Waegukin - living and teaching in Korea

blue dot
Dec
18
2012
Culture 

Korean parliament fights – an election day special

korean parliament fight

One of my rules for this blog is not to post things unless I am in some way adding to what is already available on the internet. Well – I tried. The question I wanted to answer was “Why does the Korean parliament have so many fights?” It seems to me, from watching the various videos, that there is something procedural about it – that there is some strategy to take the speaker’s chair and thus prevent a piece of legislation being passed.

I couldn’t find the answer on the internet, so tried asking a couple of Koreans, but I just got those strange, improbable answers that Koreans give when you ask them about their own culture – “Koreans are very hot tempered.” So, I don’t know.

This article from the LA Times attempted to answer the same question, with similar vague answers from a variety of Koreans.

My other question is, given that almost all Korean men serve a term in the army, where they are given extensive taegwondo training, why are the fights so clingy and lame?

So, this post does not answer any questions. It’s just an excuse to watch a bunch of Korean parliament fights. Tomorrow is election day. So, in celebration of Korea’s very young democracy, here are some gratuitious videos of Korean parliamentary fights. Read more

blue dot
Dec
17
2012
Living 

Love motel review: Pink Motel, Sinsa-dong, Seoul

pink motel sample pack

For me, visiting Seoul is similar to what I imagine visiting North Korea would be like: interesting for the way it somehow remains functional despite all its problems, but ultimately expensive, unpleasant, and somewhere I am glad to leave.

I am pretty good at travelling in Korea, but Seoul always defeats me. I had a lot of time to think about this on Saturday while standing on the subway out to Hanguk University, and then again while I stood the entire way back to Hongik University, which was where I should have gone in the first place. (Don’t even get me started on Sinchon and Sincheon). I had time to think while I made several twenty minute changes between subway lines, moving endlessly up and down sets of stairs along with thousands of native Seoul-ites, all of us following color-coded stripes like rats in a lab maze trained to perform a senseless task for an intermittent morphine reward. I had time to think as I stumbled down the stairs of an enormous parking lot, trying to find the correct part of the Gangnam Express Bus Terminal to catch the last bus back to my town. There are really three bus terminals there, you see, linked by a subterranean warren, with only occasional signs pointing you vaguely to certain “lines”, which is not very helpful if you didn’t happen to memorize what bus company you rode in on. I was stumbling through parking lots because I had determined after several lost expeditions into the bowels of the Express Bus Terminal subway station that I would be better trying to navigate my way from above ground.

I decided that what I find so difficult about navigating Seoul is its three dimensionality. I don’t have a great sense of direction at the best of times, but in Seoul, where you have to navigate up and down as well as to the points of the compass, I get lost. There have been many times when I’ve stood on a street corner, looking only to cross to the other side, then descended and emerged ten minutes later, completely disoriented, in an unfamiliar place.

I’ve also come to rely too much on my smartphone. The first year I was in Korea, when I didn’t have one, I never once got myself lost to any great degree, but these days I always seem to be wandering around following an arrow on Google maps. But this is not much use when navigating Seoul’s subterranean spaces. I also feel this is why I went to the wrong subway stop – had I been using the signs, instead of an app on my smartphone, I’m sure I would have noticed the Korean “홍대입구” – Hongdae Entrance, which is a far more useful description than the English name of the station, Hongik University.

All this explains why I missed my bus and found myself exhausted at Express Bus Terminal, using the last couple of percent of my phone’s battery to search 모텔 on Google maps. Read more

blue dot
Nov
25
2012
Culture 

The strange shared history of curry rice and donkkaseu sauce

curry rice

At Korean elementary schools, Wednesday lunch is something special – hence the nickname Special Wednesday. Now, Korean school lunches vary in quality from day to day and from school to school. At my old school, for instance, the lunches were pretty good until the lunch lady left and a new one arrived, who served up grotesque slop day after day, resulting in loud complaints from many of the teachers. Including, perhaps most loudly, me. Still, you won’t get any argument from me that Korean school lunches are the best in the world.

