The Foods of Cherry Blossom Season

20160401_141325The last two years of living in Korea has been cherry blossom heaven. I had amazing experiences at the nation’s biggest cherry blossom festival in Jinhae both years (2016, 2017) and didn’t see the same thing twice. When I announced my move to Gyeongju, the museum without walls, everyone said “oh what a beautiful place! you’re going to love the spring”. And I was. I was excited to love spring until it turned out to be the bipolar spring from hell. It’s late April still vacillating back and forth from  10C with rain 30C with sun. Neither the flowers nor I know what to do.

I was so ready for a couple weeks of stunning cherry blossoms and sunny afternoons by the lake and river, but instead I got about two days (both of which I was working during) and then the rain drove all the blossoms away.

Since I couldn’t attend a cherry blossom festival this spring, I’ve decided to focus on the other bounty of cherry blossom season: the themed food and drink. Bearing in mind I’m not in Seoul where the trendy boutique cafes all live, I decided to try and find as many cherry blossom themed consumables as possible in my small town of Gyeongju.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. Every town has a few local variants, and who knows how many tiny cafes and bakeries were selling their own seasonal specials that I never even encountered. Nonetheless, it should be obvious that cherry blossom season isn’t only a feast for the eyes.

Coffee:

2016-04-15 15.45.30Starbucks Cherry Blossom Frappuccino: This one is available in several countries. It’s a seasonal milkshake style beverage. I like that it wasn’t too sweet. I don’t feel like it tastes especially floral, but it’s pink and festive and fun, so why not?
3 stars

Ediya Cherry Blossom Latte: As a result of the Starbucks trend, every other cafe here offers some variation on the cherry blossom latte/frappe. Ediya is probably the most famous, but I found it to taste like strawberry milk. The iced latte version was thicker than flavored milk, but not all the way to frappe/milkshake status.
1 star

Bliss Blooming Latte: The one coffee shop I really wanted to visit this year and didn’t get to try was the cafe Bliss out by Bomun Lake. They have a latte with a “blooming” blossom. A confectionery of some sort that expands in the coffee. No other branch offers this cherry blossom special. I saw the video online and was instantly captivated. However the lake is rather far away and I never made it out there a second time after learning about it. I’ll put it on the list for next year.
(not rated)

Kanu Spring Blend: This is my go to instant coffee brand, a phrase I never would have believed I could have uttered 5 years ago. I admit, I did try it at first because of the ads, but it’s so much better than most of the other packet coffees in Korea that it soon became a staple at my office desk for emergency pick me ups. I was so excited to see it show up in the seasonal line up, but I haven’t seen it in any of Gyeongju’s shops.
(not rated)

Drinks:

20180325_135358Cherry Blossom Soda: GS25 is a major convenience store brand here in Korea and they also have their own line of drinks and snacks. In the spring, they offer a couple of cans decked out in cherry blossom art. The pink can is a bright pink bubbly soda pop that wins hands down for the most floral flavor. It reminded me of drinking sweetened rose or orange blossom drinks in the middle east. I don’t know if it’s made from real cherry blossoms or if they use a more common flower to get the flavor, but it’s legit. My only complaint was that it was so insanely sweet I had to dilute it. I wanted to mix it with gin, but I haven’t found a local supply since moving here. I tried it with water, but that didn’t work well. Finally, I mixed it with milk, Italian soda style, and that was delicious.
4 stars

20180423_200958.jpgCherry Blossom Grape Juice: The green can was actually my favorite drink of the season. Instead of a soda, it’s green grape juice with the same intensely floral flavor as the soda. It doesn’t have the crazy pink dye, or the bubbles. It’s a bit less sweet, and it has some tasty fruit jelly bits in the bottom. It was still strong, but I diluted it with just water and it was perfect. I’m thinking of buying a bunch to stash for the summer.
5 stars

Cherry Blossom Milk: Koreans love flavored milk. Banana is the most popular flavor here, but I’ve seen several others including green grape and apple. While perusing at a local 7-11 I noticed a single serving milk container with pink blossoms on it. Upon closer inspection, it was indeed cherry blossom milk. It wasn’t bad, only mildly too sweet and somewhere between floral and fruity. Worth drinking once, more than once if you love sweet milk.
2 stars

Alcohol:

Hoegaarden Cherry Beer: It’s technically cherry flavored and cherry blossom scented, but it was released seasonally and decorated with pink blossoms. I was expecting it to be similar to a lambic, but it ended up tasting more like a shandy made with cherry-ade. Not too sweet, and certainly not bad.
3 stars

Kirin Sakura Viewing Can: This beer is decorated with the signature unicorn dancing amid the sakura. Kirin is a Japanese beer company and sakura viewing is an important part of spring. The seasonal can is decorated to put you in the mood for spring, but the inside is the same classic Kirin taste. I happen to like Kirin beer, so this wasn’t a big disappointment.
3 stars

Soju: I saw posters around town for soju (the Korean distilled rice wine) that had cherry blossoms on the label, and usually when there’s something on the soju label other than bamboo it signifies flavor, so I was very hopeful when I finally found some. Sadly, it turned out to be regular soju, which I don’t care for as much as the cheongju (like soju, but smoother with less of that nail-polish-remover aftertaste).
1 star

Foods:

