Monday, August 4, 2008

Korea's Hawaii

As the rainy season gave way to a typical hot and humid Korean summer, my students have started to look at me funny: “teacher, you’re black!”

I used to smile and reply, “I know! Getting’ my tan, pretty sweet eh!” but they’d start patting my skin saying “No… White is beautiful!”

As it turns out, Koreans and I have a very different definition of how to enjoy summer.

Ever since I was a little girl, my parents would take my brother, my sister and me on vacation in the US and Mexico. We would basically lie on the beach all day, frying up like a couple of eggs. It was heaven to play beach and pool volleyball, building sand castles, snorkeling for hours, braving huge waves and fighting under water.

We were exhausted at the end of the day. And of course I’d always be sunburn, red as a crab, while my mum would rub lotion on my back, mumbling something about sunscreen. No matter how hard she tried, I would always be running away every time she even mentioned sunblock. No way I would stand still for 5 minutes!

I also got head sunburns because I refused to wear a hat. My family still recalls me dancing on the kitchen table of the unit, whipping my crazy blond curly hair all over my red face. Those were the days…

If I could’ve walked around naked I would’ve… just because I wanted to be as free as possible! Worrying about losing my top while attempting some crazy back flip in the swimming pool was, in my tiny little being’s opinion, a waste of time.

As I am now older, I am much less active at the beach. But I still get sunburn from snorkeling for hours, cover myself in sand for no apparent reason, and simply love to swim around doing random stuff.

But average Koreans? Not so much.

One of my ajumma students told me the ideal time to go for a swim is around 5pm – when the sun is weaker. 5pm? I can spend a whole day at the beach! The only reason one might go before 5pm would be to pick up some seaweed or rare shellfish, like many ajummas do.

Or just for fishing, which is especially popular at night after a big day at work.

Korean beaches are PACKED in the summer. It’s not funny. It’s suffocating. The reverie of a deserted beach is so far away from reality. For crying out loud, every single beach is efficient – with lifeguards, boat security, restaurants and convenience stores, shower rooms, rental service, and of course parasols.

The Korea Times had a picture of Haeundae Beach (in Busan) covered with parasols as over 600 000people flocked there on a Sunday. You can’t see the beach. Only people and parasols. And they cost about 10$ to rent. Imagine the profit.

I’ve mentioned before how Koreans desperately love white skin, and how they even buy (though not as much as the Thais do) whitening body lotion. But did I mention they also swim with their clothes on?

Yes indeed.

A typical picture of a family at a Korean beach goes like this: everyone is wearing long shorts, a t-shirt, a big fat hat and sunglasses. A few hot chicks wear a bikini and a few hot guys go in a Speedo –but although it is getting more common, it’s still quite scarce.

Koreans don’t want to get tanned. They’re afraid of skin cancer, but they also just don’t want their skin to get darker. And a lot of them (especially women, even if they’re totally skinny) don’t feel comfortable showing their body to the opposite sex.

However two men can totally share a sweet moment together, having a snack under a parasol without even being gay. Back home they'd be chasing women to prove their masculinity but here, they even rub lotion on each other and it's perfectly normal.

As for swimming….!! Oh boy! About half of my students can’t swim. And all my ajumma students don’t swim at all.

Here’s a typical day at the beach for a Korean couple: the girl is sitting on a yellow tube (they’re all yellow) and her boyfriend/husband is softly pushing it around. He probably has water below his waist. He might try to gently wobble the tube, but not for long as his girlfriend/wife will start screaming and hitting him.

Last Saturday a group of, I don’t know, 6-8 Korean adults were playing volleyball in the sea… with their life vest on!!!!

Doug told me he once was surfing with a some people and Koreans started yelling at him. They ignored them and kept enjoying the (relatively calm) waves… until 3 tiny lifeguards started running toward them with a yellow tube around their waist…..!! They were blowing their whistle, screaming at Doug and his friends.

