Renting in a Foreign Language

Every job overseas I’ve had so far has provided housing. One of them didn’t technically provide, but did everything besides sign the lease and pay the bills. Despite having lived and worked abroad for several years, I’ve never had to deal with this particular aspect of expat life. Moving to Gyeongju was more than a little nervewracking because I didn’t know anyone here, the school was not going to provide an apartment or even help in finding one, and my apartment in Busan would be unavailable by February 25 (2 days after my last day at that job). Not every adventure is a holiday.


In the US, when I had to look for an apartment, I would go online (or in the old days, open a newspaper) and look at ads, then go visit the apartment manager and view the unit. The one time I moved across the country as an adult, I chickened out and signed up for student housing so I could put off apartment hunting until I was in the same city. How did I get to this point in my life without having this skill?

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I managed to find some online sources for rentals in Korea and was preparing to try to navigate them despite the language barrier, but reviews online revealed that they were just ads for real estate agents and that the listings and photos shown were almost never real. Housing in Korea is usually brokered with a real estate agent, budongsan. Like every other critical service here, they operate during the same hours I was required to be at work in EPIK. Plus, Gyeongju is an hour away from Busan, making a quick afternoon apartment hunt completely impossible.

One of the teachers at the University said her friend who spoke Korean well had volunteered to help me hunt down a place after the staff meeting on Feb 22 (remember, I was getting booted from my existing place on the 25th), and I gratefully accepted, and asked what I could do to prepare because I literally had no idea about the town or about renting apartments in Korea. “No, no, it’s so easy, we’ll just walk into an agent’s office and they’ll find you a place that’s ready to go.”

I did some research anyway.

In Korea, most people rent their apartments jeolsei style by paying for a whole year of rent up front at once. Weirdest part? They get it all back when they move out! I still have no idea how this financial arrangement works for the property owners, but by and large, I think it sheds some light on the crazy world that is “money”. Sadly, I had no idea I was going to have to rent my own place so I hadn’t had time to save up that much. Ironically, I was going to get enough in severance pay and contract bonuses to bring me up to enough, but I wouldn’t get the money in time. Which says more things about how the rich stay rich and the poor loose money, because if you have the money to rent a whole year at once, then you don’t actually have to spend it, you just have to let someone else use it for a year. But if you don’t have that lump sum, you’re stuck actually paying a monthly rent.

Related imageMonthly rent in Korea, or wolsei, is still miles lower than it is in the US, and my salary includes a housing stipend so it’s not actually something to complain about. I am, however, trying to put aside the cash to change to the lump sum system when I renew the lease next year.

If you can’t do jeolsei lump sum, then a large deposit of key money is still required in addition to the monthly rent. The larger the deposit, the smaller your monthly payments, and you get the deposit back at the end (minus damages). That was what I had to do. I read that the key money could range anywhere from 2-5,000 US and I was already worried that the upper range of that could clean me out if I had to pay it before my February payday (which happened to be the same day they were kicking me out).

I tried getting advice about where to live in Gyeongju but as with every Facebook page in the history of Facebook, no two people can agree and at least 60% of the comments will be random, useless, wrong, or cruel. I tried looking at the map to get an idea of where the university was, where the bus routes were and where the good amenities were, but it was really difficult to make sense of the map when I had only been to the bus terminal and university once for the job interview and nowhere else.

Confusion and Disappointment

The day of the staff meeting, I headed out in the afternoon with two other teachers to look for my apartment. First, they went to their own apartments to drop off things and get ready for the march around town. They lived in a more recent development with an elevator and nice view of the river, but as I asked more about what was around them, it turned out to be a whole lot of other apartments. The nearest corner shop was a 5-minute walk and there were no nearby restaurants, cafes or bars. I was trying to be as polite as possible because they clearly liked their neighborhood and thought I would too, but as we walked out looking for the real estate agent, the office of which my guide could not remember the location of, I was getting very disappointed very fast.

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Google Maps

The first agent was super confusing. He wrote down a bunch of numbers and my “translator” had no idea what he was saying. Later we realized it was the price difference between the two types of rental agreement, but at the time I didn’t really feel comfortable about it and his price points were a little high. We wandered aimlessly around the neighborhood as they tried to remember ‘that one really helpful lady”. I never want to sound ungrateful when someone has offered to help, but it seemed to me as though they had no plan whatsoever, but neither had they given me any guidance on what I should plan. Agent after agent, we visited. Some had no one rooms apartments, others had only unfurnished units (which in Korea also means no a/c unit, no refrigerator, and no washing machine).

We finally found someone who had a furnished apartment in my price range and we headed off on foot to take a look. The day was unseasonably warm for February, and I had been walking a lot already. I was so hopeful about the apartment, but by the time I mounted the stairs between the third and fourth floor, I realized there was no way I could do that every day. (yeah, I’m out of shape, but unless there’s a temple or a stunning view at the top, 3 flights of stairs is my limit). On top of that when the agent opened the door to reveal the room it was so tiny I felt claustrophobic. Trying to stay kind and polite yet be firm, I had to reject it.

Finding an Agent

However frustrating it was, it became clear that I had to get really specific with these agents if I didn’t want a top floor shoebox. The list of what I wanted was getting longer with every agent, and predictably, more of them said, no way. Eventually, my guides realized that their neighborhood was really made for families and multi-person housing and that we should go to a different area to find more singles. We called a taxi and while we waited the volunteer apartment finder told me that there were never any taxis on the road in that area but they always showed up quickly when called. As we drove away, I felt intensely grateful that I had escaped that area, bereft of shops, food, and transportation options. It was a lot like the American suburbs, except all apartments and no McMansions.

When we arrived in Seonggeon-dong, I instantly felt better. I could see the plethora of tiny shops, and shops stacked on top of shops that I had become accustomed to in Busan. I knew nothing here would compare to Seomyeon, a bustling shopping, party and medical tourism hub, but it was a solid relief to see that not all of Gyeongju was built on the soccer mom model.

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Google Maps

We asked the driver to stop as soon as we spotted a real estate agent (the green one) and headed in. She was the very answer to my prayers. With the mild exception that she did not speak any English, she was perfect. Kind, attentive, and very good at explaining in Korean in such a way that us poor waygook (foreigners) could understand. I realize in retrospect that there are a lot of waygook in this area. Most are not native English speakers, but they can speak a modicum of Korean, so that makes more sense as to how she got so good at explaining things to non-Koreans.

We rattled off the long list of things I wanted and lowballed the price tag (having had some price issues with every previous agent) and she didn’t look even slightly phased, but instead nodded confidently and opened up her bright pink planner and began flipping pages and texting on her phone. Within a few minutes, she had gotten in touch with a nearby apartment that was fully furnished and on the second floor, close to the bus lines and the university, with internet included in rent, and well within my price range.

Finding a Room

As we walked over, I was pleased to see a wide range of restaurants and cafes. She pointed out the CCTV cameras and the high school at the end of the road. The presence of the all-girls high school meant extra police presence and security cameras so the neighborhood would be safe for me.

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Google Maps

The Facebook group of longer-term Gyeongju expats had advised against this particular neighborhood because it was “too dangerous”, so it was clear to see that word was getting around. As far as I can tell, some Thai folks got drunk and had an argument that ended with knives, but it was personal. Additionally, some of the blue-collar expats were creeping on the white-collar expat ladies. Being American, it takes rather more than this for me to be worried, but it was nice to see that the police were taking the issue seriously and I spotted several bright yellow signs about making it a safe alley, as well as plenty of cameras and even some police call buttons on telephone poles.

The building was small with a hair salon occupying the ground floor. We headed up, hoping that the apartment itself would not be a grand disappointment. Looking inside I was instantly pleased. Perhaps my standards had been lowered by the other places we’d visited, but I felt like the layout of the room, and the provided furniture was ample for my comfort. Although it is a “one room” the kitchen, bathroom, and balcony/laundry room all have doors. The main room had not only a bed but also a desk, dresser, armoire, and bookshelf. The only odd part was that the refrigerator lived in the main room instead of the kitchen. 

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moving day, it will never be this clean again

I was fairly sure I was not going to find anything significantly better, and my guides were starting to lose patience with me. I would not have settled for something that had problems just to wrap up earlier, but I didn’t feel the need to go on searching with the evening coming on.

Legal Paperwork

We headed back to the office to draw up the paperwork. In Korea, it’s standard to pay a 10% deposit on the day the contract is signed and then pay the remainder of the key money on the day of move in, which was going to be a huge help to me since I could then get my February paycheck in the bank before having to pay the large deposit. The agent was kind and patient and helpful the whole way through. Even when mistranslations popped up, she worked at it until we were all on the same page. Then she had myself and the building owner sign three copies of the lease (one for each of the three of us) and I transferred the deposit and her agent’s fee via my mobile app. No sooner were we back out on the street than my guides departed in a rush. I was left with the impression that they had expected this chore to take an hour or so at most and that they somewhat regretted having made the offer of help.

Screenshot_20180225-153443If I had to do this kind of thing again, knowing what I know now, I would have hired one of the professional expat aides. There are bilingual people here who hire out services not only as translators but to find things too. I think I would have been more comfortable discussing my exact needs with someone who was being paid to help me that I had been with someone who volunteered to help. Additionally, she might have been able to have a list of agents and apartments ready for me on the day we met in Gyeongju so there was less aimless wandering involved. Live and learn. This isn’t an ad. It’s the person I wish I’d called. In case you live here and need her, too.

Here to There

The only thing that remained was to get my crap from Busan to Gyeongju, about an hour away. I had not done any packing prior to getting the job offer because I didn’t know if I was going to be moving to a new place in Korea (taking most of my stuff with me) or moving to another country (reducing life to a maximum of 3 suitcases and a carry on). Once I knew I was going to Gyeongju, I thought of the idea of spending a day going back and forth with my 2 existing suitcases until everything was moved, but that would not work for my toaster oven and small shelves. My next choice was to hire a moving company. I knew that one of the other teachers had recently moved from Busan to Gyeongju and asked who she had used. It turned out not to be a company or anything, but just some guy with a van. She called him while we were waiting for the lease to be ready to sign and made arrangements for him to come and collect me and my things that Saturday.

20180223_194036.jpgMoving out of my place in Seomyeon wasn’t too hard. There was a garage so he was able to pull in and be quite near the elevator. We loaded my awkwardly packed boxes (which I had scavenged from the cardboard recycling piles of nearby apartment buildings) and headed off. It strikes me now that the things we take as normal are constantly changing, because I’m reasonably sure that if someone told me I would be in a minivan with a Korean guy I was paying in cash to move me and all my worldly possessions (pictured here) I would have at very least felt that was a sketchy situation, and yet, there I was, half listening to music in one earbud and half conversing with the mover in broken English. Totally normal.

He was a bit flustered that we had to stop off at the agent’s office first, but I had no access to the building yet. I had to make the final payment and get the door codes before we could unload the van. The agent was with another couple at the time we arrived so she offered us tea and we waited in the office while looking at a wall-sized map of the town and discussed the various historical parks. Finally we bustled over to the apartment where I had a rollicking rush of a time trying to get all the information about door codes, gas, electricity, heating, a/c, hot water, and other apartment amenities while trying to haul my boxes and suitcases from the main entryway and up the stairs to my new place. There was no one at all to help me translate that day, and while the driver did speak some English, he took off as soon as the van was empty.

Haphazards of Not Being Fluent

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I noticed at once that there didn’t seem to be any internet. As this was meant to be included in the price of rent, I was understandably concerned. Additionally, I could not seem to get the heater panel to work properly. It was decently warm that day, and I had a heating pad for the bed, but I knew I would need more than that. They tried to tell me that the phone jack was the internet port and I should simply plug my computer into it, and I’m like, no that’s the wrong kind of port. I know that ethernet cables and phone jacks look similar, but they are really not interchangeable. I had to show them an ethernet cable and the port on my computer before they got the point.

The agent wasn’t able to get the internet figured out, but I was told if I needed it urgently I could use the computer in the hair salon… which was… very… kind? But ultimately didn’t solve my desire to get online and stream shows. My phone kept me connected to email and social media, but a girl wants to unwind with some Netflix after a long stressful move. The agent did manage to get the heat on, but then we couldn’t seem to change the temperature at all. The apartment manager was busy and would be for several hours, so I was left on my own until then.

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A bit later, the manager (the owner’s wife I think) came by and tried to call her daughter to translate for us, but her daughter didn’t really speak English either, so things just got more confusing. Eventually, it came down to the fact that they had not installed a router prior to my arrival even though we had agreed on a move-in day, and that it was too late to do anything about it until Monday. I wondered idly if I would have been better off going a block up the road to the nearest mobile shop and buying a wifi egg, but I decided to try and stick it out. She fiddled some with the heater and it became obvious she had no idea how it worked either, and then she left.

I should be clear, I don’t expect the people here to speak English well (ok, maybe I expect my students to, but that’s my job). I know I live in a country where English is not the norm and I am ok with that. I was able to make my issues clear enough with my broken Korean and simply showing the agent and manager the problem. I don’t expect the world to cater to me in English, but I DO expect to have functional heating and other utilities included in my lease (and this one included internet). The language barrier just made that one step further into the absurd and frustrating.

The Internet of Life

Image result for when your internet comes backI did get internet on Monday, sort of. Some dudes showed up and plugged in a router. The whole internet thing works differently in the US than really anywhere else. In the US, cable guys show up and plug the router into a special cable port in the wall and then activate your internet through that, but the router is just a way to route info from the cable port to Ethernet or WiFi. In Saudi, it was literally just a box you plugged into the power outlet only. I could take the router from my office at school home on the weekends and use it to connect to the internet. In my apartment in Busan, it was wired directly into the wall in a very flimsy connection, but there was no port. Here, the router is apparently plugged into that phone jack they wanted me to plug my computer into in the first place. Maybe that’s why it’s crappy internet? I don’t really know.

I spent several hours fighting with it that Monday, however, trying to first set up the WiFi and a WiFi password since I did NOT want everyone in the building all up in my WiFi and the dudes who “installed” (took it out of the box and plugged it into the wall) also had no idea how to do that part. I was using my phone to look up expat blogs about the WiFi router to see if anyone could explain it in English. Finally, I found one, but I ended up having to go through the steps multiple times because the connection was so shabby and the websites kept timing out.

Again, it’s not so much that I expect my Korean router to come with English instructions as it is that I expect the two experts who came into my home to install it would know how to set up the wi-fi and password. That’s set-up guy stuff, right? Otherwise, why are there two of you in my house? I also read the Korean instructions and they did NOT contain the necessary information either. I suspect this is the cheapest company on the market.

Eventually, I got it set up and was all ready to go with my security and passwords and wifi, but then I realized it wasn’t strong enough to stream, which is about 90% of what I do with my computer at home. (I write at the office or in cafes). Thankfully, I purchased a loooong ethernet cable back in Japan when I was living in an apartment that only had wifi in the public rooms, but needed wires for the bedrooms. It’s a little awkward, but it works more often than not and I haven’t felt the need to throw the router out the window since that first day (at least, not more than once or twice).

The Mystery of Ondol Heating

The heater is still a bit of a mystery. I think there are some loose wires and that the reason we couldn’t move the temperature is simply that sometimes you have to push the button 10-20 times before it registers you’re trying to do something. I’ve thought about trying to take this up with the management to see if they’ll replace the panel, but I just haven’t had that much energy. I’m also working on understanding the mode which turns the hot water on without heating the whole room.

In Korea, apartments are heated by hot water in the floor (ondol). If you look that up, you get these great old images of fire heated homes. Related imageHowever, modern Korean homes do not rely on open flames for heating, and instead make the floor warm by means of pipes filled with hot water. The same hot water you use to bathe or wash dishes in. If you want a hot shower, you have to turn on the water heater, but if it’s not winter, you may not want to turn on the floor. Of course, all the buttons are done up in some kind of shorthand, so Translate is no help, and thus I’m back to exploring the wide world of longterm Korean expat blogs to see who was helpful enough to post the meanings.

Why am I not posting the meanings here, you ask? Because I’m less than 40% sure of my interpretation and I just can’t put out information that sketchy. Plus, every place has a different dang way of doing it. I left detailed instructions for the next person in my old apartment because I knew what all those buttons did after 2 years of living there. I still have no idea what the words next to the buttons were saying because of the whole shorthand issue, but at least I knew what they DID.

There are three lights on my new heating panel. I have so far figured out that one of them is everything is hot (floor, water, etc), and that one of them is hot water only, but I still have no idea what the third light is for. It seems to be an “away mode” that is designed to keep pipes from freezing in the winter if you’re gone, but I don’t know how that’s different from doing either of the other 2 modes and just setting the temp at something low. Hopefully, I’ll figure it out before I go on holiday next winter.

Home Sweet Home

However much I miss my floor to ceiling windows and two different places to sit in my last apartment, I am happy beyond reason to have a shower that is capable of both pressure and heat simultaneously and understands that there is a temperature range between scalding and freezing.

There isn’t a security guy downstairs 24/7, but the salon ladies are nice and there’s a code access to the stairwell and garage, so people can’t just wander in. I’ve had a few packages delivered and the postman has no trouble leaving them at my door, safe from the weather and the traffic.

In the meantime, I’ve visited Daiso to get a few extra doodads for the kitchen, I’ve moved the old tube style tv out to the balcony and converted the tv stand to a nightstand. It took a couple of weeks for me to make it all the way through the final boxes, but I have managed to decorate the room with all my little pretties so it feels more like “home” every day.

Have some more spring flowers from campus 🙂 And, as always, thanks for reading ❤

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EPIK in Review

At some point I realized that my EPIK Orientation post is one of the top 5 on this site and I thought, now that I’m leaving, it might be useful to some people to see what I learned about EPIK in the last 2 years. Like everything I write here, it is my experience and my story, not some definitive article, but it is my hope that my perspective can help a few of the hundreds of new EPIK recruits who enter Korea every February. It may seem a bit negative, but this isn’t a rag on EPIK post, it’s a look back: Things I experienced. Things I learned. Things I wish someone had told me. Things there were no way to know until they happened.

I’m not writing every good experience here because I’m trying to focus on things that I learned the hard way, that were not good surprises, or that could have made my life easier if I’d known sooner. And also because I wrote a lot of my good experiences as blog posts or Facebook updates or even Instagram photos while they were happening.

I chose to stay a second year. I think EPIK is a great opportunity. It’s generally agreed that with few exceptions the quality of job here in Korea for ESL teaching is 1) University, 2) EPIK, 3) Hagwon. EPIK offers reasonable working and teaching hours. It offers paid holiday leave on top of the national holidays that is 2-3x what hagwon teachers get (if they get any), and it offers paid sick leave which most hagwons also don’t offer. There’s far more of a support structure for newly arrived teachers as well. 4 stars: would recommend.


Public School in Korea

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Schools are graded: A-D, the A schools are the richest and best performing schools while the D are the poorest and lowest performing. The “good” news is that the Korean government seems to be interested in putting extra money into the lower grade schools, but there’s only so much the money can do.

Teachers don’t work for a school, they work for an office of education: Here in Busan, that’s BMOE. My contract is with them, and they get to decide what school(s) I work at in their district. But even Korean teachers are at the whim of the Office of Education within a structure. Korean teachers go to special teaching universities and pass rigorous exams to become teachers. Once they are placed with a district, they will stay there unless there is some extenuating reason to move and they apply for transfer. Korean teachers stay at a school for 3 years and then move to a new school in the district. Preference is given to teachers on a points system. Years of experience count toward their points, but they also get more points for a class D school than class A, so even younger teachers have a chance at getting a “good school” after they serve 3 years at a “bad school”.

No one bids to go to a class D school, which means working here I’ve been mostly surrounded by teachers who do not want to be here and are just biding their time until their 3 years are up and they can go back to a decent school. This is insanely discouraging for me, and I can only imagine how much more so for the students who have no choice. At best, I have a co-teacher who doesn’t want to be here, but out of a sense of duty will do her best while she is here. At worst, I have a co-teacher who complains about the students every day, who cancels class or ends early at any excuse, and who goes to her doctor to try and get medical leave for “stress” because the students are “just so awful”… spoilers, they’re not actually that bad.

