Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Top 10 Best & Worst

As 2010 comes to an end, I thought it apropos to list the top 10 things I love and hate about living in Korea.
10 WORST THINGS (in no particular order)
It seems that 99% of all Koreans live in apartment buildings of some variety or other. By Korean standards we live in a relatively new and large apartment (1200sq-ft/34pyong built in 2006). But, despite its caliber the fact remains that I'm not accustomed to living in an apartment and think it's too small and noisy.  I miss having a staircase, hallways, and a yard. I want a real kitchen; not one that's attached to my livingroom. I desire to watch tv without the disruption of people getting on and off the elevator. And, I wish to be able to sleep without having to listen to my neighbours' late night piano rehearsals and screaming children.
I often see Drivers Ed vehicles on the road, so the ineptitude of Korean drivers remains a mystery. The only explanation I have is that the driving instructors neglect to teach people that the painted lines on the roads are not meant to be crossed willy-nilly; the big stick-like object protruding from the steering wheel is a turn-signal and is meant to be used; & a red light means stop. Every day is an exercise in defensive driving. And, while we've been successful in evading the imbeciles on the road, we have not been so fortunate in parking lots. Thrice this year our car has been smacked into while parked in public parking lots. In all three instances the drivers (upstanding citizens that they are) ran away, leaving us to (unsuccessfully) deal with our insurance company and the police.
In my opinion, a shockingly large number of Korean parents are dangerously ignorant when it comes to protecting their children. When I was pregnant and going for routine prenatal checkups, I saw new mother after new mother leaving the hospital with her swaddled newborn balanced on her lap. Stores sell car seats, but few Koreans buy them or recognize the importance of using them. Every day, I drive by infants and small children sitting on an adults’ lap in the front passenger seat, or jumping around freely in the backseat. Good friends of mine (who shall remain nameless) are guilty of this and brush it off every time I try to talk to them about it. Kids running freely through the streets & in parking lots is also commonplace ~ handholding doesn’t seem to be a priority here. There've been plenty of times when small kids have run out in front of our car with the parents just casually standing by.
Delicious, but astronomically priced! Right now at Homeplus, mangoes cost $4/ea, apples $1/ea, avocados $4/ea, and strawberries $8/pint. This past summer, cantaloupe was $8/ea and watermelon $15-$25/ea  depending on the size. Needless to say, we don’t eat much fruit.
Korea doesn't have near the variety that North America does. There are some stores specializing in foreign imports, but they're mostly in Seoul and charge double or even triple the price. Examples of things I wanted to buy this year, but couldn't (or had to have shipped via the Internet or my mother) include: tomato soup, Reese Peanut Butter Cups, Tom's of Maine toothpaste, Gerber rice cereal, Tylenol, plus size clothing & underwear, size 9 shoes, Fisher-price Ocean Wonders Aquarium, fitted bed sheets...  
No one to blame but myself for this one. Over the years, I've done some half-assed self-study and attended free government sponsored classes (only 5 months part-time), but still I speak like a pre-schooler. I can hold my own in restaurants, the supermarket, the post office, and very casual/superficial conversation, but rely on Clark as my translator for most everything else.
It’s a paradox, really. In most high-end department stores and restaurants, I'm treated to exotic aromas and a heated seat on a high-tech toilet that has so many buttons and gadgets I haven’t a clue what to do with them all. Then in other places, I’m squatting in filth and stench. WHY???
Perhaps if I were American I’d understand this better, but I’m not and I don’t. Why do I have to pay to use public roads? They're not even nice roads. In fact, they're some of the worst quality roads I've ever driven on. Isn’t it enough that to have to pay annual car tax (yes, car tax), car insurance, and gas (over $1.70/L)? Just to get to a friends house in a nearby city less than 60km away last weekend cost 12,200won (about $11) roundtrip.
I’m not afraid, so why are you? Everyone here is great; couldn’t be better.  Life goes on as usual.
The air here is kind of, well, gross. I can remember blowing black crud out of my nose when I first spent time here in 2001. We no longer open the windows in summer because the floors and countertops get a grimey black coating within a day or two and we're sick of constantly having to wash them. I've lived in Seoul, Busan & Suwon ~ and the pollution is everywhere.