Doug said “Seriously dude… I was laughing so hard! If those guys got any closer to the waves WE would have had to rescue them!! So we came back to the shore and realized they had a whole emergency team waiting for us. It was insane!”

Every beach has lifeguard boats. At least one. Sometimes many more than necessary.

Jeju is considered Korea’s Hawaii thanks to its gorgeous beaches of white sand and clear blue water, but it’s definitely no surfer’s paradise, with hot chicks in bikinis and rhum/coconuts by the beach!

That being said, this island is definitely enjoyable, especially in the summer, thanks to its huge volcano/mt. Hallasan and countless things to do.

North of Jeju is Hamdeok beach – a 20-minute drive from City Hall, there’s a small hill to hike, tons of seafood restaurants, an amusement park and lots of green spaces around. Not really the spot for waves, but great for snorkeling.

A little farther there's Gimyeong beach - similar to Hamdeok, but a bit less crowded even though there's a huge field where festivals are often held. Water sports are very popular here.

West are Gwakji and Hyeopjae beaches – both gorgeous and always packed with Koreans. It’s in the countryside so less touristy but there are convenience stores and snackshops around. Anything can be rented there as well, including life vests, tubes and snorkeling equipment.

It’s a delight to gaze at Biyangdo Island while swimming at Hyeopjae. There are countless tents for everyone to enjoy, and they also offer boat/banana rides. Like at any beach, renting a parasol is about 10 000 won.

South is Jungmun – located in the big touristy area, you get easy access to world-class hotels like the Lotte or the Hyatt. The waves can get pretty wild and of course this beach also gets packed. Haenyos (women divers) sell fresh seafood, and you can have incredibly expensive western food at any hotel.

We like to hang out at the Hyatt swimming pool while sipping piña coladas because no one asks us any questions… too shy to speak English, ya know ;)

On the East side I’m not really sure what beaches are worth checking out, but if you head to sunrise peak, just catch the (15-minute) ferry to Udo island. The beach is gorgeous and you can also spend the day walking around, hiking to the little lighthouse, eating fresh seafood and riding a bicycle.

You can camp pretty much anywhere and even if you're at the beach for the day, you'll find that many Koreans bring "their home" (i.e. tent) with them. If you get a scooter you will definitely love the experience of driving around feeling free as a bird.

Iho beach is always crowded but it's not as nice as the other beaches and many people go there to drink, party or hangout. It's a bit dirty, and close to the village.

The countryside is still quite rustic so you’ll probably in awe every time you see half-bent 70-year-old women working the field, or men driving weird tractors from the 20’s.

Lava caves are all over the place and really cool to visit. Temples are also awesome and they sell incense, Buddhist stuff and delicious vegetarian food too. Museums are diverse – from peace, to sex, women divers and tea. Tea fields are green and gorgeous.

Horse fields are all around the island. So are waterfalls. The tourist map is probably the best one I’ve EVER seen because every little thing is on it; you can just look at it and randomly decide where to go. There are many small avenues but the main ones that cover the island are big, fast, efficient and easy to find.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Sex, meat, dogs and earthlings

Westerners like to joke about Asian meat (especially Chinese) and presume that they could basically serve you cat or dog meat instead of what you ordered. Of course people automatically make a face. How could anyone eat man’s best friend?

In Korea, dog meat is called “poshintang” and yes, people eat it. It literally means "invigorating soup".

Poshintang is especially popular among old men, who believe such meat will boost their virility. They particularly dig (ha!ha!) it when the dog has been hung – because it is apparently tastier, but more importantly, packed with hormones. See, if the dog struggles for his life, the meat will be filled with testosterone. And that’s just as good as Viagra!

On top of that, dog meat is renowned to cure people suffering from a cold, and to be a great source of energy.

My boss says he eats poshingtang 3-4 times a month; he goes out with his male friends, drinks shitloads of soju, eats the soup, and goes home to his wife feeling more virile than ever!

When his 10-year-old son was feeling weak, he brought home dog meat and his wife made a soup. My boss says his son was much stronger afterwards!

