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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

On y va!

"On y va" was the name of one of my high school French textbooks. To this day, when a situation arises where I need to say "Let's go," my brain can't even process the sentence in English -- it automatically translates to French. Strange, eh?

And so... on y va! My alarm is set for 5:30, pushed back 1/2 an hour from 5 after figuring that even with the extra 30 minutes sleep, I'll still arrive 3 hours before wheels-up. Hoping things go hassle-free between here and the airport -- checking out of the apartment, lugging my luggage to the street to get a cab to the bus stop... At least once I'm on the bus, it's easy.

A BIG thank you to everyone who has read and commented on my blog in the past year. I get so excited every time a comment pops up -- it's always nice to know that people are reading and following along with my adventure. I'm definitely planning to continue blogging as I spend a few months at home before the next big trip (Australia/New Zealand/New Calendonia in February).

It's meant so much to hear your feedback. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU.

And so I'll see you when I see you. The world is small -- we'll all be together again. Anyone who ever wants a travel partner, look no further.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

One last stroll through Suyu

Tomorrow is my last day before leaving the apartment EARLY (5:30 am) Thursday to head to the airport. That's earlier than I need to leave but figuring in traffic, delays, weather... just the unknown.

Tomorrow is also my last day of work. 3 cooking classes + one graduation = the end of Erin's teaching career. Wow. Nothing like rushing things together at the end. Graduation is a good note to go out on, though. The day will be filled by last-minute packing and cleaning, dinner with friends for a final bibimbap, and generally trying to be organized so things go smoothly Thursday.

It's getting dark earlier here, making it truly feel like autumn despite still-hot temperatures during the day. By 7, almost all traces of light have disappeared from the sky. After one last massive plate of chamchi deopbap, I took a long walk around the neighborhood. It's strange how you suddenly see familiar surroundings with fresh eyes when you know it's the last time you'll experience them.

Chamchi deopbap: tuna mixed with kimchi, served over steamed rice and topped by an egg. Total cost: 4,000 won.

One of my favorite neighborhood haunts is the bustling market. A flashback to what Seoul must have looked like a decade or two ago, the road was just paved this month in one alley; the other has a mix of gravel and broken-up concrete. Besides the huge number of fruits and vegetable available -- every vendor sells the exact same variety so it's amazing they all stay in business -- you can buy clothes, shoes, meat, fish (live eels, squid and crabs), ddeok (rice cakes)...

You name it, you can buy it. There are several junk shops, for lack of a better name, that sell everything under the sun. Think of it as a dollar store where you can negotiate.

As a regular visitor -- I buy produce at least 3 times a week -- I've grown loyal to certain vendors. My tomato man parks his truck on the corner next to the post office and remembers me when I come by for my weekly basket of tomatoes. He always makes jokes in Korean and laughs at himself.

Apples come from an ajumma who usually throws one extra in "service" and then thanks me in English.

And there's one stall I walk by almost daily as I go to-and-from "downtown" Suyu -- where the subway station is -- and my apartment. The prices are higher and produce looks less fresh than other stalls so I rarely buy anything but the owner recognizes me every day and we always exchange a smile and "annyeong haseyo."

It's this congenial atmosphere that I'll miss going back to shopping at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. What they have in variety and options can't replace this basic human interaction.

Monday, September 28, 2009

My life is entwined with pad thai

A perfect night out involves good friends and good food. Everything else is secondary.

Me, Aaron and Randy -- Aaron and I have successfully convinced students every week that we're siblings because we have the same name.

Wanting to have one last dinner with Jennifer, who worked at SEV before transferring to a public school, a group of us met at a Thai restaurant at I'Park Mall near Yongsan.

Tira, Sarah and Jennifer, who's coming to the USA in December and making a trip to Washington!

While nothing can ever come close to the ridiculously amazing, unforgettable, mouth-watering, to-die-for food when you're actually in Thailand, this restaurant offered some of the best pad thai I've ever had. And I've had a LOT of pad thai. My parents like to tell the story of me being "Star of the Week" in Montessori school and listing pad thai as my favorite food, while everyone else had things like pizza and mac & cheese. True story.

