Thursday, May 26, 2011

I'm not the only one who loves Seoul

I promise I didn't copy CNN (I don't even like CNN that much). Check this article out on why Seoul is the world's greatest city. Here are some of my favorites if you're too lazy to read the article:

49. More side dishes than main dishes

A typical Korean meal comes with seven or eight separate side dishes. And free refills. There’s more color on a Korean table than at Lotte World on Children’s Day.

47. Best airport in the world

For five years running, Incheon International Airport, which services Seoul and other nearby Korean cities, has been ranked the best airport in the world by Airports Council International. The sprawling, über-efficient facility is equipped with a golf course, skating rink, Museum of Korean Culture, casino, high-end spa and restaurants serving just about any kind of pre-flight meal you’d want.
Go ICN! I can attest to its efficiency. Another thing I'm going to miss.

27. Heated floors

At traditional Korean restaurants, tables are low and chairs are discarded in favor of embroidered cushions. Your butt may fall asleep and your limbs might seize over long lunches, but at least you won’t have to worry about a chill -- heated floors (ondol) keep buns balmy and toes toasty. They also take the sting out of traditional sleepovers, in which a plush blanket on the floor replaces a bed.

26. Bibimbap

Korea’s most recognized dish after Korean barbeque, bibimbap is rice bowl mixed with sautéed roots, marinated beef and chili paste in a hot stone pot. It was Michael Jackson’s favorite dish. It’s still the signature lunch aboard Korean Air flights. You can get it almost anywhere, including local institution Go-gung.
I'm not sure what the quality of my life will be like without this tasty dish. 

25. Most art openings per square mile

Earning the attention of art aficionados worldwide, internationally renowned artists fly into Seoul almost every week for new exhibitions or collaborations. Local artists are also rising to acclaim with increasingly strange and arresting multimedia works. In Cheongdam-dong, a single building called Nature Poem -- itself a work of art -- houses 18 galleries.
And who said Koreans aren't creative?

24. Superb service; random freebies, no tipping

It’s tough not to smile when your breakfast cereal comes with a free pair of socks or your latest clothing purchase bags you a designer kitchen knife. Seoulites love dishing out freebies, the more random, the better. Known simply as “service,” free gifts can be anything from a packet of Kleenex with a full tank of gas to a plate of chicken with your pitcher of Hite beer. The perfectionist jeongshin (mentality) of the service industry in Seoul ensures incredibly cheerful service. Best of all: no tipping.

YES! Probably my favorite item on the list. 

20. Soju is cheaper than water

Soju martinis and soju cosmopolitans are debuting in bars overseas, but in Seoul, we prefer to drink the distilled rice (usually) beverage neat, or mixed with whiskey. 

No comment.

16. The kimchi miracle
When Seoul escaped relatively unscathed from the SARS outbreak a few years ago, locals credited the nation’s kimchi consumption. The spicy cabbage dish was celebrated again when scientists showed that kimchi helps prevent bird flu and Newcastle disease.

3. World’s smartest, and cheapest, personal assistants

Haejuseyo chore services will pick up your dry-cleaning and deliver food -- and perform more difficult, personalized chores -- at the low starting fee of ₩7,000. Maybe that’s why New York’s "The Daily Beast" recently called Korea the laziest country in Asia. They got it wrong, of course. If we weren’t so busy all the time, we wouldn’t need all the extra help.

