Vanity, thy name is Korea

In a nation of 45 million people who look remarkably very much a like, there has to be a few consequences, one of which is a complete obsession with appearances. I’d like to delve into this topic a bit more at a later date, but one of my absolute favorite beauty ramifications (for men) is the invention of “magic shoes”. It’s nothing more than a sole to insert inside a shoe- a sly method for a man to appear a couple of centimeters taller without walking around in platforms (which also exist here).

These magic shoes are being sold on the stairs of a subway exit. Their price ranges from 3,000-8,000 KRW, or $2.68- $7.16*, depending on the thickness of the sole.

I once asked my good friend Alex, a Korean I met through a language exchange club, if he wears magic shoes. I asked it more of a joke, thinking it was a fad for the middle aged men of Korea who can be a bit sensitive about their short statue when compared with the younger, taller generation of men raised on imported beef and dairy products. But after some prying, he fessed up to owning a pair or two– for interviews and first dates. Ironically enough, he had a first date on the same day I took this photo and later saw him for our language exchange. As we discussed his new potential love over coffee, I asked him if he was wearing his magic shoes. Indeed he was. Unfortunately for Alex, the girl chose to eat at a traditional restaurant, thus requiring him to remove his shoes and reveal his true height. No word yet on the second date.

*As a side note, it’s been a good month for the Won-Dollar ratio, which currently hovers at 1000KRW: $0.90. Thanks, America.

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March 5, 2011. Tags: , , , . culture, fashion, korea. Leave a comment.

…and on the third day, He rose again for an Easter egg hunt.

My how time flies. I’m three weeks into the second semester, still shocked by October’s encroaching presence and the struggles of balancing  unrealistic curriculum with elementary student comprehension (and attention) levels. But I’m pleased to report that the impressionable young minds of Korea are learning English, even if it’s just the ridiculous phrase “Do you want to party?”

Especially after last week, when one unit stood between my after school class of advanced fourth graders and their progression to the next text book: a “cultural lesson” on Easter.

Yes, Easter.

I raised my eyebrows in surprise as I skimmed over the target vocabulary words: Easter bunny, chocolate eggs, marshmallow chicks, jelly beans, basket, dye, yummy, and my personal favorite, toy lamb.

Easter. In September. You’ve got to be kidding me. I passively expressed my objections to my religious zealot of a co-teacher. As expected, she was horrified.

“You should teach about Chuseok,” she suggested. Chuseok, or Korean Thanksgiving, is a major three day holiday that honors the ancestors with food, family, and lots of traffic.

“But I’m an American. I don’t know anything about Chuseok.”

“But it’s in September.”

“Uh… I think I’ll stick with Easter.”

So much to my 11 year olds’ confusion, we learned the difference between die and dye as we transformed our brown hard boiled eggs into muted greens, blues, and reds. We practiced directional steps as we assembled paper Easter baskets to house our decorated eggs. We went on an Easter egg relay hunt that reviewed our prepositions with clues for hidden locations. We marveled over plastic eggs filled with candy and erasers that fit on top of a pencil. We went home excited to learn English, at least for the day.

Happy Easter, everyone.

September 26, 2010. Tags: , , , , . education, english, korea. Leave a comment.

I like big butts and I cannot lie.

Of course, it’s easy to want a little “junk in the trunk” when you don’t have any.

But it gets better- guess where they’re sold.

No, really. Guess.

Correct answer: the subway station.

If I shake my head any more, I just might end up on your dashboard.

August 24, 2010. Tags: , , , . fashion, korea. 1 comment.

Fermentation

or, Ferm Wednesday for those of you who’ll get the reference.

Yesterday was day two of my metamorphosis into an (educated) alcoholic. We began the process of making makgeolli, Korean rice wine. 

First, we washed the rice and stuck it in a blender, transforming it into a fine white powder.

We calculated our ratios, measured our ingredients,

and added boiling water until it formed a paper mache- like goo.

Then we added yeast

and dumped the unappealing mess into a plastic jug. Let the fermentation process begin.

Look what I made, mom!

And walked through a monsoon to get there. If you look close enough, you can see my name written in Korean.

Makgeolli really is nothing more than rice, water, and that crumbled up wheat block I made last class (called nurook in Korean). I spent the entire class waiting for the catch– you know, the excuse as to why I’d never be able to make this at home. I haven’t found it yet, other than I’m not Korean and it’s not whiskey. In fact, it just might be a good way to utilize some of the 20 pounds of rice collecting dust in my kitchen cabinent. If only it could be made with jalopenos.