After trying bites of everyone else's curries and noodle dishes, I can confirm that they were all delicious. My pad thai came with shrimp -- downsides were the ZERO vegetarian options and only 3 shrimp on the entire plate -- and was a bargain at 8,000 won. Much cheaper than most Thai restaurants in Korea and the USA.

Dinner was followed by a long chat session at Smoothie King (or, as it's pronounced and phonetically written in Korean: "suh-mu-dee keeng"). Can you imagine the slogan on these cups being used in America?!

All in all, a fantastic night with fabulous people.

Two more days left in Korea and the panicking has started big time. Last night, I dreamt I missed the plane and ended up in hysterical tears at the gate, which had closed just as I ran up. You think all the traveling I do would mellow me out but I still get little butterflies before every trip. It's always an adventure.

Are you a nervous traveler? I'm really not but I just like things to go smoothly. Once I'm through check-in, it's all smooth.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

"Congratulations and celebrations..."

If there's one song I never want to hear again, it's Cliff Richard's "Congratulations." Apparently this is a well-known tune from the '60s but one I'd managed to avoid until moving to Korea, where it's played incessantly during any celebration.

Each camp session at school ends in a one- or two-hour graduation ceremony. The top students get awards, there's a dance competition and the teachers get a chance to say goodbye before watching a slideshow of the past week. It's an easy period for a Friday afternoon.

This kid rocked a mullet and high-tops. Loved him.

Sometimes the kids get really emotional during and after graduation. There are always a handful every week who cling to teachers and each other, wailing loudly as if going home is some sort of punishment.

Top students who do NOT look excited.

Probably the most amusing part of graduation is the dance contest. Girl groups and boy bands are HUGE here the way they were in America 10 years ago. You can't walk down the street without hearing Big Bang or Wonder Girls blaring from a store. There are a handful of songs to which every man, woman and child knows all of the words and moves: Girls Generation's "Gee," Super Junior's "Sorry Sorry," Wonder Girls' "Nobody"...

Here are some of my young students doing "Sorry Sorry" during this week's graduation. You can see how into it the audience is, too -- seriously, everyone knows this dance:

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Food on the move

The streets of Seoul are cluttered with convenience stores, from international chains like 7-11 to mom-and-pop operations. Some have wide aisles and bright lighting, while others just look like an extension of the owner's home ... and may well be.

The 7-11 on campus provides a constant temptation to snack -- it's amazing seeing the kids lined up at 7-11 before class in the morning, walking away with armfuls of popcorn, ice cream and coffee. Yes, coffee. You're never too young to indulge here. Each floor of my school has both hot and cold coffee vending machines and they're patronized far more by students than staff.

These tiny coffees are a great afternoon pick-me-up, if a bit too laden with sugar and chemicals for my tastes. It also never stops being funny hearing iced coffee called "ice-uh coppee." Constant amusement.

While I pack a snack almost every day -- the past couple of months have found me obsessed with cereal mixed in yogurt -- the highlight of any 7-11 run is a kimbap triangle.

Tasty, filling and a bargain at 700 won, these make the perfect snack. Instructions for unwrapping are on the side

and if you follow directions, it just takes a few seconds to reveal a perfect seaweed and rice triangle.

Rookie mistake: I almost always eat chamchi (tuna) kimbap and quickly ran into 7-11 and grabbed this package without looking. It wasn't until I saw a small clump of brown meat at the center that I realized my error. Ah well, easily removed and disposed. It was nice and spicy with the kimchi rice, though.

Quickie kimbap might not have the same fresh ingredients that you get at a restaurant, where it's made-to-order and vegetables are chopped right in front of you, but it's definitely one of my go-to snacks when I forget to pack one.

And just to make you jealous -- look at this gorgeous dolsot bibimbap I had for lunch today. Fresh lettuce? Chincha?! (When you order dolsot, the egg comes raw and cooks as you mix the ingredients together. Yum!)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Tradition, tradition!

Great, now "Fiddler on the Roof" is stuck in my head!

One of the things I like best about Korean culture is the way traditions have been so carefully preserved and maintained over the generations. This is evident in every aspect of Korean life, from the ingrained Confucian system of hierarchy to the way holidays are celebrated.

