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.


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.


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.


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. 


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 ❤


Boryeong Mud Festival 2016

After a month of a bad news fueled fug, I finally got back out. All due respect to the horrors, the death, the downward spiral of the election cycle, but nobody can stay in that headspace for long without going crazy. We all need a balance. It’s also important to remember why we are going through all the hardship, and why we have to keep fighting for what’s right. So I headed over to Boryeong for the big famous Mud Festival. This post is about 30% a report on the festival and the rest is focused on the great things that happened to me there to help me recharge all my joy batteries.

One of the tour groups here (Enjoy Korea) which had taken me to the Namhae Anchovy Festival decided to offer a trip to this muddy event and after some research I decided that it would be overall better to take their chartered bus and let them deal with the pension than to try to do it myself. I saw amazing pictures like this one mud1all over their website, Facebook and the internet in general. It’s on the beach as well, which is always a winning proposition. So I got all packed up, bathing suit, all the sunscreen, extra clothes and of course my towel, and set off for an adventure.

It’s becoming stunningly clear to me that Korea has a subtle disconnect between expectation and reality. Historically, reality has shown me that if you read a great description, but show up and it’s not true that you’re in for a disappointing time. In Korea, however, I’ll read a great description, show up to find it isn’t true, expect to be disappointed, then actually have a great time and walk away wondering why they didn’t just describe the real awesomeness in the first place. This trip was no exception.

The Expectation vs The Reality

korea_mapBoryeong is on the opposite side of the country, a little south on the coast of Taean, where we went to see the tulips. It took us about 5 hours to get there, but it was nice because we were on one bus the whole time and didn’t have to think about anything. We got there around 2pm, and quickly went to drop our stuff off in the room and change. We also had to go hunt down booze and waterproof pouches for our phones and wallets. So, it was probably after 3pm by the time we got TO the festival. This may be the only real complaint that I have about the tour trip. The main festival attractions closed down at 6pm, so we didn’t have a lot of time to try all the activities before they were done.


Our group (right) expectations were all pretty much the same. We had been led to believe that there would be a giant mud pit on the beach where people went crazy with mud wrestling and mud chicken, and mud races, and that off to the side there would be some pools and water slides. When we arrived, we kept looking past all the inflatable slides, trying to find the mud pit without success. Finally, I stopped a couple of caucasian dudes who were reasonably muddy and asked where it was. I was informed to my shock and dismay that people were basically getting muddy by going over to one of the large pots of mud and splashing it on each other. … Wut.

mapIt turns out that the main festival is on Daecheon Beach, which is a beautiful sandy beach, and the mud has to be trucked in for the array of water slides and inflatable games. No wonder it was watered down. Several of the photos I’d seen online were not actually from Daecheon at all, but from the actual mud flats themselves in Namgok-dong, where smaller events, including a 5k mud run, are held. The mud festival lasts about 2 weeks and we were just arriving in town for the last weekend. I didn’t even learn about the mud flats until after we got back, but we wouldn’t have had enough time to visit them that day anyway. Don’t take this map as gospel, because all I could find was the name of the mud flats, so this is just a rough idea of how far the mud beaches are from where the big party is. And while the mud beach looks totally like everything I was promised, the Mud festival itself looks like this.


At Daecheon Beach, the only way to access the mud was to go inside the fenced in area, which also meant abandoning our booze and shoes. So we chugged our soju and headed in to see what there was to see. What there was to see were lines (or queues depending on where you’re from). Queues forever. As we selected a line to stand in, we looked around with a great deal of skepticism. The mud wasn’t mud, it was more like pottery slip (grayish brown water with some clay dissolved in it). All the activities were filled with this muddy water and people are mostly clean (if wet) because going into an activity means you wash off any of the thicker “mud” you may have acquired being splashed while in line.

20160717_123352The line we were in was for the football (soccer) arena. It was an inflated pool with inflated goals on either end. The muddy water was about mid-calf depth and the ball was an inflatable beach ball. It did look fun, but after the first 30 minutes of standing in line, we were seriously questioning our life decisions . We took turns holding the group place in the queue so people could get out and go pee, and finally it was our turn to get in the arena. We lined up against a group of Koreans and began to chase the beach ball around the pool.

So. Much. Fun.


Something magical happened in the moment we began to play. All of my adult cares suddenly drifted away and the whole world was splooshing through the slippery not-quite-mud with a bunch of other grown ups who were all busily engaged in reviving their inner children. I don’t know how many times I fell down, trying to take a kick at the ball and loosing my footing, but I couldn’t stop smiling. I don’t know what the rules were supposed to be, or how many points were scored, but eventually, a referee came by to stop the game and pronounced the Korean team the winner. We lined up across from each other and we bowed to them and promptly got splashed to oblivion by the winning team.

