices of… embarrassing.

Wednesday

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PURPLE THINGS IN MY LUNCH! Actually, the cabbage is purple (mixed with corn and apple) and it’s just covered in yogurt. So it looks like the whole thing is purple. Then in the top middle, we have spicy chicken and potatoes, which by now I’ve finally learned how to consume with chopsticks. Missing kimchi, this backup photo is from last month, some plain rice. The soup is a Korean favorite; seaweed and tofu soup. I kind of love it.

Thursday

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Ah Korea, always full of surprises. The top left is a mix of bean sprouts and other stringy vegetables. Yes, those are fish that were literally deep fried, as is. I’ve never seen this in my lunch, before, but maybe the lunch ladies knew I was planning to write this post and wanted to freak all my readers out. You just pull all the bits of fish out with your chopsticks. Plain, old, boring rice and kimchi chigae, or spicy kimchi and pork soup.

Friday

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In the upper left hand corner is a soy sauce mixed with green onion and sesame seeds (and probably some other unknown ingredients). No, it’s not meant for eating as is; you either dip those cheese sticks in it or mix it with the rice situation. Those cheesesticks were a surprise, I’ve also never seen the lunch ladies make those. It was a special treat, since I’m always mourning over a lack of cheese. The rice was mixed with pieces of beef and bean sprouts. The soup, a tofu and cabbage soup, was surprisingly tasty.

Bonus!

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I’m sorry for tricking you into thinking this was going to be a congruent week, the post title is a big fat lie, so I’ll make up for it by including a bonus lunch. Sometimes fate intervenes and the lunch ladies serve us something incredibly yummy. Apple juice, a weird sweet bread thing and a single piece of kimchi sit in that top row. (This was about the time I gave up on kimchi altogether, this past July.) The rice is mixed with purple sticky rice (hence the color!) and the beautiful bowl of noodles is graced with egg, seaweed, carrot, cucumber, and spring onion. Mix and nom!

Your Turn

For the other ESL/EFL/any other kinds of teachers in Korea, listen up. For once in your life, I want to know what you had for lunch. You can do an entire week (or piece together a week’s worth, like I did) or you can do just a day; however many or few you’d like. Take a picture of your delicious cafeteria food and post it to your Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, personal blog or wherever. Just use the hashtag #KoreanSchoolLunch, with a link to the lunch in question. (And if possible, send me a link to your lunch by Tweet or private message so I don’t miss it!) Those with blog posts, I’ll link to them here. Show me your noms, people!

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Think you would enjoy eating school lunch in Korea? What terrifies you? What makes your mouth water? What’s just straight up weird?

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Foreign Movie Pick: “Friend” (2001)

Recently, I’ve been trying to watch some Korean movies. Mostly they’ve been okay, maybe a little too bloody (cough, cough, Tazza) or a little unrealistic, but enjoyable none-the-less. But this most recent movie really surprised me. Not only was it not way too bloody (just a little bit), but the story was pretty fascinating. Somehow, I actually enjoyed a movie about Korean gangsters, with little to no love story involved. Miracle.

The movie follows four friends as they grow up in Korea, and what they do with their lives (and how they diverge). Which is why the film is called “Friend” (or in Korean, 친구 / Chin-goo), of course. An obvious title for a not so obviously awesome movie.

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So, I’m passing this movie on to you. Why would you watch it? Well…

Gangsters

I don’t know if you’re into gangsters or not, I’m not really, but Korean gangsters are interesting. When you think of seedy organized underground crime, you don’t really think about coordinated bowing and respect, but it’s actually a huge part of the gangster culture. At the same time that they bow to leaders, they also terrify me poopless. Impressive.

Historical References

You know how Korea went through that huge economic boom in like 50 years and it was crazy? Well you can watch a little bit of that transformation and really see the implications of it in the film. It chronicles friends growing up together, so you see bits of the 70s, 80s, 90s and a little of the new millennium. Maybe it’s just the nerd in me, but that’s COOL.

A Cool Girl Band Named ‘Rainbow’

Okay, so the scene is less than five minutes, but girl bands are freaking awesome. That’s all.