10 BEST THINGS (also in random order)
Koreans will deliver anything from live animals to McDonalds. No joke, you can view pets on-line and the puppy/kitten/turtle/guinea pig of your choice will be delivered to your doorstep the very next day. While we've never had (nor ever would have) a pet delivered, we are regular on-line shoppers and delivery recipients. In December alone, we've had Quaker Oats, Jellymom, a 10kg box of apples, Similac infant formula, Pampers, baby bottles, & a winter coat delivered. The service is remarkably inexpensive (usually $2) and quick (within 1~2 days).
Inexpensive and abundant; puts the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) to shame. A 30min subway or bus  ride costs 1000won (about $0.90). The same ride in Toronto put me back $2.50 last time I was there.
You name it, and I bet I can walk to it. Even though we live in the ‘burbs (some Seoulites might even call it the “countryside”), Suwon is home to 1 million residents and has 5 of everything within a 1km radius.
It is virtually impossible for someone in the English education industry to be unemployed (unless by choice). Immediately after leaving his job, Clark had 15 interviews & 11 offers. It really is a job-seekers market. I ,too, am very picky when it comes to employment, and recently accepted a full-time position beginning in March at a local university teaching credit courses 14 hours/week + 4.5 months paid annual vacation. I would be hard-pressed to find that kind of position in Canada.
Compared to Canada Post, it’s a real bargain here. I can ship my mother 2 boxes for the price of every 1 she sends over here to me.
In January of this year Korea was hit with a record-breaking snowfall of 25cm; a far cry from the 103cm that pelted Canada (Southern Ontario) a few weeks ago. The temperatures aren't usually all that low either. The average winter temperature is about -5C/21F.
Worried about being able to find good seats? Worry not if you live in Korea. All seating is pre-designated and reserved upon ticket purchase; like going to a concert or live theater performance. The tickets are cheaper than in Canada, too. Only 9000won (about $8) each.
Only 3-8% depending on the job. And because I'm not a citizen, if I leave Korea and return to Canada, I'm entitled to a full tax refund.
While my mother recently had to wait over 2 months to get in to see her optometrist and a friend waited eons for minor surgery, I can just waltz in to any doctor's or dentist's office and receive immediate care. No appointment necessary and very little to no waiting required. It's reasonably priced, too. I recently had my teeth cleaned for just $50 (no insurance) and an impromptu visit to the doctor earlier in the year for an ear infection cost me under $5 (with insurance).

Monday, December 27, 2010


Earlier this year, I discovered the joy of hanji gong-ye "traditional paper craft". The government offers free classes to spouses of Korean nationals, so I took advantage of their hanji and Korean language class offerings while I was pregnant. It's easy, fun, and makes for great gifts; I gave most of what I made to family and friends for Christmas this year. Each item comes as a kit and takes under an hour to make (but quite a number of hours to dry). Here are a few pictures of what I've kept for myself:

This is meant to be a tea container, but I don't put anything in it.

It's empty, see...

This one's a piggy bank.

And a tissue box.

Saturday, December 25, 2010


This year is my 5th consecutive Christmas in Korea (my 6th including my first back in 2001) and, oh, how I wish I were in Canada! Christmas really isn’t much of an event here. Judging from the reactions of those who’ve visited our home recently, I’d venture to guess we’re the only people singing along to “I want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” (best Christmas song ever^^) with a 6ft tree and stockpile of gifts in our living room. Though designated as a national holiday, for most Koreans, Christmas is just a day to sleep in and meet friends or significant other for dinner and drinks (NB: Koreans love to drink).
On Christmas Eve, we ordered pizza and watched "The Santa Claus". Then, on Christmas morning, we Skyped my parents and opened the gifts they sent. 

Here's Bubba getting ready to open his first-ever Christmas present.

He got lots of new clothes, CDs, and toys.

My mother sent us hoards of food and toiletries that aren’t readily available here.
Clark also got a really nice purple tie and I scored the Annie DVD,  measuring cups & spoons which I really needed, pillow cases, hand towels, and these (I am, aren't I^^)... 

Throughout the day we nibbled on an assortment of goodies (prosciutto, brie, crackers, dried persimmons, nuts, chocolate, oranges, BBQ chicken). No Christmas cookies, pumpkin pie, or turkey for us. L Most Korean homes don’t have full-size ovens (not a requirement for Korean cooking); we have a convection oven equal in size to our microwave and reminiscent of the Easy Bake Oven from my childhood. So, preparing an old-fashioned Christmas dinner is near impossible and buying a pre-cooked turkey from Homeplus or Emart is just plain silly given the price. A weenie 4kg pre-cooked turkey costs 80,000 won (about CAD$75).

Like most Koreans, Clark’s parents don’t think much of Christmas (his father giggles every time he sees the tree) This year, his father came over on Christmas Day, but his mother decided she’d rather stay home. We buy them a gift every year, but this is the first year they've reciprocated. I don’t mean to say that they never buy us anything, they do; just not for Christmas. We’re always given cash for Seollal “Lunar New Year” and Chuseok “Thanksgiving” (NB: cash gifts are standard in Korea). So, it shouldn't come as a surprise that our first Christmas gift from them was, you guessed it, cash.
Next year, we hope to go to Canada for the holidays (and every year thereafter) because we want Logan to learn the Canadian traditions ~ family, turkey, egg nog, shortbread, fireplace, snow ~ and have a childhood full of happy and truly “Merry” Christmases.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Tips for Happy Teething

Hello. It's me again, Logan. My gums are feeling itchy thesedays, so I find it necessary to put things in my mouth.  Mommy and Daddy think I'm going to sprout some teeth in the not so distant future :P

Here are my tips for a happy teething experience:

#1 Taste test your favourite playmate. In my case, Mr. Inchworm.