My jaw hurt from laughing and smiling so hard. I felt like the Joker (pre-Heath Ledger), a permanent huge grin stuck in place. All I wanted to do was get in line for every other game available, 13728502_10101483396628871_1233761723_obut my top goal was the giant slide. My friend described it later as “a dirty inflatable playground for drunk adults. It was all my dreams come true.” And the best part is that there was a dirty inflatable playground for kids in a separate area, so we didn’t have to worry about any rugrats underfoot!

The line for the tall slide wasn’t too bad, but we lost a few people to the short slide and to the bathroom line. Korea has figured out that women need more bathrooms than men, so there’s been a standard 3:1 portapotty ratio at nearly every festival I’ve been to. This has usually been successful, but for some reason, the lines for the men’s bathrooms here were awful.

The weather was also being (at least for me) amazing. I was expecting to spend a day blistering under the sun and worrying about my sunscreen washing off, while using mud like an African elephant to cool my head and shoulders. Instead it was cloudy and barely warm with a lovely breeze. I don’t think it could have been more than 24 C, and I was blissing out on the total absence of heat and humidity, but some people were cold. North Americans formed heat barriers around South Africans while standing in line in an attempt to keep them warm.

20160717_122025I was surprised to find that the giant slide dumped me outside the fenced in area, especially since my shoes were back on the other side at the entrance where I’d been asked to leave them. I reconnected with some of the group and managed to get back inside right before they closed down. We got in one more line for the floating hamster wheel (which is a serious upper body work out, by the way, especially when it’s slippery!) but alas when we got out, the other attractions were closing down.

This is not to say the festivities were over, just that the inflatable pools and slides were no longer open and we had to rely on the simple pleasures of booze, beach and interesting people. The cool weather was also accompanied by some rough seas, so the “no swimming” signs were up and we were limited to wading in the fierce waves. The sea water was surprisingly warm, however, and we lingered around the surf for quite a while.

Your Moment of (Femini)Zen

The girl I was hanging out with is quite pretty and was approached several times by very flirty guys. One very determined guy came over to us in the waves and started chatting. His body language was very much “hey baby” and she was clearly interested in return. It looked like they were off to a good start, but then it got neggy. For those of you who don’t know, “negging” is the tactic of using subtle insults to break down a woman’s self esteem and raise a man’s own social value by comparison, thus making her feel vulnerable and perceive him as desirable. It is widely advocated by pick up artists.

First, he started talking about his sister. How can this possibly go well? Because “you remind me of my sister” is already not a sexy pickup line and he decided to go with “My sister is hotter than you” instead. She was  staring at him like, did you really just say that? But she was also doing the thing we’ve been trained to do as women, and not making a big deal about it. She did point out how weird it was, but in a kind of lighthearted “ha-ha” way. I flat up called him Jamie Lannister, but it didn’t even make a dent. He tried to deny saying it, but never actually retracted it even when we both insisted he had said it more than once.

At this point I was not happy about the situation, but I didn’t want to make her more uncomfortable, so I leaned over and whispered to her that if she wanted help ditching this guy to let me know. She was still into him, I guess because she wasn’t looking for a long term relationship here, she was willing to overlook some drunken weirdness. Then he busts out telling her she looks old! Now, I don’t think old people are necessarily unattractive, but in the patois of courtship, telling a woman she looks old is a crazy insult. I can tell she’s still trying to keep it all fun and funny even though it’s bothering her. Finally, she asked me what I thought about going back to this guy’s room. You don’t really want me to say, I told her. (because I’m going to drop a feminism bomb and generally people at parties don’t groove on that) But she insisted.

So, I let it go in the kindest way possible. I point out that he’s using these destructive techniques of insulting her to break down her self esteem and make her a more vulnerable target for the hook up. I also point out how crazy and unnecessary it was because she was into him before he started doing it. I even tried to give him the benefit of the doubt and told him he probably wasn’t even aware he was doing it, but had just been trained to treat women that way in order to fulfill the equally toxic version of masculinity he’d been taught he had to live up to. (the alternative being to accuse him of actively engaging in pick up chicanery) I told him I didn’t think it was his fault, but that he could start changing by being nice to the girls he wanted to be with instead of breaking them down.

I’m not telling this story to toot my own femism horn. I was really nervous to say these things out loud. I was scared the guy would get hostile. Worse, I was scared the girl I was trying to help would reject me, tell me I was overreacting or reading too much into it, or that it was “just a joke”. I’m telling this story because it was scary and hard. So if you think these things and are scared to say them out loud, know you aren’t alone, but also know this:

I watched her face as I was talking and it was like this gargantuan wave of relief that someone else was saying what she was thinking. She instantly agreed with me and after the guy gave up and wandered off (yay no agro), she thanked me for saying those things. And the nice part is, later in the evening, when she eventually found the guy she wanted to hook up with, I felt confident wishing her well because I believe that she’d been reminded of her own self worth and had found a guy that would make her feel good.