So grateful this fabulous city is my next door neighbor. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Soul of Seoul

View from the roof of my apartment.
But this could be any old apartment's view. 
Rachel and winter do not get along. Since moving away from mountains and to the cold, sunless, and endless winter of the midwestern United States at the age of nine, I gradually realized that six month winters (which is what Michigan and Indiana have in my opinion) do not suit me. Naively (as I basked in the beauty that is Michigan summer), I thought that a Korean winter would be no big deal. Warmer temperatures, less snow, and a new place. Wrong. Winter sucked here. Perhaps I'm being unfair to Korea because they decided to have the coldest winter in the last thirty years when I showed up, but either way I wasn't impressed. Okay, it was marginally better than the Midwest. We didn't get dumped with massive amounts of snow that is useless since there are no mountains in the Midwest, and the temperatures were slightly warmer comparatively. But, I still had to drag my butt out of my warm bed every morning to make the once easy and enjoyable fifteen minute walk to school in the blustery cold to "deskwarm" (although warm does not in anyway describe my feelings while sitting in a freezing cold school doing nothing for eight hours a day). Needless to say, during these winter months I had little appreciation for the awesomeness that is Seoul. But this post is not about the horrors of winter, instead about Seoul, a city filled with life, culture, art, uniqueness, delicious food, and some semblence of diversity in comparison with the rest of Korea. With each passing day I become increasingly sad about leaving this marvelous city. 

Any street, Korea. 
Stroll down your average Korean street and you will see several things: 노래방s (Noraebang) in every building (directly translated=singing room--kind of like your own private Karaoke room), neon lights, Hyundai cars, coffee (or "copy" in Korean) shops, bars (called hofs in Korean even though "hof is technically a German word), restaurants, and love motels. At first these streets are interesting--wow so many neon lights, oh let's go to a noraebang!, mmmm look at that restaurant (nevermind that there's a nearly identical restaurant two doors down). But after a while it all starts to look the same (making finding your way around a bit difficult). Seoul is not devoid of these generic Korean streets, but Seoul has a vibe that is lacking in the other Korean cities I've visited (or at least a vibe that you have to search hard for). While, it's easy to criticize Korea and their education system for a lack of creativity there IS creativity in this country and lots of it! Introduce my favorite area in Seoul: Hongdae.

Hongdae reminds me of a cooler version of Ann Arbor, MI. Hongdae refers to the area surrounding a university famous for their art and design programs, a fact that is evident by the crowd around Hongdae. Here you can find a more off-beat, hippie crowd. Every Saturday (during warmer weather) there is a "Free Market" (but it's not really free) where local artists come to sell their work. Every week I've gone there are new treasures to be found. In addition to the market Hongdae is filled to the brim with independent coffee shops of all shapes and sizes, boutique clothing stores, art stores, and fun and unique restaurants and bars. Many foreigners are attracted to Hongdae for its buzzing night life. While Hongdae's night life is certainly fun, I think many foreigners overlook the more unique and quirky side of Hongdae. I think I could live in the Hongdae area my whole life and never visit every single cafe. Where the rest of Korea loves their department stores, and American chains, Hongdae keeps the independent shops and creativity afloat and therefore I love it. 

Besides Hongdae there are several reasons Seoul has "captured my soul" (I'm sure I'm the first to come up that clever pun):

1. Mass transit
The Seoul subway system is amazing: efficient, cheap, reliable, and extremely user-friendly even for the dumbest of people (I think anyone). As I continue to look into options for next year I'm starting to panic about losing access to such reliable and affordable mass transit. The subway allows me to be completely independent. I can go virtually anywhere I want within the entire city without the expense, annoyance, and guilt of a car. Because of this luxury I'm doubtful I'll be able to bring myself to move ANYWHERE in the US for a while. 

2. Constant action
I've never visited New York City (it's on my to-do list the next time I'm in the US) but I've heard that like Seoul there is never an end of things to do. I can pick a part of Seoul to visit and likely stumble upon some random outdoor performance, market, or festival. There are an endless number of groups I can join to satisfy my interests: language groups to practice German, swing dance club, volunteer groups and I've barely even scratched the service. 

3. Food
One of the benefits of living in a big city of course is the availibility of a broad range of good food. I can get my Mexican fix (even if it is Midwest quality Mexican food), Indian, Japanese, "Western", Thai, Italian... Although this is the first time I've lived in a legit big city I have been spoiled to always live in semi hip college towns (with the exception of Valpo haha), meaning a fairly ready access to a variety of different cuisines. Unfortunately, this fact has spoiled my taste buds so being forced to eat bland cafeteria food in college was a difficult adjustment for me. I'm happy to have access to good food once again. 

