Friday, November 26, 2010

Three Months In: A General Update

Today is November 26th, which means exactly three months ago I started working here in South Korea.  What do I think so far?

A Korean dish: Bibimbap
The Food: It took awhile, but I'm really enjoying Korean food.  In fact, the other day I came to the realization that I will miss many Korean foods when I return to Canada.  Korean barbecue is easy enough to find in Canada, but acquiring some things like dak galbi or songpyun may be a little more difficult.

The People: Korean people are an interesting group.  Koreans are fiercely loyal to their families, and intensely proud of Korean accomplishments; the Korean national identity is very strong.  Students in my class were dismayed when I told them that many people around the world don't realize how modern Korea is, but the class erupted in cheers when I told them that my best friend drives a Hyundai Tucson, and that my television back in Canada is a Samsung.

"Dynamic Seoul"
Seoul is an extremely active, busy place.  I'm amazed that, at three in the morning, there seems to be just as many vehicles driving on a main thoroughfare as most other times of the day.  Of course, at that time, well over 90% of them are taxis.  The city simply never stops.  I'm often both amazed and daunted by it.

I would be remiss if I didn't comment briefly on the events of this past Tuesday.  Supposedly in response to military exercises conducted by South Korean forces, North Korea launched a barrage of artillery shells against a South Korean island, Yeonpyeong.  The attack resulted in the deaths of two Korean marines and two civilian men and the destruction of a number of South Korean homes.  South Korea returned fire to the north with 88 artillery shells.  Damage and casualties in the north is unknown.  It is important to remember that incidents between the two Koreas happen on a regular basis.  This particular attack is a little different in that it is the first time civilian targets have been hit; however, it is by no means the most severe attack to happen.  Please know that we are completely safe and sound here in Seoul!

Defense Minister Kim Tae-Young
resigned after criticism
Yeonpyeong Island after NK shelling
Two marines and two civilians
were killed on the island

In the aftermath of this incident, the President of South Korea has declared that more troops will be stationed in the maritime border region and Washington has of course declared its solidarity with South Korea.  Also, the Korean defense minister has resigned due to public pressure with regards to how the attack was handled.  The President has stated that, in the future, Northern aggression that targets civilians will be met with harsher retaliation.  Finally, the United States has deployed a carrier group, led by the USS George Washington, to the Yellow Sea.  The only other worrying sign is that the US Navy and the ROK Navy are scheduled to participate in military exercises sometime next week, and the government in Pyongyang has stated that they will respond to this "provocation."  I had scheduled a visit to the Demilitarized Zone next week, but in light of this latest news, I've decided to hold off on that particular trip.  I do not believe that the situation will escalate significantly, but I also don't believe we have seen all of the fallout from this incident.  I do want everyone to know that I am keeping an ear to the ground, but that I am currently completely safe!  I've registered with the Canadian embassy, so if there is any reason to leave Korea quickly, I'll have support in place.

Tonight, however, will be cause for celebration.  I've signed up to a Thanksgiving dinner, put on by the group "Seoulite."  Originally, a few friends were going to come with me, but they unfortunately had to back out.  I guess I can share the bottle of wine I got us with some new friends I meet there!  I think it will be a lot of fun, and I'm really looking forward to turkey, stuffing, potatoes, and pumpkin pie.  Can't wait!  Pictures to come!

Friday, November 12, 2010

빼빼로 Day!

Pepero promotional display in Lotte Mart in November

As I wrote about yesterday, November 11th is Remembrance Day in the Commonwealth countries.  Korea also observes a special day on November 11th: Pepero Day!

Pepero is a Korean confection, made of a cookie stick covered in chocolate.  There are a number of different flavours, but my favorite is definitely almond!  On Pepero Day, couples exchange boxes of pepero in order to show their affection.  Also, students will buy pepero for their teachers, and people often buy pepero for friends in their workplace.