20180311_163719.jpgCherry blossom popcorn: GS25 is a chain of local 24 hour convenience stores. The same brand that created my favorite floral soda and juice, as a matter of fact, and they didn’t stop at drinks. Amid the food offerings was a light pink bag of cherry blossom popcorn. This was my first find of the season this year and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. When I opened the bag, I was hit by a powerful and pleasant perfume making it clear that this was not merely pink popcorn, but genuinely floral. It was sweet and tart, with a base coat of kettle corn and a top note of something like Smarties. I didn’t realize at the time, but I suspect it was made with actual cherry blossoms. More later.
4 stars

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Cherry blossom Pepero sticks: By now the world knows Japan’s famous Pocky sticks: crisp shortbread sticks dipped in chocolate and other flavors. When my family lived in Japan in the 80s (yeah… old) the iconic treats weren’t available in the US and I spent years pining for them after we moved back to America. Although Korea has gotten past it’s hatred of all things Japanese enough to import Pocky, they also have their own national brand of the delicious snacks called “Pepero”. There’s even a national holiday for Pepero where all the stores sell huge boxes and decorated gift sets and we all buy and exchange boxes of Pepero. Not Pocky. The Lotte brand of short, double dipped pepero are delicious anyway, but then I spotted this special pink package and had to try it. The first dip was white chocolate and the top coat had the same sweet/tart taste that I’m coming to realize is the ‘authentic’ cherry powder flavor. It was more creamy than sweet, which was refreshing. It’s not going to replace chocolate as my favorite Pepero flavor, but still enjoyable.
3 stars

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Cherry blossom frozen yogurt: Since many coffee shops here are also dessert cafes, it wasn’t only coffee drinks that came in exciting cherry blossom themes. Yogurpresso is a dessert cafe that specializes in, as you can imagine by the name, frozen yogurt and espresso drinks! Unlike American fro-yo, this is quite tart, like actual yogurt instead of ice cream with an identity crisis. The large “blossoms” are crisp meringue and the sprinkles are some kind of candy. It might be one of the preserved cherry blossom additives. I’ve seen them mostly advertised out of Japan. More likely they are random berry flavored sugar bits. However, the little carafe of pink milk down there is the cherry blossom flavor. A tiny pour over to add floral goodness to the sundae. It was tart and refreshing with a variety of flavors and textures to keep it interesting.
4 stars

Cherry blossom pastries & snack cakes:

Once again in a convenience store (they are truly ubiquitous) I found a rack of blossom themed snack cakes. I’m not a huge fan of the packaged pastries here in Korea. Although they are super cheap, they are far inferior to the fresh pastries offered on every other street at the cafe/bakery combos like Tous le Jous and Paris Baguette. I got one bun to try, but it turned out to be strawberry creme. The darker red is red bean (a common bun filling and one I actually quite like), but I prefer my red bean filling with fresh cream. The strawberry was too sweet and there wasn’t anything cherry blossom about it other than the pinkness. The other snack you see here is a variant on the ever present snack cakes. I read this one before grabbing it and it’s also just strawberry and cream cheese. I didn’t bother to buy it after all.
1 star

Festival food:

I didn’t go to any festivals this year, but I decided to throw in my festival food observations from previous years. Every festival in Korea has shaped and colored cotton candy. I’ve seen cartoon charaters, animals, and abstract art created in spun sugar. Cherry blossom festivals of course bring out cherry blossom shaped cotton candy. I didn’t eat any because I figure it’s all cotton candy flavored when we’re talking about festival street carts.
(not rated)

I did eat the cherry blossom fried ice cream at last year’s festival, however. It’s not very pretty, and it’s hard to tell in the paper cup that it is blossom shaped, but you can sort of make out the petals at the top? The best part of this treat is watching them make it. The vendor removes a super frozen blossom of ice cream and dips it in batter before dropping it in boiling oil right before your eyes! When it’s done, the outside is warm and crispy and the inside is cold and creamy. It was vanilla, and I loved it anyway.
4 stars

Honey Butter Cherry Blossom Potato Chips: I was not going to eat this. I saw it early in the season and turned away. This is because when I first arrived in Korea I tried the Honey Butter Chip. I do not know what the obsession with honey butter flavor here is, but you can get WAY too much stuff in honey butter. The problem was it was awful. It was cloyingly sweet and the butter was really potent (maybe because they use French fermented butter?) I was glad to have the experience once, but had no desire to repeat it.

Then I read another blog about Korean snacks and discovered that the limited edition seasonal flavor is actually made with domestic cherry blossoms, harvested from Chilgok County in north Gyeongsang. That’s really close to where I live!Untitled.png

Only 1.4 million bags were released, by the way. That sounds like a lot, but there are more than 51 million people in Korea, soooo I guess we’re sharing. As you can see, the chips are not pink. I’m fine with that since it means no dyes. The smell of cherry blossoms is the first thing that hits you when you open the bag, which is saying something, since potato chips have a fairly strong smell of their own. I tasted a crisp and was pleased to find that the cloying sweetness I’d disliked in my first honey butter experience was dampened significantly by a gentle floral tartness. I became extremely curious at this point. So many of the things I’d tasted had been more tart than floral, and I’d just been assuming it was a matter of artificial flavors, but this was made with real flowers!
4.5 stars

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The Last Word on Cherry Blossom Flavor:

I looked it up, because that’s me. I found that in Japan, there’s an ages old culinary tradition of salt pickling cherry blossoms in plum vinegar. But, Haitai Corp. was very clear about the Korean origin of the flowers they used (equally proud of the French origin of the butter they use, by the way). I broke down and worked on translating the package and ingredients list to try and get more information, but all I could gather was that it’s domestic Korean flowers and not artificial flavors.

