R.I.P. Mr. Grasshopper

As any one of my family and friends will tell you, I don’t cope well with insects. If it has more than four legs, I don’t want to know. Unfortunately for me, there are a fair few creatures that have more than four legs scuttling around Korea at this time of year.

I’ve already had to contend with several cockroaches, a monster of a stag beetle (don’t listen to what Nathan says, it really was 12 centimetres long), and that’s not even including what I’ve eaten.

This all brings me to the story of Mr. Grasshopper. Yesterday, one of my co-teachers came in to tell me that there was ‘a big, green bug’ in the computer room. There it was, lurking next to one of the speakers. I think it was a grasshopper, maybe a cricket, I’m not really sure what the difference is, but we’ll call it a grasshopper. Whatever it was it definitely had more than four legs.

I called some of the boys in to see it, and I won’t lie to you, I did spot an opportunity here to convince one of the kids to take their new friend outside meaning I wouldn’t have to go near the thing myself.

The boys weren’t the least bit fazed by it, and the poor thing was passed from one sticky little hand to another. In fact, one of them wanted to keep it for show and tell and another tried to put it in his mouth. What the obsession is with eating bugs here I will never know.

Apologies for the poor photography, I only had my phone on me and the kids were moving quite a lot!

I ran to grab my camera from the teachers’ room but by the time I got back to the classroom the kids had all gone back to playing with their Lego. No sign of Mr. Grasshopper. Hmm.

Mr. Grasshopper’s Lego house

Me: Where is the bug now?

Kid 1 (without looking up from his Lego): Trash can.

Me: What? Why is it in the trash can??

Kid 1: It’s dead.

Kid 2: Dead.

Kid 3: It’s killed.

Kid 4: Very dead.

I looked in the trash can (damn Americanisms) and sure enough, there he was, lying crumpled at the bottom of the bin. So that was the end of Mr. Grasshopper. A dignified burial among pencil sharpenings, sweet wrappers, and tteokbokki sauce. R.I.P. Mr. Grasshopper.

Namsan Tower Love Locks

It has become something of a tradition for couples visiting Seoul Tower to leave a personalised lock as a symbol of their everlasting love. At the base of the tower fences and metal trees are adorned with thousands and thousands of padlocks with lovers’ initials and messages on. Once you attach your padlock you throw away the key, to ensure that your love is never broken.

South Korean fan death

Fan death. The commonly held belief in South Korea that sleeping in a closed room with an electric fan on all night will kill you. Seriously.

According to the South Korean government’s consumer agency, electric fans claim between seven and ten lives every year. The same government body also states that asphyxiation from fans is one of the top five causes of summer fatalities.

If bodies are exposed to electric fans or air conditioners for too long, it causes bodies to lose water and hypothermia. If directly in contact with a fan, this could lead to death from increase of carbon dioxide saturation concentration and decrease of oxygen concentration. The risks are higher for the elderly and patients with respiratory problems.”

Now, you may be wondering how a seemingly harmless electrical appliance can transform overnight into a brutal cold-blooded killer?

Well, there are several suggested ’causes’ of death by fan.

The first is hypothermia. Our metabolisms naturally slow down at night and this makes us more sensitive to temperature changes. If the fan is left on all night, the change in room temperature can in turn cause our body temperature to drop so much that it causes organ failure and hypothermia. Hmm…

The second is death through prolonged asphyxiation. This theory claims that if a fan blows air directly onto your face, it creates a kind of vortex, and the fast moving flow of air makes it difficult to breathe so you slowly suffocate.

The third theory is that the fan motor actually converts the oxygen in the room into carbon dioxide, thus suffocating its sleeping victim.

Lastly, and my personal favourite, is that the blades of the fan ‘chop up’ all of the air particles in the room leaving you none to breathe. Now, I’m no Einstein but I’m pretty sure that that isn’t right.

So where did this absurd myth originate from?

The origins of this mind-boggling superstition remain a mystery. Electric fans had been used in Korea for over 80 years before the first reported case of fan death. One theory however, is that the rumour was actually started by the South Korean government during the 1970s as an attempt to reduce energy usage at a time when there were limited supplies.