At my new school the lunches are pretty good. I don’t like all Korean food – I detest squid and octopus, and am not fond of radish – but, apart from dishes based around these foods, I usually enjoy my school lunch. I say “usually” because the truth is that Special Wednesday is chancy. Sometimes it is bibimbap, or crab soup, or pork with ssamjung and perilla leaves, and on those days I am happy*.*Actually, my mouth is watering just thinking about it. At other times it is some kid-friendly food like jjajangmyeon – Chinese black bean noodles – which is OK, but is let down by the crafty lunch ladies sneaking too many vegetables into the sauce to make it healthy for the kids. Those damn chunks of radish…  I can certainly eat it, but it doesn’t excite me.

And then there are times when it is awful. And those days have a common theme – they tend to feature some bastardized foreign dish. And, while Korean food is great, what Koreans do to other cultures’ cuisines should be illegal. Italian food is reduced to pasta and hideous sweet potato and corn pizza. The entirety of Chinese food is also reduced to two dishes: jjajangmyeon and jjamppong, a seafood stew. Hamburgers are all evolved from the McDonalds Big Mac. “Sausage” means a hotdog frankfurt.

My least favourite of these Wednesday foreign meals is curry rice. Read more

blue dot
Nov
10
2012
Living 

Korean canned coffee – a reasonably complete guide

Some Korean canned coffees I tried

Koreans drink a lot of coffee. They drink lattes from Starbucks or any of the many similarly-styled local coffee chains. They drink it from tiny paper cups from free coffee dispensers in restaurants (I love these, and rarely pass them up), and from similar but dirtier street-side vending machines that generally cost about ₩300, or thirty cents. There’s the ubiquitous Maxim instant coffee mix which is a fixture of every workplace. In cute independent coffee shops, all seemingly inspired by one of the many coffee shop-themed k-dramas, you can get “hand drip” coffee, which is an almost-uniquely Korean concept where filter coffee is turned into something rarified and elaborate. Read more

blue dot
Oct
28
2012
Teaching 

Do Koreans regard all foreign teachers as potential paedophiles?

One of the lines you will read on some Korea blogs is that Koreans regard all foreign teachers as potential paedophiles/molesters/sex deviants. Take Gusts of Popular Feeling – now, I like that blog. Matt’s stuff is always sourced and I don’t think he makes broad generalisations. He documents – as the name suggests – the sentiments of the Korean population, as reflected in media coverage, towards foreign teachers. Just the same, when I read that blog I often feel that I am living in a completely different country to the Korea Matt lives in, because my experience of it is so far from the world he describes. There is a selection bias there – by linking to and writing about stories of a certain type, he gives an impression of Korea as a dark, suspicious, and racist place. It is his blog, and he is under no obligation to present a balanced view, but when he writes posts like this and this, I think the impression given is that Koreans generally regard native English teachers as potential sex offenders and paedophiles. And this is not my experience at all; quite the contrary, I am often surprised at just how little suspicion, compared to Australia or other countries, is raised by mundane yet possible-to-misinterpret scenarios.

I’ve tried to think of any time that I’ve been regarded with suspicion while teaching here, and can think of only one situation. I was talking to a student in my local park, and her mother happened to call. The student told her mother she was talking to her English teacher in the park. Her mother – I think understandably – told her not to go off somewhere with me, because I was a stranger.

That’s it.

Now, contrast that with some situations where I have been treated with not the slightest suspicion:

– Eating at pizza and gimbab places with students, outside of school
– Taking photos of students
– Going to an amusement park, outside of school hours, with three students (whose parents I’d never met)
– Taking photos of strangers’ kids doing cute things at festivals
– Having conversations with students via text message
– Spending time with students in my local park outside of school hours

All of these things might raise eyebrows in Australia, and I suspect in other Western countries. The paedophile moral panic that exists in these countries these days causes a lot of innocent activities to be regarded as out of bounds for the sake of propriety, if they are not regarded as outrightly suspicious. Read more

blue dot
Oct
09
2012
Culture 

Are Koreans…? Part 1: history, genetics, and physiology

Asian people lithograph

I spent some time playing with Google’s auto-suggest for the phrase, “Are Koreans…?”. As usually happens when you play around with auto-suggest, it revealed that most people searching the internet are breathtakingly ignorant, and preoccupied with sex. Which means, I suppose, that people generally are breathtakingly ignorant and preoccupied with sex.