#2 Ask someone to buy you a teething toy. This giraffe from Mel & Evan provides plenty of chomping pleasure!

#3 Grab whatever is nearby. Here, I happened to be in arms reach of the giraffe that's part of my playgym.

#4 Not satiatied after a meal?  Pas de problem! Just eat the bib :)

#5 And when toys are not within reach, simply use the blanket (your sleeves will also suffice).

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Herb Island

Today we went to Herb Island in search of the Spirit of Christmas. It's a whimsical tourist attraction with a botanical garden, herb museum, restaurant, cafe, bakery, variety of gift shops, aroma therapy center and spa. It's 100km north of our place and took just over 2hours to get to. We planned it so we arrived in mid-afternoon and stayed until just after dark to catch the Christmas lights festival.

We had been told that Santa was going to be there (we even called ahead to confirm). Alas, the Korean idea of pictures with Santa differs ever so slightly...

After a good laugh over what will forever be Logan's first picture with Santa(s), we meandered around the 'island' (I assure you, it is not an island).

It was quite chilly, so we ducked into the Herb Restaurant for some herb bibimbap (chock full of fresh herbs, edible flowers, and other greens) and donggas "Japanese pork cutlet". Much to our delight, they provided us with a Jellymom for Logan to sit in while we ate.

We did a little (window) shopping after lunch.

And visited the herb museum.

Then went outside just after sunset to enjoy the lights.

We had a good time and are feeling a tad more "Christmassy" now :P

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Christmas Party

Today was the 2nd Annual “Olle Club” Christmas Party. We’re an odd bunch: a 20-something-year-old University student, 30-something-year-old elementary & middle school teachers, a 50-something-year-old middle school principal, and me. We met in 2008 at Kyonggi University here in Suwon. I was their TESOL teacher trainer.  We became friends and formed a club of sorts.

On Jeju Island, “Olle” means a narrow pathway that connects the street to the front gate of a house. It is also the name of walking paths along the coastal perimeter of the island and has the connotation of “let’s go!” We named our club “Olle” with the intention of meeting and/or traveling together semi-regularly. Not coincidentally, our first trip in 2009 was to Jeju Island. We’ve also stayed at a pension in Gyeryongsan National Park, and we've met quite a few times at local restaurants and coffee shops. Our next trip, to Gapyeong County to visit Petite France and Nami Island, is planned for February.

So, back to the Christmas Party. I hosted this year. We gorged ourselves on Chinese delivery, cake, and other snacks; played a few party games; and did Secret Santa. I got a great new hat this year. We haven’t met since I was pregnant, so Logan, of course, was the center of attention. And, he had no trouble at all charming the ladies with his dimpled smile in his adorable new Grinch sleeper (courtesy of Grandma and Grandpa). It was a great Saturday afternoon.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


For anyone who doesn't know, a Bumbo seat is a portable chair made of low-density foam designed for infants who are too young yet to sit up on their own. While shopping in COSTCO a few weeks back, we stuck Logan in the display Bumbo and he seemed to love it. It could have been all the attention from shoppers who stopped in their tracks to admire him or the fact that he was getting to see the world from a new perspective. Whatever the reason, it seemed to tickle his fancy (and ours at the mere sight of him in it), so we decided we wanted one. I thought perhaps I could buy a used one on-line (recall my craigslist addiction), but to no avail. Then, a fellow expat mom suggested the Korean knockoff, "Jellymom" ~ apparently just as good as the 'real' thing and considerably cheaper. Long story short, it arrived today and now everyone's happy. Logan gets to be a bit more independent and interact differently with the world, and we saved a bit of money. Hurray for Jellymom!

No more lying down for this little guy
The tray is optional, but we thought it a good idea for playing.
 Guess we were right :P

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Logan's Baek-il Party

Today was Logan’s baek-il party.

In Korea, baek-il is a party to celebrate a child’s 100th day of life. Historically, the infant mortality rate was very high, so families waited to officially celebrate the birth of a child until after the 100th day.