Is it all just a lot of hot air?

There is no scientific evidence that sleeping in a room with a fan running all night alone will kill you. In fact, several studies have disproven the theories beyond doubt. Most of the deaths are actually attributed to alcohol poisoning, heart conditions or other undiagnosed medical problems. In 2007 Dr. John Linton, who had carried out autopsies on several fan death victims, told the International Herald Tribune “there are several things that could be causing the fan deaths, things like pulmonary embolisms, cerebrovascular accidents or arrhythmia. There is little scientific evidence to support that a fan alone can kill you if you are using it in a sealed room. Although it is a common belief among Koreans, there are other explainable reasons for why these deaths are happening.”

Yet South Koreans of all ages, classes and backgrounds continue to believe in this urban legend. Even doctors and medical professionals warn of the dangers of electric fans.

How can we protect ourselves from these silent assassins?

The Korean Consumer Protection Agency advises that doors or windows should be left open when sleeping with the electric fan or air conditioner turned on, to prevent the oxygen from being converted into carbon dioxide/sucked out of the room/chopped up into tiny pieces. Also, most fans now sold in Korea come with a timer device that automatically switches it off after a certain amount of time, no doubt saving tens of lives every year.

We slept with the fan on last night, and I feel lucky to have escaped with my life.

10 reasons to teach English in South Korea

This blog post is largely a spectacularly unsubtle hint to my baby brother (he just turned 20 but he’ll always be a baby to me!) to come to Korea when he graduates next year, but also for anyone else who is considering something like this.

Obviously there are dozens of reasons to come to South Korea, but here are my top ten…

1. I’m sure many people would try to disagree with me here, but Korean kids are the cutest in the world. Fact.

2. The gifts. Whether it’s Teacher’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Pepero Day or just Wednesday, the kids are constantly bringing in presents from their parents. Ice cream, donuts, coffee, cosmetics, fried chicken, a packed lunch for every field trip, the list goes on. In fact, one of my kids just gave me a beautiful Pandora style bracelet from his holiday in Hawaii this week!

3. Having recently graduated from university in a recession struck country, there is something to be said for the financial deal that Korea offers. The demand for native English teachers is very high, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon so there is a reasonable degree of job security here. Most contracts will include a relatively high salary, free rent, 50% of your medical insurance, and a return flight from your home country.

4. You’ll never receive so much unconditional love from kids…unless you have your own that is…and maybe not even then.

5. Everyone spouts the same old line about wanting to ‘experience a new culture and broaden their horizons’, but it’s true. Yes, it’s a challenge. Yes, sometimes it is difficult. However, South Korea takes you out of your comfort zone but without having to give up hot water, constant electricity and white wine. Korea has one of the world’s fastest growing economies along with the world’s fastest internet speeds, so you won’t have to give up many of your home comforts here.

6. It’s a great starting place to explore other parts of Asia during the school holidays. With China and Japan on the doorstep and the delights of South East Asia just a few short hours away on a plane, South Korea is an excellent base to travel from during your time off.

7. Living in Korea you do sometimes feel like a celebrity. Kids wave at you in the street, people give up their seats for you on the subway and you’re forever being given freebies. Take today for example, casually wandering around the Incheon Landing Operation Memorial Hall on a kindergarten field trip. I was looking at the armistice signed between the North and the South when a security guard sidles up to me, leans in, and whispers ‘Can I ask you a question?‘. I laughed nervously, glanced around to see where my co-teachers were, and asked him what the question was. He said ‘your hair looks like silk. Can I touch it?

8. Sounds boring I know, but an experience and a commitment like this genuinely does look good on a CV. Apparently.

9. Cheap booze. Well, cheap lifestyle in general really. Granted, it may not be a decision-maker but most waygookin are liars if they say this isn’t a reason to love Korea. Koreans embody the ‘work hard play hard’ mentality, and when in Rome…well, it’d be rude not to.