And the best part? Our makgeolli sampler was served with a side of biology lectures- anaerobic respiration, enzymes, and CO2. Music to my ears.

August 19, 2010. Tags: , , , , . food, korea, rice. 1 comment.

Korean Moonshine

Last week, I found an advertisement for a first ever “Learn how to make Korean liquor” class IN ENGLISH! Somehow relates to making things in the kitchen? Check. Cool way to learn culture? Check. English? A very important check. So i registered.

It’s a four class program offered by an organization affiliated with Kyonggi University, one of the billion universities in Seoul. The class size was an intimate six- one girl from the Korean press, two Korean-Americans, and two foreigners that have done a remarkable job assimilating into Korean culture (one by marrying a Korean and the other by teaching at a university for 10 years). So that English translator they provided? Poor girl had to stand in front of the class just for me.

The first class began with samples of four different types of Korean liquor, noting such factors as taste, color, and smell.

From left to right, hahyangju, jipseonghyang, gwahaju, and cheonggamju

I swear, this really is an educational class. And fascinating, too. The four liquors shown above fall into a category of alcohol known as gayangju, or liquor brewed at home. All homemade Korean liquor consists of three different ingredients- water, yeast, and rice (of course). Each liquor we sampled had a distinct flavor, a variable of how the rice was prepared (Hahyangju uses rice cakes; jipseonghyang grinds the rice and adds water to form a batter of sorts; gwahaju is created with a rice porridge; and cheonggamju soaks rice in water for three hours until all of the liquid has been absorbed.). Our teacher detailed the traditional liquors made for each month of the year, many of which celebrate seasonal changes by incorporating fauna into the mix- Azaleas for spring, Chrysanthemums for fall…

What’s really interesting though is the resurgence in making traditional alcohol within the past twenty years or so. It was common knowledge in the “olden days” but is now a lost art due to the Japanese occupation in the early 1900s and later, the Korean War. For 36 years, Japan committed cultural genocide, destroying landmark monuments and temples, rewriting traditional songs, and burning Korean history books. When cultural practices were no longer banned, the Korean war began and rice was needed to eat as food. The knowledge of liquor making subsequently skipped a generation and could not be passed down. The liquors made today are new recipes of an old skill.

After our lecture, we set about making wheat blocks to harvest yeast. We mixed small amounts of water into ground wheat until it formed a sticky texture.

Then we packed the wheat mix into square molds

and stepped on it to give it a nice foot flavor.

Just kidding. We covered it in newspaper first. Yummm, ink. We’re trying to compact the wheat into a dense block so that it doesn’t crack when it dries out.

The finished product. The dent’s supposed to be there. It helps even out the drying process.

Apparently it takes about a month for the blocks to fully dry (I guess we’ll be getting our yeast from pre-made blocks). They’re kept at a temperature range of 30-35 C (85-95 F) for a week followed by a week of room temperatures. After that, they’re safe to leave outside, unless of course it’s monsoon season.

August 18, 2010. Tags: , , , . culture, korea, rice. 1 comment.

The pseudo arrival of fall

I like apples.

A lot.

Certain friends would call this an understatement. I used to average about three a day during high stress seasons and usually had a few in my purse or backpack to share with others.   What can I say? I told you I liked apples.

For the past four months, I’ve settled for the only variety of apples available in Korea- a large pink globe of crunchy water. It’s been a tough adjustment, one that’s left me trying to figure out ways for Mary to smuggle some good ol’ Granny Smiths through customs in September. For the record, she’s refused.

Lucky for her, I can retire from campaigning. I returned home from Bali to a mound of green apples gloriously displayed front and center in the produce section at my local grocer.  Words cannot describe  my excitement or the ecstasy of my fellow foreigners. The topic has dominated our conversations, text messages, and Facebook statuses. It was only natural that we allowed our minds to wander to the topic of apple pies.

Yesterday, Natalie, Lauren, Emily, and I gathered together for an afternoon of wine and pie making as we attempted to make an apple pie from scratch using a toaster oven.


The finished product.

Natalie and the toaster oven

The verdict?

맛있 었어

It was delicious.

August 15, 2010. Tags: , , . food, korea. 1 comment.