Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Two posts in one day??? Yep, this is what happens when I have no class. Just have some thoughts bouncing around in my head that I thought I'd share.

On Wednesdays, I teach teachers conversation English. It is supposed to be for all teachers in my school but the only people who show up are my main 6th grade co-teacher and the substitute 5/6th grade English teacher. Both of whom have pretty accomplished English. We have had some interesting discussions though and I use the time as a secret way of learning more about Korean culture and base my lessons around this theme.

The substitute English teacher is probably one of the most insecure, timid, dependent people I have ever met. She is very sweet, but both my co-teacher and I get frustrated with her extreme lack of independence. This woman is 36 years old (I believe) and yet sometimes I feel like I am her mother. For some reason she frequently comes to me for advice which I feel very strange giving considering the fact that she is my senior by a bit and she has been teaching for 10 years and I have been teaching a measly 8 months (besides tutoring). Anyway, yesterday before conversation class started she awkwardly and shyly asks me: "Rachel, umm.. Can I ask you a personal question?"
Immediately I got excited. When someone says the word personal I sense the potential for delightfully awkward exchanges and the discovery of interesting cultural differences/information.
Me (laughing): "Of course!"
Her: "Uh so I try to be happy everyday and rejoice always (this women is a devout Christian I think). But I'm wondering what things make you happy?" (spoken in a concerned sad tone of voice)
What? This is not the question I was expecting. Why is this woman asking me about what makes me happy? Interesting. Immediately a lot of smart remarks came to mind (I'm a bad person): 4:40 (when I leave school) makes me happy, the weekend makes me happy... But I think the joke would have been lost so I opted for a more sincere answer.
"Umm... well a lot of things make me happy. I would say I'm a fairly happy person. Family, friends, traveling, learning, running. They all make me happy. I try to focus on the good things of everyday rather than the bad because everyday comes with good and bad."
Deep I know. She seemed very impressed which concerns me because I don't want her thinking I'm some saint or something, considering the fact that in spite of my usual happy personality I am also guilty of frequent complaining. Why on earth she asked me this question I am still perplexed but it did get me to thinking.

DISCLAIMER: Here comes some semi-philosophical life nonsense. Take it with a grain of salt. I'm only 23 years old and haven't really lived life that long.

Anyway, what makes me happy? What makes me feel "tickled pink" so that I can't stop grinning? I thought about this on my run yesterday and here is the list in no particular order. I think just making this list made me happy:

-My ridiculous and hilarious family even though they're all far away
-My wonderfully unique and caring friends in every corner of the globe
-Meeting new people and discovering what they're passionate about
-Traveling (duh!)
-Being in a new place and exploring it
-Eating and especially trying new foods
-Running especially in beautiful secluded places at the crack of dawn so I can watch the sun rise
-Long bike rides
-Seeing other people happy and excited or passionate about something
-Making and giving presents
-Learning new things
-Having an "Ah ha!" moment when I find the answer to a difficult problem (generally of the math or science variety)
-Hiking and being in nature in general
-Sunshine especially the kind that actually radiates heat
-Marveling at what a beautiful and well designed world we live in
-Teaching someone something new and seeing them get excited about it
-Learning new languages and getting excited when I understand something in the new language
-Trying to communicate with someone in a second language
-Creative people

This is probably not an all comprehensive list. But here's Rachel's advice for the day: there are 400 million things that go wrong in a day, but there are also 400 million things that go right. Focus on the good things even if they're small and smile about them. I'm TRYING to do this more in Korea because there are almost always things that frustrate me here, but there are also so so many things that make me feel incredibly blessed. Complaining isn't really the most productive activity, so I'm attempting to do less of it (with limited success at the moment).

Okay, I'm done now. Too much deep philosophical nonsense for one day.

Korean Food

A post entirely devoted to the wonder that is Korean food has been long overdue and to prevent myself from blogging about things that are currently frustrating me, I will instead write about food.

Where to begin? For me, part of the joy of traveling is simply sampling different culinary treats. I love trying new and often unidentifiable foods and flavors. My mouth gets excited just thinking about it. Of all genres of food that I've tried I would put Korean food at maybe number three in the world. Mexican food gets the top spot, middle eastern/Mediterranean coming in second, and Korean coming in third. There is tough competition on my top ten world foods list because I really love so many different foods. So why does Korean food claim the number three spot?