In elementary (I can’t speak for middle and high, sorry) the students spend most of their time in “homeroom” where they learn most subjects from a single teacher. The homeroom teacher is almost exclusively responsible for discipline and is the only point of contact with parents. English teachers are “subject teachers” which means even the Korean English teachers are second class teachers, looked way down on by homeroom teachers, and generally given crap. Somehow, homeroom teachers don’t think subject teachers actually DO anything. Which is by and large a load of hooey, since subject teachers often have to do more lesson planning on a tighter schedule and are often assigned additional administrative tasks for the school.

The Principal Principle

main-qimg-84ba5eb5ec8a91c7ec0873bb8a036012-c-e1517966951546.jpgNot only are the schools massively different depending on if it’s A-D, elementary, middle, or high, all the schools have drastically different policies that come from the principal. Many of them will push to see how much extra work they can get you to do. You could try to force the letter of the contract (although it’s best to do that only as a very last resort because people will resent it), but it’s wiser to find culturally sensitive ways to stand up for yourself at work. Politeness will go a long way to smoothing the trail, but how you’re treated is going to be wildly different from everyone else in your intake because the principals make 70% of the rules, and the CTs make another 10-20%.

Your contract is very vague on school responsibilities. I personally found that I was expected to operate a “morning greeting” program 6 months of the year where I would stand at the school gates with some of the older students and make every student arriving read one English sentence form a signboard before proceeding to their homeroom. Other teachers have to run reading clubs. Some are required to participate in teacher volleyball, while I’ve never even been invited. This is all based on the principal and the CTs.

It depends on how your CT and principal get on with each other too! My first year CT had a great relationship with the principal. I’m fairly sure he thought she could do no wrong. She got away with all KINDS of stuff. But my principal does not like my second year head CT. He yells at her, embarrasses her in front of other staff, belittles her, and generally doesn’t trust her. Because of this, she’s far less willing to ask for things on my behalf (not because she doesn’t care about me, but because she doesn’t want to get yelled at by him), and he’s far more likely to jump down her throat if something isn’t done perfectly.

That first year head CT lost most of my intake paperwork. We still don’t know where my checklist for the apartment move in is. We had to redo several things. She filed my Korean tax exemption a year late… just, NOT good at paperwork. But now that I’m leaving, the principal is mad at the current head CT for not having these things, and is making her chase down the first year head CT to get her to sign new versions of 2 year old paperwork. That’s how much he likes one and hates the other. And it definitely impacts my experience at the school.

By the way, keep copies of everything for yourself, just in case.

Your Role as the Guest English Teacher

For myself and the other EPIK teachers I talk with regularly, the sense I got was “you’re not a real teacher”. Because all the Korean teachers went to a special university and are constantly undergoing training updates to be public school teachers, they are certified in a way you are not. Your basic job is to be an English speaker. A living recording. I felt far more like a department resource similar to a computer lab or library than I felt like a teacher. Eventually, my CTs came to realize I had actual skills and we did more collaborating, but I was lucky and it still took time and effort.

It all depends on your principal and your CT (co-teacher). English subject classes are run by a Korean teacher who may or may not actually speak English. They teach the English class alone when you aren’t there. They might plan all the lessons, or they might only plan lessons they teach without you. They might teach with you, or they might disappear on days you’re in their classroom (even though they legally aren’t allowed to do that for student safety reasons). I’ve personally had one CT who mostly liked to plan her own stuff, but close to half the time when she’d talk with me about it, she was open to changes I suggested. I had a CT who did all the planning and told me exactly what she wanted me to do. I’ve had a CT who wanted to plan and run the “lesson” portion but have me plan and run the “game” portions. And I’ve had a CT who didn’t seem to understand what lesson planning was at all, so I eventually just started telling her what I was going to do and letting her work around me.

I have friends who only speak as a kind of classroom demonstration and never run lessons themselves. I have friends who are expected to plan and run the second half of a lesson without attending the first half. I have friends who are expected to plan and run the entire lesson without the aid of their CT.

They cannot prepare you for this at orientation. They try, but it’s not going to really sink in until you’re doing it.

Remember, you are not their equal. You will never be treated as such. If you are temporarily made to feel like you are, there will come a time when you run into the wall of foreignerness and there will be times when, for better or worse, you know your role in this school system is purely for show.

Speaking of things being for show… a lot of what you, your CT, your students, and your school do are all for show. Most of orientation is for show, so that the schools can say their foreign teachers completed so many hours of training. Any activities you do beyond class are strictly for impressing parents or the school board.  You will have “open classes” where parents and the admin staff can attend, but those will be carefully orchestrated performances that bear little resemblance to a daily classroom experience. I had people from the school board come to my class twice during winter camp this year… to… see…. I’m still not sure.

That morning greeting thing I had to do? Solely so that parents would see my very white face smiling at their little ones every morning. We tried our best to make the sentences relevant to something they were doing in class, but I actually had to argue with the Vice-principal because she thought it would be better if I personally said “good morning” to every single student instead, and I couldn’t get her to understand how useless that would be because her focus was on how great it would look to see the foreigner talking with kids where their parents could see them rather than on the learning benefit to the students.

The Chain of Command

Respect flows in order from job title to age to nationality. You are pretty much at the bottom of this. (you’re lower down than the Koreans who are younger than you… ) You shouldn’t object, or say no, or in any way be direct about any negative feedback.  You get a little latitude because most of them know you don’t know the Korean WAY, but it’s easy to step on a cultural landmine or simply be confused as to why things are done this way.

Interruptions are going to be a way of life. In the authority structure of Korean work environments, when the boss says jump, you say how high from the air. They will not ask you to come see them when you finish what you’re doing, they will just expect you to stop whatever it is and attend. They will interrupt your conversations with other teachers, maybe for 20-30 minutes. Trying to talk about your lesson tomorrow? Well, if the Vice-principal calls your co-teacher, she’ll answer and pretend you don’t exist until the VP says goodbye, not even so much as a, “this could be a moment, sorry, I’ll let you know when I’m done.

I managed to have a conversation about this with my CT and while she can’t do much about the people above her, she has at least been willing to work with me so that if she calls me to talk about our next lesson and I’m working on something else, I can ask for a few minutes to get to a stopping point. But before we had this cultural heart to heart, we both felt disrespected. Her because as my supervisor, she expected Korean style obedience. Me because I feel like the only reason to not let an employee get to a natural stopping point while working on something is because they’re in deep trouble.

And yes, I did just say I argued with the Vice-principal. There is often a workaround for the foreign teachers, but I only talked with my CT’s bosses after talking to her and having her ask me to go to the Principal or Vice-principal myself. She did this in part because of the problems I mentioned earlier of her getting yelled at, and in part because she knew I could be more direct and get away with it. But please, don’t go around your CT or behind their back, as that is a recipe for disaster.

Your Co-Teacher and You

20170526_085942.jpgYour CT is the most important person to have a good relationship with at your school, and possibly in Korea. This is the difference between a good work life and a shitty one.

My first year here, I had an amazing head CT (except for paperwork, she was terrible at paperwork). She spoke excellent English, we loved the same books and TV shows, she was energetic and happy most of the time and she liked her classroom to be fun. She also liked to read books or do yoga in the afternoons, and generally did minimal lesson planning so she’d have more free time. She had been teaching English for ages, so that worked for her because she knew what she wanted to do already 80% of the time.

We chatted regularly, shared cookies and coffee in the afternoons, gossiped about K-pop stars or scandals in the news. And I had a lot of free time, too. Which was great. I taught 21 hours a week, and spent about 5 hours doing other class related work at my desk, and the other 14 hours a week in the office, I could work on personal stuff.

That first year, I didn’t always get on with my second CT. She was new, nervous, and very strict. But by the end of the first year we had worked most of that out and were doing ok.

I decided to stay a second year. I knew my primary CT was changing schools, but that secondary CT would become my handler and we already had a good working relationship. I knew the second year wouldn’t be the same, but I had no idea how much it would change.

Cue dramatic music.

Not only did I lose the fun CT, but I gained a second school. We’re office of education employees after all, and we have to go where they send us. In this case, they decided to split me between 2 schools, giving me a horrible schedule, increasing the number of students I spent time with, and decreasing the amount of time I spent with any given student. I need a job where I can have rapport with my students. Jobs where I can’t connect with my students are soul crushing to me… so this was a major disappointment. I’ve done my best to connect with the more than 300 students I see this year, but I don’t know most of their names, and I really only have any idea of the ability of the outliers (best and worst). It makes me feel like I can’t be an effective teacher, and then I remember that’s not really my job at EPIK.

Other than sheer overwhelming schedule nonsense, the second school was fine. The CT was new but she was young and energetic and very glad to have me because she knew I had experience teaching English and she did not.

Meanwhile, at my primary school, the new head CT was losing her shit because suddenly she was “in charge” and our entire co-worker dynamic was changing. Everything I thought we’d worked out and gotten comfortable with was suddenly quicksand because all that happened when she wasn’t my “boss”. I know I just laid out the hierarchy, but to me, she’s still not my boss… technically our CT is above us in rank, but I’m also older than her with more English teaching experience, and while I was happy to do as she was asking in most cases, I wasn’t down with the jumping part of the boss-worker relationship. So we had to go through a whole new series of fairly stressful bouts to find our work dynamic again. Which, by the way, is good now… it just sucked having to do it twice with the same person.

Remember when I said no one wants to work at a class D school? Well, that means all the new teaching staff we got in my second year didn’t want to be here. It was a penance because they were too low on the totem pole to get any of their top 10 choices. On top of that, when it came time for the staff to divvy up the jobs between homeroom and subject teachers, no one wanted to be the new English teacher either! One woman heard that subject teaching was easier than homeroom (remember that dirty rumor?) so she volunteered, and even though she could barely say 3 words of English, they gave her the job.

Also remember how I said all the teachers go to special universities with rigorus testing? Well, it hasn’t always been that way. It turns out that while nowadays teaching universities only accept the very best, back in the day they took the dregs. So depending on the age of your CT, they might have come from an era where academic proficiency was not required to become a teacher.

I went from a year of singing the lego theme song (everything is awesome!) to a year of crying at my desk at least one day a week. Because my CTs changed and I could not make it work. (Although, the nearly year long ordeal of two intractable root canal procedures that required dozens of trips to a variety of dentists and endodontic specialists could not have helped things)

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It took me about 9 months to finally get a plan for really dealing with her and it was “don’t deal with her”. Now I just make my materials and tell her what I’m going to do while I’m in her room. She doesn’t get a vote anymore. I’m not suggesting you handle a difficult CT this way. I think my case was extreme. At some point my head CT actually suggested that I simply not do anything for this problem teacher unless I was directly asked. I couldn’t bring myself to do that because I just cared about the kids too much. Because my head CT saw how hard I worked on finding a mutual solution, she eventually backed my decision to do it my way and appealed to the Vice-principal to select a different English teacher next year.

I’ve worked with 6 Korean co-teachers in the past 2 years and 5 of them were great. No it wasn’t all lollipops and rainbows, but the other 5 I could at least communicate with and they cared about the students and classes and me, so we could hash it out when things got rough.

You are stuck with your CTs. They are not going away until the school board sends one of you to another school, which only happens in March. 5/6 we cover for each other when one is sick (I mean, it’s Korea, so we still come to work, but the well one will pick up the slack so the sick one can do less). 5/6 I can ask for help with things outside of school (advice, translating, calling stores or doctors offices that don’t speak English, stuff they don’t have to do). 5/6 have my back with the students and the admin staff.

6 isn’t a lot either. I’ve never had more than 3 at a time, but I have friends who have had as many as 11 co-teachers at once. When I think about how different all my CTs are in teaching style and in what they want from me, I get a little dizzy at the idea of trying to do that across 11 people. But it happens.

Plus, you’re the only native speaker at your job, so you don’t get to have foreigner friends lunchtime like the hagwon teachers do, if you don’t enjoy your CTs company, it gets very lonely.

The experiences of myself and my friends at BMOE is not universal, though. Ask 2 EPIK teachers about their CTs and you’ll get 5 different descriptions.

I found this article written by a teacher in Korea who finds himself constantly abandoned by CTs and left alone in the classroom. I want to point out that is a) illegal because you as a foreigner are not certified to handle safety and discipline issues.  I asked my Office of Education about it, and while it’s ok for us to be alone with kids during camp time (and for the occasional few moments a CT might need to step out to deal with pressing issues), the children are required to be overseen by someone with the right certifications and that’s not us. b) the Koreans who are assigned English classes are being paid for the English classes, so if they ditch you, goof off on their phone, etc. they’re basically not working when they should be. It’s up to you if you want to complain or not, but at least now you know the rules.

Last Minute Everything

The schedule is never what it says it will be. Ever. You will be told about events when they happen, or if you’re lucky, the day before.

I joined the monthly dinner club my first year (teachers pay into a fund and then go to a nice restaurant as a group once a month). Most of the time I found out when that one day was the day before or morning of.

Classes can be moved or cancelled or rearranged with zero notice. I will sometimes walk into an empty classroom only to be told by the CT that class was moved to another time. There’s a school wide phone system, they could call, but they don’t. I was told today that the class I just finished was actually the last time I would see my 3rd graders because she decided not to have class next week after all. Now I don’t even get to say goodbye…

Planning your holidays can be rough. You can easily look up the federal holidays and I recommend you book any trips you want for things like Chuseok as soon as possible because all the Koreans booked that 3 years ago. But your school holidays are dependent on camp, and often the principal won’t decide when camp is going to be until a week or two before the end of the semester. You can ask them to, but there’s no way to force them. And if you buy plane tickets before your time off is set, you could be very disappointed.

Speaking of camp. You won’t know how many or what level students you get until about a week before go time. But you need a lesson plan and materials list way before that.

Desk Warming and Other Kiddie BS

20170303_082606There is an expectation in Korean culture about your body being at work = you are working. Public schools are actually better than private companies because most of the time the Korean staff can actually show up and leave at designated times instead of trying to beat the boss in and wait until the boss leaves to go. As the foreigner teacher, you have a strict time in and time out and if they ask you to do more they have to agree to OT. Don’t agree to stay late until you get that OT approved, because they WILL try to get you to “volunteer”, and according to your contract, if you volunteer, they don’t have to pay you more.

I have a friend who has been teaching more than her maximum 22 hours for 2 years because when she showed up, the Korean teachers told her “the last foreign teacher did it” and she didn’t stand up for herself. Public schools are infinitely better than hagwons about your hours and time, but it’s still important not to get taken advantage of. But also, don’t be totally stingy about a few extra minutes on occasion when you’re trying to finish some work for the next morning.

However, while you’re busy watching them to make sure you’re not overworked, they’re watching you to make sure you’re body is in that school every second they paid for. I know they mentioned desk warming in orientation, but it still drives us all crazy. It’s not just that I have to sit around when my work is done. Or that I have to come to school when there are no students. It’s that I have to sit around when there’s no heat or a/c AND no students… It’s that I’m not allowed to decide which of my two schools I’d like to be working at so when the internet is down during desk warming, I can’t go to the other place. Or if I have work to do at school A but I’m scheduled to desk warm at school B, I can’t change that to get my work done at school A…. it’s obstructive.

I also had to sign in and out during winter camp this year because my new VP thought I couldn’t be trusted to show up if a Korean teacher wasn’t there to see it… I know there are newbies out there who might try to take advantage and skive off, but after 2 years of being at the same school, it was insulting to be suddenly treated as untrustworthy.

Paid Time Off

20170126_081916Your holidays and sick leave aren’t exactly what you think they are. EPIK teachers get 11 sick days, and it says in your contract that for more than 3 days you need a doctor’s note. BUT. That actually means any non-consecutive 24 hours.

Unless your CT and principal don’t care… because that CT who was bad at paperwork my first year? Yeah, I only brought a sick note for my 5 day quarantine, and I was never asked for another one the rest of the year.

My second year with the more rules focused CT, I had a million dentist appointments for which I often left school only 1 hour early, but those added up and soon I was having to bring a note for every visit. Which also costs 3,000 won at the doctors office. On the other hand, one day I was actually too sick to get out of bed, I was told I could not use my sick time because I didn’t get a doctors note despite the fact that I had food poisoning and could barely drag myself to the bathroom, forget the hospital.

I explained later to my CT why I wasn’t able to go (no car, no family/friends to drive me, no ability to even call a taxi, and unwilling to call an ambulance for non-emergency illness because while the ER costs are low if they deem it necessary, if they think you’re wasting time, you get a bigger bill). She sympathized with me, and could tell how awful I still felt the day I returned to school, but there was nothing anyone could do, and I had to use a vacation day instead of a sick day.

Those doctor notes are only good for the day they are issued. Unless you have something like a surgery or a highly contagious flu, they can’t issue a multi-day note. So if you want to miss more than one day, be prepare to schlep back to the hospital every single day, or else not get paid time off. More than one teacher has gone to a doctor thinking that note will cover the duration of an illness and returned to work only to find they’re burning vacation days or not getting paid for the missed days.

The holidays are also restricted to use for summer and winter break, so unless your principal feels benevolent, there is no way you can make them give you time off during other studentless days. I originally wanted to use my winter vacation days to end early this February. There are no English classes in the last week of the school year and desk warming at the end of my contract when I had so many things to do to get ready to move my life seemed silly. I asked before winter break if I could be allowed to do this and was told flatly “no” because it wasn’t official holiday time. Even though I also was told I had to use a paid holiday for my sick day… outside of official holiday time. They said I could use the paid leave to have short days, but not full days off. Yet, it turns out, I’m actually taking the last two days of my final week completely off anyway. As circumstances changed, I have an appointment on that Thursday morning, and I think my principals finally decided it was a reasonable request to just have the last two days off rather than to try and juggle half days all week.

School Computers

The school computers are all awful. Get a VPN. I can only erratically access my Google Drive from school because of the network’s security features. Sometimes, I can’t even copy images off the internet which is bad when you’re trying to make a PowerPoint and need that clip art. Sometimes one program will only work with the VPN and another will only work without it, so I have to keep turning it off and on. One day Drive needs the VPN, but the next day it won’t work with the VPN on. Some days, I have to turn the VPN off and on again every few minutes because the school’s network keeps blocking me… I swear I’m not trying to watch porn, I’m usually just trying to get to a picture of a cat eating a hamburger.

They are also sloooooooowwww. Like dial up modem slow. Like, are you sure there’s not malware on this machine slow. It’s because they have so many redundant security programs running that it eats the processor speed to nothing. And they also never clean them out. The IT person is only at your school for one day a week, so it’s best if you can manage a minimum of your own tech support… change that windows desktop into English for a start. Basically, try not to run anything too demanding and be patient.

Everyone hates the messenger program. That penguin is a thing you will come to hate. You can turn it off, but then you miss messages from your CTs. Most of the time, I leave it on with the sound disabled (god it was hell before I got that fixed). Sometimes when I’m working on a thing where the pop-ups get in my way I turn it all the way off. I’ve also asked my CTs to verbally tell me if they send a message on this thing because I get a notification for every single all-staff message. I’ve gotten 3 while writing this paragraph. I ignore them. All of them are in Korean and most of them do not apply to you. Some teachers say we should try to copy and paste every message into translate because sometimes there is relevant information. That’s… true-ish. Information about school events that might include or affect you are there, and your CT might not think to tell you about them, but I think if you just talk with them and let them know the situation, you can work something out.

Culture Clash

20170422_204235There will be a lot of cultural misunderstandings. And just because one Korean person explains Korean culture a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s that way for every Korean. I mean, does everyone in your culture represent it the same way? If you feel confused or upset, try to find the specific reason for those feelings, and after you’re calm, ask to talk with your CT about it. Ask about the Korean perspective, and let them know your cultural perspective, not to try to get them to change, but so you can understand each other better and find something that works. One CT does not think a teacher should ever have their hands in their pockets in class. Another CT might have her hands in her pockets regularly. Is that Korean culture? No, but they might tell you it is.

Pick your battles. To me, hands in the pockets was just not that important, but being able to come to a natural stopping point in my work before shifting to another task was.

Remember it’s not about you. This seems obvious, but I have met some people who had a rough time with this idea. Yes, they brought you over from another country to expose their children to native English speaking and a little bit of cultural exchange, but it’s not a “teach your class about your country” kind of experience. Some of the kids I’ve been teaching for 2 years still can’t remember what country I’m from. It’s not personal, I know they love me, but it’s just not a priority for them at this point in their lives. It’s great if you get the chance to share things about your homeland, but it’s not why you’re here.