10. It’s better than working in McDonalds.

‘My Family’ by Colin, aged 8

One of the many things I have learned from teaching is that kids are, at times, unpredictable. However, when I asked my class of 8 year olds to draw pictures of their families last week, this definitely was not what I was expecting!

Most of the children drew pretty pictures of their families standing outside a cottage, surrounded by rainbows, flowers and hearts.

But not this one. Oh no. This one drew something a little different.

They say a picture speaks a thousand words, but I’m not entirely sure which words this picture is saying…

Yeongjongdo Island

We had another national holiday in Korea this week, and along with what seemed like half the population of Incheon, we left the city for a day at the beach. After an emotional goodbye with Nath’s parents at the end of a wonderful two week visit, we caught the bus from the airport to Eurwangni beach.

In many ways Eurwangni was just like a typical beach resort at home; seafood restaurants, arcades and even noraebang, it was all a little bit tacky to be honest. As soon as the thermometer in England reaches 23°C the beach becomes a sea of milk bottle legs, moobs and sunburn. However, the beaches at Yeongjongdo were awash with tents, umbrellas and even blankets despite the 32°C heat!

To me, a day at the beach meant enjoying an ice cream, working on my tan and maybe even building a sandcastle. Nathan had other ideas though. A 10 minute walk just ‘to see what’s around the corner’ turned into a 5 mile trek up and down Eurwangni beach. And if that wasn’t enough we then headed further up the coast to the quieter Wangsan beach.

I paddled in Korean waters for the first time, I caught my first glimpse of Korean paddy fields, and I had my first batting cage experience (needless to say SK Wyverns have nothing to worry about there). The island and its beaches were beautiful and it was nice to escape the hustle and bustle of city life for an afternoon.

Eurwangni Beach

A seafood restaurant

Steam rising off the mudflats

Eurwangni Beach

Seafood restaurants

Abandoned anchors on Eurwangni Beach

Fishermen at Eurwangni Beach

Walkway at Eurwangni Beach

A seafood restaurant at Eurwangni Beach

A slightly more rustic dining experience…

Two girls looking for crabs

View across the beach

Umm…

Eurwangni Beach

The tide was out at Eurwangni Beach

My Korean culinary bucket list

I have always been an extremely fussy eater and have given my parents years of tears, tantrums and point blank refusals to eat what was lovingly prepared and put in front of me (sorry about that Mum and Dad!).

One of the main reasons for my move to Korea was to embrace new experiences and broaden my horizons, so here is my list of typically Korean specialities I must (and will!) try before I return to the homeland of fish and chips, roast beef and crumpets.

Some I have tried already but it is a work in progress.

1. 번데기 – Silkworm pupae (tried and tasted)

I was left thoroughly unimpressed after my experience of 번데기 but it definitely qualifies as one of Korea’s most unusual foods. Available ‘fresh’ from street vendors or tinned in your local mini-mart, it is a mind-bogglingly popular Korean snack. The smell is enough to make you retch but it is nothing compared to the taste. Someone had told me they tasted just like peanuts, but that must have been a cruel joke. They did not taste like peanuts. Having said that, I’m not entirely sure what they did taste of, and I’m certainly not going back for more. The worst bit was the pop; the moment that the exo-skeleton burst and the soft guts came spilling out. They are supposedly low in calories and packed full of vitamins, however I am quite happy to miss this out of my diet.

2. 닭 발 – Chicken feet (tried and tasted)

Chicken feet are commonly thought of as a Chinese delicacy but they are also very popular in Korea.  Dalkbal can be served either on or off the bone, steamed, grilled, boiled, or fried and usually smothered in a scorchingly spicy sauce. They are served in most Korean barbecue restaurants but also in bars as a drinking snack. I’m yet to try this one…

3. 족발 – Pig’s trotters (tried and tasted)

Another one that I won’t be rushing out to try again, this was served up on a work night out. Not only do you have the rather ‘unique’ texture to contend with but also the extreme spiciness. Imagine tucking into a big knuckle of warm rubbery lard, and then your mouth being set on fire and you’re probably about there. We were even given plastic gloves to wear because they are so greasy. Eating jokbal is said to be good for your skin and prevents wrinkles. It is also supposed to be a pretty good hangover cure, but I’m not sure my gag reflex would agree.