It is a custom to eat poshintang during Chobok, Jungbok, and Malbok. Those are the divisions of the heat peak in summer; Chobok marks the beginning, Jungbok marks the middle, and Malbok marks the end. Yesterday was Chobok – i.e. very hot days ahead…

Koreans believe that one should defeat heat with heat! Since the hot weather makes people weaker, one must eat food rich in energy. That’s when poshingtang comes in! Samgyetang (chicken soup – the chicken being young and stuffed with ginseng, garlic, jujube and sweet rice) is also quite popular to defeat heat.

Eating dog meat is a Korean tradition that probably emerged when the country was poor and such food was cheap. Koreans have a way of bragging about their food with catch phrases like “it’s very very good for your health”

Once labeled as such, poshingtang remained trendy Korean food. Plus, if you tell a man he’ll be able to sexually fulfill his wife’s fantasies… what do you expect!

However this became a problem during the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the government, fearing that the country would suffer from bad publicity, banned dog meat. That’s when poshingtang became Gaegogi, gaejangguk, and so on – Koreans were not ready to stop eating their source of vitality so they just gave it other names.

Koreans also enjoy gaesoju - a fermented drink that is distilled by cooking the dog in a double boiler. Dog’s penis used to be added as a medicine to supplement energy…mmmm?

There are said to be more than 6,000 restaurants across the country selling poshintang, or dog meat soup, getting through about 8,500 tons per year. Another 93,600 tons is used annually to produce kaesoju.

Of course it seems cruel to eat dog meat – they are so cute and we have come to consider them man’s best friend. Always jovial, dogs keep us company, come with us for a run or a walk, and they love to cuddle. We dress them in outfits; some even wear four little boots and a hat. Women carry them in their purse.

We feel like we understand them, and they understand us. People say dogs have feelings – therefore it would be cruel to kill them and eat them.

I agree. But what about other animals we massively raise and nastily kill for the sole purpose of food? Don’t they feel pain? Don’t we hear them scream as the butcher slits they throat open? Aren’t they suffering when they are skinned ALIVE?

Ever since I was a child I’ve been enjoying delicious steaks, fried chicken and exquisite pork cutlet. Meat tastes so good!

And now that I’ve lived in Korea for 2 years, I understand how difficult (though very possible) it would be for someone to be a vegetarian here; social activities revolve around eating – work dinner usually consist of samgyeopsal (fat pork) or galbi (BBQ beef), and huge amounts of soju.

Moreover, when someone more important than you (older, or higher in the social hierarchy) offers you something, it would be rude to refuse. So if your boss says you’re all going out for poshingtang, you can only nod and tag along - no matter if your wife is waiting with the kids or if you’re a vegetarian.

I guess it’s natural to some extent for humans to eat and even crave meat. I really don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

But the way we raise and kill them….!? It is simply repulsing! Disgusting. Cruel. Appalling. Atrocious. Fucking sick!

So I thought I’d share this video Doug made me watch in an effort to raise a little bit of awareness. Though it is absolutely shocking, I think every single human being (particularly meat eaters) should watch this.

I’m definitely not a vegetarian, but I certainly will eat as less meat as possible. After all, we can live very well without it. And that’s not mentioning trendy delicacies such as monkey brain, snake blood, and so on.

My boss took us out to lunch today and we had shabu shabu (a broth with salad, mushrooms, chives and of course beef/duck/pork meat) and all I could think of was the miserable pig hung from the ceiling, bleeding to death while still struggling for his life…


** The Bible: Peter Singer's "animal liberation"

References: my friends, co-workers, wikipedia,,

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Monday, July 28, 2008

The simple maze

It’s simple. The sun rises. The sun sets. Then, once in a while, it rains.

Crops grow, majestic trees and flowers embellish every single day, and then they die. They go back to earth, just like any “dead living” thing.

No matter what departs this life, it inevitably comes back. The flower I smell is the result of the sun, the rain, but mostly the earth – which is rich! So many departed carcasses of fish, cows, birds, humans, even leaves, have enriched it over the years.