Not only are you expected to teach things in English that are familiar to your students (not to you), your CTs might not be interested either. Regardless of the innate interest of your students and CTs, the best thing you can do is be curious about Korea. Let them teach you about their language, culture and food. Show appreciation for it. My students love correcting my Korean and it makes them feel better about their English mistakes. They go wild when I use a K-pop star or popular Korean cartoon character in a PowerPoint. And my CTs are far more willing to listen to my cultural concerns if I demonstrate that I respect theirs first.

The Good Stuff

I’ve said a lot of scary stuff, but none of it was a deal breaker for me. In the past I’ve worked at places that were so much worse. Every hagwon teacher I’ve met here has a harder job than me with less vacation time and no sick time. But more than “it could be worse” there are a lot of things to like about working with EPIK.

22 teaching hours: At this point in my career, it’s pretty much my maximum because I believe we should have at least 1 hour of paid working time per hour of paid class time for things like lesson planning, materials prep, and student assessments. More if you’re looking to do career development, too. However, since most private academies ask teachers to do 30-35 teaching hours in a week, I appreciate how great that 22 hour limit really is. Also, it’s not 22 full hours. It’s 22 class hours. I have 4 class hours from 9am to 12:10pm… teacher math.

The good side of desk warming: even though we are forced to sit at these desks for hours of non-productive time, the good news is you’re never given “busy work”. If you’re done with your class prep/homework grading then the time is yours. You can take a nap (some schools have nap rooms for staff), Skype your friends, do yoga, go for a run on the school’s track (it’s generally ok to wander around the school, but best to tell your CT if you’re going somewhere other than the bathroom or your office), shop online, watch Netflix, play video-games, or like me, work on a blog.

Support structure: You are an employee of the Korean government. You are protected by the same workers rights laws as all other government employees here. That is AMAZING. You have at least one (probably more) co-teachers. They can be challenging sometimes, but they are also your best allies. I lost count of how many times I had to ask for fairly simple things, help with finding goods or services, help scheduling repairs for broken technology, help dealing with hospitals and companies that don’t speak English. Advice about Korea. Although the CTs are only required to help us with the things that directly apply to the job, most are willing to do more if you have a good relationship and show your appreciation for their extra effort. I see hagwon people on the Facebook page all the time asking for help because they can’t ask a Korean at their office. We can.

Cultural immersion: Hagwons tend to hire lots of foreigners together, so hagwon teachers see foreigners every day and can hang out between classes or at lunch or after work quite easily. EPIK teachers are the only foreigner at one or more schools. We spend all day entirely surrounded by Koreans. I found that I had to take an interest in Korean things just to have something to talk about at lunch. And yes, sometimes we sit at lunch and they talk rapid Korean and I get lost and tune out, but more than half of the time, I am included in the conversation. Plus, I can just go to my CT and chat. We can talk about classes, and students and lesson plans of course, but we can also talk about our lives and what’s going on in the world around us. It’s a much more involved job opportunity because you really have to work NOT to be exposed to the culture around you.

Paid leave: It’s really good. I mean, university is still better, but EPIK is better than any job in the US. EPIK teachers start with 18 paid holidays and get more if they stay longer than a year. I managed to have a 10 day trip to New Zealand and a 12 day trip to the Malay Peninsula my first year (weekends). Tell me another job you can afford to take two international holidays a year? Plus, there’s a lot of national holidays that give you long weekends when the tour groups run extra trips because they know all the expats are free.

Enforced savings: You pay into the pension plan every month and that’s employer matched. Most countries have an agreement with Korea that allows foreigners to cash in that pension fund when they leave Korea. Plus, severance pay is national law here now, so for every 1 year of work you do, you are entitled to a month’s pay in severance when you leave that company. So even when I do a bad job of saving from my paycheck (no one’s perfect) I’m still getting a little nest egg for every year I’m here. It’s not enough to build a retirement plan on, but it’s nice.

Healthcare: The only people who complain here are Canadians because they are spoiled people who pay nothing to see a doctor. The rest of us are blown away by the high quality and low cost of healthcare. As government employees, we’re on the national plan. But even services that aren’t covered are often far more reasonably priced than in our home countries. I’ve been able to get LASIK and take care of some normally costly dental work here, and I’ve got a list of other minor things I want to take care of next year because I can afford it here but not in the US.

Tiny Koreans: no, it’s not an Asian height joke, I’m talking about the kids. The only thing that can reliably cut through any amount of frustration or culture shock depression any day is the genuine enthusiasm of my students when they see me. I know that I’m extra lucky because I have friends who work at schools and academies that cater to spoiled rich kids and I hear the horror stories. But my kiddos are kind to me. They smile when they see me in the halls or on the streets near the school. They wave. They want hi fives. They are curious and want to share. And their joy is just contagious. I can be having the worst day, but I still smile when I see them smile. They can make me feel like a rock star, and I hope I can do the same for them.

Korea in General

korea-travel-landmarks-vector-illustration-57253225Most of this is EPIK specific, but that “K” does stand for Korea, so…

Shopping: Get into that online delivery as fast as you can. G-market, yogiyo, iherb. Love them. On the ground, basic needs shops are Home Plus, E-mart, and Daiso. Buy things from people on the street. For the love of god, the produce and (at least here in Busan) fresh seafood is much cheaper from the street vendors than any store. Even my Korean coworkers are amazed by the deals I get on fresh seasonal fruit because I am willing to buy it out of the back of a truck.

Pharmacies are only for direct health needs. Not everything needs a prescription, but you will have to ask the pharmacist for what you need because it’s not out on the shelves. From cold medicine to band-aids to hand sanitizer. It’s at the pharmacy. If you don’t know the Korean, ask your CT, use a translating app, or just show a picture of what you need to the pharmacist on your phone.

You can get most of what you need here. Most common medicines (check your prescriptions, and don’t assume they have your favorite birth control options, I had to go to Thailand for mine), hair and skin care, cosmetics, shaving and styling. Easy to find many options. What’s hard to find?

  • There is no toothpaste with fluoride. I don’t know why, the Koreans are obsessed with dental care but don’t use fluoride. You can get it on iherb.
  • They also don’t use deodorant. I did read a study that says they don’t as an ethnic group have as smelly sweat as other ethnic groups… this is mostly true, although I do still run into the occasional case of BO in the hot weather. Beauty shops are the places to find the few brands that exist here, but most expats just bring in a case when they go on holiday or buy it from iherb.
  • Tampons are… just, hard to find. Mostly at Costco, Home Plus, or E-Mart. Pads are easy and in most neighborhood shops.
  • Plus size clothing (both genders, worse for women) and large shoes. I sometimes buy men’s shoes because I’m the largest size ladies shoes are made here. A few places carry larger sizes in store, but online options are easier, and a lot of cities have clothing swaps among the expats to refresh a wardrobe. I have found that bras, underwear, and jeans are the most challenging (read, have never successfully bought in Korea) but everything else is workable.

Socializing: Join the Facebook group for your city. Go to events. Go on tour groups (I like Enjoy Korea best). Go places on your own, the intercity train and bus system is great and cheap. Go to all the festivals. Talk to Koreans. Do not be one of those people who only works and drinks. I mean, if that’s all you want out of life, I can’t stop you, but Korea is amazing and I really feel bad for the people who come here and never experience anything but their school and local expat bar.

Bank/Phone: KEB Hana bank. No really. As my FB admin says, “the least worst option”. Banking here is hard. Make sure your debit card is set for international use (sooooo many people ask every month, “why can’t I use my Korean bank card on my vacation in Bali?”), just ask for the international option when you open the account. You can also get your debit card to act as a bus/subway pass if you ask for it.

You can read more about my experiences with KEB/Hana here.

Make sure your phone can do international SIM cards AND Korean SIM cards… I don’t know if I just had a bad translation, but I think I almost ended up with a phone that would do only one of those things and I had to explain a few times that I live in Korea and vacation abroad,so I need both to work. They got it eventually.

Learn some Korean. Learn to READ at least. You don’t need to be fluent but this will make your life easier. Talk to Me in Korean and Duolingo are my favs that are free.

Google then ask. Foreigners have been moving here in droves every year for a while. It’s an annual migration and they all have the same problems, questions and concerns. Chances are, someone, somewhere has asked before you and had the question answered. As much as experienced expats do like helping the newly arrived, we hate answering the same 5 questions over and over. You will be mocked if you ask a question with an easily Google-able answer. Older expats are not a service you are entitled to, they are helping because they want to, so put in a little effort to show you’re trying and not just lazily hoping someone on Facebook will do it all for you. That said, if you can’t find the answer, DO ASK because someone here knows. I don’t know how it is in other cities, but the Busan expat community is very connected and helpful. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel or figure everything out on your own.

Is It Worth It?

Hell yes.

20170526_100631.jpgI know I wrote some discouraging words, but trust me I’ve written far more about my wonderful experiences here. Korea, like every country on earth, is not perfect, but it’s got a lot going for it, and EPIK public school teaching is a great way to get to experience it all. I hope those of you reading this looking for advice or in anticipation of your upcoming trip to Korea will learn from my experiences, good and bad, and make your own great adventures in the upcoming school years.

If you’re feeling apprehensive about your EPIK experience, just go take a look at all of the wonderful things I’ve shared in the last two years in this remarkable little country.

First Week at EPIK

Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival 2016 & 2017

Holi Hai, Sailing, first Norebang, Canola Flower Festival

Best desserts & Samgwangsa Lanterns

Taean Tulip Festival

Sand Sculpture Festival 2016 & 2017

PRIDE: Seoul 2016, Seoul 2017, Busan 2017

Boryeong Mud Festival 2016

Busan Tower, Yongdusan Park, UN Memorial, Dadaepo Fountain, Sulbing, Beomeosa Temple, Jinju Lantern Festival

Jeju Island

DMZ & Seoraksan

Boseong Tea Fields (winter), NYE at Yongdusan Park

Daegu Flying Lanterns

Boseong Tea Fields (spring) & Jindo Sea Parting Festival

Gamcheon Culture Village

Gaya Theme Park

Nami Island & Garden of the Morning Calm (winter)

Hwacheon Ice Fishing Festival


I hope this gives some insight into the nitty gritty of being an EPIK teacher. Of all the things I learned while writing this, the biggest one is that no two EPIK teachers have the same experience. I advise you to read as many blogs and watch as many Youtube videos about this as you can if this is something you are planning to do because one perspective, no matter how detailed, is incapable of covering all the possibilities. Above all, when you come to Korea, keep an open heart and an open mind. You will face challenges, but if you persevere, you will have wild and joyful adventures as well.

Hello Bohol: Firsts and Lasts

This post is a collection of tales of how I came to spend 9 days in Bohol, and of my first and last impressions of the country. I warned you that this holiday would not be presented in chronological order, and how much more out of order can you get than putting the first evening and last morning together? Read on to find out more about Korean holidays, Philippine toilets, a little about tipping culture, and a little about human kindness.


What Am I Doing Here?

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Image Credit: Haps Magazine

What made me think it was a good idea to take a 9 pm flight on a Friday before a major holiday? Considering I bought the plane tickets back in early May, I don’t have a clear recognition of that decision making process, but I’m sure it had to do with some combination of maximizing vacation time and minimizing price/layover time. Regardless of why I made the decision at the time, when the day arrived and I stood outside in the dark waiting on the limousine bus to the airport at a time of the week I’m usually in my PJ’s with a glass of wine recovering from the school week, I asked myself this question.

When I arrived at Gimhae airport to find it more full of humans than I’ve ever seen it before, the line for my check in counter already stretched across the large room, and the flight itself delayed by an hour, I asked myself again. One day, we’ll invent teleporters, or I’ll finally steal a TARDIS, but until then, airports are the necessary evil I face to enjoy the world.

The Big Holiday Gets Bigger

It was Chuseok again in Korea, that wacky lunar fall holiday that moves around more than Easter, but is a bigger deal than Christmas. Last year, you may recall, I took a 5 day weekend in early September down to Jeju, the “Hawaii of Korea” because Chuseok fell on a Wednesday-Saturday, and I also had no idea it was coming until it was almost here, so no real time to plan a getaway (thanks Enjoy Korea for saving me there). This year, Chuseok is in early October, and because of magical lunar calendars, the timing for no work days was awesome. The actual holiday was Tuesday-Friday, but many businesses (including my school) decided not to bother opening on the Monday before. Plus, the Monday after was October 9th, a controversial holiday in the US (I prefer “Indigenous People’s Day” to that other dude), and Canadian Thanksgiving this year also, in Korea, it was Hangeul Day, the day we celebrate the creation of the Korean phonetic writing system that freed them from the complex Chinese writing system and enabled the country to become super-literate. To save you the arithmetic, that’s 10 straight days of not working.

Choose Your Own Adventure

I wanted at first to go back to Koh Lipe, but the island is closed this part of the year due to the weather. *sigh. I pulled up my new favorite flight searching website, as well as several old standbys to see what the cheapest fares to the most interesting places were during my window of opportunity. It turns out that even though I started looking as early as April, most Koreans had been looking since last Chuseok, and the prices were already 2-4x what they normally would be for every destination. It’s also the “rainy season” in all of SE Asia, so trying to pick someplace I wouldn’t simply drown in a monsoon was on my mind. Finally, I settled on going to the Philippines, to the island of Bohol, and the even smaller island of Panglao.

I chose this destination for a combination of 1) ticket price, 2) new country experience, 3) recommended by a friend who lives in Manila, 4) Bohol is surrounded by larger islands, so I hoped they would serve as a weather break to protect me from the worst of any ocean going storms, 5) it’s not a total tourist resort yet. But first, I had to stop over in…

Manila

My flight landed in Manila around 1am. There were huge lines for immigration, and although I had no bags to collect, it still took me a while to navigate the terminal to find customs (no one even looked at me as I breezed through, let alone checked my paperwork or bags), and then to find the only open SIM card vendor at 2am. They gave us vouchers on the flight for a free SIM and I knew that I could try to get one in the morning on my way out of Manila, but when I found a lone agent manning a tiny booth outside the taxi pick up, I joined the short line and paid up for a working data connection. My lifeblood restored, I went off in search of my ride.

I had a 9 hour layover in Manila, which became an 8 hour layover when the flight was delayed, and then 7 because I didn’t get out of the airport until 2am… you see how this is going. But at the time I booked the tickets I did not relish spending 9 hours in a mostly closed airport with unknown facilities (just as well, since the Manila airport is severely lacking in comfort and entertainment even during operating hours, and it was positively barren overnight). While searching for options to rest my feet during the break I found a little hostel right next to the airport that clearly decided to make a business of the long Manila layovers.

Jorvim Apartelle arranged an airport shuttle, a comfortable room (shared bathrooms), working AC, and a fresh breakfast before the return shuttle as part of their package deal. Maybe I could have paid less by doing it all piecemeal, but it was worth it not to have to hunt down a taxi at 2am or worry about feeding myself at 6am. It wasn’t a long nap, but I was horizontal and cool and I awoke much refreshed. Breakfast was a simple egg, fried slice of spam and scoop of rice with Nescafe on the side, but it enough to be getting on with, and the driver made sure we all got to the airport in time to go through all the security.

Oh the security. Manila is going through some weird stuff politically, which I’ll get into later, but I’m assuming that is part of the security set up at the airport. While customs had seemed wholly unconcerned with what I brought into Manila, once I was going on to another port, I had to pass through a gauntlet of x-ray machines. Simply to enter the terminal, one must pass through bag x-rays and metal detectors. I didn’t have to stand in line to check in since I already had my boarding pass, but to get to the gates, I had to pass another screening. I’m not sure what they thought we might put in our bags or pockets between the front door and the boarding gates, but there it was.

For a major international airport, the Manila airport is pokey. At first I thought it was just because I was on a domestic flight, but my wait in the international terminal on the way out was not much better. I went to get an iced coffee, only to discover that this just meant nescafe over ice… and it tasted awful. The first time it was so sweet I felt I was drinking sugar syrup, when I went back and reminded them I’d asked for no sugar, I got something that sort of tasted like a mix of coffee and chalk. It seems that the Starbucks invasion of the Philippines hasn’t reached the airport yet. It did not bode well for my coffee prospects on holiday, but I consoled myself with the idea of beach drinks instead while I discreetly tipped my cup in the bin.

Tagbilaran

When we left Manila, I stared out the plane window at the bustling city, tall buildings and concrete from one coast to the other with little spots of green here and there. When we flew in over Bohol, it seemed the opposite was true. Not a single high rise building or city-like cluster tainted the green below us. I could see the rolling dark green of mountains and the brighter green of farm land.

As we got closer, I could make out palm trees and rice fields, and the Chocolate Hills that are the most famous land feature of the island. The water we passed over was so clear and shallow I could see the outlines of the reefs from the air. I began to seriously wonder about the “city” we were supposed to land in as we passed over more and more jungle broken up with the occasional road or group of houses.

When we finally landed in Tagbilaran, the entire airport was a single building that was smaller than the hostel I’d stayed in in Manila. The runway was short and the tarmac could not have accommodated more than one plane at a time. We disembarked via stairs and walked to the terminal a few yards away while bags were unloaded onto carts. There was a small luggage carousel in the building, but to be honest, I’m not sure why. The flight was so small it seemed like it might have been easier to simply let passengers claim bags as they came off the plane rather than use the tiny moving circle inside.

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A Word About the Bathrooms

Because my hotel at least 30 minutes away, I stood in line for the restroom in the airport, only to discover that Philippine toilets don’t come with seats… They weren’t Asian style squatters, they just looked like Western toilets without a seat. I thought maybe it was broken, but I saw many more like this any time we were in a very Filipino place, so I’m thinking it’s normal there. Plus, the first non-Muslim country I’ve seen the hose regularly installed. Toilet culture.

I found a decent article later on about the bathroom situation in the Philippines. I think it’s gotten better in the last 9 years since the blogger wrote this, but some of it is still true. Even in Bohol, most of the places “for tourists” had toilet seats. Many had paper (although still best to throw that in the trash and not the bowl). But when I did go to a less touristy area, I was greeted with seatless bowls, flushless toilets (like the ones in Koh Lipe that had to have water poured down them), and either the Arabic style hose or the Philippine traditional tabo (bucket and ladle) for cleaning. I’m reasonably open to doing things like the locals, but I still bring my own paper when I’m touring in case of emergency.

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Image Credit: markblackard.com

Finding Food on Foot

The hotel I’d chosen was only a couple km from the most famous Alona Beach, but far enough away to be much cheaper while still being quite nice. There were animals everywhere. Goats, cows, dogs, chickens… and I could hear the roosters from my room, but they weren’t too loud inside so I didn’t think it would be a problem to sleep through them. Once I got in and had a little look around, I asked my hostess, Becca where to get some food.

Becca is the best, by the way. I seriously recommend everyone who wants to go to Panglao go to Imagine Bohol and stay with her, because she is wonderfully attentive, speaks great English, and will recommend or arrange anything you’re looking for.

20170930_113725There were no food delivery options nor any restaurants in walking distance and although it was my plan to rent a motor bike (scooter) for the week, I was waiting until my travel companion arrived on a her flight 4 hours behind me so we could handle both rentals at once. However, my breakfast had been a long time ago, and I needed something to quiet the growling tummy. As we reviewed our options, she mentioned hesitantly that there was a small convenience store just down the street where I could get some ramen. Done! She said she’d show me where it was and I expected it to be hidden or at least farther, but when we got to the gate of the hotel drive, she pointed at a sign barely down the street, less than 2 minutes walk.

I headed over, meandering my way, taking in the flowers and greenery on the side of the road as well as playing a short game of peekaboo with a shy child hiding behind a tree. A man came out from a house and began to purposfully cut small branches from a tree, but he was collecting them, not discarding them, so I assumed it was not merely pruning. I asked him what the tree was and he replied “mulungway”. “What’s that?” I asked, not yet understanding how strange a question it must have seemed to him. However, his English was not up to the task and he simply said, “for eating”. I didn’t recognize the tree and vowed to look it up when I got back to the room, but sadly I had forgotten it by then and didn’t hear it again for several days.

The convenience store folks were surprised to see me, and were endlessly helpful as I bumbled around the tiny aisles looking for lunch. I ended up with cup noodles, an egg, and an ice cream cone. As I was paying, the ladies wished me farewell, and I said, oh, you’ll probably see me again since I’m staying right down the street. This seemed to make them happy and we chatted some more before I finally left.

