6 months in Korea

It’s exactly 6 months since I hopped on that plane and left England’s green green grass for South Korea. As with many English teachers out here, there was so much I thought I would have achieved by now; paid off my student overdraft, become fluent in Korean, seen most of Korea and half of east Asia, decided whether to stay for another year or not, grown to love kimchi, the list goes on.

Well, despite all of my grand predictions the truth is I haven’t done any of those things (sorry Mum and Dad!). No, I’m not fluent in Korean, but I can get by and I’m doing a weekly language exchange, so maybe I will be in another 6 months (ha, who am I kidding!). The furthest I’ve got from Incheon is Seoraksan on the east coast, and the furthest I’ve got from Korea is Tokyo; I really didn’t bank on this job malarkey getting in the way of my travel plans. Still not made up my mind for sure about renewing, and I absolutely cannot stand kimchi.

Without wanting to get into the whole smushy ‘I’ve grown so much as a person‘ spiel, I genuinely feel that I have learned a huge amount over the last 6 months.

Turns out that despite me insisting to my Dad over Skype a couple of weeks ago that I’d like to see him try to teach a bunch of 5 year olds English for the first time in response to a quip about not having a proper job, teaching really isn’t so difficult. Of course, I felt differently 6 months ago. I was absolutely petrified walking into that classroom for the first time; what if they don’t like me, what if their parents don’t like me, what if I accidentally teach them swear words.

By the time I’d got my head around teaching kindergarten I was faced with the dreaded 13 year olds. Flying them around the classroom like Superman and giving them Angry Bird colouring pages probably wasn’t going to wash with them. Time to actually impart knowledge. But that’s when the pressure really kicks in. Just how much about the quirks and exceptions of English grammar do we really know? How many times can you be told that, ‘teacher’, you’re spelling ‘favourite’ and ‘colour’ wrong before you start conforming to Americanisms? And why can ‘-ough‘ be pronounced in a multitude of ways?

Anyway, with a few minor mistakes along the way, mostly in the Geography department, both the students and I have got through the last 6 months largely unscathed (except for that incident with Ryan’s front teeth).

I’m sure there will be many more learning curves to come over the rest of my time in Korea, however long that may be, but it’s all part of the fun right?

You know you live in Korea when…

1. Kimchi comes as standard with every meal, even fried chicken or pizza.

2. It’s not unusual to see an 80 year old man playing with his iPad (or more likely his Samsung Galaxy tab) on the subway.

3. Likewise, seeing your 7 year old students with iPhones is not unusual either.

4. You forget how to use a knife and fork.

5. Going out for coffee costs more than going out for dinner.

6. You bow to everyone when you meet them, even fellow waygookin.

7. You use scissors to cut your food.

8. It’s perfectly normal to carry toilet roll around in your handbag.

9. Traffic lights don’t apply to drivers turning right. Even if there’s a pedestrian crossing.

10. The concept of personal space no longer exists.

11. You can’t remember the last time you saw a red car, a yellow car, or a blue car, in fact any car that isn’t black, white or silver.

12. You’ve realised that there’s no point trying to get the kids to stop saying ‘so-so’ in answer to everything.

13. You start to speak Konglish (usually just adding -uh to an English word, like bus-uh, or Homeplus-uh)

14. Being asked what your blood type is, and then being given an assessment of your personality, is not uncommon.

15. You find yourself absentmindedly humming the subway song.

16. You regularly get soaked when brushing your teeth, having forgotten to change the tap from the shower setting.

17. Seeing teenage boys sitting on each other’s knees on the subway no longer seems strange.

18. You can use a unisex bathroom and think nothing of it. Even if there’s a urinal.

19. You no longer feel concerned about the group of 9-year olds eating instant noodles in your local mini-mart at 10pm on a Sunday night.

20. You can use a squatter.

21. You know not to use a red marker pen when writing a kid’s name on the board.

22. You’re no longer confused in the elevator when the fourth floor button is replaced with an ‘F’.

23. You automatically cover your mouth when you laugh.

24. It’s near impossible to find a birthday card.

25. Seat belt? What seat belt?

How to make japchae

Japchae (stir fried noodles and vegetables) is one of my absolute favorite Korean dishes. The halmoni who cooks our lunches at school had set the japchae bar pretty high, but last night I decided to have a go at cooking it myself.

Of all the things I thought I’d blog about during my time in Korea, I never imagined that cooking would be one of them! My friends and family will tell you that my strengths do not lie in the kitchen, but I wanted to write this post partly as a memo for me to come back to because there’s no point in me writing it down on paper, I will lose it, but also because I think Korean cuisine is largely overlooked at the moment and I’d love more people to try it.