Pepero is manufactured and sold by Lotte, a Korean company whose influence cannot be escaped in Seoul.  Everywhere you look, you will find items and services carrying the Lotte name.  Lotte Mart, Lotte Department Store, Lotte World (a huge indoor amusement park), apartment complexes known as Lotte Castle, hotels, insurance coverage, and even two baseball teams: the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan, and the Lotte Giants in Busan.  According to Lotte, Pepero Day was not started by them.  Rather, they apparently noticed a spike in the sale of pepero on November 11th, after which they encouraged the holiday with special gift packaging and promotions of pepero during November.  November 11th is considered Pepero Day because, apparently, the date "11/11" resembles four sticks of pepero.

Original pepero

Regardless of the origin or "legitimacy" of Pepero Day as a holiday, Korean couples and children have a lot of fun exchanging pepero and surprising friends and family with the treat.  I, for one, enjoyed receiving pepero from many of my students, and I even bought a couple of boxes to bring to work and share with my co-workers.  I wonder if something similar could be introduced to Canada?  I personally think that pepero (and/or pocky) should have more of a presence in my home country.  Perhaps Lotte could expand their operations even further?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Lest We Forget

Today is November 11th, and in Canada, that means it's Remembrance Day.  Well, strictly speaking, it's not Remembrance Day yet, because it's only still the 10th in Canada as I write this.  You see, the time zone thing is very strange.  I'm currently living in November 11th here in Korea, which means... whoa, I'm in the future!  This is incredible!  Let me see if I can get today's lotto numbers for people back in North America... okay, something's wrong there, the Lotto 6/49 website hasn't updated to today yet.  Wait... if I'm in the future, what happens to past me?  Could I conceivably meet myself and somehow screw up time?  What if I do something to alter history so that I'm never born?!?  Wait, it's only a sixteen-hour difference... but I could change things... oh, this is far too much power for one person to have... I can't...

Okay, sorry about that, I've now upped my meds, and can continue on in a semi-rational manner.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in
Ottawa on Remembrance Day
Remembrance Day is observed on November 11th in order to mark the date of the Armistice following the First World War.  Historically, that war ended "at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month" of 1918 when Germany signed the Armistice.  Remembrance Day is observed by the countries of the Commonwealth.

Traditionally, one or two minutes of silence are observed at 11:00 a.m. in memory of the soldiers who fought and died since World War One.  In Canada, official Remembrance Day ceremonies are held at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, with the Governor General and other government representatives in attendance.  In Canadian schools, Remembrance Day assemblies are held, usually the day before Remembrance Day as the 11th itself is a national holiday.

A small red flower, called a "poppy," is worn on the left lapel during the two weeks before Remembrance Day, and on Remembrance Day itself.  In many of the battlefields of Europe, poppies grew, leading Canadian military physician John McCrae to author a poem entitled "In Flanders Fields."

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
      Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
         In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.

Since the 1920s, poppies have been a symbol of Remembrance Day throughout the Commonwealth.

I hope that this post has been at least a little educational to my non-Canadian (or Commonwealth country) friends.  Tomorrow, I'll write a post about a special day that is celebrated in Korea, which also falls on November 11th.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Confession time...

During my time here, there are many things I've had to keep quiet about.  You know what they say, "when in Rome..."  Maybe they are a little less liberal here, maybe some things just aren't spoken about...  Sometimes I can't help but think things like, "we don't do that in Canada... how strange."  But most of the time, you accept things because that's the way they are done here, and after all, I am a guest, and I want to learn how Korea does it.

However, I can't keep silent on this issue anymore.  It threatens to come bubbling to the surface, and I feel like I can't be myself.  So, revealed here for all the world to see is my shameful secret, something I've only told a few, very close friends:

I don't like kimchi.

Korean kimchi
I know, I know!  It's shocking!  I can hear Koreans and fellow ex-pats alike, crying "how could you!"  "I thought I knew you!" and even "That's unnatural!"  I know, and I'm so very sorry.  I tried.  Oh, how I tried to like it!  Every day at the school lunch, I would take three or four pieces, slowly eat them, and try my hardest to hide my grimace as they went down.  However, last week, the kimchi tasted... different.  Almost as though it had gone bad.  (Of course, this is a very relative term, as kimchi is made of fermented cabbage.  Can fermented cabbage "go bad"?)  Since that one experience, I haven't been able to eat kimchi.  I do my best to hide the fact that there is no kimchi on my tray during the lunch break, but it's only a matter of time before it's noticed and commented on...