I had heard from other travelers how friendly the Filipino people are, but I was starting to understand that it was not actually an exaggeration. I mean, I like talking to locals everywhere I go, and usually I find kind and helpful people and have good experiences, but dang if every single school kid didn’t break into a grin and wave and say hello when I passed by. Leaving tourist spaces can be scary, but I think in Panglao is well worth it.

Leapin’ Lizzards

20171005_182724As the sun set, the lizards came out, and when I went back to the room, I was greeted on the porch by a gecko. It was maybe 6 inches long, not huge, but so unexpected I let out a little yelp, and Becca sent someone to save me. I insisted they did not need to shoo the little lizard away with a broom, but Becca said sometimes they bite. She also pointed out the tiny 1-2 inch lizards elsewhere that were totally safe. I asked if the gecko was poisonous, but it’s not, and it wasn’t even slightly aggressive, but I still kept a distance from the others I saw so as not to add gecko bite to my list of minor travel injuries.

Grateful Farewell

The last morning of vacation, it was time to settle our account with Becca, the hostess with the mostest at our little apartelle. Like most places in Bohol, they only take cash, and she’d been careful to politely remind us the day before in case we needed to get to an ATM. Tipping culture in the Philippines is not yet standard, but I’d read up a bit before coming, and I’d seen many things I’d read confirmed. Fancy restaurants tended to add a 10% tip into the bill, most places didn’t expect a tip but were happy to get one. Tips are still expressions of gratitude there, and so when we felt we were treated especially well, we left a special tip, and if we felt the service was adequate, we left 10% (often included) at fancy places, and not at all in “regular” places. But when it came to the hotel we were both in agreement that Becca and her staff deserved more, and to be honest, it wasn’t a very expensive hotel to begin with, so 20% was still only about 40$. I don’t know if that seems big or small to you. I’ve never stayed in one hotel for 9 days before. I’ve left tips for housekeeping before, but usually only when I made a mess or when they did extra work for me. But Becca was so gracious, always there for us, making sure we had everything we needed, the apartment was cleaned up every day, fresh towels and sheets, she arranged our motorbike rentals (at a much better rate than other places around the island), scheduled our firefly tour, recommended beaches and restaurants and was just generally a fantastic part of the holiday.

I took our rent and her tip bundled together and brought it to her room in the morning, letting her know that the extra money was for her, and not waiting around for her to count it before heading back to finish packing up. A few minutes later she came by our room to see if we’d made a mistake. This is I think the most amazing insane part of this story. We gave her 20%, like I said about 40$US in tip. I can almost imagine someone questioning a mistake if we’d given her hundreds, but in the grand scheme of my life, 40$ (or really 20$ from 2 people) is not that much even to loose accidentally. But she was so honest that she came back to see if we gave her too much money by mistake. No, I told her, you’ve done so much to help us and make us feel welcome and cared for, this is our way to say thank you.

She teared up. Actual tears in her eyes, and she asked if she could give us hugs and told us we had been such wonderful guests. It blew my mind a little bit that such simple things as appreciating her with words and a small gift meant so much. This was obviously not an everyday occurrence in her life at the hotel and it struck me not for the first time how the people here are treated simply because of the reputation of their country as a source of cheap labor and maids.

I hope in some small way that sharing my experiences of Bohol and it’s people can help paint the Filipino people as a caring, friendly, generous and worthwhile group of people who deserve the same respect and courtesy as all of us no matter what their job is. A little kindness goes a long way here, so spread it around.

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The weather in Busan is decidedly cold these days, and the mountain outside my window has turned from green to russet as the trees change for autumn. I’m still pressing though a monumental amount of healthcare. It turns out that suddenly having access to good and affordable care means you actually go. I’m totally fine, I’m just a dental and medical anomaly and require more specialists than the average bear. Despite this drain on my time and energy, I try to stay grateful that I’m doing this here and not in some country with totally inadequate health insurance plans. Hopefully by January I’ll be able to do some kind of adventuring again. Stay tuned for more tales from Bohol as I get my first (and only) motorcycle lesson, and the wonderful freedom and unique experiences that came with this new mode of transportation in our next installment: My Own Two Wheels. Thanks for reading! ❤

Marching Forward in Busan

Last weekend, the city of Busan, South Korea had it’s very first Pride march. Although the capital city of Seoul has been having LGBTQIA+ events since 2000, it’s been a little slow to spread beyond the dense urban hub of Korean counter culture. Korea did not get a second city to participate in this part of the civil rights movement until Daegu joined in 2009. And after another 8 years, Busan has become the third Korean city to host a Queer Pride event.

Of course, since Busan has been my home for the last 18 months, I had to go. I knew it was going to be much smaller than the events I attended in Seoul over the last 2 summers, but it was still exciting to imagine being part of a historical first. 


The Run Up

21458019_1738461163115256_947757470217525866_o.pngIn the weeks leading up to the event, Facebook groups circulated ads, support, rumors and questions as it became murky as to whether the festival’s organizers were in fact granted the required permits to host vendors, performers and the ever important march through the crowded streets of Haeundae. There was some fear that the vendors would be denied a permit and a rallying cry for them to show up anyway and risk arrest for the cause. (Thankfully, that didn’t seem to be necessary).

And as news of the event spread, the inevitable groups of Christian fundamentalists tried to demand the government to deny permission, and worked to organize a mass counter-protest movement. Police released a statement to the media advising that plenty of officers would be on site to make sure that no violence ensued.

I think it’s important to note that these Christians really are counter-protesters, because here in Korea, there are no gay rights, and so the queer community are actually doing the original protest against the current government and social policies that exclude and endanger them. The Christian groups just want to maintain the status quo (or even it roll back to make homosexuality illegal again.)

Solidarity on the Subway

It’s about a 45 minute subway ride from my house to the beach where the festival was to be held, and while I was killing time scrolling through Facebook, I happened to look up and notice a very genderfluid individual standing nearby with a “LGBTQIA Rights Are Human Rights” bag. I caught their eye and smiled, pointing to the bag and giving a big thumbs up before tapping my own rainbow pin. Their eyes lit up as they asked in thick Korean phonemes, “pride?” (pu-rai-du). I nodded, still smiling and we had a high five.

I can only imagine the courage it took to get on the subway sporting such a mix of gender role presentation. They were a little chubby (which is already almost a sin in Korea), wearing just black shorts and a hoodie with white trainers. They had short hair and glasses, but beautifully done makeup. Gender roles are enforced hardcore in Korea, so it must have been a little scary to leave the house and know that you still might be harassed on your way to the only event in town where you can be yourself.

Although we both went back to scrolling our phones after the high five, we did happen to look up at the same time once or twice more on the long ride and shared big grins every time we made eye contact. Although I saw many more flamboyantly dressed Koreans at the event, I am fairly sure they didn’t ride a subway in their Pride outfits.

The Vendors

Haeundae is the most famous beach in Busan and while the festival didn’t get to set up right on the beach, the main stage was just inland of the waterfront road. We arrived a little early with plans to get some brunch before checking the booths, but ended up walking through the tent area anyway. It was significantly smaller than Seoul’s event, and I’d venture to say that at least half of the booths were dedicated folks who came down from Seoul to support the Busan march, but hey, you gotta start somewhere.

20170923_132553We passed booths promoting awareness, selling pride pins, flags, t-shirts, art and books. We bought a few small things, more to support the vendors than anything else. One booth was just for birth control awareness, which is a major issue in Korea since it is still very stigmatized and difficult for women to use it regularly without facing harsh judgement from friends, family and even medical professionals.

One booth was allowing people to make their own buttons and taking pictures of the results. The majority of the volunteers there were middle aged people who didn’t quite know all the colors and symbols, but every time they saw something new they would ask about it and try to learn. It was heartwarming to see the older generation not only involved in promoting LGBTQIA rights in Korea, but genuinely interested in learning all the jargon and labeling that can seem so foreign to allies, but is so vital to people struggling with identity.

The Protesters

20170923_131018.jpgWhile the booth selection was not as big as the Seoul event, the protesters weren’t as bad as their Seoul counterparts. There were far fewer of them, and they didn’t have any giant trailers with loudspeakers or competing musical performances. Most of them simply held their signs quietly. A few shouted slogans, but the only one shouted at me was “Jesus is love” which is not bad as protest slogans go… I mean, really it’s the same reason why enlightened Christians think marriage equality is right… love is love, man.

On the other hand, I’m slightly perverse from time to time, and so I chanted back to her “Buddha is love”… because I’ve had just about all the conversion talks I need for the next few lifetimes.

20170923_131053.jpgWhen the sign wavers got too close, the police gently moved them back. There was no force or violence, but the police would form a blockade and firmly move the problem folks back out of range. One man was so transported by his prayer, he knelt as close to the event as he could get, clutching his sign and praying feverishly, eyes screwed shut and knuckles white.

Many of the Christian counter-protesters hid their faces, although it’s unclear if this was some kind of copying of Antifa, or an actual desire to hide their identity for fear of … I’m really not sure what, or if they’re just that breed of middle aged Korean person that wears a face mask and sunglasses and big hat any time they go outside when it’s even a little sunny. Because that happens too.

The March

It hardly took us any time at all to finish exploring the booths, and we had a couple hours to kill before the march was scheduled to begin, so we hopped over a block or two to have a rest in a friend’s apartment. We came back around parade start time, expecting it to be a little late, honestly, and we couldn’t find it anywhere!

20170923_163214.jpgFrantically trying to IM another friend in the parade to figure out which way to go, we walked up and down the street lined with protesters holding signs about sin and Jesus and homosexuals out out out. When the marchers finally arrived, we found ourselves on the wrong side of the police line! We stood among the protesters who waved their fists and signs and chanted their message of opposition. From this vantage point we saw the giant rainbow flag at the head of the procession and we cheered as loud as we could to drown the voices of those around us and support the marchers we had been unable to join in time.

20170923_163257.jpgAs the parade moved closer to us, the police moved the line of protesters further and further back to prevent clashes. We pointed somewhat frantically at our own rainbow pins and flags as we asked the officers if we could cross the line and join the group inside. Finally, realizing we were not a threat, they let us through and we joined the group of hundreds (possibly thousands) dancing and singing along to the K-Pop blaring from the backs of the trucks that had lead them on the brief march around the block.

20170923_163316I’m not sure what the actual parade route was, but I know it must have been short for it was scheduled to start at 4, and was more or less over by 4:30. By 4:45 everyone had dissipated and the plaza was being swiftly converted for whatever event had reserved the space for the evening hours. I also cannot report on the turn out at this time, as there has not been any English language media follow-up reporting on the numbers of attendees, counter-protesters, or police. If I get some information later, I’ll update it here.

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The Sights

TBH, I fell off the photojournalism ladder that day. There was no “press booth” and I felt a bit uncomfortable running around snapping pics without credentials. I try to use my own photos when I can, but I highly recommend viewing the photo album on the Busan Pride Facebook page, because they had a wonderful professional photographer and it’s a great collection of images. These are a few more of my photos below.

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The Issues

In countries where gay rights are protected by law, Pride is more a celebration, or a victory march. However, in places where the people are still fighting for equality under the law, it’s more a mix of celebration and protest. Pride events in Korea are festive, no doubt. It’s one of the few times when queer folk can come out in the light of day and BE. There is art, and music, and hugs and laughter, and singing and dancing with K-Pop and sparkly costumes. But alongside this joy, there are some very serious issues that can affect the life and livelihood of the people impacted by them.

The Busan Pride festival coincided with international Bisexual Awareness Day (September 23), and it did not go unnoticed. Although flags and emblems for most if not all gender/sexual identities made an appearance at least once somewhere at the event, the pink, purple, and blue of the bisexual flag was clearly the dominant color scheme (competing even with the rainbow itself for top billing).

I don’t really know how bi-phobia and bi-erasure stack up as issues in South Korea. I know in many places, bi people suffer exclusion from both hetero and queer communities because they won’t “pick a side” (I cannot roll my eyes hard enough). I actually had a bisexual male friend of mine tell me the other day he doesn’t know that many women who like women, and I was like… uh, we’re friends with all these same people, right? Yes you do! But bi women have become hesitant to talk about it for fear of being “not queer enough” or of being fetishized by dudes who want threesomes (gak).

Look, really, the point is, if someone tells you that they identify as bi, or ace, or pan, or agender, or non-binary… or any one of the list of other sexual/gender identities that seem to be perceived as fictional… just believe them. It’s not hurting you to let them be themselves but it sure as heck hurts them when friends and family tell them they are wrong or worse, lying.

The other hot issue for LGBTQIA rights in Korea this year is the military shenanigans. I talked about this a bit in my post about Seoul Pride, but it’s still going on. Recap: Military participation is mandatory for all men in Korea (maybe barring serious illness/disability). Being gay while in the military is a criminal offense punishable by up to 2 years in prison. Some dingo’s kidney of a military leader decided to use Grindr and/or some other hookup apps to trap some young servicemen and they are now in jail. The UN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Military Human Rights Centre for Korea are pissed off and calling this a human rights violation.

I found an article that says the Korean government may be looking into possibly maybe changing the policy in response to UN and international pressure, or they could just be preparing to double down on their anti-gay policy. To be clear, there is NO WAY for young gay men to avoid this. Service is not optional. However much I may disdain a ban on gays in a military (*cough*Trumpisanassholeforthetransban*cough*), at least in countries like the US, they can simply choose not to join. It’s still discriminatory, but not actually entrapping. Korean men do not have a choice on military service and we all know, sexuality is not a choice either.

I’m sure with Trump and Kim going at it like schoolyard bullies, most of the concerns of the world with respect to Korea are about nuclear annihilation, but if you could spare a moment to urge your representatives, to contact your favorite international human rights organization, to donate, to speak out, to put pressure on Moon and his government to protect gay Korean men from imprisonment merely for being who they are while serving their nation, that would be great.

Because when it comes to human rights, the slogan of this year’s Pride events in Korea got it spot on…20170923_181931


I know I got a little political there, but frankly, I’m just tired to my bones about having to read every day about how some human somewhere is being treated as less because of a trait they cannot choose, whether that is skin color, ethnicity, national origin, gender, gender identity, or sexuality. I’m weary to my soul that I keep seeing humans being physically attacked for this. And I am exhausted on a cellular level of seeing oppressors claiming victimhood as they smash the faces of those humans figuratively and literally. In some ways, I wish I was only talking about America, but it’s everywhere. It’s not going away if we ignore it or just “don’t get political”. And while I can’t go out on the streets and fight it every day, I am not that strong; I can act, do, and speak as much as my strength allows. I hope you will, too.

Gaya Kingdom: Myth and History

A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go on a school field trip to the Gaya Theme Park in Gimhae (near the Busan airport). I had never been on a school field trip before, and while some of you may be thinking, ugh a day of corralling screaming kids outside, my unenviable position as foreigner gave me a bit of a pass on kid wrangling and a lot more freedom to indulge my sightseeing urges.

The Gaya Theme Park is a strange combination of history, mythology and recreation. Let’s start with the history part.

What is the Gaya Confederacy?

Korea has not always been a single unified nation. I was not taught Korean history beyond the US involvement in the Korean war at any point during my education, which is vastly disappointing since I studied East Asia at University. I’ve been trying to fill in the gaps since arriving here. There’s not much history in any part of the BCE. There’s some fossils and pottery and a legend about a kingdom that dates back to more than 2000 BCE. The first records seem to be from a Chinese encounter in the 7th century CE, but the seat of that Kingdom and most of it’s stuff was in what is now North Korea, so we may never know any more than what we find in the Chinese records.

china mapSkipping ahead to the first century CE, we get what is known as the Three Kingdoms Period. The three kingdoms were Goguryeo (purple) controlled huge swaths of the north including what is now North Korea and parts of China (it is also where we get the English word “Korea” from, since their word for their own country is hanguk) The south was divided between Baekje (yellow) on the west, and Silla (blue) on the east. Except, there were more than three. The Gaya confederacy wedged it’s way between Baekje and Silla for almost 500 years. And let’s not forget the Tamna, who were a whole other Kingdom until the 1400’s! But, sure, it’s the Three Kingdoms Period.

UntitledBetween it’s mythic founding 42 CE and it’s surrender to Silla in 562 CE, the Gaya confederate existed in the south central area of the Korean peninsula, just barely missing Busan (where I live) but keeping it’s capital in the nearby Gimhae (where our airport lives). They did some fishing and agriculture, but were most famous for their ironwork. It was a rough confederation of 6-12 different Gayas. When they Japanese invaded Korea in 1910, they claimed that Gaya had been a Japanese military outpost from 300-710 to justify their “return”, but no scholars take this claim seriously today.

Ok. History part done. Let’s get colorful.

6 Golden Eggs

The theme park is located in Gimhae because that is thought to be the historical capital of the biggest baddest Gaya of the confederacy, the Geumgwan Gaya. I was worried about the weather since the heat had been bad a couple of days during the week, but between happy weather gods and the fact that the theme park was up at a higher elevation, it was a stunningly sunny day with blue skies, fluffy clouds and cool breezes.

20170526_140450As we entered the park, the first statue was of a giant golden egg with 5 smaller eggs around it’s base. I was taking pictures of absolutely everything, hoping to figure it out later, so I snapped a shot and kept walking with the group. My co-teacher saw me take the picture and told me that the egg was there because the founding king of Gaya was hatched from an egg that fell from the sky. She also referred to this as “history” although I’m hopeful the last part was just a linguistics flub and that no one here seriously thinks that kings really hatched from sky eggs in the good old days. I could not figure out how to ask this without sounding rude, tho, so I let it go.

The Palace & The Indian Princess

20170526_100351.jpgWe made our way deeper into the park heading directly for the palace. It’s a replica palace. Very little archaeological evidence of Gaya has been found, although the tomb of Suro (first king of Gaya) is maintained in Gimhae as well. The palace grounds are reminiscent of Chinese palace architecture with familiar canted roofs and wide open courtyards between buildings. The colors and designs are quite unique to Korea, being less the scarlet and gold of China and more earth toned versions of dusty rose, pink, taupe yellow and pea green.

The kids ran eagerly around the courtyards and explored the buildings inside and out. Within each open building were some museum like decorations showing the furniture, art, history and stories of the Gaya king and his Indian queen.

What? Yes, that’s right. His queen was said to be from India. While the king’s building was full of pottery, iron work, carvings and paintings, the queen’s building was a more wistful romance story including a wall where visitors could tie wishes written on paper, a love throne for two, a hall of stars (using mirrors and LED lights to create the illusion of a blue star filled eternity), and the “pasa stone pagoda”. The pasa stones, the sign said in broken English, were red stones from India used to appease the sea gods during her voyage, and later erected in the palace. I have no idea if these stones are actually from an archaeological dig, or from India, or if it’s just a collection of rocks from the area stacked up to look like the ritual rock stacks common all over Asia.

20170526_101605One room had a huge map along a wall showing the queen’s “romance road of Asia”, paths from India to Korea picked out in red and blue. Another sign seemed to imply that the queen had brought Buddhism into Korea, however that is highly unlikely. I suppose she may have brought hers to Gaya (assuming that she was actually Indian) but the northern Kingdom of Goguryeo got it from their Chinese neighbors. I question her Indian origin story because the myth (written originally in the Samguk Yusa in the 13th century, it’s a kind of history/mythology mashup of the Three Kingdoms period) refers to her as being from Ayuta, a “distant kingdom across the sea”, but the name doesn’t correspond to the name of any country or city from that time period in India or any other country.

However, in the 21st century a gaggle of historians and diplomats (including the North Korean ambassador to India) went and did a statue of the queen in Ayodhya, India, believing it to be the “Ayuta” refered to in the Samguk Yusa account of the tale. Although the statue was accepted, the Indian government says there is no evidence of any such person in their historical records or mythology. (citation BBC)

EDIT: Thank you Varuna for sending me more information about Heo Hwang Ok, also called Seembavalam in Tamil. Present day Kanyakumari was called Ayuta in the past. Although there is still no academic consensus, so wonderful to keep learning about this legendary Queen from people around the world. Check out this Quora for more details on her Tamil Nadu origins!