My grandma is “living” in that tree and the grass next to her grave. Our ancestors are all around us, even in the air we breathe – the CO² transformed by the flora.

It’s complex yet so simple. Everything is taken care of by nature and all we have to do is live. Just be.

So why the fuck is everything so complicated? Why is the world so messed up?

Serial killers, drug addicts, mass murderers, suicide-bombers, politicians… what an ignominy. Not to mention brain-dead kids staring at the TV box, playing violent video games and growing fatter and lazier every day. And all that crap in our food, even water.

Complicated relationships, drinking, smoking, pretend friends and always keeping in mind this impassible façade. Even the Internet is too much. Too much information. Too much energy. Too addictive.

In such an immense, magnificent world, how come some of us are still stuck in a rut? Why seek destruction, control, power and hatred?

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Naked in Korea

This blog is about Jeju but anyone in Korea, including on Jeju island, could happen to lose their passport (or have it stolen...)

Believe me: it sucks big time.

So I thought i'd post some quick info in case anyone is wondering what to do in such case.

1) have some Korean co-worker call every possible place (airport, police station, the "national lost and found" office, your embassy, etc.)

2) Go to the nearest police station and get them to write a report. They'll probably say you don't need one but show them the embassy's checklist and they'll get their ass in gear

3) Get two passport pictures from any photographer. It would be worth to mention here that Korean passport photos are 5X5cm whereas the Canadian passport requires 5X7cm ones...

4) Download the application forms from the embassy's website

5) Get ready to pay something like 200$ for a round-trip flight to Seoul

6) Go to the embassy with all the documents and (reluctantly) give them the fee - 150$ Keep in mind that they're probably open only 2-3hours a DAY so don't go in the afternoon; they'll probably be chilling at the beach

7) Come back to Jeju with empty pockets and accept the fact that you won't be able to spend another dime for a few weeks because you were stupid enough to lose this precious document

8) 3 weeks later (or so), it SHOULD be mailed to you...
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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Young at heart

Picture this. Sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the ships row in, and I watch them row away again… oh wait, I ain’t no Otis Redding!

Still, I was sitting by the ocean, loving the gorgeous view of fishermen boats quietly floating on the water, the sun shining through the clouds. The fresh salty smell of the sea was gently amusing my nostrils while the sound of the waves made me feel more peaceful than ever.

While this has been my daily stop on my way home for a while now, followed by the oh-so-awesome horse-petting a few minutes from home, I was pleasantly surprised to come across “the crew”.

Pickup trucks loaded with old people in tired clothes, ajummas (old women) slowly riding their bicycle with a basket full of seafood and crops, others riding on an old scooter, the exhaust spitting a giant black cloud of smoke. Petrol is so expensive now; I suspect they are using another form of carburant…

She looked so serious and tired. She had a frown on her wrinkled face and her aching legs were painfully pedaling. Like all the other ajummas, she was wearing a worn-out shirt and some dirty loose pants.

The socks she had on used to be white, and her plastic slippers looked like they once were pink. In the intent of protecting her old skin from the sizzling sun, she was wearing a big hat and an old piece of fabric was covering her ears and forehead.

She looked so small, yet so grand. Her half-bent posture and frail bone-structure contrasted with the respect and admiration she woke in me.

Probably 70 years old, she was coming back from a long day working the field or the ocean. They all were.

I greeted her and her face immediately lightened up. Her smile was gorgeous. She got off her bike and sat next to me. Without any words, I offered her a banana and she sunk her teeth right into it. She did worry that I might be hungry, but my appetite was nothing compared to this hard-working woman’s.

We heard someone yell and she turned around, shouting something back in Korean. Of course she didn’t speak English, but we managed to communicate for a little while. I learned that she is a haenyo (woman diver) and that she lives near my school. She learned that I’m a sangsengnim (teacher) from Canada and that I’m leaving in about a month.