My only conclusion is that cherry blossoms are actually tart in taste. This explains why every cherry blossom treat I tried was either a little sour or way too sweet. The flavor has to be treated more like lemon or green plum in contrast to sweeter flowers like jasmine or lavender. Considering how many times I was surprised by sourness, maybe I ate a lot more real cherry blossoms this year than I realized.

Happy spring and happy snacking!

Winter Wonderland 2018

This winter was full of cold and confusion. My hunt for a new job has been incredibly time consuming, and the uncertainty about my future led me to forgo an out of country winter holiday. Instead I decided to head north (not across the border or anything) to visit the Hwacheon Ice Festival and other snow filled winter activities in case it was my last chance to play in the snow in Korea. It looks like things are working out, and I will be staying in Korea next year after all, but I’ll tell that story after all the details are wrapped up. For now, walk with me into a winter wonderland weekend.


I like going on tour trips with the group Enjoy Korea. They’re by far my favorite organized tour group in Korea: polite, well-organized, helpful, responsive, and fun (without being a total party bus). I highly recommend traveling with them if you’re looking for more things to see in Korea while you’re here. No, they aren’t paying me to say that, or even giving me a discount, I just think they’re cool and deserve more business.

When I realized I wasn’t leaving Korea for the winter holidays, I turned to the upcoming events page of their website and looked for something fun that didn’t involve skiing. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to learn how to ski, but stress and health concerns over the fall just made it seem like this winter was not going to be the one. Instead, I found the Winter Wonderland Weekender.

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Naminara Republic

While we were on the multi-hour drive up from Busan, our guide handed out pamphlets about our 3 weekend destinations, and being me, I actually read them. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the tiny river island of Nami was it’s own country! Nami is a small island within the North Han River. Not that long ago, it was only an island for part of the year when the waters ran high. However, when the Cheongpyeong Dam was built in the 1940s, the river level became higher permanently, and Nami was cut off from the mainland year round.

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It was said to be the grave-site of General Nami, and the grave was gradually built up and around, turning the island into a nature reserve and kind of amusement park/garden. In 2006 they declared their independence from Korea to become a “fairy-tale nation”. I’m not making that up, it’s in their declaration of independence. They have an immigration office. I didn’t bring my passport because I didn’t know this ahead of time, but apparently they will stamp your passport if you like. Because of their friendly relations with Korea, it’s not required for visitors to do so.

I cannot help but look at this and think of Nami as a precocious 5 year old who really wants to be a grown up. Nami: “We’re independent and we’re gonna have our own country made of fairy tales!” Korea: “Ok, honey, you have fun and make sure to be home in time for dinner.”

It’s cute.

There are 2 ways onto the island of Nami: the ferry and the zipline. I wanted to try the zipline since our guide said it was actually rather slow and more of a scenic experience than an adrenaline rush, but the wait time was over an hour and we only had a few hours to explore that afternoon.

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The ferry is not disappointing. It’s small, and mostly standing room, but it’s only about 6 minutes from shore to shore and gives beautiful views of the river on the way over. The water wasn’t frozen solid, but there were floating chunks of ice like green glass floating along the shore where the water was shallower. As we approached the island, we were first greeted with a giant ice formation overshadowing the maid of Nami.

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The maid of Nami is a famous statue of a woman standing in the water, but she was nearly obscured and entirely overshadowed by the mountain of ice that had formed from the freezing spray of the nearby fountain. Instead of turning the fountains off for the winter, the Naminarians decided to let their fountains run and turn into fairy-tale castles of long white and blue ice stalactites. Although at first the beautiful structure was overrun with ferry passengers queuing up to take photos, it didn’t take long before they all moved on and I had a chance to get a few of my own.

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The island has a multitude of walking trails as well as a “train” (think kiddie ride). I spotted the post office on my way in where a telephone allowed visitors to make international calls or send post cards from the micronation.

At first, I was feeling a little disappointed by the lack of snow. After all, it had snowed in Busan just a few days before, a place that sees snow every 2-3 years, surely Nami which is famous for it’s snow clad beauty would be white from edge to edge. The main entrance and pathways were simply brown, perhaps from lack of snowfall but more likely from an excess of foot traffic. I determined to seek out more frozen fountains and whatever patches of snow I could nonetheless, and soon found a frozen pond which remained snowcovered and I began to feel more in the mood.20180113_140124.jpg

My spirits were lifted completely when I encountered the sledding hill. Snow from all over had been piled together in a large hill that was decorated with ice-men (like snowmen, but made of ice). There was a line to borrow a sled but it wasn’t long and within a few moments I was lugging my luge up the snowy slope. I think it hadn’t snowed in a few days at least because the snow was quite packed and hard. Many sledders fell over sideways the first time their sled hit a bump. I watched as the line grew shorter, determining my best strategy for not suffering a wipe out and when it was my turn, I tried to center myself as much as possible and took a firm hold of the rope that formed the handle at the front of the sled.

When the countdown ended and the whistle blew, 3 of us took off at once. The slope wasn’t too high, but I soon picked up speed and when I hit the first bump my sled and I were launched into the air. I managed to land without falling over and kept my seat all the way down, whooping in a very American way at the thrill of speed and snow and winter wind whipping my skin.