Japchae is a very versatile dish and can be eaten hot or cold, as a main or a side dish. Seasonal vegetables can be added, as can beef, pork or chicken.

Ingredients

(serves 2)

  • Starch noodles (dangmyun)
  • 1 bunch of spinach
  • 1 medium size carrot
  • A small pack of mushrooms
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • Soy sauce
  • Sesame oil
  • Sesame seeds
  • Pepper
  1. Slice the mushrooms, cut the carrot into strips, tear the spinach and mince the garlic.
  2. Boil 1 bunch of dangmyun noodles in a saucepan of boiling water for about 3 minutes until soft then drain. Put them in a bowl and add 1 tbsp of soy sauce and 1 tbsp sesame oil and place to one side.
  3. Keep the boiling water to blanche the shredded spinach in while the carrots and mushrooms are cooking.
  4. Heat a couple of drops of oil in a frying pan and add the carrots and the mushrooms. Stir fry over a medium heat for a couple of minutes or so until the mushrooms and carrots are about half cooked (not exactly a technical term sorry!) and then add the minced garlic, blanched spinach and ½  tbsp of soy sauce. Stir fry for another 30 seconds.
  5. Lower the heat and add the cooked noodles, 2 tbsp of soy sauce, 2 tbsp of sesame oil and ½  tsp of black pepper to the pan just to warm through.
  6. Serve with a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds.

Japchae was first served during the Joseon Dynasty, in the early 17th century, at one of King Gwanghaegun’s dinner parties. The king was so pleased with this creation that he promoted the cook to the position of hojo panseo 호조판서 (Secretary of the Treasury). That’s the sign of a good dish. Enjoy!

St. Patricks Day 2012

It’s that time of year again, when anyone who’s Irish, or whose great-grandma’s sister’s cousin’s dog is Irish, uses March 17th as an excuse for a massive party.

Each year the Irish Association of Korea organises a festival in honour of the patron saint of Ireland, and this year it was held at Sindorim’s D-Cube City Plaza, just outside the subway station. The party started at 12.30, but most people had been on the Guinness for a while by then! The weather was beautiful, it’s finally starting to feel like Spring here, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many waygookin in one place!

There was live music all day including a Korean U2 tribute band (?), traditional Irish music, Irish dancing, face painting, a sad Korean clown (?), and a whole lot of Guinness! So much beer that by the time we arrived at 2pm all of the mini-marts in the surrounding area had sold out of beer and we had to trek to Homeplus just to find any.

The festival finished at around 6pm and we headed en masse to Itaewon to continue the party. At 3am, after 13 hours of festivities and far too much maekju, we decided to call it a night and head back to Incheon. All in all a great day, made all the better by a 30-9 victory over Ireland in the rugby!

Sisterfood, Bupyeong

Sisterfood, a play on the words ‘sisterhood’ and ‘Asian food’, is a brand new restaurant that has just opened in the back streets of Bupyeong.

It was set up by Incheon Women’s Hotline, an organisation that helps immigrant women, often wives of Korean men, adjust to life here. It is run by a group of volunteers and offers advice, support and free English lessons to women.

We tucked into Vietnamese seafood noodles, Filipino rice cake and fried bananas, Chinese dumplings, Korean sweet potatoes, and of course, the omnipresent dish of kimchi. Everything was authentic and homemade, even the makgeolli!

Our boss’ wife is one of the volunteers, and all of the women there made us feel so welcome. I can’t wait to go back for some more feel-good food!

Happy White Day!

So, White Day 화이트데이 is finally here! After a month of torment and sleepless nights I will finally find out whether my Valentine will reciprocate my gift and my love (we’re about to celebrate our 6 year anniversary so he’ll be in the doghouse until next year’s White Day if he doesn’t!)

Although the 14th of every month has some kind of romantic significance for Korean couples (see here!), the 14th of February, March and April are the most widely celebrated. The girls give chocolates to their loved ones or crushes on February 14th, and the guys then have a month to consider their options before giving a present to the girls in their life on White Day.

White Day is observed in several countries across east Asia, including Japan, China, Taiwan and of course, South Korea. It was first celebrated in Japan during the 1970’s, after the National Confectionery Industry Association proposed an ‘answer day’ to Valentine’s Day. Consequently, many people think of White Day as nothing more than an elaborate marketing ploy, created purely to boost confectionery sales.

The tradition began by giving marshmallows or white chocolate, but recently gifts of jewellery, cosmetics and even designer handbags have become popular. According to department store statistics, the spending on White Day is much higher than during Valentine’s week, and increases by 10-20% each year. Unfortunately for the boys, they are expected to splash out a lot more than the girls!

Happy White Day!