The Story of Miracle Love

20170526_100403We took our time around the palace complex, letting the kids run off some of their excitement after the long bus ride. There were plenty of historical things of interest, but no teachers tried to make the kids focus on learning, nor was there a guided tour where kids were shuffled from one room to another while someone explained things. They did separate out the grades so that no one building became too full, but on the whole, the kids were on their own to enjoy the space.

20170526_103748After a while, we headed out of the palace complex and back toward the main entrance to the theater. Turtle imagery was everywhere. A large mountain with an artificial waterfall towered over the theater building. A gray stone turtle lurked in the pond below and another golden one perched precariously on an outcropping halfway up the mountain! I asked about the turtles, but my co-teacher didn’t know (don’t worry, there’s an answer later).

The theater offered a showing of a musical rendition of the love story of King Suro and Queen Heo (alternatively Hur) called “Miracle Love”. I was a bit nervous of going to see a musical in Korean. I didn’t want to pester my co-teacher to translate while we were watching, so I figured I’d just enjoy the music, costumes and dancing. However, the theater thoughtfully had installed some large screens on either side of the stage where English translations were displayed. It was immensely helpful, if still a little grammatically imprecise.

20170526_110511The story began with two archaeologists stumbling onto a large cache of relics from the Gaya period. Their song explained with some lament how little was known of Gaya before this discovery. Then a cave in knocked our archaeologists unconscious and a hazy dream fantasy of the mythstory of King Suro began in earnest. Dancers dressed as the zodiac animals performed intricate dances on stage as some kind of high priest or shaman character sang of the strife, war and drought in the land, praying to the heavens for deliverance which arrived in the form of 6 eggs. (although all 6 eggs hatched out kings, 5 of them were elsewhere being kings of other parts of Gaya, so aren’t in this story)

20170526_110923The glowing egg hatched to reveal the full grown form of Suro who is proclaimed king on the spot and is expected to wield the power to heal the land. Yay! But it’s not easy being king. The drought continues and his people begin to resent him for not living up to the promise of his celestial birth.

20170526_111433Meanwhile in Ayuta (India?), the princess Heo has a dream that her destined love is in a land far away, and that she must set sail to reach him and fulfill her destiny (lots of destiny). The dancers costumes were reminiscent of saris and there were certainly hints of Indian Bollywood style music and dance moves that were obviously meant to place the princess and her handmaidens in India.

20170526_112151But OH! The villain! Satal, a god of war and a gleefully over the top villain dressed in a skull mask and rough furs and accompanied by evil temptresses dressed in black and red gauzy costumes came on to sing his number about how he would defeat Suro and become the king of Gaya, keeping the kingdom forever in a state of greed, hate, and famine. His musical style was that of classic hard rock and the stage was lit by enormous flames as he and his minions sang and danced.

20170526_112450The princess’s ship is caught in a deadly storm and she is washed ashore in the wreck. It seems the moon itself has saved her just in time to be found by king Suro and they sing a touching love duet in the style of popular Korean ballads. But their happiness cannot last. Satal and his minions kidnap the princess and beat Suro nearly to death in battle. He wants to give up. He didn’t expect this to be so difficult. Where are the heavenly powers he’s supposed to have, after all? But his loyal servant reminds him of the plight of his people and the love of his princess and his resolve is bolstered.

20170526_113408During a rallying all cast dance number, new armor is forged for the king, turning him from a dandy to a warrior. He is told he can receive the remainder of his heavenly powers upon the mountaintop and so newly armored he ascends to greet the powers of heaven, represented on stage as a white dragon flying around Suro to strengthen him. However Suro fights, Satal holds his own and the soaring duet of hero and villain waxes lyrical about the evils of greed, selfishness and divisiveness being defeated by the power of love. In the end, it is not the armor or the power of heaven that gives Suro the strength to defeat Satal, it is the love of Heo, her voice joining the song to call back to their duet and the fact that their love was made in heaven.

Strengthened by love, the king defeats Satal and restores peace, harmony and prosperity to Gaya. Everyone celebrates with this all cast finale that I managed to get a video of. There’s no direct translation, but it’s basically yay we won, isn’t love awesome? Love, love, love.

I haven’t read the Samguk Yusa, but synopses online seem to indicate that the creators of the musical may have taken a few romantic liberties with the story. I also could not help but look at this story of a man who arrives on earth in a giant egg, is nearly defeated by his enemy (another godlike being), retires to his fortress in disgrace before being reminded he has to rescue his true love and re-emerging stronger than ever to defeat General Zod… I mean Satal… and wonder if maybe he’s related to Kal’el?

What’s Up With the Turtles?

20170526_123913After the musical, we escorted the kids back over to the palace where they unpacked tiny picnic blankets and box lunches under the watchful eye of the staff while we enjoyed the cool, fresh mountain air. When the kids were all done eating, they were turned loose in the playground section of the park while the grownups had a lazy lunch of fried chicken next to the lake surrounded by heaps of purple pansies.

20170526_140416On our way out of the park, I spotted a turtle garden with empty shells that kids could climb in and around, as well as a happy, smiling gray stone turtle overlooking the scene. The sign near the stone turtle informed us that the mountain where King Suro’s egg landed and hatched looked so much like a laying turtle that it was named Gujibong (gu meaning “turtle” in Korean). Which explained the mystery of why there were so many turtles around the park.

I also spotted the naked turtles who had apparently left their empty shells for kids to play in. These pink and white polka dotted creatures were caught in embarrassed poses of disrobing and we all got a pretty good chuckle about it on the way back to the buses.

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Serendipity

I had never heard of Gaya Theme Park and would not have even known to put it on my list of things to do if the school hadn’t taken me there. Looking at it now, public transit would still only get me to within 2km, though I suppose one could hire a taxi to get up the mountain, I’m not sure how the best way to get back down. My point is, it’s not a hotspot for foreign tourists.

On top of that, Gaya’s history isn’t well known even by Koreans, perhaps because so much of the archaeological evidence was lost until recently. It’s things like this that truly highlight the differences in experience between living and working in a foreign country and merely visiting one. It’s so easy for us to take for granted that our history and culture are spread across the world (first by colonialism and now by commerce and entertainment) that we can forget that every country has a rich historical and mythological tradition of it’s own. I’m grateful to have had this chance to learn about Gaya, and I hope you enjoyed learning about it with me. Please enjoy the rest of the photos of this beautiful day on the Facebook page. Thanks!

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In the Merry Month of May

As the fine spring weather draws to a close, and the deeply oppressive heat and humidity of Korean summer loom on the horizon,  I tried to make the most of my final outdoor shenanigans before I’m consigned to the AC or at least the after dark until October. This May, I visited 3 festivals and a historical theme park. The later truly deserves it’s own blog post, so I’ll come back to it another time. For now, let me share a few of the marvelous spring festivals I made it to this year.


May 13th: Gamcheon Culture Village and Festival

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Gamcheon is a famous little neighborhood in Busan that has been on my bucket list of things to visit while living here, and somehow I made it a whole year without going! Lucky for me they decided to hold a festival this spring, which I found out about a whopping 2 days before it was set to take place. It is referred to (by the Korean tourism industry) as the “Machu Pichu of Korea”, but actually dates back to the Korean war.

20170513_141043During the war, Busan was the only city in Korea that was not taken over at some point by the invading northern army. While elsewhere all over the peninsula, whole towns were being leveled to the ground, Busan was becoming a haven for refugees as well as US and other foreign aid troops. The population crisis caused the unique housing style of Busan, which involves building houses and apartments right up the side of the mountains that weave in and out of the city.

I’ve often found this blend of urban and natural to be beautiful and a great improvement over flat concrete, but nowhere is it more on display than in Gamcheon. According to the sign, “The virtue of building a house so that it does not block the view of the house behind it demonstrates how this village preserves traditions of national culture in which people care about one another and live together in close proximity and intimacy.”

20170513_135839The houses are painted a cheerful array of bright colors that make for a stunning view from the ridge above. However, once you descend into the neighborhood, there is no end of quaint surprises in the form of beautiful murals, surprising statues, and wandering flower planters. The neighborhood is not only adorable, it’s become a hot spot for bohemian culture, local artists, musicians and other experimental creations.

As we walked down the main road, we were surrounded at once by the festival tents and lanterns overhead. Soldiers in uniform were having a blast dancing along to a local live music performance while shops offered multicolored balloons and delicious iced treats. There were about a million places for kids to try their hand at various types of arts and crafts. A section of the festival showcased historical culture with backdrops, costumes and traditional games. At the top of the hill, the local school kids put on a talent show, and a wandering parade of traditional dancers could be heard wending around the twisting and narrow roads.

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There were famous photo op stops where we took turns waiting to get the best view, or take a picture with the famous landmark. My friend and I went into the mock up lighthouse, but decided the line to sit next to the statue of Little Prince was just too long for such a hot day. Instead we wandered around admiring the variety of murals and other decorations. My favorites included a flight of stairs painted to look like a stack of books, some old pants that had been turned into a walking flowerpot, and the very creepy baby faced birds that watched us from up on the rooftops.

I realized I put off visiting Gamcheon for so long because I thought it was just a bunch of colorful buildings on the mountainside. Everyone says it’s a must see, but not enough people talk about what’s inside those buildings. I found Gamcheon to be a wonderfully unique neighborhood, not only because of it’s architectural design, but also it’s dedication to art and freedom of expression. Certainly a must see for both long term residents and short term vacationers.

Follow this link for more photos from Gamcheon.

May 20th: Busan Global Gathering

This was another last minute arrival. As good as the tourism websites are in Korea, there is so much going on, I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s hard to create a single comprehensive list. Even my native Korean co-workers are astonished that I know about all these events they’ve never heard of. At least I know it’s not just a language barrier?

20160521_194154I went to this festival last year when it was held at the citizen’s park, which a beautiful grassy park with trees, a beach, and a big fountain. I had a great time visiting all the booths from other countries and sampling goodies they brought. There was a large space in the middle of all the tents where we could flop down in the grass when we needed a rest and I ran into lots of fun people (most of whom have since returned to their own countries) and sat on the lawn drinking the German beer and Spanish sangria until the sun went down.

Looking back, I realize I didn’t even write about this event last year because it was so small compared to the other things going on around me last spring. Despite my lack of blog-love, I did have fond memories of the event and was looking forward to going when I heard it was being put on again this year. For unknown reasons, the organizers decided to put the festival in a different location this year. A location of dirt. Gaze upon the contrasting images of last year and this. One looks like a great day out at the park, while the other looks like a flea market in an abandoned sandlot.

Appearances and lack of picnic space aside, the festival was still fun. There was a new twist this year of stamp collecting. We got our guide pamphlets when we arrived and were told that a few booths around the festival were offering stamps. If we collected 5, we could register for the raffle. The booths giving stamps require us to complete some mini-quest. At the first one, we put on mittens with Korean letters and lined up to make a sentence that we read out one syllable at a time. Israel’s booth implored us all to put on a yarmulke and have our photo taken. It seemed a bit odd, since I don’t think women usually wear those, but presumably someone in the booth was from the Israeli cultural delegation, soooo…. not offensive?

Another booth required us to take a try on a stationary bike to generate electricity used to power the blender making the smoothies. The Indonesian booth was giving out prizes for a plastic archery game. I managed to score the second ring from center. I went back to the Spanish booth for more sangria and got talked into adding on some amazing seafood paella. When I came back by to compliment the chef and take some photos, he came out to meet me. It turns out he’s a teacher at the the culinary department of Yonsan University, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised it was so delicious.

After perusing all the booths, which seemed to be more numerous and more varied than the event last year, we wandered a ways away to find some grass to sit on while we waited for the raffle drawing. We’d been told the drawing was at 4, however around 3:30 they started calling numbers from the stage, and we didn’t even notice for ages because it was all in Korean and the grass was so far away. By the time we got back to the stage, there were only a few more numbers before the raffle ended and we decided to head back to the main road in search of some Sulbing. Then as we were leaving, we heard more numbers being called! The raffle was fairly strict about winners claiming their prize within only a few seconds of being called, so we knew there was no point in heading back, but it was still rough.

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On the whole, I think the Global Gathering is a wonderful event and I hope the city keeps doing it, but it would be more enjoyable with plenty of places to sit and enjoy the food on offer or just take a rest as well as a more reliable time table for advertised events like performances or raffles.

Follow this link for more photos from Global Gatherings 2016 & 2017.

Haeundae Sandsculpture Festival

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I don’t know if I’m feeling jaded because it’s my second year in Busan or if the festivals this spring really were not as awesome as last year. Expectations can ruin just about anything, and maybe it was a good thing I didn’t try to recreate my entire itinerary from last year. One of the things I did revisit was the Sandsculpture festival at Haeundae Beach. Not only is a day at the beach a nice way to greet the summer, the main attraction of the festival, the sandsculptures, would be all new works of art made fresh for this event.

I also wanted an excuse to go back to the fancy secret bar in Haeundae that I discovered at the sand festival last year. My friends and I agreed to meet in the late afternoon for a leisurely stroll up the beach to take in the sculptures before having dinner in one of Haeundae’s multitude of foreign cuisine restaurants, only to stroll back down the beach at night at take in the night-lit sculptures before changing shoes and heading back inland for craft cocktails.

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There’s no way to be disappointed by giant sand sculptures. The amount of effort and planning required to create this beautiful and transient artform is impressive no matter what the subject matter is. Last year the theme was nautical liturature, and sculptures from stories like the Odessey (above), Gulliver’s Travel’s, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader among others were scattered around the beach like very artsy mountains. Many of the sand mounds were covered in art all the way around, with hidden gems that made us want to explore every inch.

20170527_170816This year… I’m not really sure what the theme was. Each mound only had art on one side, yet despite the fact that there was a temporary walkway between the two rows of mounds (because walking in sand is hard), the art all faced the shorefront buildings, leaving only half facing the walkway and the other half showing their backs. The backs of the mounds remained smooth but for a single word that was presumably the inspiration for the art on the front.

In no way do I wish to denegrate the work of the artists. There were several very impressive sculptures. Merely that unlike last year, the art did not seem especially cohesive, and I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more of it. As I meandered in and out of the mountains of sand, trying to capture everything with my phone, I found one very special piece about travel. Amid the representations of world famous landmarks and the couple taking a selfie (of course I took a selfie with the statue taking a selfie, what kind of person do you take me for?), there was a giant postcard expressing greetings from Busan and sent to Seattle, WA (which, as the city I have spent more years in than any other this life is the one I tend to call “home”).

I also enjoyed the “couple” piece, which was of an elderly pair expressing the growing old together dream, as well as the “rest” piece which was simply a mosaic of sleeping and dreaming (some of my favorite things).

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There were far fewer works this year, since not only were there fewer sand mounds, but each one bore art on one side only. I still had a lovely time, but we finished much faster than expected and spent some time just chilling out with cool drinks before leaving the beach in search of dinner.

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Even though it didn’t offer the stunning art display I was hoping for, the day still managed to give a one-two punch for my brain. Part one was the shock and reminder that other white people exist in such large numbers. I’m the only foreigner at my job, and I can spend days not seeing another one while commuting between home and work and doing regular errands. Sometimes I go out and I’ll see a handful at whatever expat bar I go to, but since most 7627aab3b42cac8b205bb627a6521eaeof the festivals I go to are Korean, I’m still in the minority almost wherever I go. Almost. I don’t know what Haeundae looks like on a regular day because it’s so far from me that I usually go to Gwangan when I need a beach fix. On this day, it was like that scene from Lilo and Stitch where Lilo goes down to the beach to stare at pale tourists. Only most of them were fairly fit being recent college grads or military folks on leave. But so much white people!

The restaurants were full of us, too. Which brings me to part two of the brain punch: just because I’m suddenly in the minority here, doesn’t mean the struggle to stop my privileged thinking is over. The place with a menu that my whole group could agree on told us there was a 30 minute wait… not to be seated, just to order. We took up seats around a table and pontificated on what could lead to a restaurant having enough tables to seat but not serve everyone. At which point, my lifelong Americanness reared it’s head. We have some bizarre cultural assumptions about the service industry I’m still trying to break free of. They told 5745331-customer-service-memeus the wait ahead of time, and we agreed. That should be enough, but part of me was still, “how did they not staff more people on a festival day, the restaurant should be doing something to make up for this inconvenience”… Woah, ‘Murica brain. You didn’t have to come here. They did everything reasonable to make sure you knew what was going on. Check your entitlement! PS. There’s no tipping here, so when waitstaff are nice to you it’s just their job and not because they’re livelihood depends on the whims of customer satisfaction.

Living abroad is a non-stop self-evaluation and learning process.

20170527_214612After dinner, we headed over to The Back Room, a secret speakeasy style bar that I visited last year and loved. I had an old favorite (real whiskey sour), and tried a brand new concoction tried an Aviation, which is gin based cocktail with creme de violet, lemon and cherry. Fancy and delicious. We stayed out way too late drinking and chatting, which only served to remind me that every event can be made special with friends.

Check here to read about last year’s Sandsculpture festival and TBR visit, and to see the sand castle pics from last year and this year.


I had some hard times in the hot weather last summer, and again this year in the heat of SE Asia. It seems however much the heart is willing, the flesh is not down with heat+humidity. I’ll be putting up one more Korean spring adventure (for the Gaya Theme Park), and of course working to finish the stories from the Malay Peninsula. However, I plan to use the summer to work on a new project about teaching (the other part of my life). Even if you’re not an English teacher, I hope to give some insight into what it is we do out here for the curious and those considering the career. And don’t worry, I’ve already got a fall trip to the Philippines planned, so the travel stories aren’t stopping any time soon. As always, thanks for reading!

Good Bye 2016

As the year drew to an end (finally), I found myself in the land of festivals (Korea) for some super holiday times. While nothing on Earth is likely to oust the Dubai December for birthday/Christmas spectaculars, I have to say that I had a pretty good December here in Busan. Commence countdown to 2017: T minus 2 weeks.


Two Weeks Till 2017: Boseong Tea Fields

Starting with my birthday (also known as Saturnalia), we decided to take a day trip down to the Boseong Tea Feilds. I personally didn’t put tea fields high on my to do list but there was a big ol’ light festival going on and that sounded like fun. So we piled onto the bus around noon for a three hour drive. It’s not as agonizing as it sounds. I had good company and the seats are comfy. When we arrived, it was still light and although we could see the framework of part of the light show, it wasn’t quite time yet, so we headed into the tea field area first. This area is a small farm that was about half shut down for the winter (the fountains were drained and many of the shops were closed), but once we got past the tourist buildings and onto the path, it was far more beautiful than I ever could have expected.

20161217_150819Green tea looks like very well kept English hedge,.
and because Korea is 70% mountains, the tea bushes are grown up the side of steep hills, creating a beautiful terraced landscape. As we wandered up one side of the hill, I had the chance to munch a tea leaf right off the branch. It was a robust flavor and while different from the drink that it makes, still pleasant. I even found one lone tea flower to admire in the winter greenery.


We found a small waterfall on the way up, but the winter dry season meant it was barely a trickle. The best part turned out to be that since we’d gone up the opposite side from nearly everyone else we had the shaded little path to ourselves. A rare treat in Korea!

When we emerged onto the main path across the hill, I was totally swept away by the view of the tea around us. I admit that from the bottom looking up, it had been.. well ok, but not spectacular, and even from the high points looking down it was only so-so, but right there in the middle of the hill, with the winding, whirling rows of green tea hedges making patterns all around us, the sun barely above the line of trees and mountains to the west casting long golden rays into the valley, it was breathtaking.

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Of course we took our turn to stand on the picture spot (which did have an amazing view), but it wasn’t too crowded. We had plenty of time to admire the scenery and take lots of silly selfies. We passed a wide variety of blossoming fruit trees (that is to say, fruit trees with beautiful blossoms in the spring), so I can only imagine how beautiful the scene is when both the trees and the tea are in bloom. In addition, we were surrounded by tall evergreens similar to the cedars of the PNW makingj us feel a little more like we were in the Cascades and a little more Christmassy, since pines and firs are scarce in Busan.

We stopped in at the local Green Tea restaurant, where every dish is made with green tea in some way. I had a bowl of jajangmyeon with green tea noodles, and a friend got some bibimbap with green tea rice, but my other poor companion is allergic to caffeine and couldn’t eat anything there! (don’t worry, she didn’t starve).Even though it was cold, and even though I’ve had it more times than I could count, I still got myself some green tea ice cream, cause why not?