Oppan Gangnam Style

20160717_123546Returning from the beach to find the eerily abandoned mud park, it didn’t take me long to get to my other favorite travel activity: talking to new people! I ran into someone I’d met briefly in one of the lines who had also ended up separated from his group. We wandered around the waterfront chatting, and ended up having a great conversation about our lives and travels which was totally unmarred by any awkward flirting. Why I love A-spectrum folks: you can dive straight into a deep and meaningful conversation without  all that useless weather-sports-job chit chat.

psy-daddy-notesWhile we were talking, I found out that the K-pop sensation Psy was scheduled to perform on the beach. Which, again, just goes to highlight how bizzaro Korea is about promoting events, because there had been no mention in anything I read about this. In case you’ve been living under a box, Psy is the singer of the international sensation “Gangnam Style”, so he’s not just famous here in Korea, but nearly everywhere. I mean, imagine if you went to a festival and then halfway through someone was like oh yeah, Beyonce is gonna perform, too.

My newfound conversation buddy had a bus out that night, so was anxious about getting to see the show, and of course, whether or not the number one hit would be performed before he had to take off. When the music started, we were up on the street. The whole bluff overlooking the sea was packed with people, most of them holding up phones to see the stage. Maybe they were recording, but generally they were using the phone screen as a kind of remote lens so they could see over the heads of the crowd.

It was impossible to get close to the railing and get a view, but I noticed through the throng that the beach near the water was almost completely empty. The stage was set up on the beach as close to the bluffs as possible, but it’s not a deep beach and the performance area was less than 30 meters from the ocean. We started walking away from the stage to find a place to break through the crowds and get down onto the sand, and by following the shoreline back up, we got very close to the stage indeed.


I don’t get star-struck too much, but I have to say that it was a highly surreal and awesome experience to be standing in the sand with the waves crashing a few meters to my left and Psy performing a few meters to my right. There’s something intoxicating and fulfilling about a huge crowd of happy people, and I will never get tired of looking around and going, “This is really my life! Wow!” And, in case you were wondering, my conversation companion did get to see Gangnam Style and we danced like idiots in the sand.


After the music, I drifted back to the sea to do some more wading. It didn’t occur to me to take my shoes off since they were waterproof sandals. Unfortunately, the tide was dangerously strong, and in addition to taking the sand out from under my feet, one particularly intense wave took the shoe right off of my foot! After a few minutes of feeling around in the sand with my toes to see if it was buried there, I gave up on the shoe and headed inland where I promptly met some more friendly people who chatted with me and shared their beer, while I looked for a cheap pair of beach sandals to replace the ones I’d lost to the sea.

When they set off, i found myself alone once again with zero idea where any of my original group had gotten to, but I was entirely sanguine about it. As I walked up to the bathrooms before beginning a quest for food, I looked over and spotted my Busan Bestie standing in front of the convenience store chatting with a group of blondes. I can’t even tell you how many thousands of people were there that night, but we found each other without the aid of any social media. My bestie and went down to sit in the sand and one more of our starting troupe wandered up to join us. With our core group reassembled, we chatted about our experiences from the day and generally enjoyed ourselves. After a while of holding still on the waterfront, I finally started to feel the chill everyone was talking about and we got up to try to find food.

It’s not that food is absent from Korean festivals, but they don’t have food stalls the way we might see in the West which are full of food that’s meant to be eaten while walking. Korean food is a very social event, so even at festivals, they serve food alongside a place to sit down with big group and eat it. As a consequence, the mud festival did not have much food on offer because there was nowhere to sit and eat it. Most of us hadn’t eaten since before leaving Busan and had a hefty appetite by midnight.

We found a chicken and pizza shop on the main road, but then because there were no tables, we joined a couple more military guys at their booth and they promptly shared their chicken and beer with us. We had ordered the cheese chicken, which is not like chicken Parmesan, and is instead a sort of fried chicken coated in the kind of cheese powder more often associated with cheese flavored popcorn. It’s actually not bad, and when you’re starving from a long day of drinking and playing on the beach it’s practically food of the gods. Of course we shared back with the Army guys, and they left us most of a pitcher of beer when it was time for them to take off.