Next week is Chuseok, one of Korea's biggest holidays. I'm sad to have missed the chance to celebrate Chuseok during my year here -- it ended just before I arrived in September 2008 and will start just the day after I depart in October 2009. Bad timing on both ends!

Chuseok celebrates the autumn harvest and, much like Thanksgiving, brings families together to remember ancestors and share a big meal. During Culture class, we actually use Chuseok to explain the foreign concept of Thanksgiving.

Families will gather at ancestral gravesites to pay respect to the dead before eating special foods like songpyeon, a ricecake filled with soybeans and sesame seeds. If it's not Thanksgiving without turkey, it's not Chuseok without songpyeon.

While Americans and Canadians may be maintaining food and fellowship traditions with Thanksgiving, clothing-wise we can't come close to the Korean dress.

For special occasions, men and women still wear hanbok, the traditional costume. No one wears this every day, obviously, but on holidays and for weddings, most people pull out their hanbok and wear it proudly. It's especially adorable to see small children in miniature hanbok.

Frequently, I'll see older women walking down the street in hanbok and wonder where they are going to or coming from. It's so unique to see traditional dress like this still play a role in daily life.

The photo is from the shop next to my grocery store but stores selling hanbok are located around Seoul and I never failed to be awed by the stunning colors and patterns.

Incidentally, they're making quite the comeback fashion-wise. Modern brides have adopted the tradition of wearing white hanbok, providing the perfect blend between Eastern and Western cultures.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Chopsticks for dummies

Wondering how to train your precocious child in the art of chopsticks? Don't want him to make a fool of himself OR a huge mess when you're dining on Thai, Chinese or Korean food?

Introducing, baby's first chopsticks:

This was a farewell gift from one of my closest Korean friends, Chloe, who critiqued my chopsticks skills despite never having seen me use them -- we eat out a LOT together but somehow it's never Korean food!

With handy fingerholds and rubber grips, this makes using chopsticks a cakewalk. Would Winnie the Pooh steer you wrong?

Korea may rely primarily on eco-friendly metal chopsticks but considering how difficult they are to master, it's great to see this training set for the wee ones. For any of friends who are not chopstick connoisseurs -- if there's one thing living in Asia has done, it's perfected my chopstick technique -- I'm happy share these next time we eat at an Asian restaurant.


Unrelated to chopsticks, I recently watched Morgan Spurlock's fantastic documentary What Would Jesus Buy?. This funny and thought-provoking movie has stuck with me since first viewing and I want to watch it again with friends and family. It's absolutely hilarious at parts as it follows the Church of Stop Shopping, a performing political action group that encourages people to make conscious shopping decisions and cut down on America's rampant consumer culture.

"We don't question things. We don't think of the meaning of life enough," said one economic expert as he talked about corrupt corporations that use sweatshop labor and provide minimal benefits (if any) for their employees.

The message stuck with me so strongly that I suggested to my mom that for Christmas this year, we shouldn't buy gifts for each other. We all have SO much stuff -- needless crap, for the most part -- and there are so many other things you can give other people. Whether it's baking cookies, putting together an art project or just spending quality time as a family, these are gifts from the heart that mean more than any Williams Sonoma purchase.

To find out how the business practices of YOUR favorite store rates, check out Green America's Responsible Shopper guide. You can search by business name and quickly learn about a company's corporate responsibility practices. It's fascinating, easy-to-use and important to know. Do you want to support companies that pay 10-year-olds less than $1 a day to sew pockets onto sweaters?

Check it out. Be aware of how your money -- yes, every little bit counts -- can influence companies and force them to make changes.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Bowling, bars and Bon Jovi

The key ingredients for a fun, active night in Suyu came together Saturday.

First up, a few rounds of bowling at our downtown alley. It's more fun when everyone is equally bad... which was definitely the case. Some people had good form, though:

I got a strike! (but otherwise did abysmally). Check out the sweet dress with the leggings, bowling shoes and socks combo -- I felt very Korean.

Then it was off for drinks at Penelope's, the classic pub hangout for SEV teachers. Chris's hat made its way around the table. Who looks better?

Finally, midnight norebang at Luxury, our favorite among the hundreds of norebangs in the neighborhood because they serve free ice cream. 진짜?! (Oh yes, the absolute best Korean expression, "Chincha?!" is making its way back to America. It means "Really?!" and is appropriate in any conversation. Be prepared.)