Next to the snow hill was an ice village. There were sculptures of animals and fish, but also houses and castles built from carved ice blocks where visitors could climb around and take silly photos. I was impressed by the size and scope of these ice constructions, but oh wait until tomorrow.

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While I was finishing up my photos of the ice sculptures at a particularly large ice shark, I looked up and noticed there were ostriches running around in a field across the road. Nami island is very proud of it’s animal population, but apparently the ostriches are the stars of the show. It was a bit surprising to me how curious of visitors the birds were, spending most of their time right up at the fences despite having plenty of roaming room. I bet there’s food involved somewhere. Still it was odd to see these African savanna birds in the snow.

After the arctic ostrich experience, I meandered to the far bank of the island where the river was completely frozen over and dusted white with snow. It was quiet and serene. The emptiness was a stark contrast to the crowds I had left behind only 5 minutes before. It is a function of Korea that will never cease to amaze me, but no matter how crowded it is at an event, all you have to do is walk away for 5-10 minutes to be totally alone.

20180113_144230.jpgNext I headed back towards the center of the island to the arts and crafts village where handmade goods can be viewed, created, and purchased. My favorite was a metal tree dripping glass globes that caught the winter afternoon sunlight. There were also plenty of places to grab a hot drink, a snack or a meal.

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I went on a search for the glass blowing studio because I’d read in the pamphlet that there was an activity where visitors could make a small ornament, but alas it was only for groups of 8 or more who had booked in advance. My foray into molten glass will have to wait for another time.

While I was meandering around the statues and shops, I found a pottery shop with two peacocks perched on the rooftop, and I found a lone snow bunny hopping around on one of the frozen ponds. Great place for him since humans were kept back by the fear of falling in the ice. Great spot for me since I got to take photos of him against the snow. He was pretty fearless though and didn’t seem to mind when even more visitors noticed him and rushed over to take photos.

The weather was so cold that my phone battery was struggling more than normal and my phone actually shut down right in the middle of this bunny photo shoot, but it was still special. I suppose I’ll always have a soft spot for bunnies after having one of my own as a furbaby.

I found that while many of the restaurants were quite expensive (surprise, we’re on an island) there was a place called the Asian Family Restaurant that had decent prices and a wide range of foods. I ended up with a giant bowl of hot and spicy soup in a Chinese style, and by the time I was full, I was warm enough to head back into the snow.

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I decided to walk around the other side of the island on my way back toward the ferries to see what I hadn’t seen, I found more frozen ponds, sculptures, trees covered in a light snow, and the further I went, the fewer people I had to share it with. Coming out of a small birch grove, I spotted the oddest piece of art adorning an unused picnic area. Alone with this, the sounds of distant tourists muffled to silence by the blanket of snow around me, it felt more than a little creepy.

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Heading back to the riverside path, I found some other members of the Enjoy Korea group who were skipping stones on the frozen water to hear the odd laser blaster sound that it makes. I tried it myself, there’s literally no technique involved, just toss a rock on a frozen body of water and pew pew pew! Lot’s of people saw that guy on YouTube be very dude-bro about it, but here’s another guy who actually explains it.

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Finally, the short winter day began to wind down and my last bit of trail gave the ice, river and sky some beautiful twilight colors. I got back to the bus just a few minutes early and discovered that someone had participated in the ice carving craft. She made a hefty stein from ice, and since it couldn’t possibly last in the heat of the bus, she was offering to let anyone who liked have a shot of Korean soju from the frozen chalice. I think it was probably the best soju I’ve ever had, even though it was the same stuff that’s in every convenience store. Bonus, I can safely say in retrospect that either I got in on it early enough or the combo of ice and alcohol did the trick, but I didn’t get anyone else’s cold!

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Go check out the rest of the photos on Facebook.

Garden of the Morning Calm

After dark, we headed over to view a special winter lights show at a nearby botanical garden. The Koreans are, as always, just spectacular at light displays. This large garden usually makes it’s living showing off plants and flowers, but in the dead of winter when everything is brown and brittle, it opens up at night for a whole other color spectacle.

My first few months in Korea, I saw the biggest and most amazing light show when I went to the Taean Tulip Festival, and while I enjoyed every other light show I’ve been to since then, none have been able to take the title from Tulips until now. I did not realize what I was getting myself into. The entry way had trees and bushes wrapped in lights and the almost obligatory tunnel of lights (still not tired of those). I expected it to be similar to the one at Boseong, and I was happy with that idea.

I especially liked the lights glowing on the snow and ice, creating fun reflections and pastel color splashes. I dawdled far more than I should have, but the maps in Korean parks are notoriously bad for scale, and I just did not understand how BIG this place really is. I got to the (also obligatory) suspension bridge and noticed it led back to the entrance, so I turned to head down another path, even though it appeared to lead into darkness. Just to check.

I found another tunnel of light. I found a frozen pond that had been covered entirely in blue lights with a glowing sailboat and dolphins frolicking in the blue. I found a path covered in umbrellas made of tiny lights. I found giant vines and leaves of light that made me feel like Alice when she shrank small and talked to the flowers.

Then I turned a corner and saw the stars.