1. Garlic
I have a bit of an obsession with garlic. As a young girl I thoroughly enjoyed helping my mom cook when using garlic cloves was involved. I readily volunteered to peel and slice the garlic because it meant I could snag a few raw garlic cloves as a snack. I was informed that eating raw garlic, while healthy, is not always pleasant for those that surround me so I eventually stopped the habit after I realized that my pores would practically start oozing garlic scent for about a day after my garlic feast. But in Korea garlic is in practically everything tasty. When you order Korean BBQ (as we call it in the States) you have the option of roasting garlic cloves with the meat and these cloves are often eaten by themselves. Yes! I can finally eat garlic without judgement. I really can't imagine food without garlic. It adds so much to almost anything. I am happy that Korea has embraced garlic wholeheartedly regardless of its more undesirable effects after eating.

2. Variety
I have lived in Korea for almost 8 months exactly now and I have barely scratched the surface of the variety of foods that exist here. I look forward to school lunch every day to see what new treat awaits me. There have been absolutely no repeats of lunch since I arrived. There is ALWAYS some new combination of soup and side dishes. A friend and I looked up a comprehensive list of Korean foods and have now made it a goal to try new things for the next four months.

3. Price
Perhaps because 99% of Koreans eat Korean food 99% of the time, Korean food is dirt cheap. I can get a filling meal for less than $4 easily and get a relatively fancy meal for less than $10. It is actually often cheaper to eat out then cook if I'm just cooking for myself.

4. Speed of service
Typical Korean dining experience: Enter restaurant and sit down (generally you choose your own table). "Yo-gi-yo" (means "come here") the waiter or waitress (basically you yell across the restaurant for someone to serve you and it is not considered rude). Order your food. Approximately one minute later standard side dishes arrive, usually some combination of kimchi, other fermented vegetables, perhaps some kind of unidentifiable seafood, Korean pancakes, etc. The best part about these side dishes is that they are unlimited. Approximately five to ten minutes after you have begun to chow down on the wonderful unlimited side dishes your meal arrives, piping hot, fresh and delicious. As an extremely impatient person who in U.S. and other countries came up with various methods of making the food SEEM like it was coming faster, Korean restaurant service is perfect in my eyes. Granted, if the food didn't come fast there would probably be a riot in the restuarant because Koreans are quite possibly the most impatient people I've ever met (even more impatient than me).

Korean food is extremely delicious but uses very few basic ingredients. I've told my Korean friends that if suddenly chili peppers, garlic, rice, and cabbage disappeared from the world, all Koreans would perish. I don't think Koreans could survive without these key ingredients. I'm a little concerned that I won't survive when Korean food is taken out of my diet in four months.

Here are some of my favorite Korean dishes:

Bipimbap- this is a favorite among many foreigners. It is rice, a variety of cooked vegetables, usually an egg, sometimes small bits of ground meat, then mixed with a semi spicy red paste. You can also get Dolset Bipimbap which comes in a hot stone dish and everything cooks while you mix it.

Kimchi Jjigae- this is a kind of stew with Kimchi, tofu, onions, and pork. Served with rice that you can mix in with the stew. Spicy and delicious!

Ttoekkbokki (probably a bad romanization of it)- This is made of Ddoek (thick rice noodles), fish cakes/sticks (not really sure about the translation of them), green onions, sometimes hard boiled eggs, and delicious spicy red sauce. You can find this dish on the street for around 1-2000 won! Cheap and delicious!

Kimbap- not to be confused with Sushi. While Kimbap has similar ingredients it is not sushi. If you eat it thinking it's sushi you will be disappointed. Kimbap also comes in many flavors and varieties. My favorite is tuna (chamji).

