Winter. I march down the slush-slick sidewalk, at constant risk of wipeout as my neck cranes sideways to ogle the enticing photos of Korean dishes taped up in all the shopfront windows: ddeok bokki, dalk galbi, bibim bap, bulgogi… I linger on the signs in hangeul, puzzling the clusters of characters into sounds and, sometimes, meanings, timing my reading speed, which is nowhere near instant, but is quick enough now that familiar words only take seconds to snap into place: 은행, bank. 여행, trip. 책, book. 약국, pharmacy. I enter a grocery mart and begin trolling the aisles for the ingredients I’ve come for – gochujang, red hot pepper paste; kuk kanjang, soup soy sauce; yellow packets of Ottogi instant curry mix; long red boxes of Pepero, the Korean version of the chocolate and cookie stick snack, Pocky. At the counter, I pay for my items and mumble a shy Korean thank-you – “Kamsamnida…” – followed by a more confident “Thanks.” English is fine here. It is, after all, Toronto.
It’s been almost a month since I returned from Korea to this frozen city, and I am naturally drawn to the corridor that runs along Bloor Street from Christie to Bathurst, referred to on the area’s street signs as the Korean Business Area, but more informally called, simply, Koreatown. In this stretch of a few blocks I find a surprisingly thorough concentration of things familiar to me from two years teaching in South Korea – scents and sounds, but also unexpected details. I skulk around a small market called E-Mart, named after Korea’s ubiquitous giant department store chain and boasting the same yellow-and-black colour scheme. Outside the norae bangs, advertised with the more familiar Japanese word KARAOKE, I listen for strains of earnest, soju-fueled caterwauling. Sitting at a 24-hour restaurant called Bu-ong-ee and slurping a bowl of gamja tang – unflatteringly rendered on English signs as “pork bone soup” – I inadvertently tap my fingers to the beat of the K-pop hits that I often wished to escape in Korea, but that here give me an odd sense of comfort, as though I’m ensconced in a sonic helium bubble that can, at any time, rise up and transport me back over the ocean to the breezy shores and pale, gentle sunlight of Jeju-do. (more…)
A local saying lists three things Jeju is famous for: wind, stone and women. The island certainly has all three in abundance — the wind, in particular, is strong enough to tear off your scalp. In truth, though, the thing Jeju is most known for in Korea is tangerines (also known as Mandarin oranges). Winter marks the beginning of tangerine season, and these days it’s hard to drive a kilometre without passing an orchard tucked behind low stone walls, blazing with thousands of bright orange globes.
I once laughed outright at a hapless young American who’d purchased tangerines at the grocery store, and although I’ll admit it wasn’t very nice, my mirth was justified; in tangerine season, almost every social or commercial transaction conducted on Jeju commences or concludes with a gratis exchange of the juicy little devils. Taxi drivers hand them to you as you climb into their cabs; buckets of them sit out in the staff rooms at school; waiters bring trays of them as dessert; and any kind of major purchase — a jacket, say, or a torque wrench — will just as likely as not be augmented with a couple shopping bags bulging with fruit. It’s a friendly time of year, when Jejuites are visibly proud of the island’s most valuable and abundant crop, and the heaps of tangerines making the rounds seem to contain the very nectar of goodwill within their dappled, vivid skins. (more…)
One of my Korean students’ favourite pastimes is pulling on my beard. These days, I can’t blame them — circumstances having forced me into (temporary) bachelordom for the first time in years, I’ve made it a project to accumulate as much hair on my face as possible, and even I will admit that the resulting thicket is eminently tuggable. (It’s when the kids figure they can swing from it that problems arise.)
There’s a lurking belief that Koreans can’t grow facial hair. This is profoundly untrue, as anyone who’s familiar with Korean money can tell you; each of the three denominations of Korean won (the 1,000, 5,000 and 10,000) boasts a likeness of an eminent figure from Korean history, and all of them are rocking killer beards. The most impressive is surely the white mop cascading from the chin of Confucian scholar Yi Hwang on the 1,000, but neither fellow Confucian Yi I on the five nor King Sejong the Great (arguably the most famous Korean of all time, at least within Korea) on the ten have anything to be ashamed of — each sports a missile-shaped goatee and full moustache that would make Tom Selleck’s nose pillow bristle with envy.