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Not really the stars, but huge balls made from clusters of tiny lights high in the tall trees looking like the night stars in the blackness. Fiber-optic cables flowed down from the branches like willow trees and waterfalls. Giant leaves wrapped around the trunks of trees climbing to meet the falling fronds of light above. Silhouettes of animals were picked out in life size golden glowing sculptures: reindeer which made sense, and a giraffe I suppose because why not? At the far end of this wonderland was a neon pink church that the King would have been pleased to see in his Vegas days, fronted by two pure white glowing angels. I could have probably done without the extra religion, but as I headed down the hill toward the next display, the church shrank into the background and I was left with a final stunning view of the immersive forest of light.

The theme of over sized plants continued a bit with giant mushrooms and trees wrapped in lights to an almost fractal level of detail. Faced with another fork in the road to go on into darkness or return to the glow of lights at the entrance, I checked the time and decided to forge ahead. I pondered what could be left after that wonderful wood. I took some photos of creative path lanterns and more trees draped in shifting colors, casting a glow on the snow beneath them, content and not expecting very much more when…

A viewing platform is always a good sign. Korean tourism departments everywhere have thoughtfully created a viewing platform at the optimum viewing place. They are hardly ever wrong, and everyone knows the etiquette, so you might have to wait a few moments, but you will get your turn. And when I did…

Usually, I like to describe things I see and experience, but in this instance, it might just be better to shut up and show you. You can see the whole roll on the Facebook album.

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Stay tuned for part 2 when I get to spend Sunday at the Hwacheon Seoncheoneo Ice Fishing Festival… I know, a festival for ice fishing? but it turns out the city of Hwacheon, and really Korea in general, knows how to turn anything into a great time. They can even do up an anchovy festival right, so something as exotic as ice fishing should be no problem! And if for some reason the prospect of catching trout through a hole in the ice isn’t your cup of soju, it’s also the home to the world’s largest indoor ice sculpture, so there’s more photos of beautiful lights to come as well. Thanks for reading!

Settling In: My First Week of School

UPDATE: Something happened to the pictures the first time I published, I’m assuming something to do with using my work computer instead of my personal one? Anyway, it should be all fixed now. Thanks for your patience and enjoy!


Despite the best efforts of the flu, I managed to both make it to and survive my first week of elementary school teaching in Korea. The week was less than normal for several reasons, but it gives me a pretty good idea of what I’ve gotten myself into, and it appears to be good news.


First, let me explain a little about Korean education as I was led to expect it from EPIK orientation and online research:

Typical Korean Students

Korean kids study from about 9 am to about 11 pm (later for the high-schoolers). They start with public school, then do after school programs, private English schools, and subject tutors before going home to do more hours of homework. I think this speech was given to me a half a dozen times at orientation as a way of helping us understand what our students go through, and to give us some sympathy for them in our classes. English class is often the only “fun” class they will have all day (even the little kids), and kids will often end up falling asleep in your class because they were up past midnight studying. Also, your class is only one of 3-4 places they study English.

Next, let me explain a little about my school:

I guess recently the Korean government decided to pour some foreigner money into the lower income schools around the cities, so I work in a neighborhood that one of the locals described as a “slum”. OK, Korean slums aren’t really as bad as say American ones, there aren’t any metal detectors and no cops are roaming the hallways,

Not actually one of mine, but…

but the kids are from economically disadvantaged homes and often receive little to no positive attention from their parents, let alone the costly private after school programs. In the first week, I’ve already encountered several special needs children, and heard horror stories of abusive parents. Social services isn’t really a thing here yet, so kids aren’t protected unless the home life is Jim Jones levels of bad. As such, my kids don’t have a lot of advantages that I was led to believe Korean students have. They don’t have a very high English level and my class is most likely the only place they will get to study English (or possibly get positive feedback).

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My “office” / English resource room.

Do not mistake this for a horrible situation, however.We may not have the best facilities, but we have computers, TVs, and about a million English books. Our main textbooks come with lots of cut out activities and interactive DVD-Roms. And my “office” is the English play room/ library which is full of stories and even a short row of student accessible computers. On top of that, the kids aren’t little hellions of bad attitude or behavioral problems. Most of them are really cheerful, well behaved, respectful and pretty happy to see me. I don’t know if they’re happy to see their other teachers as well, but I get lots of greetings and big smiles in the hallways and the classroom.

20160316_075209In the morning, I wake up before 7 am to get ready. My neighborhood is still quiet then, and when I step out onto the cold spring sidewalk, everything except the 24hr stores are closed up tight. Because I live in a pretty ritzy neighborhood, I have a bit of a bus ride to school, but it’s a nice time to wake up and see what’s in the city through the windows.

20160316_081753Because it’s still so early, the bus isn’t too crowded and I can usually get a seat.
Walking from the bus stop to the school is really peaceful. There are a million tiny shops selling fruit, sweets, snacks, and various household goods, but it’s still too early, so the little alleyways are silent. When I round the corner and my school comes in sight, I suddenly become a superstar. Kids recognize me and are happy to say hello or practice the most recent English phrase they learned in class. They call my name from across the street and run up to get high fives. It really is a great way to start the day.
20160316_082107My first week was actually the second week of school because I spent the first week in quarantine, so you can imagine the kids were surprised to see me after their first week with no native English speaker. There were lots of curious glances and furtive shy peeking in the window. Some brave students even came up to ask what day I would be in their class. Monday wasn’t especially a typical day, but I made it through my classes with minimal technical difficulties, and learned that there are three other teachers I’ll be spending most of my time with. The other two English teachers, who I will refer to as co-teacher 1 and co-teacher 2, as well as a music teacher that is in our hallway. They’re all really sweet ladies, and did their best to make me feel included, sitting with me at lunch and chatting with me in the hallways or after class.