It’ll Make You Cry

I know, there’s no love story, so how will it make you cry? The movie is still fully based in relationships, but they’re just between friends. It gets deep. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, so I will say no more.

It’s Based On A True Story

The director wrote the film about his own friendships growing up, which sounds plausible now that you haven’t seen the film. But once you watch the movie, your mind will be blown that it really happened. Blown!

So, if you’ve never seen a Korean movie, then check this one out. It’s a little bloody, but still gets my vote, especially because it doesn’t revolve around a love plot. A breath of fresh movie air, yes? And to top it all off, you get a nice, interesting slice of Korean culture with it. Done deal.

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How To Stay Warm in Winter Like a Korean

Before I left for Korea, my grandmother asked me one question that I remember clearly: “Are you bringing a warm winter coat? I heard winter in Korea is bitter cold.” At the moment it was June, and I knew her knowledge of Korea’s weather primarily stemmed from news that troops were freezing their balls off during the Korean war, which (at least during the winter months) was fought closer to North Korea. So I brushed it off, seeing that the latitude was similar to Pennsylvania and thinking that yeah, North Korea is probably bitter cold in the winter, but I’ll be in the South!

Well, imagine my surprise later in the year when the freezing rains became freezing snow and then it was dry and just plain freezing. Freezing, I tell you! I’ve never been so cold. I’ve also never been to Russia, Canada during winter months or anywhere with much of a temperature drop in comparison to Pennsylvania. So I was caught off guard, to put it simply. Grandma, you were right, dang it! (That’ll teach me to ignore advice from smarter, older people.)

I suffered a lot during my first winter, because I didn’t have a good jacket at first, didn’t own a lot of leggings and couldn’t figure out how the heating worked in my apartment. Eventually I figured it out, though, and I’m much more prepared for this upcoming winter. Part of my preparation comes from picking up tips from the Korean winter experts, themselves: Korean people. They look stoic in the winter months, not shivering, not uttering words of complaint. Sometimes I like to imagine that Koreans are actually just immune to temperatures and have special Asian skin made for horribly, painfully cold temperatures. Totally not true, they just know what they’re doing cause, you know, they live here. All the time.

Except for those girls in short skirts, there is definitely magic going on there. You girls be crazy.

So, if you’re new to Korea and don’t understand why your coworkers aren’t chattering their teeth and losing limbs to frostbite, I’m about to break open their secrets. None of them are particularly genius, really, but for those of us with little cold-weather sense, they make a big difference. This is how to stay warm in the winter, like a Korean.

The Clothes

First, you need a serious thick sweater that goes with everything, so you can wear it everyday. You’ll want all of your shirts and sweaters to cover your butt, so buy them as long as you can find. Bonus if it has a hood. Then you need thin, warm underlayers. They are the foundation of everything: under your pants you’ll need thin leggings, under your long sleeved shirt you’ll need a thinner, long sleeved shirt. Those girls you see in Seoul wearing only leggings in the bitter cold? They have a secret weapon, a fuzzy, fur-like lining inside the leggings. Back to the top, even better if you have a thin tank top underneath that thin long-sleeved shirt. Think layers, tiny layers and way too many layers. Don’t just embody an onion in layers of personality, dress like an onion. (Don’t smell like an onion, though.) As for your footsies, buy the super fuzzy socks or if you need to put shoes on top, wear two pairs of socks.

Like these!
fuzzy socks

Outerwear, you’ll want a scarf and a hat (duh), maybe with cute ears attached to it (double duh). Get cell phone friendly gloves, the ones with magnetic magic in the tips of the fingers so you can use your phone from the warmth of your finger blanket. Your jacket needs to be hardcore: multi-layered, fuzzy or fur inside, rain resistant and long. Spend money on your jacket because it will become your dearest possession when those temperature digits start growing, but in the negative.

Most popular among older people and children, cloth face masks must be mentioned, even if they make people look like they’re sick and trying not to spread disease. In reality, they’re just keeping the air warm before they breathe it into their lungs, and I can attest from personal experience that not only does it work but it’s wonderful for freezing cold morning runs. (I just look ridiculous, that’s all!) You can grab them in plenty of colors, with cute pink animals adorning the front or in a simple frill-free white.