Quality norebang always includes a healthy dose of power ballads ("Hero"), cheesy 80s and 90s tunes ("That Thing You Do," "Hungry Eyes" and some Britney) and, naturally, a Disney song or two ("A Whole New World").

As the lyrics scroll across the screen, totally unrelated clips from movies and TV shows roll in the background. It's kind of disconcerting to be singing "It's My Life" as a heavy K-drama unfolds behind the words. Although there's something to be said for a bunch of ex-pats singing their hearts out to "It's my life, it's now or never, I ain't gonna live forever, I just wanna live while I'm alive" in the middle of Seoul as we continue our travels around the globe.

What, a cheesy sentiment in this blog? 진짜?!

Monday, September 21, 2009

How I spent (almost) every Monday night

For the majority of my time in Korea, there was one solid routine: the Monday night trip to Dongdaemun for Indian food.

What began as a casual (and occasional) meal in late fall 2008 quickly spiraled into a "first day of the workweek" dinner tradition. The number of participants rose and fell as old teachers left and new ones joined us, both a core group remained solid until the end.

Before: nan and mixed veggie curry (my other favorite is dal [lentils])

And now it IS the end, which meant it was time for one last foray to Dongdaemun and dinner at the best of the best Indian restaurants in Seoul, Everest.

Tucked into an alley several blocks from Dongdaemun's famous labyrinth of malls and markets, Everest is a place you'd never find on your own. With nan longer than my forearm, a running stream of Bollywood movies and amazingly kind servers, this restaurant is the best I've found outside of Brick Lane. (I was never a huge Indian fan until living in London, where we loved Brick Lane curries so much that we regularly schlepped over there from our Marylebone flat.)

After: nan is perfect for wiping clean your bowl

Add to that a fantastic array of Indian goods for sale, like scarves and incense, and it becomes an event dinner.

Oh Everest, thanks for keeping me well-fed and happy. I'll miss you.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The road not taken

With 10 days to go, the final question is this: Do I regret coming to Korea?

And the answer: Not for one minute.

Do I love Korea? No. Do I like it? Yes, there are many wonderful things about Korea.

Was moving here the right decision for this point in my life? Absolutely. I have no regrets about where and how I spent the past year.

This year has been an amazing experience and despite its ups and downs, I'm so thankful to have taken this circuitous journey into the "real" world. Living and working in Korea forced me to discover myself -- an independent woman -- in ways that staying at home never would have.

And while I never thought I'd use my university degree to make kiddie arts and crafts, it's been a fun journey.

We each have our own path.

Where is yours taking you?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Sun-kissed veggies

A beautiful, sunshine-y autumn day. Perfect for shopping at an open-air market (check!), lunch al fresco at a cute cafe (check!) and a long walk around the neighborhood (check!).

Also, ideal conditions for drying the rest of your vegetables before the chill comes on. Yes, it's kimchi season and every household has gotten into the act. Walking around the neighborhood today -- a primarily residential, quiet section of Seoul -- many of the houses had their chillies set out to dry.

Some homes only had a small cluster

while others got busy preparing a feast of ingredients.

One house even had eggplant dangling from hangers on its balcony-- yum!

I'm so curious what dishes these families will make, besides the obvious kimchi. For instance, I've never noticed eggplant in a Korean dish but it must be fairly popular since there are tons of eggplants for sale at the market.

Mmm... all this talk of food is making me hungry. It's dinner time!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Somewhere in the middle

I've figured out why I'm so nervous about returning home.

This year has been incredible and full of new people, places, experiences, sights, adventures, food and memories. It's a time I'll never forget and always cherish for being such a departure from the norm.

But in less than two weeks I'll be home where nothing has changed, at least not for me. It will be a return to basically square one after college graduation -- unemployed, living with my parents, still unsure about the next step. Travel more? (Probably.) Find a "real" job? (Unlikely.)

For everyone else, though, a lot has happened over the past year. People have gotten married, had babies, landed cool jobs, moved to various places around the country and had a year's worth of experiences that I wasn't there for, at least not physically.