The chicken was really filling and the pizza took foreeeever. Just as I was starting to think it might be worth taking the loss just to get out of there, they finally brought it to us in a box. I figured I’d eat it for breakfast, but then we became the bearers of serendipity rather than the receivers. On the way back to our pension, I ran into some more revelers who were super eager to find out where we got the pizza. Since it was still hot and untouched, I offered to sell it to them for what I bought it for (no pizza profiteering). I think the Korean girlfriend was going to cry she was so happy, and just couldn’t believe that a pizza fell into their laps. It makes me happy to know that somewhere, someone is telling the story of how they were drunk and starving at the Mud Festival when this white chick came outta nowhere with a hot pizza for them.

Ondol Again, Off Again

Sleeping arrangements were sparse but adequate. At least this time, I knew I was going to be sleeping on the floor, so it wasn’t a shock. To cut down on costs, the tour group had assigned us all roomies, and we stumbled in sometime after 1am, waking ours up with many apologies. The Korean Ondol is the magical heated floor that I was so grateful for in February and March. However, this has led to adoption of a sleeping “mat” that is quickly becoming one of the great cultural mysteries to me. When I lived in China, I was struck by how hard the mattresses were, and one of my Chinese coworkers even complained about how the mattresses in American hotels were too soft for her to sleep on. In Japan, I had a futon on a tatami frame. The futon was thin, maybe 6-7cm, but it was cushy enough to take the edge off, and the tatami underneath was also a little springy. So, both of these Asian cultures certainly liked harder sleeping surfaces than we do in the West. Fair enough. But the Ondol mat is really just a blanket on the floor. Not even a thick blanket. You could almost imagine that being ok with like a squishy fluffy comforter, but no. It’s a thin quilt. In the winter I can understand not putting much between you and the heated floor, but in the summer all it does is protect you from sticking to the hardwood.

20160717_123909I like the notion of the pension, but the number of nights per year I’m willing to sleep on the floor is shrinking as I age. Just one more reason I really need a TARDIS. Anyway, thanks to alcohol and exhaustion, I did manage to sleep. And woke up the next day with only a mild hangover and several more hours to explore the festival grounds. I hadn’t known that we would still be at the festival for so long, and only had one set of clean clothes. It turned out that the water attractions were closed anyway, so while there were still people getting muddy, it was limited to the mud water jars placed around the plaza.

20160717_124405We managed to stay clean and took the time to better explore the area. As it turns out, the Boryeong mud is famous for it’s mineral composition and use in cosmetic products. The festival was once an advertising campaign for the cosmetics and has since become an epic party. There were several things that seemed to be permanent beachfront statues that were all about the mud, but since the mud itself is a major commercial export for the town, it wasn’t so surprising that they had statues devoted to it.

20160717_124420We also found the performing native Americans again. I feel like it’s starting to become some kind of David Lynch-esque running gag for my time in Korea that there are always guys dressed in intense and often highly mixed Native American garb playing flutes and pan pipes and selling dream catchers. One of them had bright neon fringe this time. And I saw more of them playing at a rest stop on our drive home! What is the deal Korea, seriously?

The Verdict?20160717_123521

Overall, the Mud Festival was a stunning success for me. I still think it could more accurately be called the muddy waters festival, but once I got over the initial shock of how different it was from my expectations, I had an amazing, endorphin fueled, oxytocin generating, dopamine flooding time. (Which is big brain chemistry talk for “AMAZEBALLZ!”) If I go back next year, I’ll make an effort to arrive Friday night or at very least earlier on Saturday so that I have some more time to play on the mud toys before they close down, and I’ll try to find a group that is hitting up the mud flats proper as well. I might also recommend getting a camel pack for water in addition to the waterproof pack for your phone and money. There were convenience stores everywhere, but most of us didn’t drink enough water, and it took me a couple days to fully re-hydrate. As far as fun things to do in Korea, I wouldn’t make a special trip to the country just for this one, but it was definitely a great reminder of love, friendliness, and joy that I really needed. And since there’s no bad time for love friendliness and joy, I absolutely recommend the festival to anyone who happens to be in Korea in July.


As the first semester draws to a close, I find that I’m still completely enjoying myself in Korea and at this job. I’m looking forward to some more fun adventures this summer including a vacation to New Zealand! I’m being joined soon by a dear friend and fellow globetrotter Jane Meets World, who is finally moving to Asia for the first time, so I get to use her arrival as an excuse to do even more fun things in Busan. And I’m already planning our “Korean Thanksgiving” holiday weekend trip in September. As much as I hope that things in the US make a turnaround for the sane, and as hard as it is to watch my friends and family to live there endure the hatred and vitriol that is being propagated, it’s important for us.. for me to remember that most of the things in life have the potential to be great, and that most of the world (including large parts of the US where the cameras aren’t always pointing) is a beautiful place filled with amazing people who can be your friend for a minute or a lifetime if you just open your eyes and your heart. Love is quieter than gunshots, but there is more of it.