20161217_171556.jpgOn our way back to the main entrance we took a quick side detour to the bamboo forest. After a short walk through some more evergreens, we emerged into an open space facing a dark and mysterious bamboo forest. The sun was low and the shadows were long so we couldn’t see far into the mass of stalks. Once we entered, it was as though a twilight had encompassed us, the lush leaves cutting out nearly all the late afternoon sunlight. The birds went bananas, screaming like jabber jays, making us feel as though we were in an arena from the Hunger Games or at very least in an ominous Korean horror movie. I wasn’t sure if we should expect kung fu masters or monsters. (click for more pictures of Boseong tea fields and lights)

A Beam of Hope

20161217_175826We left the tea fields behind and headed back down to the main parking lot that would lead to the lights. There were plenty of stalls with a wide variety of food (green tea added and regular) so my allergic friend was able to find something tasty, too. The light show wasn’t quite as spectacular as Taean (seriously that light show), but it was loads of fun. There were animal shapes, dragons and dinosaurs. There were scenes depicted on the hillside. There was a cupid’s arrow that when “fired” by guests shot a beam of light up the wires to the distant target. There was a beautiful rainbow display of that year’s theme, “A Beam of Hope”, and my favorite was the tunnel of lights that went from the bottom to the top of the whole shebang.

We wandered up through the smaller displays, posing with 20161217_174926.jpgdragons and hatching out of giant glowing eggs along the way. Like most lantern displays here, everything was meant to be posed with and interacted with, so it was easy to walk up to any set and play around. It’s a small and childlike pleasure, but after so long in the US being forced to stay behind the railing, it is fun to get a little more hands on. On the way back down, we took the tunnel of lights, pausing every time the colors shifted to take more pictures and pose in the rainbow glows. We didn’t feel rushed at all, and got back to the bottom in time to grab a hot drink and warm up by the fire before hopping on the bus to our third location.

A word on keeping warm in Korea in the winter. It gets cold, not Canada cold, but often around freezing temperatures. The buses and subways are super warm, but office buildings and of course outdoor festivals don’t get so much heat. Koreans rely on the “hot-pak” to solve this problem. This is a chemical warmer that last for about 15 hours once activated. There are small ones you can tuck in a pocket (I like to slip one in a glove or under a sleeve just over my wrist where all the blood flowing to my fingers gets warm), and there are ones you can put in your shoes, or stick to your inner layer of clothing. I bought a 6 pack for about 5$, it was an absolute life saver for enjoying the wintry outdoors after dark.

20161217_191948.jpgOur third and final location was near the beach where another tunnel of lights and light decorations had been put up. One large tree had been colored in white and green to make it look like it still had leaves. There were reindeer and Christmas trees, but also a giant chicken floating just off shore. I’m not sure why a chicken, but I saw another similar giant chicken in the sea back in Busan the next day.

(Eventually I realized that the next animal on the zodiac is Rooster, so it’s less a Christmas Chicken and more a New Year’s Cock.)

We oohed and aaaahed some more, posing with giant glowing horses, and peeking out from between light wrapped branches. There was a light maze, but it was only about a foot off the ground, so we didn’t get lost. Finally we popped back into the food tents one last time before calling it a night and heading back.

One Week Till 2017: Christmas Eve

20161212_185531The next Saturday was Christmas Eve, and we decided we needed to do a blending of American and Korean activities. We spent the afternoon inside making eggnog and gingerbread houses. I have never made eggnog before. I thought about it a lot, especially when I wasn’t doing dairy. I thought there had to be a better tasting nog than Silknog. But somehow, I never got around to it. This year, although I seem to have no health issues with milk here, there was a complete absence of nog… everywhere… Koreans either have never heard of it, or they are all in the hate eggnog camp.

I turned to Alton Brown, my culinary hero, who provided me with a super simple recipe. It took me about 15 minutes to make, and I added a leeetle bit more brandy, but it was quite possibly the best nog I have ever put in my face. The secret is separating the eggs and beating the yolks and whites separately, then adding the whites at the very end to a cold mixture.

Btw, 20161224_152318.jpgbased on past non-dairy culinary experiments, I’d say if you’re a dairy free nog fan go with unsweetened almond milk and coconut milk– the stuff in the can that is dense and creamy, not the stuff that is a regular milk sub.– Use 2c almond milk to 1 c coconut milk, otherwise just follow Alton’s instructions. If you’re a vegan who wants eggnog… well, one of us is confused about what those words mean. May I suggest a Brandy Alexander made with non-dairy milk or some vegan Irish Cream? (I have some recipes for those if you ask).

Anyway, eggnog which is fresh, creamy, rich and frothy is my new best thing about Christmas Eve.

20161224_173459While we imbibed our culinary delight, we worked on assembling a gingerbread house. Every month here in Busan there is a foreigner’s market where expats sell things they make (or sometimes import) to give us all a taste of “home”. During November and December, one lovely lass was selling her homemade gingerbread cookies and gingerbread house kits. That’s right, no factory made house kit for us, but a local small business! #supportlocal #smallbusinesssaturdays The kit was originally meant to be just a house, but my friend decided to turn the foil wrapped base into a frozen lake and make some green corn-flake treat trees to decorate the grounds, so our house turned into a cabin by the lake before we knew it. Who says you need kids to do fun Christmas crafts?

Christmas Dinner

After our crafting, we headed out to find the French restaurant we’d made dinner plans for. Both of us looooove French food (still trying to figure out how to live there!), and decided that we were ok bypassing “traditional” Christmas dinner (which was exactly the same as Thanksgiving dinner) in favor of a nice restaurant. We opted for Le Jardin which is a small French place near KSU. They had some extra set menus for the holiday and were very accommodating about my friend’s allergies. They were quick to respond to emails and both the service and the food were excellent. We also splurged on a bottle of Viognier since there were 3 of us. I got to try this nice little white for the first time in a French restaurant in NZ this summer and fell in love. I’m not a sommelier or anything. I’m not going to try to describe it, but it’s distinctive and delicious. I recommend if you have a chance to try it.

20161224_191643.jpgIn addition to our delightful wine, I enjoyed pumpkin soup, a goat cheese/bacon/honey pastry for entree, a superbly well cooked slice of salmon with a light lemon flavor and a unique mushroom risotto which had been made into a breaded patty and lightly fried, and finally a chocolate pear cake that tasted more like it was a ganache or very dense ice cream rather than a cake, too decadent! Nothing will compare to the food in France, but Le Jardin made an admirable effort and gave us all a taste of Western flavors with just a hint of haute cuisine that was perfect for a holiday feast.

More Lights!
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Although we lingered perhaps too long over the meal, we made it out in time to get to our final Holiday outing: the Busan Christmas Tree Festival. This year’s theme was the Three Wise Men, and many in Korea felt it turned the holiday tradition “too religious”, which is a marked contrast from the US’s annual war on the Starbuck’s holiday cup not being religious enough. The highlight of the tree festival is a tiered wedding cake looking tree made of thousands of LED lights changing to different colors and patterns as we watched. The main streets were overhung with a veritable river of lights and fun Christmas themed decorations adorned the street waiting for passersby to pose for photos or tie paper wishes for the coming year on them. 

20161224_233656.jpgToward one end of the festival, I found an old man with a traditional candy game called ppopgi. It’s a simple candy made from sugar and baking soda, but a shape is pressed into the candy. Kids (and a few adults) can use a little pin to try to break the candy around the shape without shattering the brittle sugar. If they succeed, they win a prize (often more candy). The vendor was using a tiny copper pot to melt sugar over an open flame, adeptly pouring out the steaming satiny brown concoction, pressing it flat onto a popsicle stick and letting his fares choose their shape before pressing a cookie cutter down on the hot surface. I noticed that while adults had to be perfect to win, the little kids were often awarded a prize for a good effort.

After a few hours of glowing fun, we made our way home and fell asleep to the less spectacular but still very holidayesque glow of my own modest 2d Christmas tree. (click here for more pictures of the Busan Christmas Tree Festival)

Christmas day abroad is always an interesting challenge. Traditions that hinge around friends and family must be abandoned or at least altered, but this year I was fortunate to have one friend from home here with me and our Christmas adventures enabled us to both enjoy some of the traditions our host country had to offer while still enjoying our own cultural holiday.

One Day to 2017: New Year’s Eve

20161231_141930.jpgA mere week later, the New Year celebrations were upon us. I had done some research and found that here in Busan there is a bell ringing ceremony in Yongdusan Park at the large bell at the foot of the Busan Tower. It’s a big event with musical performers and guest speakers that is televised much the way that the New York Time’s Square ball drop is. Yongdusan park is nowhere near as big as Time’s Square, and the majority of people don’t ascend the multiple flights of stairs until 11pm. Knowing we had plenty of time, we spent the day reveling in some seasonal sulbing, a screening of Rogue One, and a totally accidental Japanese dinner. 

20161231_225932.jpgNonetheless, it was a wonderful day and at 5 minutes before 11, we found ourselves in a long line of people patiently trudging up the stairs to the peak of Yongdu Mountain. Normally, this pathway has a series of escalators going up so that anyone can access the park, but tonight the escalator had been closed down and reserved as a dedicated emergency access stairwell. When we arrived at the top, we saw many TV vans and we shuffled with the crowd into the standing space behind the VIP seating. To my surprise, through crowd motion, we soon found ourselves close enough to the bell to get a decent view of the proceedings, and there was a jumbo-tron screen off to one side that allowed us to view the performances.

Despite the bitter cold of the night air, the press of bodies meant that I was soon warm enough to take off my jacket, and we joined in the crowd enjoyment of the music. Koreans are a very reserved people and it was strange to be in such a large crowd that greeted each song with polite applause rather than raucus cheering, but as the musical numbers progressed from Annie’s “Tomorrow” through some Korean favorites and the ever popular “Uptown Funk”, more of the people around us began dancing in place and singing along while holding up phones to snap pictures of the bell and of course lots of selfies.

As the minutes drew to a close, the announcer came back to guide the crowd in the traditional countdown (which I almost managed in Korean, it’s hard to count backwards in a foreign language). At the stroke of midnight, the crowd erupted in cheers and hundreds of golden balloons with wishes written on them were released into the night sky. The bell began it’s 33 tolls, 11 strikes for each of the 3 blessings. As we quite literally rang in the new year, confetti cannons blasted the crowd with fluttering white squares, reminiscent at once of snow and cherry blossoms. My compatriots popped a bottle of bubbly (the benefits of an open container country) and we toasted the New Year with pink ‘champagne’, the cheers of the crowd ringing in our ears even louder than the blessing bell. When the tolling finally fell silent, the MC directed our attention behind us where we were treated to a stunning fireworks display.

Welcome to 2017

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The final Korean tradition we decided to indulge in was to head down to the beach to watch the first sunrise of the new year over the eastern sea. After a few hours of sleep, we woke in the pre-dawn dark and walked down to the shore where tents and stages had been set up for the sunrise celebrations. Although the beach was crowded, we managed to get down to the water line where we could sit in the chilly sand and watch the sky redden behind the beautiful Gwangan Bridge. Many in the crowd were holding colorful balloons in anticipation of the first sign of the sun, and several floating lanterns already drifted through the blue and pink sky out over the ocean.

( I know that releasing balloons results in an unfortunate amount of damage to animals and birds as well as litter in the environment. I myself did not partake in the release and I hope that one day soon Korea will find a way to celebrate these events with less environmental impact)

 

All eyes were on the horizon when I heard a series of ooohs and gasps ripple through the crowd. The first deep red sliver of light had crested the sea and as we watched the rising orb, the sky was flooded with the colorful array of wishes for the new year floating on hundreds of multi-colored orbs. We scampered along the shoreline following the arcing rise of the sun as it bloomed into a full sphere and soon laced through the steel cables of the gracefully arching bridge. A drum performance welcomed the new day and the crowd surged from the sea to long and twisting lines to partake of the traditional Korean new year soup. (click here for more pictures of the first sunrise)


My first year in Korea has been full of adventure, lights, festivals and new experiences. Although I didn’t expect it, and despite the country’s recent political upheaval, I am not ready leave. With the signing of my new contract, I look forward to another year of adventure in “Creative Korea”. Happy New Year, and may your 2017 be full of hope, peace and joy.

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Summer’s Almost Gone

I know many people think that summer starts around May or June, but here in Busan the weather didn’t get ugly until July and it’s only just starting to get nice again now that October is half over. I have already shared my early summer adventures, June with the sand sculpture festival, drag show and Pride Festival in Seoul, July with the Mud Festival in Boryeong, and I’ve started to share the August adventure in New Zealand. Oh, and the Jeju September trip is in second draft… but, things in Korea happen faster than I can write about it and I’ve been getting behind on some of my smaller weekend adventures. So, what’s fallen through the cracks this summer? I got some parental visits (other people’s not mine) and had a chance to play tour guide around the Busan Tower, Yongdusan Park, Dadaepo Sunset Fountain of Dream, UN War Memorial Park, more Dala & Sulbing, and Beomeosa Temple. Plus, I took myself down to the amazing lantern festival in Jinju. Let’s check it out.


Busan Tower & Yongdusan Park

escalator-yongdusan-park-busan-south-koreaThis park in the Nampo neighborhood is up on a bit of a mountain, but there’s no need to climb up exhausting stairs because there’s an outdoor escalator installed to let you ride up in comfort! When we got to the top, we were already blown away by the great views of the city below and we hadn’t even gotten to the highest points yet. As we passed by the stage area, it was clear that a performance was about to get underway. There were plenty of people dressed in the standard white garb trimmed with bright colors and fun hats and the parents hadn’t gotten to see any traditional dances, so we pulled up a seat. I have since found out that cultural performances happen here every Saturday at 3pm between March and November.

20160910_142412The MC for the day was excited to see so many foreigners (not just us) in the audience and brought out a poor young Korean lady who was nervous and not particularly fluent to try and translate for us. Representatives from each visiting country in the audience were invited to come up on the stage and play a traditional Korean game of trying to toss a stick through one of 5 rings attached to a jar. My friend’s mom went up and they let her stand extra close because she was over 60 and she brought us honor by scoring the center ring! We didn’t sit for the whole performance, but it was a kind of musical story. From what I could follow, some performers arrived at a lord’s house and were invited in to party, but there were some rascals around who may have been trying to steal away or marry off the lord’s daughter? The language barrier was a bit of an obstacle to the plot, but it was fun to watch and clap along with.

20160910_145221We snuck out during a lull and headed to the main attraction of the Park, Busan Tower. The tower stands 118m high, but it’s also on a mountain so, it seems to be rather higher than that when you look down. For 5,000won you can get a ticket to ride up to the top of the tower where you can enjoy a stunning 360 degree view of Busan. There are helpful decals on the windows that identify major landmarks and there;s a little cafe where you can enjoy a snack with your view.

UN Memorial Park & Busan Museum

I went here in February with the EPIK orientation team and I meant to go back in the summer for the roses and azaleas, but it seems that I missed them because by September, all that was left of the flowers were a few fading blooms. One stunning contrast was this tree which went from a brown lace of twigs in winter to a full brush of vibrant color in summer.

The little streams that had flowed in February were dry, but there were beautiful dragonflies all around the pool and grounds. I think the UN Memorial is a beautiful park, but it’s also a sad one. My trip this time was enjoyable because I was hanging out with some military history buffs who were tickled pink to look at all the markers and statues for different nationalities. I’m not really sure what else to say about it, other than war is horrible.

The Busan Museum is just a short walk away from the Memorial park, so we decided to stop in afterward. Unfortunately, a large part of the museum is under construction this year, so we were only able to access the second gallery, but it was worth the visit, especially since they gave us free tickets to enter. It’s largely a history museum, but it focuses narrowly on Busan and the history of this particular region of Korea. Since I’m still learning the big picture of Korean history, it was occasionally hard to place things on a timeline in my head, but there was a timeline on one wall that lined up Korean history with Chinese and Japanese histories (which I’m much more familiar with) and that was a useful comparison.

Dadaepo Sunset Fountain of Dream

Who doesn’t love giant bursts of water and light choreographed to music on a summer night? Waaaay back in 2008 I went to Xi’an China for the first time and in addition to getting to see the Terra Cotta Warriors which the city is famous for, I managed to catch both the day time and night time editions of the Xi’an North Square Fountain Show (someone else’s video).

Later in 2015, I made it to the Dubai Fountain show (my video).

Both are astonishing and huge. The Xi’an Northern Square is 168,000 square meters (1 ½ football fields) and the fountain show covers most of it. There are dry spaces around the edges to stand, but the whole middle is full of moving, glowing, colored fountains. The largest one, the Fire Fountain, can shoot water 60m high. The Dubai Fountain show is in the man-made lake (121,400 sq m, a little more than 1 football field) at the base of the Burj Khalifa and it’s highest water spout reaches 140m high. It also claims to be the largest choreographed fountain show in the world. I’ve seen tiny versions of choreographed fountain shows in a few other places, including the Tokyo 20150823_200510Sky Tree (left) where the small fountain lights are coordinated with the tower lights high above. These shows are fun, awesome, wonderful, and sparkly, so when my friend told me he wanted to take his parents down to Busan’s own choreographed fountain show, I was all in favor.

I have to be honest, I expected something small, colorful and cute. I was completely blown away. Dadaepo is far out at the south western corner of the city, so you have to ride the subway line all the way to the end and then take a bus the rest of the way. And then walk several blocks. The fountain and lights are all flush with the ground, so before the show starts it just looks like a flat open space. 50f0There are some permanent concrete bleacher type seats along one side, but the rest of the area around the fountain had been filled up with plastic chairs to accommodate the higher number of spectators on the warm weekend nights. We arrived early and laid claim to seats in the front row, hoping that we wouldn’t have to worry about the crowd standing in front of us when the show started. Refreshingly, the Korean audience stayed in their seats during the show and we had a first class view. In both China and Dubai, the spectators jostled for the best standing spots and to get my video, I had to start standing in my spot almost 30 minutes before the show started to get an unobstructed view. IMG_0101This is 2,519 sq m fountain is listed as the largest fountain in the world by Guinness. I suppose that the show at Dubai is not considered a single fountain and is therefore only the largest fountain show. The tallest jet of water at Dadaepo is a mere 55m.
In case you’re wondering, the world’s tallest fountain goes to the King Fahd Fountain (right) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia at 260m (which I visited in 2014, it’s tall, but not much else).


While the sheer square meterage of the event isn’t 3% of a football field, the show more than makes up for it in quality. The tempo at which the water and lights shift and change to keep pace with the music is astonishing. The colors come and go, making the water seem to appear and disappear, lighting up only a portion of the water’s path or changing partway through it to take advantage of the new shape to make a different effect. The fountain heads move. Water comes out at different speeds and volumes. There is such a wide variety present that I felt more like I was watching a special effects music video than a choreographed fountain show. This video on youtube is better than what I was able to capture. 

I understand they change songs on a regular basis, so although this was my friend’s second time to the show, the songs were totally different. After the final song, the fountain and lights are turned on a bit more sedately to allow people to come in to the water to pose for pictures in front of the lighted shapes or to run through the cool streams in the warm summer air. There is only one show on weekdays, but two on weekends, so you can see the second one if you’re late or just stick around and watch both because it’s amazing.

Dala & Sulbing

20160430_134641I’m not a food blogger, but sometimes food is just too good not to write about. I’ve done some basic coverage of these things elsewhere, but it doesn’t get old. Dala 100% Chocolate is this tiny hole in the wall chocolate cafe in my neighborhood in Seomyeon. The first time I went there, I had to try their signature dish, the dinosaur egg. This was an amazing concoction of shaved milk ice topped with crushed chocolate cookies and chocolate shavings with a giant egg made of cookies and cream candy. When smashed with the provided hammer, the egg reveals a scoop of truly decadent chocolate ice cream and a tiny chocolate dinosaur. If that’s not enough chocolate, you can pour chocolate sauce over it too. It takes at least two people to eat this dessert. Since that time, we’ve also tried the chocolate pizza (nutella spread, banana slices and toasted marshmallows for toppings, scoop of vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce again), and for the two separate parental visits this summer, I also managed to try the fruit fondue (kiwi, grape, orange, grapefruit and banana… turns out grapefruit in chocolate is awesome), the “special brownie” (molten chocolate inside!), and the chocolate churros (churros you dip in chocolate). Let us not forget the milkshakes, which come in a variety of chocolate compliment flavors and can be made white, milk or dark. I don’t just love this place for it’s chocolate, but because it’s good chocolate. It’s not too sweet and they do a good balance of flavors in each dish so you don’t get tired (as if that were possible) of a single chocolate flavor. I think we’re about halfway through the menu now, and if the weather keeps cooling off, I’ll get to try their hot drinks soon!