I actually have to stop writing about more foods now because it's making me hungry. While, most of Korean food is delicious they do have some strange combinations. First, Koreans have an obsession with Spam. So strange given that Koreans are also obsessed with health and think that their food is extremely healthy (I would say partially true). They put in spam in soup, in kimbap, as a side dish and also enjoy giving Spam packs as gifts. Fortunately, I haven't received a Spam pack yet. Second, Koreans enjoy these strange little hot dogs. They also put them in kimbap (no thanks!), and most recently at school I had some hot dogs with little dried anchovies. Interesting...Processed meat is not my favorite and is most certainly not healthy. Apparently during the way and post war there was an abundance of Spam from the American army and Koreans just got used to eating it that it's basically been incorporated into their cuisine now. Very strange!

Enough about food. My stomach is growling!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Breaking things down

I'm really good and breaking things into small manageable segments. Perhaps it's my love of math, my excruciatingly boring summer internship four years ago that forced me to break my  eight hour day into slightly more manageable fifteen minute segments, or my OCD running habits. Whatever it is, I have now broken down my remaining months in Korea. Less than two weeks until my next day off. Two short weeks, then three weeks until July. Then two weeks of classes until summer vacation. Then two weeks until Philippines and Bali, then two weeks and bye bye Korea! Craaazy when I break things down into two to three week segments! I am now experiencing a mixture of excitement and sadness about finishing this segment of life.

Living in Korea and perhaps living abroad in general is like a long roller coaster ride. The beginning is filled with lots of quick ups and downs that are super exciting! There are so many new tastes, customs, sights, and people to meet. Then comes the biggest hill in the roller coaster ride. Slowly, slowly you start chugging up the hill and all the things that were once new and exciting have now become boring and obnoxious. Would you stop spitting in public already? I really don't feel like stepping in your phlegm and hearing you hack a loogie every five minutes. But then you reach the top of the hill and you can see the end of the ride. It's all downhill in one dizzying, exhilarating blur. That's where I'm at. I'm trying to frantically take everything in, try everything I haven't tried yet, see as many places as I can, and continue to cultivate the amazing friendships I've made while still seeking to make new random connections and friends, but all this is going by at a frantic high speed (but I seem to always attack life full steam ahead anyway).

My last few weeks have been filled with probably my favorite aspect of traveling and living in new places: meeting people. These past three weeks have allowed me to expand my random connections. Meeting the son of the owner of the number one tortilla company in Korea (as if there's many more than one tortilla company in Korea)? Check. Free tortillas? Working on it. A week ago a friend and I headed south to Gyeongju to run a half marathon and enjoy cherry blossoms. Being the cheapos and curious folks that we are, we once again couchsurfed. A nice Korean professor who was gone for the weekend gave the key to his apartment to two of his students. We stayed in his apartment for two days and were showed around by his friendly and comical students. I don't think I've laughed so much in a long time (which is saying something considering I probably laugh around 50% of the day). One of the students has never had a "foreign friend" before so he was so thrilled to meet my friend and I that he even signed up for facebook to keep in touch with us. Our conversation with these two quirky gents drifted between broken English, and something resembling charades. It still amazes me how relatively easily human beings can understand each other in spite of language differences. I look forward to more adventures with these new friends!

Besides meeting new people I am excited for four more months with my incredible group of friends here, enjoying runs on the color infused streets of Incheon for the next couple weeks as the spring flowers peek out from the metal jungle and human storage units, cramming my brain with as much Korean as I can before I leave and likely forget everything I've learned, and stuffing myself with the deliciousness that is Korean food before it's taken away from me. With all these exciting things to look forward to and the absolutely perfect weather that has finally graced Incheon, I was actually half tempted to stay another year the other day. If I ignore the little part of my life that is "teaching" (if you can actually call what I do teaching) Korean devil children, my life here isn't so bad. Part of me craves being able to stay in the same place for just one more year instead of continuing my life habit of packing and unpacking, saying goodbye and saying hello. But my perpetual antsiness and realization that "teaching" English to Korean children is most certainly NOT my life calling prevents me from sticking around. Instead, in true Rachel fashion I'm on an application rampage. Stability aside in just over four months kimchi will be sadly lacking from my diet and I won't be bowing to every person I meet. Having a home would be nice, but hopping to another new and exciting place would be even nicer.