4.  낙지 – Live octopus

This is not one for the faint-hearted. Sannakji is a live baby octopus cut up into bite size pieces and served immediately. So immediately in fact that it is often still squirming when it reaches the table. It is served in most seafood restaurants but also in bars as a drinking snack (noticing a trend here?). There have been cases of people choking on sannakji, especially after a bottle or four of soju, as the suction caps on the octopus’ arms can latch onto the mouth or throat on the way down.

5. 보신탕 – Dog meat soup

No list of unusual Korean foods would be complete without dog meat making an appearance. Controversial I know, but dog meat is falling out of favour with young Koreans. Most have tried it at some point but very few have anything good to say about it. 보신탕, dog meat soup, literally means ‘body nourishing soup’, and is said to increase virility. It is usually eaten in the summer as the spiciness apparently balances out the body temperature. Technically illegal since 1986, it can still easily be found in many Korean restaurants.

6. 도토리묵 – Acorn jelly (tried and tasted)

Dotorimuk is a brown jelly made from acorn starch. It originated in the mountains, but became very widely eaten during the Korean war during food shortages, and it is now considered to be a health food. Acorn jelly is usually served mixed with chilli, garlic, soy and sesame as a side dish. Of all the things on this list, dotorimuk is probably the only one I’d have seconds of. No nasty surprises, and all the taste comes from the marinade.

7.  껍데기 – Pig skin (tried and tasted)

A firm favourite with middle aged men after a few bottles of soju, ggupdaegi is thick pig skin grilled over a Korean bbq; a bit like crackling but without the crack. Not crunchy, not chewy, not greasy, it is quite soft and not wholly unpleasant once you get over the piggy-ness of it. Found in almost all Korean barbecue restaurants it is definitely worth a try.

8. 순대 – Sundae

Not to be confused with ice-cream and sprinkles, sundae is a kind of Korean blood sausage. It is usually made from boiled pig’s intestines, stuffed with dangmyeon (glass noodles), barley and pig’s blood, although there are many other varieties. Perhaps not hugely dissimilar to black pudding but even my love of an English breakfast never convinced me to try that…

9. 해파리 냉채 – Jellyfish (tried and tasted)

After a slightly traumatic incident on a family holiday in Spain, jellyfish was something I didn’t have much of a problem trying; after all they do say revenge is a dish best served cold. Haepari nengche is thinly shredded jellyfish salad in a sweet mustard sauce. Unsurprisingly it takes a fair amount of chewing but it actually wasn’t too bad!

10. 감자탕 – Pig spine soup

Gamjatang, an Incheon speciality, is a spicy red soup made from separated pig vertebrae, vegetables, onions, peppers, and sesame seeds. It originated in Jeolla province in south-west Korea, and when Incheon port opened up many people migrated north and brought the dish with them. It became popular with labourers as it’s cheap, nutritious and it has a high fat content.

Lotus Lantern Festival 2012

According to Buddhist tradition, lighting a lotus lantern represents a devotion to performing good deeds and lighting up the dark parts of the world that are filled with agony.

Lanterns outside Jogye-sa Temple, Seoul

Every year hundreds of people take to the streets of Seoul dancing, singing, and carrying lanterns in celebration of Buddha’s birthday. This annual Lotus Lantern Festival took place on May 19th this year.

Lanterns at Jogye-sa Temple

The procession starts at Dongdaemun Gate in the north of Seoul and proceeds through the streets of Insadong before finishing at Jogye-sa Temple.

A coloured lantern is lit for a living person, and a white lantern is for someone who has passed away.

Dragon lantern

White lanterns

Jogye-sa Temple

Roses at Jogye-sa Temple

Incense burning

Putting the finishing touches to a lantern

Bosingak Belfry

Lotus Lantern Festival

Lotus Lantern Festival 2012

Lotus Lantern Festival 2012