A traditional baek-il party consists of a large feast with prayers and gift offerings to the samsin halmeoni “spirit grandmother” for watching over mom and baby. I’m not too certain whether we had a samsin halmeoni, but we did have my mother taking care of us for the first 4 weeks (thank you!). And if we did have a samsin halmeoni, she must’ve had a hard time keeping us safe because in Korea, moms and infants are supposed to stay indoors for the first 100 days to ward off any germs or sickness, but Logan and I have been traipsing around outside since he was 4 days old (and I've spent the past 3 months being chastised by random ajummas “middle-aged women” for my so-called lack of parenting skills).

Actually, I didn’t follow very many of the Korean postpartum customs. If I had, for the first 21 days after delivery I would’ve stayed in a sanhujoriwon “postpartum recovery center”, eaten seaweed soup 3 times daily (ok, this I did while in the hospital, but simply because it was the only thing they served), and abstained from all things deemed harmful like: short sleeves, cold foods/beverages, and showers!

So, Logan is now 100 days old! We decided on a very low-key celebration with just Mommy, Daddy, Grandma and Grandpa Lee, and our good friends Seon-hye and Il-Gyu. Logan got some new toys, clothes, and money (which will likely be spent at Toys R Us for Christmas^^). Ours wasn’t nearly as extravagant as a traditional baek-il party and we skipped most of the typical customs:
1.  We opted for a cake from the local bakery instead of baeksolgi (a very  dense steamed white rice cake with raisins & nuts)
almond cake from Paris  Baguette
2.   Rather than a lavish menu, we ate jokbal (pigs’ feet), fruit, and an assortment of snacks.


our casual table spread

3.   Logan was not, I repeat not, photographed nude to serve as a record of his ‘manhood’. In deference to him and his future girlfriends, we decided on  photos of him in his hanbok (traditional formal wear for children and adults alike)

Logan donning his hanbok

Happy 100th day Logan! Mommy and Daddy love you to pieces ♥ ♥ ♥

Friday, December 3, 2010

Our Favourite Korean 'Winter' Food

Everyone knows I love food! So, I thought I'd put together a short list and introduce you to our winter favourites.
Soondooboo jjigae (순두부찌개) My #1 pick! Jjigae is pretty much equivalent to “stew” and Soondooboo is “soft tofu” ~ thus, "soft tofu stew". It generally contains seafood, onions, zucchini, mushrooms, soft tofu (of course), an egg, and red pepper paste. It’s fabulously spicy and perfect with a bowl of rice, kimchi, and an assortment of veggie side dishes.
soondooboo jjigae

Geotjeori (겉절) Near the end of every year, Koreans take part in a traditional kimchi making event called Kimjang. Families and/or friends get together and spend hours (even days) make hoards of different kinds of kimchi (there are well over 100 different kinds, which I shan’t elaborate on) that they store and eat throughout the winter. Geotjori means “fresh/new kimchi” and is the result of kimjang (that is until the kimchi sits awhile and ferments. Then it’s called shin “old” kimchi.) I can’t get enough of geotjori (especially the cabbage, cucumber and green onion varieties) and munch on it all year ‘round.

me doing kimjang with my friend's family in 2007

Baechu "cabbage" geotjeori ready for winter storage. We made over 400 hundred heads of cabbage kimchi, as well as radish and green onion kimchi. If you'd like to see more pictures, follow the link on this page to my picasa web album.
Ddeok mandu guk (떡만두) Sliced rice cakes (ddeok) and dumplings (mandu) in an anchovy/beef broth with chopped green onions, a little black pepper, an egg, and bits of dried seaweed. Excellent on a cold winter day and a must on the Lunar New Year (unless you prefer not to age). Koreans believe that by eating ddeok guk (the mandu is optional) on the first day of the Lunar New Year you become one year older, regardless of when your actual birthday is.
ddeok mandu guk

Seolleongtang (설렁탕) Clark’s personal favourite. It’s just beef broth (they boil down the head, organs, feet, and bones) seasoned with salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, garlic, and green onions. It’s served with geotjeori (see above) and a bowl of rice. Most people dump their rice directly into the soup. I also dump in heaps of geotjeori 


Hotteok (호떡) The greatest street food treat ever! It’s tough to walk down the street without grabbing one from a vendor. More or less like a pancake (can be fried or baked) filled with the sweetest, most delicious concoction of brown sugar, honey, cinnamon, and chopped peanuts. I have a nasty habit of burning my tongue on these things, but can’t resist the temptation nonetheless.
seriously awesome

Gyeran Bbang (계란 ) Another scrumptious street food morsel. Gyeran Bbang translates literally to “egg bread”, which I suppose it basically is. Sweet, cake-like bread with a whole egg baked into the center. Very yummy.

gyeran bbang

Sujeonggwa (수정과) A traditional Korean drink made from dried persimmons, honey, brown sugar, cinnamon, peppercorn, and ginger; with a few pine nuts tossed in as a garnish. It's sweet with a mildly spicy kick. Served hot in winter and cold in summer (both delicious!).