P.S. I received a wonderful but also heartbreaking compliment from my 5th grade co-teacher the other day. "You are a really good teacher. I really hope you stay in Korea."
My response: "Uhhhh... thank you! I guess I have a lot of thinking to do and decisions to make."

Monday, April 11, 2011

The sad story of Rachel's socks

Keeping matching, hole free socks and stockings has never been my strong point and living in Korea has changed nothing. What has changed however, is the glaring exposure of this fault of mine. My whole life I have struggled to find matching socks. I'm convinced that washing machines hate me and randomly decide to devour my socks (but only one at a time), leaving no evidence or trace of my missing sock. As a runner and an active person it seems that my brand new socks acquire new holes in no time and I'm generally too cheap (see the previous post for examples of this) and lazy to bother replacing my holey socks frequently; therefore I just wear whatever socks I can find be they holey or not matching. Moving to Korea in a cozy studio apartment with a washing machine designated only for my personal use and no dryer, I optimistically hoped that my sock woes would end. Yes, I've been told numerous times by wiser people than myself that I could simply pin my socks together. But I'm too stubborn and lazy to ever attempt this technique.

Now, in the U.S. my problem with socks could usually be kept hidden or at least from people who would judge my poor sock habits. I only wore socks in winter when I was forced to wear closed toe shoes (although when I was young I stubbornly tried to get away with never wearing socks only to eventually discover that wearing closed toe shoes without socks yields stinky feet) or when running. Rarely did anyone have to view my mismatched socks with my toes peeking out. Alas, in Korea I can no longer hide my faults. Even though my apartment is small I have still managed to lose several individual socks and every time I buy stockings or tights in the blink of an eye they have acquired a new hole. I often randomly and without notice get invited to teachers' dinners after school, leaving me without sufficient time to prepare the proper sockware to hide my bad habit (i.e. wear one of my few matching and hole free pairs of socks to school that day). In traditional Korean restaurants it is mandatory to take your shoes off when entering the seating area and failure to do so is considered rude. To make matters worse we sit on the floor so I can't simply hide the evidence by putting my feet under the table.

Unfortunately, I am a slow learner and don't really care what people think of me, so even after seven months I have not purchased a single pair of new socks and I continually risk wearing my holey mismatched socks to work. Stay tuned for the day that I "splurge" and buy multiple pairs of the funny 1,000 won socks that can be found on street corners, near subway stations and in department stores all over Korea and proudly take off my shoes. But this day won't be happening anytime soon.

Keep wearing these?

Or "waste" 1,000 won on Korean socks?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

How to live like a pauper and still have a good time

Sometimes my existence (both in Korea and elsewhere) isn't that different than that of a homeless person. But unlike a homeless person I made a very conscious decision to live this way. Teaching English in Korea it is very possible to save the majority of your paycheck each month even though in comparison to the engineering salary I could be making my paycheck here is not that much. Let me outline how to save money and still have fun in Korea.

Key for Americans: $1~1000 Korean won

1. Eat Korean food
Even if I didn't love Korean food as much as I do, I would be eating it and shopping in Korean grocery stores. Yes you can get western food here, but why should I pay an arm and a leg for a nasty pizza or hamburger (not that I even ate those things in the States anyway) when I can get delicious and cheap Korean food. Same goes for groceries. I could spend a fortune for a block of cheese or I could get some of the tastiest tofu in the world for less than 1,000 won? Now, like most things I undertake I tend to go overboard on saving money. This means I will eat the SAME thing for a week if it was on sale and because I'm mortally afraid of food going bad and ultimately having to throw something away. My pantry is not chock full of snacks and spices and other random treats. It is the bare bones essentials.

2. Take advantage of free handouts 
Korea is a wonderful place for sample lovers like myself. Take a stroll through the grocery store (with the intention of buying something of course ;) ) and sample the many foods that sweet little Korean ladies are advertizing. If you feel guilty about sampling and not buying don't worry. You simply shop less each time you enter the grocery store so that EVERY single day you have an excuse to enter the grocery store and take advantage of samples. And the best part is that because everything is close in Korea you don't have to worry about wasting gas money (and harming the environment) getting to the grocery store. The only unfortunate part about Korean samples is that there is always someone manning the demo booth. This makes coming back for seconds a bit awkward. I use the samples as my snacks since I generally have three meals a day plus snacks in between.