A Korean wedding

Just two weeks after landing in Korea, Nath and I somehow qualified for an invitation to his boss’ sister’s wedding. As with many Korean weddings, it took place in a ‘wedding hall‘; a building designed purely for wedding ceremonies, complete with high ceilings, white drapes and extravagant chandeliers.

It was much more informal than any English wedding I’ve been to (all three of them that is!). As we arrived guests from several different weddings were milling around in the foyer, and people wandered in and out of the ceremony room even during the vows.

The mothers of the bride and groom, and the bridesmaids wore traditional Korean hanbok but the bride wore a big, beautiful, white princess dress. After a lot of bowing between the bride and groom and their parents, the ceremony finally got underway.

In many ways it was quite similar to a typical Western wedding, but what surprised us the most was how quickly it was over. The whole ceremony took 25 minutes, then we were led into the buffet hall as the next couple’s wedding began. I hate to say it but there was something slightly impersonal and conveyor belt-esque about the whole thing.

During the meal the bride, groom and their parents appeared on stage (to the Pirates of the Caribbean theme tune…) to cut the cake and say thank you before disappearing off to start their honeymoon on Jeju island.

My guide to Korean cuisine

Korea has such a wide and varied cuisine, and it would be impossible to cover all the different types of bulgogi, galbi, and jigae in this post, but these are just some of our favorite Korean dishes!

Japchae

What makes japchae so much better than other noodle dishes is the type of noodles used. They are called ‘glass noodles’ or dang myeon and are made from sweet potato starch. The noodles are stir fried with sliced vegetables, like carrots, mushrooms, and spinach, in sesame oil and soy sauce and topped off with a few sesame seeds. Japchae is probably my favorite Korean food so far!

Galbi

Galbi literally means ‘ribs’ in Korean, and is usually beef or pork, although dakgalbi (chicken meat) is also popular. The meat is marinated in soy, garlic, and sugar and is brought to the table raw for you to cook it yourself. In the middle of the table is a grill over hot coals and you cook it barbecue style. Galbi comes with an array of banchan (side dishes) which vary at different restaurants, but they usually include lettuce leaves, garlic, shredded onions, pickled radish, kimchi, and a couple of soups and dipping sauces.

Shabu shabu

The perfect winter warmer, shabu shabu is Korea’s answer to a Lancashire hot pot. A big, bubbling pot of spicy vegetable soup is placed in the middle of the table over a burner. First round; the meat. Again DIY style, pieces of thinly sliced, semi-frozen beef are thrown into the pot to cook for a few seconds then dipped in a sesame sauce, yum yum! After the meat comes the noodles, which are also put in the soup to cook and soak up the spiciness. Lastly, the soup is poured off into a bowl and fried rice is cooked in the pot, in the remnants of the soup. It is a pretty big meal anjd you have to be really hungry to properly appreciate shabu shabu, but it’s another personal favorite!

Gimbap

Gimbap seems to be one of those foods that can be eaten anytime. My co-teachers often have it for breakfast, a snack at lunchtime, or at picnics. It is made from rice (bap), and various fillings like cucmber, pickled radish, squid, spam or cheese, rolled in gim (sheets of dried laver seaweed).

Mandu

Another street food, and one of Nath’s absolute favorites, mandu are steamed Korean dumplings. They usually have a pork or kimchi filling, and are normally about the size of a tennis ball. They are served with a soy sauce and vinegar dipping sauce. Even if you can’t read Korean, mandu street stalls are instantly recognisable by the huge, steaming vats outside.

Tteokbokki

An eternal favourite with Korean schoolchildren, tteokbokki is sold on almost every street corner. In its simplest form it is just bitesize pieces of white rice cake in a red, spicy sauce, although tteokbokki with seafood, noodles, sausage or cheese are also very common.

Samgyeopsal

Samgyeopsal is fatty pork belly meat, like thick bacon, and is cooked in a similar way to galbi. It is one of the most popular meals in Korea, with apparently 70% of Koreans eating it at least once a week. The name literally means three (sam) layered (gyeop) flesh (sal) and unlike galbi is not seasoned or marinated. Samgyeopsal also comes with a range of banchan including lettuce leaves, perilla leaves, green chilli peppers, garlic, onions and kimchi.

Chicken and beer

Hardly a traditional dish but fried chicken and beer is hugely popular in Korea, with a chicken ‘hof’ (bar) every few yards. Fried chicken is rarely a meal in itself but is served as a drinking snack (anju) and for this reason is often referred to as chi-maek (chicken and maekju – beer). KFC (Korean fried chicken) can be either with sauce or without, but I prefer it without. Chicken fried in rice instead of wheat flour is also becoming very popular here.