It is true, however, that in contemporary South Korea, prominent facial hair is a rare sight. (more…)
Exam testing informs every aspect of life in South Korea, and it doesn’t stop even after you’ve finished university
Last Thursday was test day in South Korea. Traffic stopped. Airplane schedules were altered. The military was told to shut up. The best rice cakes in the land were distributed, consumed, and most likely thrown up in anxiety. For nine hours, the universe froze.
The most stressful test of my life was my fourth-year university Anglo-Saxon exam, which required me to translate a chunk of the original text of Beowulf, and for which I studied hard for maybe three days. The stress stemmed primarily from my desire to protect my ego by way of my final average; ultimately, the exam meant nothing.
In South Korea, tests determine the outcome of every major event in your life, and the nationwide university entrance exam (officially, the “College Scholastic Ability Test”), which takes place annually on the third Thursday in November, is the mother of all tests — the doorway through which kids must pass to transform from mute, bespectacled children whose personality is subsumed by their identical school uniforms into burgeoning adults who can wear and drink and study what they want. (more…)
JEJU-DO, SOUTH KOREA—Tourists first started coming to Jeju for the natural scenery, the beaches, and the fields of bright yellow canola and violet azalea lining the craters of Halla-san. But its development into a “resort island” has brought a host of other attractions: gardens, galleries, museums, and, most numerously, theme parks, covering almost any subject you can imagine, from green tea to glory-hole sex. The ultimate aim appears to be turning Jeju into a tourist Valhalla, with no square foot of usable space left unoccupied by giant plaster figures or ramshackle collections of junk or animals that have no business being in this part of the world.
Jeju’s many Lands, Worlds and Towns mix Niagara Falls gaudiness, Vegas-style exploitation, confusion about the West and certainty about what vacationing Koreans consider a good time to incredibly strange effect, and they are worth looking at as a barometer of the similarities and differences between how fun is marketed in Korea and in North America.
Loveland is, at least among foreigners, the most notorious, bizarre and flabbergasting theme park on Jeju. Loveland’s website calls it “a place where sexually oriented art and eroticism meet… where the visitor can appreciate the natural beauty of sexuality.” (more…)
JEJU-DO, SOUTH KOREA — One very niche effect of the global economic meltdown has been a growing sense, among the ESL community in Korea, that the English teaching gravy train may be either congealing or going off the rails, depending on which metaphor you prefer.
In recent weeks, the South Korean won has taken a pummeling worthy of Jake La Motta, which means sending money home from Korea to pay off debts or stash in savings accounts is now a lesson in the more painful side of international currency exchange and the ways it can screw you. When I arrived in Jeju-do in December 2006, my monthly paycheque of 2.2 million won transferred home would turn into more than $2,200 Canadian. Today, I get under $2,000.
That’s not so bad, but the situation is much worse for American teachers, whose cheque now works out to about $1,680 US. With the free housing and the paid airfare, the ESL jobs here still offer an undeniably attractive deal, but for those who are here strictly for the money, it’s looking less and less like the savings coup it’s been for the last nine or ten years. If things get worse — as in 1997 Asian economic crisis worse — there’s a chance many money-conscious teachers won’t see any reason to continue working here, and just as good a chance that many travel-hungry teachers will realize that if they’re going to be making crap money, they might as well be teaching somewhere they can buy weed and pancakes that aren’t served with kimchi and clams. (more…)
JEJU-DO—Meat-eating in Korea is very literal. Humanity’s participation in the food chain is much less disguised than it is in North America, where people are happy to pretend their bacon burgers or pork tenderloin medallions are magically synthesized for the express purpose of being delicious. In Korean, the word for pork is dwaeji gogi — “pig meat.” Most other meats work the same way: insert name of animal, followed by the word for “meat” — not much in the way of linguistic frippery to disguise the fact that meat is basically dead flesh and ripped-apart muscle.
In an unsettling twist, restaurant signage follows suit. Many restaurants advertise specialties with pictures of their dishes, displayed right underneath jovial cartoon versions of whichever animal gave their life for the food. This is especially true of restaurants serving galbi, pork or beef rib meat barbecued over flaming charcoals stuck into the centre of your table.
The following is series of portraits of these brave ambassadors of personal flavour. As you can see, most of them look downright delighted at the prospect of ending up in your bowels. (more…)
This weekend marked the Korean holiday of Chuseok, the rough equivalent of North American Thanksgiving, and although I hate to engage in a bout of schadenfreude during the festive season, I can’t possibly let the story that surfaced while I was in Canada for a couple weeks go unremarked.