It's still funny for me to think about the Rachel of about five years ago. The Rachel of five years ago probably wouldn't be living in one of the largest cities in the world and enjoying it as much as I do. Perhaps I had done more traveling than the average American (short structured trips to Italy and Germany and Canada of course if that even counts) and my parents had certainly done way more traveling than the average American, but I was still pretty "uncultured", and clueless about a lot of things (although I still probably am). While, I haven't always lived in the "boonies" since my family has always lived in college towns, I had never really experienced a big city until moving to northwest Indiana and being a short train ride away from Chicago. I remember my first train ride to Chicago and simply being amazed at the number of people and the tall buildings. Besides Chicago northwest Indiana was culture shock in itself, moving from the hippie haven of Ann Arbor and spending my childhood in the West. But real change did not happen until traveling to Kenya on a service trip in May 2008. It rocked my perfect little world and gave me the travel bug, an incurable disease that I am still battling today ;). Then my travel rampage began: after a friend scoffed when I said I will never spend another summer in Michigan and would not return there after graduation, I set out to prove him wrong. Spring break to Haiti, two week service trip to Tanzania, summer of research in Germany and gallivanting all over Europe, spring break in Mexico, service trip to Nicaragua, volunteering on a farm in Costa Rica and now Korea. Approximately twenty four (?) countries later, I feel blessed and COMPLETELY changed from the innocent Valpo freshman five years ago. Sometimes I think I've left part of myself in each of the countries I've visited and Korea is no exception. I will miss Seoul immensely and I look forward to three more months of exploring this lively city. 

Biking along the Han with free (of course) bikes
Last word of advice: don't EVER tell me I can't or won't do something, because I have this little problem of enjoying proving people wrong and I don't like people telling me what to do. It's probably my greatest strength and fault. But it did end up getting me halfway around the world :)   

Friday, May 20, 2011

Stuff Koreans Like

Prepare yourself readers (if there are any of you out there). This post is not like the others. It is hopefully offensively funny, and it features a guest author. If you have not perused the site "Stuff White People Like", I suggest wasting an afternoon and treating yourself to the humorous insights this site has to offer. This post was inspired by the exaggerated white customs that Stuff White People Like so brilliantly discusses. Before you enjoy the fruits of our labor here is the disclaimer:

-Neither myself or Shea Karssing (the co-author of this post) are experts on Korean culture and habits. We are merely pretending to "be an expert on your (Korean) culture" .
-Everything written here are exaggerations of our observations, experiences, and the observations and experiences of others in Korean.
-We both actually like Korea a lot. But we also like laughing at peculiarities around the world.
-If you are sensitive to generalizations and overall un-political correctness do not read this post and do not hate Shea or I.
-Please do not compare Shea and Rachel's writing (it will become painfully obvious who wrote which sections). Shea studied English and Journalism while Rachel spent four years taking notes from engineering professors who have worse spelling than the average Korean English student (but to be fair Koreans are pretty incredible at spelling).

Part I (expect future posts on this subject): Stuff Koreans Like

1. America

Who doesn't love good ol' "Uh-murrica"
No one can deny that America is the greatest country in the world, not even Koreans. Because Korea is so small obviously America must be the greatest and of course the only country better than Korea. All white English speakers (and all white people are English speakers of course) are from America.

If you are white, regardless of where you are actually from, you will frequently get stopped on the streets with “미?” (America?) and looks of awe from admiring Koreans. It’s best to just say yes and you are guaranteed new Korean friends. 

Besides making instant friends upon the realization that you are both white and American, you can expect to be treated to the wonders of American chains: Baskin Robbins (or in Korean: Baskin Lobbins), Starbucks (don't look far there's one on every corner), Dunkin Donuts, Outback Steakhouse (if you're ever craving a processed meat hamburger looking "steak-uh"), TGIF, Coldstone Creamery, even the rare Taco Bell and Subway to name a few. 