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My first encounter with sulbing was during my first week at work when my co-teachers took me out for dessert after our first staff dinner. It pretty much blew my mind and I’ve been trying to drag everyone I know there ever since. The season fresh fruit flavor that was there in March was the strawberry cheesecake, and while they have strawberry on the menu year round, it’s just frozen berries out of season. However, the summer seasonal flavor was in full force and we got to indulge in the melon-cheese-yogurt madness. The uniqueness of sulbing as opposed to bingsu is what the ice is made of. The traditional shaved ice desserts just use water ice. The Korean Dessert Cafe (a chain by the way, look for it if you’re here) and a few other places make a different dessert using frozen milk for a richer taste. 20160730_174636-1The melon special was not just using frozen milk, but frozen yogurt… and not the kind you’re thinking. Imagine you mix some yogurt with milk or water until it’s all liquidy, then freeze it solid, then shave it off into teeny tiny snowflakes. Ok. Now, take a honeydew melon (the green ones) and cut it in half. Hollow it out and freeze the shell. That frozen melon rind is now our bowl, filled with the snowflake texture frozen yogurt and topped with some cubes of what I can only describe as cheesecake filling. 20160730_175713Now, over the whole thing, put the melon you removed from the rind, the hemisphere of melon, all of it. The dish was served with a big plastic knife so we could cut up the melon for ourselves. It was the perfect combination of sweet, tart and creamy to refresh us in the summer heat.

Beomeosa Temple (more pictures)

That’s really redundant, since “sa” means temple, but for the ease of transliteration, that’s what people tend to call it. It literally means “heavenly fish temple”. According to tradition, there is a well on the top of Mt. Geumjeongsan and the water of that well is gold. The golden fish in the well rode the colorful clouds and came down from the sky. This is why the mountain is named Geumsaem (gold well) and the temple is named ‘fish from heaven’. Its one of the most unique temples I’ve had the opportunity to visit. It wasn’t even high on my list of temples to see in Busan, but one of the visiting parentals had read about in Lonely Planet and was dead set on going so we set off to the northern edge of the city to ascend the mountains on a warm and misty Saturday.

We took the subway to the Beomeosa stop then decided to hire a taxi to take us up the mountain rather than wait for the bus. The driver didn’t turn on the meter, but helpfully explained his fare to us. We were 4 people and the bus would cost us 1.3 each, totalling 5.2 and he was going to charge us 6. Compared to the meterless taxis in China, it was truly refreshing to have a driver not try to take advantage of four foreigners at a tourist site. As we were driving up the mountain, he pointed out a spot where lots of taxis were stopping and said we could easily catch one back down from there and expect to pay a little less going back, but he drove us all the way to the highest car park so we didn’t have to trek up the mountainside.

20161001_131512When we arrived, a very nice older Korean lady offered to explain a little bit about the main gate to us in English and we got to hear a little history of the naming of the temple and the unique four pillar style that makes this era of architecture distinctive. As we ascended the stairs and passed through several gates decorated with bright lanterns and beautiful paintings we moved through a hall of fearsome statues and finally emerged into the main courtyard. The temple was originally built about 1,300 years ago, but was destroyed during a Japanese invasion in 1592 and later rebuilt in 1713, but a few stone remnants and one stone pagoda left from the original still stand in the wide open square. The temple is dedicated to the practice of Seon Buddhism, which is the Korean descendant of Chan Buddhism the same way Zen in Japan is.

Buildings for various types of study, practice and prayer surrounded the square and monks and supplicants came in and out about their business. We heard chanting, drums and bells and the smell of incense was faint but pervasive. There was a spring near a large rock, presumably the ‘golden well’, where we could drink fresh clean water from the ground with no worries of pollution or infections. There was a hidden path that led around behind the main grounds to a smaller hall of prayer and some living quarters where we found piles of tiny rocks and beautiful blooming flowers.

After exploring the main temple grounds, we wanted to visit one of the eleven hermitages nearby. I’d read online that the Blue Lotus Hermitage was both the easiest to get to and the prettiest, so I asked for directions at the souvenir stand and we headed further up the mountain road. Within a few minutes of walking, we spotted a giant golden Buddha in the distance and soon we came to the Hermitage itself. There were hardly any people there, but the courtyard was a stepped platform covered in statues of sages and Bodhisattvas with the golden Buddha at the peak and center. The entire day was gray and the mountains were wreathed in mist, giving our temple visit a quiet and magical feeling. I hope I can find time to go back in another season to see the mountain foliage in different phases (especially in May for the famous wisteria blooms) or maybe even try my hand at one of the overnight “temple stay” opportunities that allow visitors to experience the monastic life for just one day.

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Jinju Lantern Festival (photo album)

20161008_170238Also called the Jinju Namgang Yudeong Festival, it is held in honor of the fallen during the seiges by Japanese soldiers in the Imjin War in 1592-3 (the same time frame the orginal Beomeosa Temple was destroyed). During the war, lanterns were used as military signals, a means of communicating with reserve forces, and as a way to keep in touch with family members outside of Jinjuseong Fortress. Even after the war, people continued the tradition of floating lanterns down the river to pay tribute to the brave souls that had been lost during battle. Today, the festival is far more than a few lanterns on the river and instead is a whole palisade of life size and larger than life lanterns floating on the river and filling the riverside park where the fortress once stood.

It took us about 2 hours to get there in total, although the intercity bus is less than 90 minutes. We were able to walk down to the river from the bus station and get a daylight preview of the lanterns. We also walked around the festival tents and enjoyed a local specialty of Jinju bibimbap. It’s supposed to be made with a type of spiced raw beef, but sadly our tent dinner stop used the sunny side up egg instead. It was very good, though, so we didn’t mind too much.

20161008_181542.jpgWhen we entered the display area, we were given arm stamps so we could come and go as many times as we liked, then we began our stroll down the riverside. The water was covered in giant lanterns in shapes of mythical animals and heroes as well as famous landmarks like Stonehenge, the leaning tower of Pisa, and the Statue of Liberty. There were floating restaurants, boat rides, and yet more tents offering delicious snacks.There were giant tunnels of red lanterns where couples walked hand in hand in the twilight.

20161008_175956Two floating bridges at either end of the display allowed visitors to pass from side to side without returning to the street level. The day had been rainy, but as the rain dried up, the sunset lit the clouds in shades of brilliant gold and scarlet.We crossed the river and ascended into the wooded area to be greeted with the most amazing forest of light. Unlike the Taean light festival where everything was wrapped in LEDs, the park grounds had become friezes of the battles done in light and cloth. Japanese and Korean soldiers filled the grounds attacking and defending glowing battlements. As we moved along the scenes became festivals, crowds watching bulls in an arena, people at work in the village doing daily crafts.

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There was a section of small, delicate lanterns on display like a gallery. More soldiers stood guard at every gate and wall. A landscape of giant mushrooms and insects took up one hillside. Enormous saxophones arched over a performance stage with live musicians. Glowing globes hung from the trees like ripe fruit. Overgrown flowers sprouted from the grass. Tigers wearing top-hats and smoking pipes smiled at us from behind trees. There were no gates or guardrails, and we were free to walk among the lanterns at will. There were tunnels of love and fields of snowmen. There were more lanterns than we could ever hope to see in just a few hours and we wandered back and forth through the park following winding trails and making our way from one scene to the next until we were forced to start looking for the exit in order to catch our bus home in time.

We got back down to the river and walked along more floating paths all the way to the far end of the park. My friend described it as “drunk walking” because the floating panels would occasionally shift to one side with no warning causing us all to lurch and stumble. The bamboo forest growing along the waterfront was filled with glowing cranes, frozen in the act of taking flight or catching fish. When we reached land again, we were greeted with the largest lantern structure of all: a giant castle with a dragon and phoenix on either wall and a crowd of lantern people celebrating below. Above the castle walls, large poles held LED fireworks that burst over and over again. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lantern festival on such a scale.

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I feel like every time I think Korea can’t show me something even more amazing, it does, and yet before coming here I knew almost nothing about this country, it’s people or it’s culture. Plain old “weekends” become magical adventures in a land of light or a sea of flowers. Misty mountains redolent with the odor of incense and the chanting of monks are just a bus-ride away from beachfront karaoke bars. Dancing fountains are down the street from skyscrapers that hide forests of cherry trees between their towering walls. Hidden gems wait around every corner and there is always something to celebrate. Thanks for reading, I hope you’re enjoying my stories at least half as much as I enjoy making them. Don’t forget to check out the Facebook page or Instagram for updates and pictures. ❤

Sandcastles, Speakeasies & Queens

My summer is kicking off to a great start. There are still more festivals and events than any one person could ever hope to keep up with. The weather is heating up, but I’m learning some native tricks on how to keep cool (and avoid the sunburn!). In preparation for the out of town trip next weekend, I’ve been trying to take it a little easy, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t get to see and do amazing things. Last weekend, we went to the Sand Sculpture Festival at Haeundae Beach, and this weekend we found a visiting Drag Show and a secret speakeasy bar.


Sand Sculpture Festival

Haeundae Beach is one of the most famous beaches in Busan. It’s a little small compared to say… California beaches, but it’s beautiful and full of fun activities. For example, the Holi Hai Festival I went to in the spring was held there. In this case, it was a sand sculpture festival. Artists from around Korea came to the beach to build gigantic sand sculptures and people from around Busan came to admire the art, eat fun snacks, and have fun in the sand and surf.

20160528_160206As soon as we stepped off the subway, we were greeted by a parade. This is the second one I’ve seen at Haeundae and I’ve only gone down there a few times. I’m not sure if it was for the sand sculpture festival or the Port Festival, but it was fun to watch. There was a pirate ship, some movie characters, dragon dancers and plenty of people in random costumes.

20160528_164324When we arrived at the beach we were greeted with banners, flags, a crazy fish/car/bike, a giant cat bounce-house and some para-sailors with giant fan propellers. The first few sand sculptures were smaller, about the size of a car, and were clearly propaganda or advertising rather than part of the art display. Nonetheless, the skill involved in creating a sculpture from sand that had such precise shapes and lines was awe inspiring. I’ve worked with clay before, and it holds a shape well. It has tools that you can use to create super flat surfaces or precise curves and lines. But anyone who has tried to build a sandcastle knows that sand is treacherous, crumbly and not easy to shape.

I did a minimal Google search on the how-tos of sand sculpture and it’s a major undertaking to make any sand structure higher than about half a meter. These sculptures were easily 4-5 meters high. The first one we came across was a giant mound of sand carved(?) with a very simple design of a pillar decorated mansion. Even while marveling at the size of it, I wondered a little about why it was so simple. But later on in the night, it was functioning as a screen for a projector light show part of the festival.

As we continued to wend our way through the sculptures, I realized that each one was based on a nautical literary theme. The very first one was The Voyage of the Dawntreader from the Narnia series (my favorite book from that series, by the way). We could clearly see Aslan, the Dawntreader, Edmond, Lucy, Caspian and Eustace as a dragon. The only sad thing was that the whole wall was in the shade, making our pictures a little lackluster. The other side of the sand wall was a mural scene of Perseus holding the head of Medusa and facing the Kraken as it destroyed a ship.

There were some that may have been based in stories I don’t know, or were simply nautically themed. There was a smaller sculpture with a scuba diver, and another with a man who appeared to be alone on a small boat. But, we also recognized Moby DickGulliver’s Travels, The Little Mermaid, The Odyssey, and King Poseidon. There were a couple of pieces that looked more like they came from Asian literature or history, and I’m sad to say I didn’t recognize them, but the detail on many of the works was simply stunning.

I was particularly taken with the sculpture of Ariel and Ursula. On one side, was the mermaid art, but no average mermaid. The artist had managed to represent both the fin and the legs in the same pose. I knew it was a mermaid at once, even though the fin was not as prominent as it usually is in mermaid art, but it wasn’t until I got to the other side and saw the unmistakable visage of Ursula that I knew it had to be Ariel.

The Odyssey was possibly the most impressive sculpture. Rather than being two sided, it was more conical with images relating the the adventures of Odysseus all the way around it. It wasn’t so much a chronological mural of the tale as a mish-mash of imagery of all the monsters and events with the Cyclops dominating the mountaintop and the wrecked ship laid out below.

At the end of the roped off displays were some much smaller sculptures that were not quite as high quality and also covered in color. There were kids playing on and around them, so they were clearly not being protected or preserved. I guessed that there might have been a timed competition earlier in the day and these were the remains. Famous characters Spongebob and the cast of One-Piece were at least in keeping with the nautical theme. Ironman was there just because he’s the most popular superhero in Korea.

Someone had also built a fantastic hill of sand for the purpose of playing King of the Mountain and also for sand tobogganing. Kids were clambering up the man-made dune and sliding on plastic sleds back down to their parents waiting with cameras below. There was also a walk through sand maze, a dune buggy arena where people could drive rented 4-wheelers around a track marked out in sand, and a whole bunch of tents with activities and souvenirs. We found some artists throwing pottery, some face painting, and other kid-oriented crafts as well.

As the sun was getting low, it was getting time for a snack or even dinner, and just as we were thinking about heading across the street to one of the many international restaurants that line the beachfront, we stumbled into the festival’s own eatery. About a dozen tiny seafood stands had set up shop in a parking lot. This was no small feat, since each food stall had at it’s core a stack of aquariums holding the live sea creatures that would be cooked up fresh. There were many kinds of shellfish, lobsters, fish, and the strange looking “sea penis“. I’m not kidding. That’s really what it’s called. I haven’t been brave enough to eat one yet, but I see them at pretty much every waterfront festival.

20160528_180822We spotted some mussels, of which I am a big fan, but then right next to them I saw some beautiful spiral shelled mollusks that I’d never tried before. I was hopeful that they would be a similar taste experience to the mussels nearby, and I proposed that we split a plate of new experience instead of going for the safe bet. This was not a disappointing choice. I understand that for some, the concept of oysters, mussels, and other sea mollusks is not an appetizing one. For me, well, there’s a reason I loved eating in Japan so much. Most of the animals in the sea are flipping delicious. Especially fresh. These little morsels were no exception. The plate of shells was served with wooden picks for us to pull the flesh from the shell. The fascinating part was that the shape of the meat was the same as the spiral shape of the shell, maintaining it’s spring-like appearance even after it was removed. Instead of garlic butter, the Koreans enjoy their shellfish with a spicy yet piquant chili sauce. So yum. The shells were too beautiful to just trash, so I tucked one away in my bag and now it lives on my souvenir table.

We went for a more substantial meal at a magnificently decorated Indian restaurant with a beautiful view of the ocean. The meal was delicious, and felt so extravagant, but it was really quite reasonably priced. It’s not quite as cheap as the four-star meals I used to get in China, but it’s really nice to live in a place where you can get a high quality dining experience for an Applebee’s price range. Plus, as much as I enjoy Korean food, I get tired eating the same cuisine for too long (no matter what it is) and I love to be able to hop over for another cultural culinary experience so easily.

After dinner and watching the sunset from our table, we headed back out to the beach to see what the after dark part of the festival would be. I’ve learned well enough now that Koreans are a night loving people, and that every festival has a plan for darkness. In this case there were some bright halogens lighting up the sand sculptures with new and interesting shadows. Because the images were done in bass relief and not full 3D, the directionality and quality of the light made a big difference to the way the art appeared. Taking pictures was a little more challenging because the lights were all at human height and people kept walking in front of the lights casting huge shadows on the images, but with a little patience I managed to get a couple decent ones. Please check out the whole day’s photo album here.

As we made our way back toward the main entrance, we spotted a number of night time entertainers. Buskers and fire dancers were drawing small crowds, but the main event was a stage set up on the beach where a DJ was spinning some dance tunes. The greatest part about Korean festival culture is the total inclusiveness. Even after dark, with club music and flashing colored lights, the beach was still full of all ages. Little kids running around and playing in the sand, old grandparents bobbing along to the beat, young couples taking the opportunity to hold hands and dance close.

We couldn’t quite push our way up to the stage, but we plopped our bags down and danced barefoot in the sand to the club music while the Koreans around us giggled a little at the strange foreign behavior, and more than a couple took our abandon as an excuse to dance a little themselves.

When we were all worn out, we headed down to the sea and sat down just beyond the tide line with some beers to enjoy the night. People were setting off small fireworks all over. Despite the fact that the authorities tried more than once to announce that fireworks were not allowed on the beach, everyone around us brought armfuls of tubes to stick in the sand or hold on to and point over the water. The beach patrol came by more than once to stop it, but the Koreans just did not give up.

As the night wore on, people got more and more wild. The fireworks increased in number and in closeness to us. A couple times I was worried that the live sparks might just hit us, but we remained unburnt if slightly ashy. Young men started daring each other to run into the still cold seawater. Young ladies waded in and shrieked at the cold water around their ankles. Soon, all pretense was gone and men and women alike were chasing each other fully clothed into the water, splashing and dunking and having fun. I was tempted to join in, but I didn’t have a change of clothes and I was worried that we might not get a taxi to take us home if we were dripping wet. I think next time we go to the beach I’m going to have to pack a towel and a change or be extra careful to leave before the subway stops running.

When we finished our beer and needed to find the bathrooms, we decided that it was time to move off the beach. After some serious de-sanding, we made it back onto the main road and started trying to find a nice bar to settle into. Unfortunately, all the expat bars were crammed to the gills and our day had just been too relaxing to finish it off with a meat market, so we kept walking, looking halfheartedly at bars and keeping an eye out for empty taxis. Just as we were about to give up, I spotted a sign for The Back Room. It was up on the second floor and looked intriguing.

We couldn’t see a way in, so I thought maybe the stairs were inside the first floor restaurant. We went in to check it out, but when we asked about going upstairs, they directed us to a phone in the wall. I picked up the handset and pressed the white button. I was greeted in Korean, but responded in English, at which point the voice switched into a pleasant European accent of some kind and asked if we were wearing “slippers”. I was a little confused, but Koreans have a kind of shoe I tend to think of as a “sandal” that they wear mostly indoors or in bathrooms. They’re not all obviously plastic casual things, and I’d seen lots of people wearing them around the beach, or just down the street in the warmer weather, but I guess it’s like fancy restaurants not wanting people in flip-flops.

I thought my shoes were classy enough, being solid black with a little decal on the strap, but they didn’t pass muster and we had to move along, vowing to come back later with more appropriate footwear.

Queens of Seoul

During the week, I ran across an add on Facebook for a show featuring the Queens of Seoul here in Busan. The LGBTQ+ culture in Korea is still trying to find it’s feet and there aren’t a whole lot of drag queens in the country. I found Hurricane Kimchi online shortly after I arrived, and I made plans to go up to Pride in Seoul (next weekend) way back in March, but most of the info out there is either coming from expats trying to find each other or just news stories about how LGBTQ+ are being treated, protested against, and ruled against legally in Korea. So when I saw this ad for something fun and friendly, I was psyched to go.

13321697_641762209305825_1532993938787707124_nThe FB ad said the show started at 10pm, and that cover was free from 9-11pm, so we decided to head over to the bar in time to get in free and get a table before the show. In this endeavor we were wholly successful. The Yaman Joint turned out to be a Jamacian/Rastafarian themed bar with a small stage and tiny dance floor. We were shown to a table and left with a tablet menu. The drinks were a little more expensive than I was used to at our neighborhood dive bar, but not crazy. Plus, they had shisha on the menu. For those of you who don’t remember, I fell in love with the flavored tobacco served in hookahs while living in Saudi Arabia. (I know, smoking is bad. Don’t smoke kids.) It’s not something you find much outside the Middle East, and often it’s not very well made when it is. The Shisha here was a very reasonable price, so we ordered some double apple flavor and a couple of tri-colored frozen rum drinks and settled down to wait for the show in abject happiness.