Probably worried about her friend, another ajumma was slowing approaching on her bicycle. As soon as she reached us, my ajumma started yapping and gave her half the banana.

I searched for some kind of affection in their voice, but their actions spoke louder. At 70 years old, they were all diving together, day after day, looking through their old goggles to find some expensive seashell they’d later sell in order to make a living. They are tired, but they keep doing it. They don’t really have a choice. But they have each other.

Only women can be haenyos – thus the husbands work the field. I always find it quite endearing to see them pick up their wife on their scooter at the end of the day. It seems romantic to me – though Miss Lee says there’s nothing tender about it. She has never even seen her parents kiss, hug or cuddle.

Another ajumma yelled something our way and the two women shouted something back. They smiled at me, one of the bowed, and they hopped back on their bicycles. I could still hear them laughing “Ooooh! Canada!! Sangsengnim!”

The whole crew kept going and my heart felt so good. Boy, do I admire them ole ladies! They may have old bikes, old clothes, and they may be old people too, but they are so dynamic and young at heart.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Mum and dad in my world

Last month my parents spent two weeks in Seoul and Jeju. It was quite fun and I took them places even I had never been! Aside from my dad’s “special” taste for food (i.e. only the familiar Western cooking...), I was glad to see their daily reaction to new Korean adventures.

Having lived in Seoul for a year, I took them to the usual tourist spots:

Changdeokgung palace – with its gorgeous secret garden, it offers a great anachronism with the big metropolis…

Insadong – the oh-so-lovely Buddhist/artsy neighborhood where they struggled to used chopsticks and mum tasted exquisite seafood pancakes.

It also where one can taste delicious traditional rice cakes prepared on the spot, as you can see on this picture. They beat the rice until it is a thick paste used to make the Korean delicacy.

Obviously the subway experience was one of a kind, surrounded by Koreans watching tv on their cell phones, playing video games, napping on each other’s shoulder… and of course random people selling random stuff such as wallets or socks.

For the first ever I visited the Korean traditional folk village – about an hour subway ride from downtown, and a half-hour bus ride. It’s definitely worth seeing, especially the seesaw and dancing shows. The traditional houses are also pretty cool.

Mum was going to the bathroom before hopping on the bus but she couldn’t… it was nearly impossible to go around those homeless napping. It’s really sad. Seoul station is particularly infamous for its drunk homeless.

We came across a very unusual event – that is, a horny horse trying to get it on with its significant other. Unfortunately it was show time and the crew beat the crap out of it.

A night visit at Cheonggyecheon after delicious samgyeopsal (fat pork) was the logical next step. The stream originally existed years ago and was then buried to make a street where street vendors sold local products. A few years ago, the mayor of Seoul decided to throw away the merchants and rebuild the stream. It is gorgeous at night.

Dad was quite impressed with the amount of police buses all around Gwanghwamun (downtown)... though it is because most embassies are located in the city center, the main reason is because of the recent (and still ongoing) protests against the US beef. Those protests have been held every night for over a month and, though quite peaceful (candle-light vigil), there have been some signs of violence.

My personal favorite was Seodaemun prison, where Koreans were tortured during the Japanese occupation.

Everything in there is VERY visual – from a Korean woman having her shirt ripped off while a Japanese soldier is laughing, to a very disturbing scene in which Japanese soldiers are torturing Koreans. They apparently used sharp objects under people’s nails.

The cells were tiny. It must have been hell.

Big time.

And while some nations try to forget, or forgive, Koreans obviously keep the sadistic memory alive. I really don’t get war. The Japanese were freaking torturing Koreans in their very own country. How sick is that.

Another tourist attraction I hadn’t seen yet is the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea) It’s definitely a must.

The following picture is a list of all the efforts for reunification. There are MANY eh!

The most impressive spots were the 3rd tunnel and Dorasan station. This train station was built after the South Korean government gave the North millions to reconnect both Koreas. It took years to even happen, and when it did Kim Jong-Il said he wasn’t ready to have “people” come. Only food. So the place is basically empty.