MONDAY

I had to go back to the doctor on Monday after class, which is the boring part. Then I found out that we were having our first teacher’s dinner that night. EPIK orienters advised us to get in on any teacher activities to make our stay easier, but this one sounded like fun anyway. Apparently, every month, the teachers pay into a pot fund and then once in a while we all go out for a great dinner. 20160307_170141This one was our year start dinner, and we went to a traditional Korean barbecue place. Every 4 people shared a table with it’s own grill and assortment of banchan (반찬 : the side dishes served at every Korean meal). It was the duty of the youngest at the table to cook, which is our music teacher, so she set to grilling the pork belly (Samgyeopsal 삼겹살) which we ate with the various spices, sauces and side dishes to change the flavor of every bite.

I was mostly watching and following along, but it was delicious. We ate two plates full and then the waiters came by to ask us what we wanted for dinner! In Korea, after the plate of meat is all cooked and shared, people order some soup or a noodle dish to finish off. I was stuffed, but the ladies ordered a single bowl of a cold noodle soup, which I tried a bite of because they told me that most foreigners don’t like that kind of soup… so of course I had to try. It actually wasn’t bad. The noodles were a little chewy, but the flavor was nice. I think if I hadn’t been so full of pork belly I might have eaten more.

My Korean co-teachers don’t drink much, so we toasted with cider. It’s not what you think. In the west, cider is made from apples, either a spiced apple juice or a hard (alcoholic) apple juice. In Korea (and Japan), cider is a clear, carbonated, sweet, non-alcoholic beverage. I have no idea why it’s called cider. Think Sprite/7Up. It was my first real day out after the flu, and I’d already had a long day at school, and the doctor, and dinner, but it was soooo good. Then they asked if I wanted to go get some dessert afterward. Imagine how sick I have to be to turn down dessert. I wasn’t that sick.

They started describing this kind of frozen dessert,

snow-cone-cup

American Sno-Kone

but didn’t know the English name. After a while, I realized they were talking about shaved ice. Now, Americans (49 states anyway) don’t know from shaved ice. We have this thing called a sno-cone, which is small chips of ice covered bright colored sugary artificial flavored syrup. Hawaiians know a little better. They actually shave the ice instead of chipping it, resulting in a fluffy, fresh snow texture. Some of them even use real fruit in the syrups! I also had the chance to eat some Japanese shaved ice last summer in Yokohama.

yokohama ice

Japanese shaved ice

It was really good… compared to the only thing I’d ever known, which was of course the American sno-cone. When I tried to describe these to the Koreans however, they got looks of disbelief mixed with pity. I even showed them some pictures on my phone to get the point across. They smiled a little knowingly at one another and said that Korean shaved ice was really the best.

I’m used to most people thinking their own culture is the best at xyz, so I take it with a grain of salt. But then they started showing me pictures on their phones, and one told me about the seasonal strawberry flavor that had strawberries, whipped cream and cheesecake! WHAT! So, yeah, we’re going to get dessert.

We walked a long way, it might have been faster to take the bus or subway, but it happened to be a warm night while we had an early taste of spring, so I didn’t mind too much. Heck, if not for the lingering cough, it would have been idyllic. Finally, we arrived.

We picked up another teacher on the way, so there were five of us, and  co-teacher 1 offered to treat us all, so she headed up to the counter to order.I can’t even. Just look at it. It’s better than it looks. And it looks amazing, right?

20160307_191911

Korean shaved milk ice

So, instead of shaved water ice, this is made with shaved milk ice. Making it way more creamy than a mere shaved ice. The bowl is filled with this fluffy frozen milk, then topped with fresh berries, cream and a slice of cheesecake! It’s served with a little dish of sweet condensed milk in case it’s not sweet and creamy enough for you. The five of us shared 2 of these monstrous creations. I’m an addict, but I can’t go alone. Even if I did manage to finish a whole one, I’d feel guilty for days.

We had some great conversation too as we learned more and more about each other. I’d answered a lot of questions about myself in class for the students, but not all of them were as … honest? as possible. I mean, I didn’t lie, but when asked my favorite food/video game/tv show/book, I tried to answer things that I really do like, but that would be more familiar to them than my actual favorites. Good thing for me I like Harry Potter and the Avengers. But, at dessert, with just the teachers, we started talking about other things, and it turns out that  co-teacher 1 and I are both avid Whovians. I’m pretty psyched about that.

They’ve sort of decided I’m the font of all things English, which I don’t mind, but they did ask a lot of questions. The music teacher told me a story about how when she was travelling in Japan, she met an Englishman who, dressed in many layers in the warm weather, she figured must have been uncomfortable, so she told him he looked hot. Apparently this caused his face and ears to turn red, much to her surprise. I had to explain the other meaning of the word hot, and a few social context norms as to why this man would be so embarrassed to have a pretty young Korean woman tell him he was hot. This led to a comparison of our favorite stars, and it turns out we had a lot of overlap in our tastes in men too. I really can’t remember the last time I had so much fun with “girl talk”. Or teaching anyone to say “Cumberbatch”.

“Hot” in any language.