I refer, of course, to reports that North Korean Dear Leader Kim Jong-il is sick, or, even more serious, dead — and has been so for as long as five years. The unsubstantiated rumours, sparked by Kim’s absence at celebrations marking the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the DPRK, say Kim may have suffered a stroke, and one report by a Japanese scholar claims the DL died way back in 2003 from diabetes, and that a core team of military officials has been ruling ever since, using Kim dummies for public appearances. (more…)
JEJU-DO, SOUTH KOREA—I’ve read that the Olympics are producing some thrilling moments this year. I wouldn’t know.
During the lead up to the Games, when China blocked journalists from accessing websites such as Amnesty International and the BBC, there was a huge media kerfuffle about broken promises and the absolute need for a climate in which reporting could be done freely and without restriction. The Olympics, the argument went, are about cultural exchange and openness, and limiting access was hostile to the very spirit of the Games.
Yet here I sit in Korea, five days into the Olympic media orgy, and if I want to watch an event or a feature from my home country—because let’s not be naive: the Olympics are also very much about nationalism—I’m shit out of luck. Every attempt I’ve made to access Olympic content on an international website has been a failure, and in general, my quest for online Olympic coverage has been by far the most strangled Internet experience of my life. Not since the sweaty-palmed days of my Catholic school dances have I been so thoroughly denied. (more…)
JEJU-DO—For many, a big part of the expat experience involves drinking, and especially drinking in bars. Be they mysterious, seedy, elegant or anarchic, watering holes for wanderers have a certain romanticism attached to them, a fuzzy, seductive corona of myth that frames them as hubs of intrigue, sex and adventure.
In spirit if not style, the archetypal expat bar is Rick’s Café Americain, the nightclub from Casablanca where Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick, delivers (or doesn’t) some of cinema’s most memorable lines. Peopled with refugees, soldiers, sketchy men and alluring women, the club is a magnet for foreigners stuck in the Moroccan limbo city of the film’s title, those running from war and waiting for a ticket to elsewhere, who in the meantime while away their time drinking cocktails and listening to Sam play his sad, sad songs.
In every place with more than a smattering of foreigners, there is a foreigner bar. This, I expect, is one of the first things many people discover when they begin travelling, especially those who do it alone and seek the comfort of speaking to people in their own language, or at least a linking language that allows them to meet in a conversational neutral zone. Some people seek foreigner bars out, some people find them by accident, but the general rule is that they’re places where travellers (especially backpackers) can go to get shitfaced drunk and try to sleep with each other without worrying too much about culturally-appropriate behaviour, and to look for Western-style breakfasts, beat-up guitars covered in stickers, djembes for impromptu hippie jams, personal-size pizzas, scuffed board games, used guidebooks and copies of On the Road, and advice on how best to score hash without ending up in a dingy prison wherein they will be considered valuable foreign currency worth their weight in cigarettes. (more…)
JEJU-DO—The sun is broiling, the humidex is high, and in Korea that means it’s time for a nice, hot bowl of chicken soup. Just as people in the West associate certain foods with holidays, so do Korean people enjoy special meals during particular seasons. July 19 in Korea was Chobok, the first day of Sambok, a period that spans the three 복날 (pronounced “bok-nal”), or “dog days,” which Koreans believe are the hottest of the summer, and which are usually spent eating things that most North Americans would consider perfect fare for a cold winter night.
The consumption of hot dishes to beat hot weather is tied to Asian medicine, which suggests eating hot foods causes perspiration, cooling the outside of the body, while warming and rejuvenating the inside, thereby fighting fatigue brought on by the scorching heat. The Sambok tradition dates back hundreds of years to the dynastic period, when farmers believed that exhaustion caused by working too hard in the heat would lead to a bad harvest; they took the Sambok period off to vacation in a cooler locale, often somewhere in the mountains or by the seaside. (more…)
Just a quick note to point anyone who’s interested to a piece I wrote for Culture+Travel, a magazine that covers some cool, off-the-radar stories from travel destinations around the globe. This one’s about haenyeo, Jeju’s famous women divers, who free-dive — that means no air tanks — for seafood off Jeju’s coasts. A guy named Ian Baguskas, which is an awesome last name if ever I’ve heard one, took the photos.