So even up to that day, the South keeps sending the North food supplies. And no one can catch a train to North Korea. It was such a big deal back then, even George W. Bush paid Dorasan a visit.

It’s incredibly sad to see how far away the North and South still are from each other, even though geographically they are so close.
Discovered in 1978, the 3rd tunnel is one of the many tunnels dug by the North to invade South Korea. Again, it is very, VERY disturbing to see. The South found them but they are afraid there are still more undiscovered.

We went in. 45 meters below the surface. It was humid, dark and narrow. Yet apparently the tunnel could allow the transit of some 30000 soldiers per HOUR. How scary is that? Of course the South considered this a sign of aggression, but the North said there was no proof that it isn’t, in fact, the South that built the tunnel to invade the North.

Reaching the end of the tunnel, I was the closest a normal citizen can get to North Korea. I didn’t see the “no pictures” sign until I was out. Sorry…

Another interesting spot in the DMZ is the freedom bridge. I almost cried when I saw the kids’ drawings, dreaming of reunification. 12.773 Korean war prisoners returned to South Korea, passing this bridge by foot. Thus the name.

The DMZ really is quite a spooky area. Yet I was very surprised to learn that there is a small village in the restricted area where South Korean farmers live, a few minutes away from North Korea. And the same is true on the other side. Whatever the South does (be it build a building, or accidentally shoot), the North always does twice bigger.

There is an observatory that allows people to “see” the North but the day we went we couldn’t see a thing because it was so foggy. It thought it was interesting that there is a line on the ground after which no one is allowed to take pictures. It’s like you can see that North Korea exists, but you can’t prove it ;)

Anyone visiting the DMZ can feel a very strong vibe there, the hope that the North will finally come to its senses and aim at reunification. South Korea has done heaps to help the North, and they only want peace. There are still countless families separated between the North and the South.

Once in a lifetime they get to meet in a mountain at the border, and they get 3 hours to “catch up” – i.e. cry into each other’s arms and wonder why the world is so fucked up.

Our next step was Dongadeamun and Namdeamun markets. Crucial. Anyone coming to Seoul has to see those. But beware: it will give you a hell of a headache because it is PACKED with people selling and buying all kinds of crap – food, clothes, hammers, drinks, shoes, bags, toys, TVs, jewelry, knives, sunglasses, etc.etc.etc.

I took my parents to a very "cozy" restaurant… it was dirty and quite cheap. I think they appreciated the experience, though they weren’t so fond of the ambiance…

Mum got this great shot of a kid peeing on the street, right in the middle of the very crowded Namdaemun market.

After 5 days we left the Sofitel and headed to Jeju. A sweet plane ride spiced up with turbulence and my parents headed to their hotel, the Hyatt, at Jungmun beach. A little piece of heaven, I tell ya.

Unfortunately the weather was crappy for the rest of their stay and they had to deal with rain a lot. I was very impressed with the quantity of things they have seen though! Waterfalls, caves, museums and, well, dad seemed to have a great time…

I slept at their hotel a few nights and enjoyed dinner in their company. It felt nice to eat Western food :) But it was so… surreal! My parents, in Korea! There they are with a haenyo (woman diver) at the Hyatt seafood buffet. Yummy.

They came to my school and mum was speechless when she saw all the kids running around, jumping on my back and yelling my name. Yet when class started everyone was quiet and they both attended my class with a big smile.

I took them to Hallim Park – a pretty great (and big!) tourist spot with plenty of cool flowers and plants and lava caves.

We also drove by cool green tea fields - which look even better on a sunny day :)
They also went to the Hallim 5-day market. Most towns on the island have a market every 5-day and sell local products – from fish, to fruit, vegetables, herbs, seeds, and even worms!

It was pretty sad to see them go. In the past three years, we’ve said goodbye so many times. But it was great having them here and now I only have a month and a half left in Korea. Though the sun, beaches, food, friends and fiestas are very, very (!) nice, I really look forward to going home!

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