Co-teacher 2 seems constantly surprised that I’m not a more stereotypical American. She was surprised that I could read Korean (and wanted to learn more), surprised I could use chopsticks at dinner, and surprised I was comfortable sharing a common dish while eating. I guess those aren’t normal American traits, but it was strange to run across someone with such strongly ingrained stereotypes of us. I tried to reassure her that she wasn’t necessarily wrong, that of course many Americans do live up to those ideas, but that I’d been fortunate enough to have lots of international experiences, and a group of friends at home who are way more comfortable with things like affection between platonic friends and sharing stuff like food, drinks, clothes or whatever.

TO FRIDAY

The rest of the week was me introducing myself to the students class after class, and having lunches with the other teachers, and hanging out after classes finishing our lesson plans or just drinking coffee and sharing snacks. One day, we took off early again to get me registered with the immigration office and start my Korean bank account. It was a lot of walking around down by the waterfront, so I got to see and explore another part of town and the weather was cool and sunny, so it was a good day for it. When we finished our errands, co-teacher 1 and I went over to Starbucks to celebrate and had so much fun sharing stories that we didn’t even realize how much time had passed and she had to run off quickly to pick up her son.

Thursday was an evaluation day for the students. In Korean schools, there are two kinds of teachers/classes: homeroom and subject. In elementary school, the students spend most of their day with the homeroom teacher who covers most things like Korean, Math, Science, PE, etc. The subject teachers are English, Music and Ethics (as far as I can tell). The homeroom teachers actually look down a little on subject teachers, which in turn frustrates the subject teachers who feel like they work just as hard (if not harder) because they have such a narrow focus. Anyway, evaluation day meant that there would be no subject classes, so we had nothing to do and spent the whole morning in one empty classroom, making a huge mess with our combined piles of drinks and snacks. There’s a lot of “desk-warming” time for Guest English Teachers, but it looks like sometimes at least, I’ll get to spend it having fun with the other subject teachers and not just stuck at my desk alone.

Friday is my shortest class day, because we only have 3 classes, and we can finish our planning early. However, there’s no early leaving, so I hung out on my computer until 4:30 playing games and chatting with friends on Facebook. I’m really hoping to start using this time more constructively, like studying my Korean or (as I am doing now) working on this blog. But it was my first week, so I gave myself some permission to slack.

WTF DUDE?

Then, on my way out, the kookiest thing happened to me. I decided to buy a pizza from the local shop on my way home (that’s not the kooky part), but as I was walking toward the shop, a young man approached me to say hello. Now, I’m a little bit used to being a minor celebrity when I’m abroad. Really, unless you’re in a high tourist area, the chances are there aren’t a lot of white folks (or whatever the non-native ethnicity happens to be). Europe was nice, because as long as I kept my mouth shut, no one could spot me out by sight. But in the Middle East and Asia, I kind of stand out with my glowing white skin (this is not a brag, btw, I’d love some melanin to protect me from the sun’s harsh rays, it’s just not in the genes). As such, it does not freak me out when random people come up and get very curious or friendly. I watch out for signs of scams or aggression, but most of the time, it’s really just honest curiosity and a chance to see if that English they learned in school really works.

So, when this guy came up to me to say hello, I was friendly back. I know in a way I represent my country when I’m out, so I try to be a good example. Plus, I’m actually a pretty friendly person and probably talk to strangers more than is strictly good for me. He asked my name, and also my age, but I’d been warned that asking someone’s age at first meeting is normal in Korea because they use age as part of the system of address (how you speak to someone older/younger than you changes). He also introduced himself and his own age. His English was shaky, but I try to be encouraging (I am a teacher, it’s a good habit). I thought that might be the end of it, since the light changed and I could cross the street, but he followed along, continuing to try to communicate. I thought maybe he lived or worked nearby and wanted to be friends, OK. We took a selfie together and I gave him my public Facebook page (not personal), then said goodbye and went into the pizza shop.

Still not the kooky part. So far this has been a pretty normal cultural exchange, and I felt safe and happy. I order my pizza (a sweet potato pizza, which I have been told is a popular Korean variant and a must-try for all visitors, with a “gold” crust, I’ll come back to the pizza later), and am told it will take about 10 minutes to cook. Then the guy spots me through the window and waves me back out into the street.

This is where it gets weird.

He then confesses his love.

And asks if we can be a couple. “Couple” sounds like “cup-oo-roo”, but I know what he’s saying anyway.

A thing you may or may not know, depending on your own gender and nationality, but girls hate having to turn dudes down. It’s awkward and can be scary. Often when a guy is rejected, he can become hostile, insulting us or even attacking us. It’s not a joke, it’s not an overstatement. It happens all the time. I’ve seen the police called on guys in my own regular hangout places because they got hostile that some girl wouldn’t kiss them. I’ve had plenty of dudes call me all manner of unpleasant things. So most of us learn the delicate art of the gentle turn down/de-escalation. This usually involves flattery, humor, and the inevitable presence of another man in the girl’s life. I often had to pretend to be married in the Middle East just to get away from amorous dudes. Not fun. And it’s even harder when you’re facing a language barrier. Plus, this was my first time dealing with this in Korea (every culture is different), and the whole conversation had started as normal.