Lastly, with the large numbers of Korean Americans in America perhaps Korea is secretly plotting a plan to overrun America with Koreans so that really America will become Korea. I must say it's a clever plan and Koreans continue to dominate America's top universities and companies. See future posts for more on the relationship between Koreans and America. 

2. Obama

Koreans love Barack Obama. There are two main reasons for their love of Obama. 
1. He’s the president of America and Koreans love America. See "America". 
2. Obama is of course related to all other black people in the world so clearly he has more influence than just being president of the United States. Ask any good Korean student who Nelson Mandela is and you will discover that he is fact Obama’s father. Usian Bolt? Obama’s brother. You also might want to have a talk with your black friends about their family history because if you show pictures of these friends to any Korean student they will inform you that your friend is perhaps Obama’s cousin or aunt or uncle. Because of Obama's fame and influence he also often gets mistaken for other famous black figures. Who is Martin Luther King Jr.? Obama of course. Click here for more on this subject. 
Perhaps those skeptical of Obama's American birth
should know that Mandela is Obama's father. Maybe
 further investigation should be done into his birth
certificate after all. 

Not only is Obama president of America he is also president of Korea. Just consult the trusty English board in Bupyeong Nam elementary in Incheon, South Korea. A display proudly reads: “Our New President: Obama”. 
Ken comes to Korea

3. A thing for bling

A Korean accessories store is an epileptic experience for the magpie eye. Enter a world in which each accessory fulfils a far greater purpose than the mundane brown belt or paisley tie to which Westerners are prone. Beyonce got it all wrong: If you like it, then you gotta put a bling on it. Jewelry, cellphone danglies, shoes, waistcoats, ties, bags, suits, male undies – the blingier the better. If it has a surface, why not encrust on it some precious jewel, hand-cut in a Chinese sweat shop or mined from the depths of Taiwanese manufacturing?  Indeed, all that glitters is not gold, but who wants gold when cheap diamante catches the light so much better anyway?

4. Korean manufacturing

“Kaka jusseyo?” Cue sweet smile and fluttering eyelashes of the foreigner who conveniently speaks enough Korean so that it’s endearing when she asks for discount on some black patent shoes, but just not enough to be a valid attendee of the staff meeting that lasts for hours every Monday afternoon.
“Made In Korea!”
Nod. Smile. Batter. “Um, OK. Kaka jusseyo?
“No! No! Made in Korea! “
Endearing Discount Face relaxes back to normal. I’ll save it for the shop next door with the identical pair of Jap crap.

5. Smoking

Korean hospital patients don’t drag their drips outside for a breath of fresh 7.30am air. Rather, they use the hand not propping up their life support machines to suck periodically on white coffin nails. Oh, but only the men of course.  Aside from the fact that Korean women would never subject their printed pajama-clad selves to the scrutiny of the public eye, they’re not supposed to smoke anyway – whether outside a hospital or in the clandestine corners of a smoggy bar.  According to stats from the World Health Organisation, 67% of Korean men smoked in 2000, compared to 6.7% of Korean women (or the 6.7% who admitted to it). So for every 10 men steaming up their samgypsal and soju with ciggies in a crowded restaurant, there is one woman squatting over a toilet and dropping ash onto the seat for the next occupant to enjoy. Culturally, it is considered rude for women to smoke. But at least the men more than make up for the women’s’ poor contribution to the national smoke quota, treating the roadside jogger to a billowing faceful of Raison Red, or dusting your Vodka and Cranberry juice “cocktail” with the ash from a Vogue chick stick – a brand far too effeminate for a man hand, especially when the smoke is seeping into an accompanying sparkly tie (see “Bling”). Safe to say, Koreans may not like gays, but they most certainly enjoy their fags.  

