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.


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.


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.

These are a few of my favorite things.

and yes dad, there were samples.

June 3, 2010. Tags: , , , . Uncategorized. 2 comments.

It tastes just like chicken… except not really.

On Sunday, I went to a soccer game at the World Cup Stadium (Seoul hosted the World Cup back in 2002 and apparently, they’ve got big plans to make a bid for 2022– watch out world.) South Korea and Ecuador squared off for a pre-World Cup “friendly”. For the record, there weren’t many (if any) Ecuadorians there.

During half time, someone in my group went to the concession stand for snacks and shared the wealth, passing various bits and pieces down the row. I ended up with a chunk of this:

I’ve made a pact with my more adventurous self to try everything at least once. Sometimes, the only way to accomplish this is by not asking questions. I chomped away, immediately regretting my decision. Now I was stuck. I had a relatively large amount of only God knows what that I had to make vanish so that I appeared appreciative. I decided to rip it into smaller pieces, pretend I was eating it, and then slip it into my purse for disposal at a later time. Childish, I know, but effective– and now there’s a very happy trash can somewhere along Line 6.

Now let’s fast forward to Monday. I’m at my desk, lesson planning away. Every once in a while, I get a whiff of something foul but I just can’t place it. Finally, at the end of the day, I grab my purse to dump in a few more contents and there it is, heavily concentrated– the smell. The inside of my purse could be confused for a fish market. I had missed a piece.

It turns out that’s dried squid, which tastes nothing like the fresh stuff I so thoroughly enjoy. Tell me, what ever happened to nachos and hotdogs as the stadium food of choice?

May 18, 2010. Tags: , , , , . Uncategorized. Leave a comment.

I teach here.

You are cordially invited to join me on a “tour” of my school.  By tour, I mean look at some photos I took during my planning period. The video didn’t come out well. Maybe next time I’ll look for a Korean film kid  on Elance.

This is half of my school. It services about 1,000 kids, all of which live in the overly prevalent concrete monstrosities you see in the background. They surround the school (and Seoul in general). South Korea, a country about the size of Indiana, has a population of around 48 million people. Indiana, on the other hand, registers at about 6.5 million.  Land is a hot commodity around here.

The school is divided into two buildings: one for 1-3 grade, one for 4-6 grade. The Korean government does not require kindergarten so if a child attends a kindergarten program (which they will), it’s through a private company.

The  entrance way to the 4-6 side of the building (the administrative offices reside here as well, including the principal). I once made the mistake of asking if the flowers were real. They are. Notice that lovely full length mirror prominently displayed as you first walk in. Who says looks aren’t important?

Cubbies for all of the teachers’ shoes. Shoes aren’t worn in houses here and school is your home away from home…. I have my own cubby (bottom left hand corner) that holds my ugly and frumpy but free slippers.

This is the English hallway- all two classrooms. I’m all the way at the end. English education begins in the 3rd grade. The Native English Teaching Program varies from school to school. (Each school is autonomous under a loose school district. For example, there’s no uniform school year. Schools follow a similar schedule but the calendars are determined by the principal.) I teach 5th and 6th grade.

This is my desk and all of the appropriate things on it that make me look productive and professional. I work 9-5 Monday through Friday which is important to note because Korean kids go to school twice a month on Saturdays. I’m contracted to teach 22 hours per week. In addition, I have an advanced level “special class” that meets after school twice a week. That’s 25 hours of teaching and 15 hours of planning. But wait!  22 hours really means 22 classes and each class is only 40 minutes long. If you do the math, I’m actually teaching less than 17 hours per week. 23 hours of planning– that’s almost 4 hours per 40 minute lesson plan. Let’s just say there’s a lot of down time…

These are my fifth graders. They’re clearly thrilled to be learning English. Like any good elementary school, we’ve got inspirational messages on our walls reminding our students that “Dreams come true!”– especially if they involve one day working for LG or Samsung.

And this is what they’re staring at. Or not staring at. My school’s behind on the times. We’re an older school with a smaller budget. A lot of the schools are now furnished with flat screen TVs and touch screen white boards. I’ve heard rumors they’re coming over summer break…

May 13, 2010. Tags: , , , , , . Uncategorized. 3 comments.

It’s lunchtime!

My original intentions were to show you a week’s worth of lunches at my elementary school but that idea was a fail. Wednesday was Children’s Day, a national holiday, which meant no school. On Friday, when the lunch was extra spectacular, my camera battery died. This post will give you an idea of the types of food we eat but I might have to recreate it at a later date when it’s a normal week. I think they were doing a little spring cleaning in the kitchen.

My descriptions of the foods below begin with rice and move clockwise around the tray, culminating with the soup. I also should add the disclaimer that I put everything on my plate for the sake of a picture. And lastly, if one of my co-workers had made up the plates, there’d be a lot more rice. It’s to the point where I’m thinking about renaming the blog “365 days of rice: My transformation into a rice grain.” I’ve already got the white part down.


This is our lunch tray. There is always rice, soup, and 3-4 smaller dishes. Don’t try to go all left brain-right brain on the lunch tray. Rice always goes on the left, soup always on the right. I think there’s an order for the side dishes (kimchi’s usually on the left) but the Koreans seem to be more flexible with my positionings. Either that or they’ve just learned to chalk it up to ignorance. Moving clockwise from the rice you’ll find kimchi, the dish that all Koreans swear by for its health benefits. It’s fermented cabbage slathered in a spicy red sauce that attempts to mask the acidity of the dish. It’s served at every meal in every restaurant here, regardless of the type of meal you’re eating (kimchi with your lasagna anyone?). Next, we’ve got a nice little Thai banana and then anchovies with slivered almonds. To your right you’ll find fried kimchi, a type of food recycling that fries up old kimchi with some beef bits, onions, and peppers. Let me tell you, it tastes a lot better than the original. Lastly, the soup of the day consists of seaweed, potatoes, and fish.


Rice, kimchi, the stems of some type of green with a grilled, smaller member of the shrimp family, fried chicken pieces with sweet and sour sauce, and a soup of fish, greens, bean sprouts, potatoes and probably some beef bits thrown in for good measure. They really like their beef around here, just as long as it’s not coming from the US.


Rice, turnip kimchi (just like the cabbage kimchi except with turnip leaves), sauteed turnips slathered in garlic, pork bits and rice patty balls in a sauce, and a soup of seaweed, potato, and fish. I know, the soups all sound the same but they vary the broths so it has a different taste.

Yesterday, one of our side dishes was fish. Whole fish. Fried and boned. Fresh out of swimming in a vat of oil. Try serving that on the styrofoam plates in America.

I really enjoy eating the lunches. It’s a good opportunity to try Korean food and I’m surrounded by people that can explain what I’m eating (although sometimes it’s better not knowing– like with fish cakes. They were really tasty until I found out how they were made.) I was warned before I arrived that it was incredibly difficult to be a vegetarian in Korea from multiple parties- Korean-American friends, former tourists or foreign English teachers, blogs, and even Lonely Planet. Consequently, I started introducing a little bit of meat into my diet about two weeks before I arrived in Korea. It was probably one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made. There is meat in everything here and although I’m learning how to minimize my meat consumption, it’s still taken me three weeks to figure out and it’s mainly in vain- all of the soup broths are either meat or fish based. Being a vegetarian would mean making my own meals everyday, which is feasible but not practical as far as my mental health is concerned. It would completely isolate me from a culture that places such an importance on communal eating. Token white girl’s about as much isolation as I can take right now.

May 8, 2010. Tags: , , , . Uncategorized. 2 comments.

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