I was flummoxed, but tried to stay light, smiling at his compliments and saying no, no, I’m too old for you. (10 year age difference). But he kept insisting! “I love you”, “Couple”. He took off my glasses and held them away from me. I’m pretty blind, and while I have extras in my apartment, I don’t like being unable to see well. He was trying to tell me how pretty my face was without glasses, and that I shouldn’t wear them. Which is a line I don’t think I’ve heard since the early 90’s. I like my hipster argyle frames, I own contacts too, but it’s a choice… my choice. I retrieved my glasses and put them back on. I was still trying to keep it light. I’m not really sure if that was the right choice, but I was nervous about making a scene in a neighborhood that my co-teachers had described as a “slum”, and I started thinking back to the lecture on sexual assault that the US Embassy rep had given us at orientation. I didn’t really want to believe this young man was violent, he just seemed desperate, but desperation can be scary too.

This went on for what felt like an eternity, back and forth. He also took my phone at one point and added himself to my private Facebook contact list (I have removed him, now, of course), and tried to get my Kakao Talk and phone numbers as well. He kept touching me, taking off my glasses and stroking my hair and face. And I kept pulling away, and saying no as politely as I could. I never let myself get angry. Looking back, I know that was a learned response to avoid conflict with males at all costs, but that upsets me too, because how the heck am I supposed to say no if a nice no doesn’t work and a firm no is attacked? Ugh. Consent issues.

I finally fled back into the pizza shop, which is how I know it wasn’t actually as long as it felt, because my pizza wasn’t even ready. When I went back out and started heading to the bus stop, he caught up with me again to give me a little can of lemonade he’d clearly just purchased in the shop nearby. I tried to decline, but he tucked it into my bag anyway. In the end, he got a kind of cold fish hug, but took the opportunity to smell my hair. Leaving me totally creepified.

I spent the whole way home looking like a crazy person, muttering to myself and going over and over the experience trying to figure out where it went from normal to nuts and what I could have done differently. Even then, it took talking to three different girl-friends online about it to calm down enough to enjoy my pizza.

THE POTATO PIZZA

Most countries have imported the pizza over time. It doesn’t always look like what we think of pizza as in America. Sometimes the crust is a totally different texture, sometimes the sauce is sweet or spicy, or not made of tomatoes at all. The toppings can be anything, literally. In China, I saw pizza that used mayonnaise instead of cheese because they’d only seen pictures and didn’t know what it was. So, when I came to Korea, and my instructors told us about the sweet potato pizza, I was very curious. I really like sweet potatoes. And pizza. So this seemed like a match made in heaven.

20160311_175843My pizza was cold by the time I got home, but my apartment has a microwave, so that was ok. It turns out that sweet potato pizza is one of the ones without tomato sauce. The box declared proudly that the crust was made from organic flour (kind of surprised that’s a thing here) and Korean rice. There are small diced vegetables like onions, green peppers and roasted corn, as well as some kind of sausage reminiscent of Italian. Then, placed like a crowning jewel on each slice, is a single chunk of roasted sweet potato (or possibly yam), and the whole thing was covered in mozzarella cheese. The “gold” crust turned out to be a satellite rim of mashed sweet potatoes, topped with cheddar cheese that had toasted in the oven. Not really like anything I’d have described as “pizza”, but quite delicious nonetheless.

SATURDAY NIGHT

Finally, on Saturday, a large group of EPIK teachers organized a March Birthday party. It just so happened they chose to meet right in my neighborhood, so even though I was still recovering from the flu, I decided I could go out for an hour or two. We met just outside the subway station to gather everyone from all parts of Busan together, then marched off in seach of our destination. With a group as large as 30-40 people, it can be hard to find a place, but apparently Korea has these kind of “bar cafeteria” things, where you pull up a table (or group of tables), then you walk around the area getting your food and drink from various stands around the large room, a little like fair booths. One booth has the booze, another has grilled meat, another stir fry, etc. When you pick up your goodies, you tell them your table number and they log it into the computer. Then, at the end of the night, you pay for what you got.

When we arrived, the escalators didn’t go all the way up, and there wasn’t any stairwell access, so we had to take the single elevator up in small groups. I ended up being the first one to arrive, and the host asked how many people we would have. I have learned enough Korean to count, so I told him 30. I’m sure he must have thought I was not speaking Korean correctly, because he asked again with some serious disbelief. After all, I was standing there alone. I kept affirming my estimation, and several more hosts were gathered together until they found one who spoke English and he checked the number again. Yep, that many, really. They put together about 10 tables for us and showed me to the area, taught me about our table pager that would track our orders and buzz when food was ready to be picked up, and finally more of the group started to arrive, preventing me from looking like a serious fool.

It was strange but nice seeing familiar faces, even if we’d only met for a week in orientation. We tried so many flavors of soju and tried to find a local beer that wasn’t totally awful. I tried a dish of kimchi fried rice topped with mozzarella cheese which turned out to be MUCH tastier than it sounded, and I even met some new people to connect with on Facebook and here in Busan. Of course, I want to hang out with my new Korean friends too, but it’s nice to know that there are lots of events where I can catch up with expats and stop speaking ESL or broken Korean for a few hours at a time.


That about wraps up my first week of school. As I write this, it’s the one month anniversary of my most recent departure from the US. It’s really hard to believe I’ve already been gone a month, what with Orientation and the Quarantine, the first two weeks were barely real, and this is the first week I’ve started to feel like I’m adapting to my new life here. The good news is, my health is improving and the weather is getting nicer every day. I really like my job, and my co-workers, and my students, so I walk home every day with a silly grin on my face while I try to decide what new delicious food to try for dinner that night. As always, thanks for reading and don’t forget to check out more photos and daily updates on the Facebook page! 🙂