I mentioned so much about underwear/clothes, because that’s the big secret: be the onion. And then wear a good jacket.

The Housewares

The big Korean secret that you’ve probably heard about but don’t quite understand the gloriousness of (until you experience it) is ondol, the underfloor heating system, where warm water flows through pipes below your feet. There is nothing better on a freezing cold winter day than putting a blanket on the floor and laying down on a warm surface. Nothing compares.

Another secret, which once again isn’t such a big secret, is using an electric blanket. During the worst months when six blankets isn’t cutting it because your face is still exposed to cold air, the electric blanket will do the trick. (But making a cave and tunneling under all your blankets won’t hurt, either!)

I do a stock image search for "blanket" and this is what it comes up with... really?
I do a stock image search for “blanket” and this is what it comes up with… really?

If you must, there are also space heaters, but that opens up a whole new can of worms called “how not to set your house on fire while you’re sleeping”, so I’d advise just figuring out how the ondol works and cuddling up with the below.

The Noms & Drinks

Asians are pretty stellar at having seasonal foods and drinks that should be consumed dutifully only during particular times of year. Koreans are no exception.

While Koreans eat hot food for pretty much every meal, throughout the year, no matter what, the fare gets a little heavier when it’s cold outside. Rice porridge becomes more popular, instead of only among sick people. Soups become meat-heavy and rice is given in excess. While roaming the streets, one of the most popular (and spectacularly tasty) items to buy is hodeok, a pancake-like thing filled with warm cinnamon and nutty goodness. Also good are red-bean-paste filled pastries, served warm, mandu or Korean-style dumplings and pretty much anything else warm that can be eaten. Another one of my winter favorites is no nonsense, baked sweet potato, peeled and eaten as is.

It's warm, but ANYTHING BUT THIS. [Read about how I got food poisoning and it was all my fault, here.]
It’s warm, but ANYTHING BUT THIS. [Read about how I got food poisoning and it was all my fault.]
As for the drinks, there are a plethora of coffee/milk/unidentified warm drinks ready to go at every convenience store. My favorite of these is definitely the honey and ginseng drink, which is exactly what it sounds like: honey, ginseng and water. (Ginseng in general is considered a winter necessity, in whichever form.) Koreans use warm drinks essentially as hand warmers in the cold months while at work, cupping their little instant coffee and only occasionally sipping it. While this goes for all year round, as well, drinking soju and makgeolli warms even the coldest body up.

The secret: eat warm, drink warm, and be warm.

[For a full list, see Seoulistic.com’s article: 15 Popular Korean Winter Foods and Snacks]

The Big Secret

You’ve become the onion and draped a giant coat on top, embraced the ondol (and the heating bills that come with it) and begun consuming a steady stream of warm food and drink. If you’re still cold, the last secret I can give you is this: ignore it. Pretty much your only other option would be to become Korean, and if possible, I’m both impressed and in favor of that transformation. But as far as I can tell, if a Korean is cold, they’re not talking about it. They’re ignoring it. I think that’s the final weapon, the last ditch effort against a constant affront of freezing wind and really cold feet. Don’t think about it. Go where you’re going. Move on.

And with that, you’ll be warm enough.

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You Know You’ve Been in Korea Too Long When…

As an expat, Korea is a great country to live in. As an ESL teacher, it’s even better. Free housing, excellent pay, a low cost of living, a job that isn’t completely time consuming, other foreigners that you can relate to. The list could go on for ages. But it’s also a country that vastly different than the West, and if you don’t go home frequently enough, then it becomes easy to lose track of social norms and the correct spellings of complicated words. The slope gets even more slippery when you notice how easy it is to sign for a second year, or skip that visit home in exchange for a cheaper, more adventurous and booze-filled vacation in SE Asia.

So yeah, a lot of us (myself included) find ourselves in Korea maybe just a tad bit too long. Here are some tell-tale signs that you need to fly home and reacquaint yourself with Western culture, before it’s too late.

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You give your expat friends money with both hands.

Once you get into this habit, it’s hard to get out. I guess it can’t hurt to be extra respectful to your friends, even though you just look weird. Thank goodness your friends are expats and understand your struggles; you won’t find the same understanding at home.