But the questions did seem to cluster around certain topics, and I found those clusters interesting. Assuming that these are really the questions people have about Koreans, I will attempt to answer them from my perspective as a foreigner living in Korea.

Despite the jaw-dropping ignorance of many of the questions, I will try to answer them seriously. A warning, though – the nature of questions beginning with “Are Koreans…” calls for racial generalizations. Some people are uncomfortable with any suggestion that any group of people, even as a generalization, are intrinsically different from any other group. For some people this is an ideological position so strong that they are uncomfortable even with self-evidently true statements such as “People from Europe have, on average, lighter skin than people from Africa.” If that statement, indisputably true, makes you nervous, you should stop reading now. It will get a lot worse than that. Read more

blue dot
Sep
23
2012
Teaching 

An example EPIK application essay

I often get people coming here looking for an example EPIK essay, due to Google’s misunderstanding of what another blog post is about, and I suspect due to there apparently being not very many such essays on the internet. (As seems to often be the case these days, Scroozle’s Sanctuary delivers the goods.) Being short of inspiration since my experience with the Shinchonji cult, I thought I’d post mine, as yet another supplement to the ever-expanding Waegukin Guide to teaching English in Korea.

If you’re not currently in the process of applying to EPIK, this is probably not very interesting. Sorry. Read more

blue dot
Sep
14
2012
Living 

The Shinchonji/Mannam cult tries to recruit me

world peace initiative

There are two types of Koreans who will approach you randomly on the street for conversation: people who want to practice English, and religious recruiters.

By far the most common religious group to do this are the Jehova’s Witnesses. Recruitment is, of course, a large part of that movement, and foreigners in Korea seem to be a big target. I once had a Jehova’s Witness stop their car on the highway to talk to me while I was waiting at the bus stop. I’ve come to recognise these types pretty quickly, and usually when they initiate a conversation I will say, “Are you a Jehova’s Witness? I’m familiar with your material. No, I’m not interested.” And that takes care of it.

Korea is a petri-dish for new religious movements, the most famous of which is the Reverend Moon’s Unification Church. I don’t know why. According to this document there are 200 cults in Korea. Today, I met one of them – the Shinchonji cult, which has apparently been actively trying to recruit foreigners via their volunteer front organization, Mannam, for some time. Read more

blue dot
Sep
13
2012
Culture 

Old Korea and New Korea

old korea shack

On my first night in Korea, I went drinking with my new Korean-Australian friends outside a chicken shop in Suwon. I was the only white person in the group and they began my Korean education. This was one of the benefits of the TaLK program; it was full of gyopos and if you made friends with them, they got you up to speed on Korea really quickly. (Comparatively, the EPIK inductees seemed to take forever to learn anything about Korea.)

At one point one of my new friends – a guy who had lived in Korea until he was twelve – looked around at the neon and the taxis and convenience stores around us, and as we munched on chicken and drank beer and soju in the warm August evening, he said, “I kind of miss Old Korea.”

“What’s Old Korea?” I asked. Read more

blue dot
Sep
05
2012
Living 

Love motel review: Yeonhwajang Yeogwan, Gujora Beach, Geoje-do

Hat rack

This is the first in what will be a series of reviews of love motels. I am  unapologetically obsessed with love motels; they’re one of my favourite things about Korea.

The conceit of this series is that, besides reviewing motels, it will give me the chance to write travelogues with whatever anecdotes and observations I might want to make, without the need to write those awful “My trip to Blahblahblah”-style blog posts. Travel in Korea as viewed through the prism of love motel exploration; I like that. Read more