20160604_222838Around 10pm, a young lady came out and started doing a little light jazz on a piano keyboard. Soon she was joined by a saxophonist and we were treated to a mellow improv performance. Next a tiny little Korean woman dressed in plain black slacks and a white blouse came on stage and channeled the soul of a pop diva. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, a big guy came out with a mike and started beatboxing. I’m not a huge fan of this activity unless it’s done well. This man was talented. Not only was he good, but he became the third “instrument” along with the piano and saxophone. If you’ve never heard anyone do a jazz/hip-hop improv with piano, sax and beatbox, I recommend you make that happen.

The performances went on, varying in style. The beatboxer and saxophonist did a duet of “Uptown Funk” that was truly funky, and he managed a solo dancetronic beat that got half the bar out of their seats and on the dance floor. I thought it was just an opener for the drag show, but once people were up and dancing, the DJ took over and began spinning tunes. It was fun for a while. We got up and danced, we ordered another round of drinks, we wandered out on to the porch to admire the view. As midnight came and went, however, I was starting to get anxious that we might have somehow wound up in the wrong place or that the show had been cancelled. On top of that, the fun dance music the DJ started with had morphed into some of my least favorite overly repetitive style of hip hop. Not the kind of stuff I enjoy listening to or dancing to. The glow was fading.

I managed to pull up the ad on my phone and ask the waiters when it was starting. We were informed 1am. Now, I am not a fainting flower, but I do wake up at 6:30 am on weekdays. I know that even if the ad had said the show started at 1am, I would have still gone because the chance to see a drag show here in Korea was too good to pass up. I’m also a little torn, because I might have missed the 10pm musical performances if I’d shown up any later. C’est la vie. We stuck it out anyway and shortly after 1am, we were rewarded for our efforts.

I have to admit, I didn’t even notice at first when the show started because there was no announcement, there was no break in the music and no one left the dance floor. I was trying to keep an eye on it, but the stage was totally blocked from my view by the dancers. My first clue was when I realized no one was actually dancing anymore, and everyone was watching the stage. I stood up on the chair to see over the crowd and spotted someone on the stage, but couldn’t really get any kind of view. Then I decided to take my chances and see if I could get closer.

I’m not a tall person. 5’4″ in shoes, maybe. The stage was barely elevated a few inches off the ground and it felt like nearly everyone in the bar (at least 50% gay men) was taller than me. I joined the shove of bodies and tried to work my way closer, holding my camera up in the air to see if I could get any shots. My first pictures were half the back of people’s heads, and all I could see was the face of the performer (and only then because she was taller than nearly everyone else in the bar).

A super drunk rude dude just started shoving his way up to the stage, leaving a wake of upset people behind him. He shoved me straight into the two Korean girls in front of me, who nodded in sympathy when I pointed at him as I apologized. The first number I caught was Charlotte Goodenough, who did a fun and silly combination of Lionel Ritchie’s Hello and Adele’s Hello (from the other side). She had a prop phone that would “ring” as she was singing, interrupting her performance with some line from yet another song, such as “It’s Brittney, bitch”. Drag queens are famously lip syncers, not singers. But it was a clever combination of songs that made this number so fun to watch.

As the show progressed, the two girls in front of me decided to head back to their table, and I was one step closer to the stage. Then, another expat friend of mine (tall, black man) came in behind me and helped clear the rest of the way. He could easily see over my head (tall) and I was so close to the catwalk part of the stage, I had to put my foot up on it to keep my balance.

After Charlotte’s opener, we got treated to another 4 numbers: 2 by Kuciia Diamant who sports a sort of industrial goth look and is sexy as hell, 1 by Cha Cha who came out in a super fringed dress and ‘sang’ Rollin on the River while shakin’ her fringe and hair all over the place, and another by Charlotte who treated us to a vintage army girl costume and a little burlesque strip tease.

The crowd was wild. Korean crowds are often subdued, offering polite applause. I was surprised by the number of Koreans at the club that night, and possibly even more surprised at how excited and loud everyone was in support. Expats and Koreans alike showered the Queens with cash tips and everyone screamed their cheers at the end of every number. There wasn’t an ounce of protest or negativity. I feel lucky to have had the chance to see something that, while common in my home country, is still rare and often misunderstood here. I’m glad these performers aren’t letting that slow them down. Please check out the links to their pages and see all the pictures from the show on my FB page.

The Back Room

So, remember that secret speakeasy we passed by on our way back from the beach? Well, we went back. Armed (or maybe footed?) with proper shoes, we knew this time to head straight for the secret phone and dial up. They asked how many we were and then a wooden panel in the wall slid aside and revealed a hidden staircase. The stairwell was decorated in homage to the prohibition speakeasies with shelves of empty liquor bottles and art representing the roaring 20s.

We were greeted at the top of the stairs by the handsome young man with the European accent and seated at an elegant little table. The bar itself, like so many, was dark, but each table had a tiny spotlight that created a concentric ring of light on the marble tabletop. The decor was classy and minimalist, the music was fun but not so loud as to inhibit conversation. The menu was full of craft cocktails and a scotch and cigar menu that made me want to cry. I’d just enjoyed some shisha the night before, so I decided scotch and cigars would have to wait until another night, but the cocktail menu was more than appealing.

Sometimes, people tell me they don’t like the taste of alcohol. I wonder if these people have only ever tasted low quality brands, because I can’t imagine not enjoying the smooth taste of good whisky. The best cocktails are designed not to conceal the taste of the alcohol, but to compliment it. Using fresh juices, herbs, spices and other high end infusions to create works of gastronomic art that play into the alcohol of choice. These are not cocktails to get drunk to, they are cocktails to savor.

20160605_220258My eye was drawn instantly to the Whisky Sour which included fresh lemon, sugar and egg whites. Sour mix is a sad abomination of citric acid and corn syrup that can only fool someone who has never tasted the real thing. Aside from the difference that fresh fruit juice can make, the egg white makes the whole beverage rich and a little creamy. I’ve had only a couple in my life, and I was never able to order a “regular” whisky sour again afterward.

When the drink arrived, it was everything I could have hoped for. The whisky was present, neither overwhelmed by the flavors, nor hidden by them. The lemon and sugar balance was spot on, not too sweet at all, and the egg white froth made the whole thing perfect. These were not by any means cheap drinks, but they were very reasonably priced for the quality.

20160605_231929We stepped out onto the balcony between rounds and were treated to a wonderful city view and the pleasant summer night air. For my second, I chose the TBR (the Back Room) Mule. A twist on the Moscow Mule, it was made with ginger syrup (not just ginger ale) and came with a sprig of fresh rosemary and a rough stick of cinnamon bark that was charred briefly to activate the oils. It was served iced in a copper mug and had a light smokey smell from the cinnamon that was deep and savory along with the copper tang and hint of rosemary.

The whole experience was steeped in class and elegance. It’s definitely not a party bar, but I hope to go back there several more times while I live in Busan to continue sampling the amazing menu. There was a selection of tapas as well that we didn’t even start to get into, and if their food is anything as well selected and prepared as the drinks, I know it won’t be a disappointment. Sadly, my camera does not do well in dim lighting, so I don’t have an album to share, but you can check out their website here.


I know these posts make my life in Busan seem a bit like a non-stop party, but I do work at school every day for 8 hours a day. Most of the time my weeks are full of little kid smiles, English lessons, and binge watching shows on Netflix. Five or six days a week, I live a very normal life. Maybe one day I’ll be able to write a bit about that, what it’s like at school or where I go for regular dinner. However, the reason I choose to live and work in another country is to see and experience as much as I can. I know that there are interesting things and cool places in the US, in Seattle, but for some reason it’s so much harder to motivate myself out of a routine to explore them at “home”. I find that’s true no matter where a person is from. My Korean co-workers are amazed at how much I do here in Busan because they’ve lived here all their lives and just don’t think about the city as an adventure any more than you probably think of your hometown as one. It just goes to show, adventure can be anywhere; we just have to take ourselves out of the daily grind in order to see it.

Chocolate & Lanterns in Seomyeon

Busan is a vibrant city with so much to do. Even on regular weekends it’s easy to go out and find adventure. In the last weekend of April, I set off on a Saturday exploration in a quest for the best chocolate dessert cafe and the local Buddhist temple’s Lantern Festival. I was fortunate to have an adventure buddy for the day to share the experience with, because while I’m happy to travel alone, it’s always better to share with a friend.


Dala 100% Chocolate

Back in the getting to know you stage of my relationship with my co-teacher, we discovered our mutual love of chocolate and she told me the tale of this place. Korea is fraught with dessert cafes. Honestly, there’s at least one on every city block and they serve decadent huge desserts that are definitely meant to be shared, but are still on the XXL size. Despite this, the Korean people are mostly healthy weight to slender as a people. I have no idea what the secret is. Anyway, we’d already done the beautiful strawberry cheesecake sulbing, and then she told me about this chocolate place near my apartment that she had been to with her mother. Unfortunately she couldn’t remember the name! So when I saw a post on FB that showed a giant chocolate dinosaur egg and also linked to the cafe that served it, I quickly realized that was the place.

My next dilemma was to find someone to go with, because I knew there was no way I could possibly go there alone without either feeling like a total pig or wasting half a dessert. I finally convinced my new Busan Bestie and Korea travel companion to accompany me. Truth be told, it didn’t take much convincing as it turns out he likes chocolate just as much as me.

We walked around the neighborhood and managed to wander through a street vendor fair on the way as well where lots of local vendors were selling handmade jewelry and art. Just one more reason to love Busan! One of my favorite things about shopping is supporting local businesses and it’s really great to live in a community that fosters events for them. I’d been to the foreigner’s market, but this one was all Koreans.

12961680_10209615823939095_1335060540656672463_nWhen we found the shop, it was a small space tucked in between yet more small boutique style eateries, but we were saving our appetite for chocolate! We stood outside for a moment admiring the menu and realizing that we would have to come back several times to sample all the amazing goodies on offer. Our timing was also great as we didn’t have to wait at all for a table.

We decided to order some iced chocolate drinks, which turned out to be more like milkshakes. My companion got a choco waffle ball and I got a mocha. We had a choice of white, milk or dark chocolate and happily paid the extra 1$ for dark. Then we ordered the infamous dinosaur egg! We were handed a pager and headed for a table to await our order.

edited_1461993235285The drinks arrived first, giant frosty metal cups with straws and chocolate spoons! My mocha was a perfect blend of coffee and chocolate, and not at all too sweet like mochas can often be. The choco waffle ball came with tiny little chocolate dipped balls of waffle batter sprinkled on top and was likewise a luscious bitter-sweet. Plus, the napkins were printed with the Korean Sign Language alphabet! Too cute! We gushed over the deliciousness for a while, taking some obligatory food photos and then the main event arrived.20160430_134544

The dino egg was nestled in a metal bucket (there is no other word for something that big). The bucket itself was filled with the delicious shaved milk ice then topped with chocolate cookie crumbs and chocolate shavings to create the “dirt” of the dino nest. The kit came with a metal hammer and a small pitcher of chocolate sauce. When I went to crack the egg with the hammer, I misjudged the strength of my blow and accidentally flung a shard of shell to the floor. The shell was made of white chocolate mixed with chocolate cookie crumbs and inside was a scoop of the most rich and decadent chocolate ice cream topped with a tiny chocolate dinosaur!20160430_134641

We drizzled the chocolate sauce into the mix and dug in. I’m not going to say it was the absolute best dessert ever, because in my life I’ve been lucky to experience some very top notch desserts, but this one definitely makes the awesome list. Not only was the presentation super cute, but the flavor was outstanding. Mixing and matching the milk ice, the cookies and chocolate, the chocolate ice cream and chocolate sauce provided a different palette in nearly every bite, so I never got used to the flavor. One of the things about flavor is that only the first few bites of a new flavor can trigger the best happiness reaction from your taste buds and limbic system, so a huge piece of chocolate cake (for example) is not actually as good at the end as it is at the beginning. But this dish changed flavor so often we couldn’t get used to it and every bite was as joyful as the first! Plus, we could mix and match with sips of our bittersweet milkshakes.

In retrospect, we probably could have split a single milkshake. It took us about 90 minutes to get to the bottom of the bowl, by which time we were left with a creamy cold soup that we decided to divvy up into the remainder of our shakes to drink. Heaven! It made our already delicious chocolate drinks even creamier. There was a Korean couple who came in slightly after us and managed to devour their egg in far less time. I have no idea where they put it.

With our tummies full and our mouths happy, we headed back into the street to find our way to the afternoon adventure that would hopefully help us walk off some of the decadence we’d just spent the last 2 hours stuffing our faces with. After a longer linger at the street festival, we made our way to the bus stop that would lead us to the Samgwangsa Temple for the Buddha’s Birthday party.

Samgwangsa Temple Lantern Festival

I’m becoming convinced that FB groups may be the best way to learn about stuff to do in a city. I’ve now made a habit of joining them where I live, but I’m starting to think it could be a good idea for a month or two preceding an international vacation so you can hear from the expats who live there what’s going on. While randomly scrolling through my feed, I see someone has asked if the lanterns are up at Samgwangsa, and someone else replied that they were. This wasn’t even an ad, these people obviously knew something I didn’t. I promptly headed over to my other favorite internet resource, Google. Here I learned that the Samgwangsa Temple in Busan is one that is dedicated in the main to the Bodhisattva Guan Yin, known as 관음 or 관세음 in Korean, she is the Bodhisattva of Compassion or Mercy and is very popular in Mahayana Buddhism. The temple itself was only constructed in 1983. There aren’t too many ancient buildings in Korea because so much of the country was destroyed during the war. However, the architecture mimics the classical Chinese style and it’s quite pretty as well as being an active place of worship.

* Despite the fact that I studied Buddhism at grad school (and personally find a lot to identify with in Theravadan Buddhism), I was rather aghast to discover that my education was sadly lacking in Korean schools of Buddhism. I’d read plenty about India, China and Japan, but I couldn’t remember anything about Korea. I went on a short online quest and found that there isn’t that much consumer ready info out there, so if anyone knows some good research material on Buddhism in Korea, please let me know.

The Buddhist calendar is lunar, so the holidays move around in comparison with our solar calendar, and the Buddha’s birthday falls on May 14th this year. Rather the same way that Christmas is celebrated for some weeks before December 25th in many places, Buddha’s birthday is marked with several weeks of lantern festivals in Korea. Samgwangsa is far from the only one, not even the only one in Busan, but online pictures promised a level of lantern frivolity that I simply could not pass up. We knew we wanted to be out of town the first weekend in May because of the long weekend, and that the weekend of the 14th was likely to be over-crowded, so we decided to go right away to make sure we got to see the lanterns in peace.

20160430_170926After our chocolate overdose, we took the bus out to Mt. Baekyangsan. This sounds like it should be a long way away, but Busan is not just surrounded by mountains, it’s closely set about with them and even occasionally interrupted by them, so in reality it was only about 15-20 minutes from our chocolate place in downtown Seomyeon. That’s less than half the time it takes me to get to the beach. We had to walk a bit on some winding roads, and it was stunning to see how much the culture changed in such a short bus ride from the city center to it’s edge. Things went from being tall, modern skyscrapers with brand name shops and English ads to being small tile roofed buildings and local shopkeepers selling traditional clothes and foods. The path to the temple was clearly marked, and soon we began to see lanterns leading the way as well.

20160430_171326Much like the temples in China, there was a large, odd shaped rock set out front with the name of the temple in Chinese characters (白楊山三光寺 – bai yang shan san guang si, which roughly translated as “poplar mountain heavenly Temple” and you can clearly see the “san guang si” became the Korean “sam gwang sa”). There was also a long stairwell with a numerically significant 108 steps. The stairs were lined with lanterns, flowers and statues of various sages famous in the history of the sect, although please don’t ask me to identify them because it can be more complicated than spot the Catholic Saint. We got our first glimpses of the lantern coated buildings from the stairs and began to get giddy at the thought of being surrounded by so many beautiful colored lights!

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The Samgwangsa Temple did not stint in it’s celebrations. Everywhere a lantern could be hung it was. We walked into open air halls that dripped lanterns from the ceiling. The sides of buildings were lined with lanterns. The air between buildings had strings of lanterns. The pathway from the top of the mountain back down to the main temple was covered in lanterns to resemble the scales of some mighty serpent switch-backing down the hillside. Every lantern was numbered and many already had prayer papers attached to them in little weatherproof plastic baggies. In the plaza underneath the largest contiguous spread of lanterns, there were tables set up all around to let visitors donate in order to add their prayer papers to a lantern somewhere in the Temple.

20160430_172917We traipsed around the temple grounds in awe, randomly bursting into the final song from “Tangled”. At one point we accidentally wandered into the nun’s living quarters, although it wasn’t closed off it was still a bit embarrassing to find them just cooking dinner. There was a sign for the bathroom, which I’d seen before I realized where we were, and they were kind enough to show us to the facilities.

We circled around the standing pagoda and then found the entrance to the main hall of worship. I’ve had the good fortune to be inside some truly stunning temples, and this one was doing it’s best to compete, despite it’s youth. I don’t have any pictures from the inside out of respect, but the walls and ceiling were covered in carved and painted figures, dragons, birds, Bodhisattva’s and sages. The detail was incredible and we sat for a while on the provided cushions in appreciation and meditation. The altars beneath the figures were laden with fruit, flowers and rice, and the back wall was stacked with sacks and sacks of donated rice for the residents. On our way back outside, I finally realized what seemed to be missing from the temple – incense! Every other Buddhist temple I can think of was constantly burning fragrant offerings in giant censors set out for the pilgrims to use, filling the air with sandalwood and other earthy spices. This temple had none. I’d seen one of the giant burners, but there was no incense in it and no fragrance in the air.

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We walked around the terraces and balconies taking pictures of the opposing hillside where more strings and patterns of lanterns had been set up in a star shape and the “Buddhist Cross” (no its not a swastika, I promise). We bought some souvenirs at the temple gift shop and gawped at the giant lanterns of dragons and zodiac animals. In need of a snack, we headed off to one side where some vendors had set up near some picnic tables and bought something random on a stick after being reassured that it was “mashisoyo” (delicious). It was. It was some kind of seafood concoction with mustard and ketchup which should have ruined it, but somehow did not. My companion also bought a souvenir lotus lantern to carry around once the sun set.

It didn’t take much to fill our bellies, and we headed up the last peak to see the white lanterns and the top of the winding pathway. From this vantage point we watched the sun set over the temple and the city spreading out below us. It was such a magical blending of the natural and the urban, the sacred and the secular. Busan is an amazing place.

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Once the sun was down, we began the second half of our exploration, the lanterns by night. We walked down the belly of the dragon as we descended the mountain back into the main temple complex. Our walk was accompanied by some traditional music that the monks and nuns were performing in front of the main temple room and we were serenaded with chanting and drumming that echoed through the mountains around us.20160430_195457

Once we descended into the main complex again, we found everything we’d seen before renewed by lantern and LED lights. Giant holy symbols lit up the plaza, prayer candles adorned the pagoda base, a wall of lanterns surrounded the pagoda along the mountainside and every single one of the lanterns we’d passed before now glowed. The pure white lanterns created the brightness of daylight for anyone underneath them, and the other colors just made us feel like we were floating inside a rainbow. We retraced our steps, dancing and singing and taking more selfies than is really healthy for anyone. We made it back down to the zodiac and dragon lanterns which I have only ever seen the like of at the Dubai Global Village Lantern display, and that’s *Dubai* where everything is huge and over the top.20160430_205646_Richtone(HDR)

Finally, we headed back to the area where we’d gotten our snacks so we could see the beautifully lighted mountain path. We were too tired to walk all the way up, but the view of the temple complex from the other side was amazing. I’ve never been able to visit a temple during a festival like this before and here was one practically in my own backyard! I talked to some of the expats who’ve been here longer and they seemed rather blasé about going again since they’d been last year. I can only say I hope that I never get tired of seeing such colorful splendor. I don’t have the best night camera capability, but please check out the full album on my Facebook page to see the glorificence.


Stay tuned for the Long Weekend adventures to Namhae Island and Taean Tulip Festival! Korea is so full of amazing stuff and yet I feel like  it gets very little press or tourism from the West in comparison with Japan. I hope my stories shine some light on the goodies this country has to offer and maybe encourage some of you to get out and see some of them. As always, thanks for reading and enjoy the pictures! 🙂