You take “selcas” in public and send them to your Western friends. (And you call them “selcas”, not “selfies”.)

Everybody and their grandmother takes selfies in Korea, sometimes people take selfies with their grandmother. After a while you stop watching marathon selca sessions and start to just accept it. Then you try it out yourself. Then you like it. Then it becomes a problem because you don’t have anyone around you who’ll give you weird looks or just tell you to stop being so obsessed with yourself and put your damn phone away, you’re at the gym.

I can't be entirely sure, but I think that selfies with your dog are still culturally acceptable, though.
I can’t be entirely sure, but I think that selfies with your dog are still culturally acceptable. Right?

Excluding sleep, you haven’t spent more than an hour of the last day not looking at some kind of screen.

Good morning, check your phone. Open the computer with breakfast. Walk to work, or commute to work with your phone. Get to work, use the computer for things. Take a break and read a little on your Kindle. Remember that you haven’t played that cell phone dragon game in two days. Answer messages from a friend. Write a blog post. Go home and edit some photographs. Relax before bed with a Kindle. Oh my gosh, I need to get out of Korea before my brain turns to mush and my eyeballs stop working!

You become passionate about Dokdo.

I’ve read about the historical nuances of the territory dispute, and I get that it’s just a giant rock but in a strategic location. And I agree that based on the history, Dokdo should probably belong to Korea. But if you are not from Korea and feel really passionate about this subject, then you probably need to take a breather from propaganda and read about mass murders by drones or something. It’s still just a rock. And if you’re a foreigner, it’s not even yours.

You use the world “delicious” (or, worse, “deliciously”) without irony.

The word “delicious” used to sound kind of creepy, when not used in the correct context. Now I don’t even know what that context would be. I can’t even think of an alternate way to describe food, except for “good”. Last week, I wrote the word “deliciously” in one of my updates and I’m wondering if I should be ashamed about that, too.

Also unacceptable, the word "yammy".
Also unacceptable, the word “yammy”.

You not only drink the instant coffee, you like it.

If you were trained as a barista at some point, then this one applies doubly to you. There should be no circumstances in which sugary, milky, chemically not-coffee is drinkable. Unfortunately, us expats in Korea know that indeed, such circumstances exist and they no longer feel shameful.

You’re no longer upset that beef at the grocery store costs $10-15.

It’s outrageous. And if you’re not upset about it anymore, then you need a vacation. It’s outrageous, I say!

You group text your friends about grammar, because you can’t tell if a sentence is wrong or just awkward sounding.

You know it’s bad when you’ve been out of an English-speaking environment so long that your internal mother-tongue radar needs a recharge.

You stop giving warning to friends about upcoming events.

Everyone knows about Korean propensity to tell you ten minutes in advance about extra classes, cancelled classes or huge life changing events that are about to take place. When it’s rubbed off on you, that’s when you know you have a problem. Your friends back home will not appreciate this new trait if you don’t get it together and fight your urge to notify people of things at the last second.

"Hey guys, I'm going to Germany tomorrow, so can someone take care of Mary for the next two weeks?"
“Hey guys, I’m going to Germany tomorrow, so can someone take care of Mary for the next two weeks?”

You never type “haha”, only ㅋㅋㅋ.

Especially if you’re typing in English… you have to actually switch keyboards on your phone to do this. If this is you, please schedule your visit immediately.

When you want to search for something, you use Naver.

I rest my case.

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By virtue of even being able to make this list, I think I qualify as having been in Korea too long. Time to go home.

[In July 2014, did. It’s been hard.]

What kinds of weird quirks have you picked up that make you realize it may be time to get out of Korea? Do you disagree with any of these? Let me know in the comments!

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The Characters of Sambong

In a small town, it’s a given that you’ll see some people more than a few times and learn their face, even if you don’t know their name. In a teeny tiny rural Korean town with three roads, it’s even worse (or better?). There are some people that I see every single day, doing the same things, while I do the same things. Sometimes they talk to me, sometimes we just pass each other by with a head-nod of acknowledgement and sometimes it’s a new face, doing the same things the other old, similar face was doing. It’s kind of a weird way of life, but the people that live in my town are the pillars of my existence, in a sense. They make Sambong, my little town, what it is. They color my experience with entertainment and wonderment, causing me to simultaneously scratch my head and laugh hysterically in public.