6. Rice

In Korea, it’s not a foodstuff.  You would think each grain was a tear from God himself.  
Don't even consider skimping on the rice. 
School lunch: One of the dishes today is spaghetti. There is potato in the soup and ddeok (a kind of rice cake made with pounded rice flour) in the stew. Enough complex carbs to feed a North Korean factory for a week. I take a scant serving of the rice. Pause. Delve back into the rice cooker and dump a glutinous mountain onto my tray.  I’ll never hear the end of it if I don’t. Rice: 1; Thighs: 0.
In Korean, the word for rice is “bap”. Unsurprisingly, this word also means food or meal. In the past, the first meal of a newborn was thin rice gruel and the last thing offered to the dead was a spoon of rice.  Rice is not a food, it’s a life cycle – and apparently it’s also very descriptive: If you are struggling financially you “just manage to eat rice every day”;  losing a job means “a source of rice is gone”;  a person who doesn’t live up to expectations “doesn’t deserve the price of rice”; an angry person has “grains of rice standing on end in their stomach”;  a person who makes you upset is “the one who makes you lose your appetite for rice”; if you want to keep a secret you “do not show others the inside of the rice pot and your mind; and “did you eat rice today?” can double as a greeting. Needless to say, the idioms abound.
As do the varieties. Rice is pounded, steamed, liquefied, and glorified into noodles, milk, wine, cakes, to name but a few. Cake? Yes, “cake”.  I still have a hard time calling a brick of steamed rice flour studded with beans, peas and other unidentified bits of black “cake”. But there’s no denying  I love to eat the damn things.
It says in the Bible that “man shall not live by bread alone”. A Korean would probably proudly retort that without rice there would be no life in the first place. See “Green Tea” for further concerns. 

7. Green Tea

You may look nonchalant for now
Miss AreyouaWesternerorhaveyouhadplasticsurgery...
Yes, you may find it in a cup. But conscious consumer take heed: this green alien is taking over the world, starting in Korea. It may have humble beginnings as a harmless beverage, but today green tea is infiltrating its way into and onto human society in many ways. Deceitfully disguised as “healthy”, the sugar, flavorants, and other unpronounceable ingredients concealed by the lurid green colorants are finding their way into your ice-cream, yoghurt, shampoo, lattes, pancakes, toothpaste, cookies.
But the biggest hidden threat to mankind?  The conspiratorial collaboration of green tea and rice in the ever-popular “Green Tea with Brown Rice” (see “Rice” for more details). Koreans, they have you fooled and, frankly, it’s frightening.

8. Heels

Korea probably has the highest number of heel wearers in the world as a percentage of its population. Yes, heels are considered fashionable around the world and yes they make your legs look leaner and longer but where else in the world can you find the general population sporting heels in virtually all environments, weather, and occasions?

The new beach footwear? 
Take a stroll down the street and you will spot women of all ages teetering along in heels of all varieties—sneaker heels, pointy heels, wedge heels, leopard print heels… Okay, wearing heels on a pleasant afternoon in a high fashion city like Seoul is not so strange right? Visit the beach then and you might witness a stranger sight. May is not high beach season in Korea but your average beach will still be packed with ajummas, ajoshis, children, and couples “enjoying” the beach. “Enjoying” is interpreted slightly differently in Korea. Unlike the sun worshipers of the western world, Koreans, with their brightly colored visors, and portable tents stocked with homemade kimbap; will be found protected from the sun’s relentless quest to ruin their perfect white skin. Swimming? Lying on the beach with a book? Scantily clad women (of all shapes and sizes) soaking up the sun’s deadly rays to bronze their skin? Flip-flops? Nope. But what might you spot that will cause your western eyes to take a second look? Stylish women attempting to walk in the sand in their heels. It is quite likely that you might find more women in heels than people in swimwear at a Korean beach.

While health is of the utmost importance in Korea it comes second only to appearance and fashion. Women go the physical therapist complaining of back pain. The PT’s advice? Stop wearing heels. Weeks later the women return (in their heels of course) with continued pain. In the end fashion will win over pain, or practicality.