Besides samples in the grocery store there are always various church groups in public places handing out pamphlets and free stuff, usually tissues and wet wipes. Nevermind that I can't read the pamphlets, I'll take the freebies. Kamsamnida! And this leads me to number 3.

3. Replace items you might normally buy with freebies
I hate buying toilet paper. What an unpleasent thing to waste money on, but unfortunately it's a neccessity. Problem solved though! Use free tissue freebies mentioned in number two as TP! I have only purchased toilet paper twice in Korea because of these lovely free tissues! When I run road races here they also often hand out free tissues and it's usually pretty simple to snag one or two tissue packets. Score! Toilet paper dilemna solved!

4. Buy produce and other food items in a Korean traditional market
Regular supermarket produce is outrageously expensive! BUT on side streets and other areas throughout Korea you can find markets selling produce and other food products for a fraction of the cost. Some of the food I won't touch, but things that aren't super important to be organic I will buy. Check out the dirty dozen list for things you should buy organic. Tofu in the markets is way more delicious and fresh too!

5. Make Korean friends and be friendly with the teachers in your school
Koreans are very generous (and you should be in return). They will usually share whatever scrumptious (and sometimes not so delicious) snacks with you at school and often even send you home with leftovers. I have gotten whole meals this way. Also, if you invite Koreans over to your apartment they usually come bearing food or another practical item (such as paper towels or I've even heard toilet paper). Lastly, when teachers retire at your school it is customary for them to give everyone gifts and they are usually practical gifts. I have received an umbrella and towel!

6. Be a good teacher!
If your students like you there is the potential to get snacks and candy on a regular basis.

7. Shopping
Don't do it! Well... if you must, go to the underground shopping stores where you can find super cheap clothes and shoes. These underground shopping centers can be found near many subway stations in Incheon and Seoul. Edit: Check out the awesome 1,000 won store called Daiso. Unlike "dollar stores" in the States their products are a bit "classier" and SEEM like better quality. 

8. Don't turn on the heater in winter
Well this one all depends on the apartment situation but I got lucky in this aspect. My apartment is on the 7th flour of a thirteen story building. Because of this I can essentially steal warmth from the apartments above, below, and on either side of my apartment. Plus my apartment faces the sun which is unfortunate for sleeping but fortunate for heating. In Korea all apartments are fitted with floor heating. I am happy to say that I only turned on my heater once all winter (and this was in the midst of one of Korea's coldest winters on record). Now I would be lying if I said that I didn't get cold but it was a small price to pay to save money.

Now all these money saving tactics might make it seem like I never have fun (I do in fact save almost 3/4 of my paycheck every month and that includes travel expenses). So here is tip number nine.

9. Don't buy drinks at a bar
If going out for a few drinks is your thing this could get expensive even though drinks are relatively cheap in Korea. Don't buy drinks! Instead bring your own in! Requires a bit of sneaking and a big enough bag to fit the drinks but it's completely doable.

10. Limit eating out
Both when traveling and in Korea limit eating out. Eating out in Korea IS cheap BUT it still can add up if you're not careful about what you order and if you eat out on a regular basis. When traveling if you don't eat out, you WILL save massive amounts of money. Go to a supermarket or convenience store and buy and make your own food. Now I realize that eating local foods is part of the travel experience but don't eat out every single meal. It will break the bank. In Europe I just stole food from breakfast at my hostel to make a simple sandwich for lunch, then out for dinner. Unfortunately in Asia most accomodations don't include breakfast so this tactic does not work so well.

What do I do with the extra money? Pay off my stupid student loan which I am proud to say will be demolished by the end of May! The government is not going to suck interest out of me. And one last tip don't use a credit card unless you can pay in full by the time the bill rolls around. I have a hard time understanding how people fall for this one because interest is so ridiculous if you don't pay up in full.

I won't mention some of my more extreme money saving tactics. Yes, my lifestyle often approaches digging for trash but I'd rather spend my money on travel. Happy saving!