So without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to the characters, the faces, the Korean people of Sambong.

The Exercising Ajumma

Every morning I wake up earlier than the crack of dawn to run with my puppy. I walk to the school track and in the dark morning, through the darkness I always look for the moving shadow. The exercising ajumma is often the same woman, but sometimes a new face appears to do the exact same thing. She does a brisk walk for about 30 minutes, sometimes 45 minutes, and then does strange stretches for another five minutes before disappearing into the new daylight. Her signature stretch is arms raised in a V-shape above her head, holding a scarf taught between them, and twisting to either side. Another favorite is what I like to call the almost-falling-backward-onto-the-bed stretch, where she leans backwards, arms stretched out, as far as she can without falling over and holds the position. Do these stretches actually stretch? I’m not sure. But I would never question her.

The Avid Golfer

About ten minutes into my morning exercise routine, the avid golfer usually arrives. In his mid forties, he comes to the track in his running gear and with a golf club in hand. (I’m totally serious, this guy is real.) He does the same series of exercises: alternating between a brisk walk with the golf club, a (very) short jog with the golf club, some stretching with the golf club and then actually using the golf club for its intended purposes, by doing swinging practice in the nearby sand pit. His reasons for exercising at all are crystal clear.

This is what you've been missing in your exercise routine.
This is what you’ve been missing in your exercise routine.

The Gung-ho Crossing Guard

On one of the three roads in town sits my school and while there is some traffic in the morning, I’m not entirely convinced of the need for a crossing guard. Regardless, he is there every morning, bright and early, in his neon vest and military-style hat. He takes his job extremely seriously, swinging his stiff arms in quick succession; signifying to cars that yes, they may pass, even if no students are in sight, let along trying to cross the road. He reminds me of a robot, on occasion. As I walk closer to him on my way to work each morning, he swings his arm sharply up to his forehead into a salute, and yells “Good morning!”

The Farming Neighbor

This elderly man was clearly hot stuff back in the day, based on his charming smile and confident swag. I don’t see him everyday, but on the stretch of road between home and school, he sometimes walks around his fields or checks on piles of garlic (or potatoes or cabbage) that need to be sorted out for selling. When I see him, he smiles that devious old man smile, waves hello, asks about a random work in English (“pumpkin!”) or just gives up the facade and makes arm hearts at me.

The Sober Laborer

Korea has a bit of a social epidemic on their hands: all the women move to the city and all the men working menial jobs are left in the country, wife-less and bored. I live in a building of one-room apartments, which I’m sure you can imagine attracts exactly this kind of 40-year-old man. The sober laborer is many people who all do the same thing; they smoke, they wear their construction vest, and they stand outside between 6:10-6:25am waiting for the bus to work. All of them say hello to me, as if we’ve talked, because hey… there’s only one foreign girl with a dog in the area. They adore Mary, and frequently use her as an in to ask me weird questions that I don’t understand.

The laborers in the morning club, as seen from the roof.
The laborers in the morning club, as seen from the roof.

The Drunk Laborer

The drunk laborer usually appears outside of restaurants on Saturday and Sunday mornings, though occasionally he appears outside my apartment having a Saturday/Sunday picnic on the rolling table. He says things like “beautiful!” “pretty!” or the classic, “foreigner!” He adores my dog even more than usual. Last week the drunk laborer even gave me arm hearts, although usually he just slurs his words or stumbles down the road, going nowhere with a lit cigarette in hand. By evening, he’s ironically nowhere to be seen.

The Student Terrified of Dogs

Some students like puppies, but other students have this deep seeded, unexplainable terror for animals in general. As I approach, the student terrified of dogs will give Mary a wary eye, and as I get closer they’ll shy a little behind their friend, towards the street, away from me. When I get close and I let Mary sniff their feet (because I’m a jerk!), the student terrified of dogs inevitably lets out a high pitched scream, runs sideways or backwards off the sidewalk and never takes (usually) her eyes off of the scary, biting and drooling, flesh ripping thing that is my ten month old, ten pound puppy.

TERRIFYING.
TERRIFYING.

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