So I think the butterflies in my stomach stem less from not wanting to move home and more from not being sure where I fit into all of this. It was easy to adjust to life in the USA after coming home from four months in London and after a week or two, it was like I'd never left.

A year is a long time and 7000 miles is a huge distance. The Internet has kept me connected with friends and family but definitely isn't a substitute for being there in person. And so in the back of my mind is the niggling little thought:

Where do I fit in?

Unrelated, but I just saw this Taylor Swift video for the first time and it definitely made me cry. Is it just me?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Cafeteria cuisine, take 2

Remember last week's congealed gelatinous fish product?

I'm happy to report that this week's cafeteria offering at least included something edible.

Okay, the main entree was fried fish but since it was a self-serve buffet, I opted instead to cover my steamed rice with several heaping spoonfuls of stir-fried broccoli, carrots and mushrooms. The woman next to me in line gave a sideways "What's that crazy waegook doing?" look, as if I didn't know that veggies were meant to be on the side and served in microscopic portions, but I didn't care.

Accompanied by kimchi -- this variety is a nice change from the usual cabbage kind and adds a pleasant kick when mixed in with the other veggies -- and a bland dduk (rice cake) soup.

See, even in a cafeteria, it is possible to make healthy, tasty choices. It just requires a lot of planning, some selectivity and a little random guesswork. Overall, I definitely prefer cooking for myself but when a cafeteria/buffet can't be avoided... just do the best you can.

Buffets: yea or nay?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A little white space goes a long way

In a world where we're constantly being bombarded with images saying "You need this product," what if less is more?

That's what Hyundai Card and Hyundai Capital is banking on as the company reveals its new advertising scheme at four new Seoul subway stations. Rather than plastering the walls with flashy photos and oversized text, the ads are mainly bright white save for a small icon and logo to identify the company.

At the entrance and exits of the stations, the giant white panels have a pink eraser in the lower-right corner and a two-sentence explanation. "The world is flooded with too many ads," it says. "For a short while, we want to leave it empty for you."

I think this is a really interesting concept. While it's easy to ignore the usual ads for Jinro soju, Korean vacation destinations and the latest movies as you race between platforms, being faced with a blindingly white wall might actually be an attention-grabber. You instantly become curious to find out what's going on.

Hyundai Card and Hyundai Capital unveils this new promotion as it strives to increase the number of Koreans carrying Hyundai credit cards.

Other favorites from the papers this week:

- The New York Times Magazine asks "Is Happiness Catching?" (spoiler alert: yes)

- A love story 70 years in the making.

- Controversy at The Washington Post over the reasons for killing a "depressing" story.

- Maureen Dowd and Gail Collins take on Rep. Joe Wilson, with similar conclusions.

- How American companies are helping globalize censorship by putting profit over progress.

- Laura Ling and Euna Lee's first statement since returning from North Korea. Powerful, scary stuff.

- This is why Kanye West wasn't invited to Obama's healthcare speech:

Monday, September 14, 2009

Drinking my way around the world

Saturday's post about my tea ritual led me to looking back at the massive number of food pictures I've taken over the past few years -- and there are a lot.

What compels some of us to photograph our food? Why does a gorgeous cup of coffee just demand to be stored for posterity? And why wasn't I into food photography more when visiting Europe's true coffee-centered countries?

Sydney, Australia: All the makings of the perfect afternoon are here -- frothy cappuccino, chocolate croissant and a good book.

Salzburg, Austria: Life can't get much better than a steaming latte and sachertorte.

Seoul, South Korea: Freshly-made lemon tea proved the instant cure for any ailment.

The Ritz-Carlton, Virginia: An elegant, formal tea with female relatives has become one of my favorite family traditions.

Stow-on-the-Wold, England: Cream tea is one of the joys of English living -- scones with clotted cream and jam? Yes, please!

Bedford Springs Resort, Pennsylvania: One of the nicest things about staying at a fancy resort is daily teatime, in which my family loved to indulge each afternoon.

Skagway, Alaska: Whoever had the brilliant idea to combine the two greatest foods known to man -- coffee and burritos -- should be given a medal.

But sometimes the best of all is that lazy, quiet cup of tea enjoyed in your own home. Especially when paired with freshly baked bread. :)

Photographing food -- weird or cool?