Radish kimchi
There is another variety of kimchi made of radish that is occasionally on the menu.  It is still not one of my favorite foods, but I can eat it.

The Koreans in my reading audience will tell you that it's very healthy, and that eating kimchi actually burns fat.  I know that can't be true, however, it is high in fiber and low in calories.  It is, in many ways, a good food, just one that I find myself unable to stomach any longer.  Besides, one study links kimchi to higher risks of developing gastric cancer.  So, you know, there's that.

There are many aspects of Korean culture and food that I am wholeheartedly embracing.  It just so happens that one of the most visible parts of that culture turns my stomach... to my Korean friends, and other kimchi sympathizers, I'm so sorry.  However, it leaves more for the rest of you!

Officially swearing off kimchi for the time being,

Friday, November 05, 2010

Remember, remember the fifth of November...

Portrait of Guy Fawkes
Many people in Canada know very little about Guy Fawkes Day, which is celebrated in the UK.  The day commemorates the uncovering of the "Gunpowder Treason," a supposed attempt by Sir Robert Catesby and a number of Catholic co-conspirators to blow up the British House of Lords and kill the Protestant King James I during the opening of Parliament on November 5th, 1605.  The attempt was thwarted when, after receiving an anonymous letter detailing the plot, British authorities discovered one of Catesby's co-conspirators, Guy Fawkes, guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder beneath the House of Lords.  Fawkes was arrested, and while most of his co-conspirators attempted to flee London, eight men, including Fawkes, were arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

A bonfire on Guy Fawkes Night
The outcome of the Gunpowder Treason is felt even today.  Traditionally, before the opening of Parliament, the cellar of the Palace of Westminster is inspected by the Yeomen of the Guard in order to ensure that no one has planted explosives in a modern-day attempted Gunpowder Treason.  Only once the cellar has been declared clear is the Queen permitted to enter.  In Great Britain, Guy Fawkes Day (November the fifth) is celebrated by lighting bonfires and setting off fireworks.  Small representations of Guy Fawkes are purchased and displayed, and these effigies are burned in the bonfires.  This practice has diminished over the years, slowly being replaced by American Halloween.  In Canada, Guy Fawkes Day is celebrated in a few areas, such as Nanaimo BC and Newfoundland.

British Yeomen of the Guard

In Korea, no one celebrates Guy Fawkes Day, and mention of it here draws only a blank stare, much as it does in most of Canada.  So, how will I be commemorating Guy Fawkes Day, you ask?  Well, I will be going to a friend's apartment tonight, where three of us will gather in front of my computer and watch V For Vendetta.  There is definitely something to be said for tradition.  I wonder where I can buy some popcorn?

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Some thoughts...

Well, here it is, over two months into my Korean adventure.  I arrived in this country on the 25th of August, and it is now already the 4th of November.  The weeks are flying by at a rapid pace, and I scarcely have time to blink before the weekend ends and Monday arrives once again.  In the past two months, I have seen many things and experienced many aspects of Korean culture and sights in Seoul.  Still, it really feels as though I've barely scratched the surface of what I want to do here.

So far, I've been up the Namsan Tower, visited Insadong, toured the Namsan traditional village, been to Bukchon, visited Gyoungbok Palace, been solicited on the street in Itaewon, discovered the only place that sells pies in Korea, and even found time to clean my apartment somewhat.

I've eaten many types of Korean foods, including kimchi, galbi, gimbap, bibimbap, danmuji, quail eggs, and bulgogi.

I've picked up a few souvenirs already, too.  I already have my official keychain, and there is also a Korean flag adorning my apartment.  I've also picked up a few souvenirs for friends and family, and I want to send those soon...

Still, there are many more things that I would like to experience.  There are many items on my "to do" list, not the least of which are:

Visit the DMZ

Travel to Japan, China, and possibly the Philippines

Visit Jeju Island

Travel to Busan

What do you think?  What should I add to my list?  Please leave any suggestions for me in the comments, any and all ideas would be very much appreciated.