The War Memorial Of Korea, Seoul

It’s fair to say that Korea has had a rather troubled history, and has struggled not only with outside invasions but also from threats within the peninsula. The War Memorial of Korea museum covers pretty much the entire history of Korean warfare, from the Three Kingdoms era all the way through to the Korean War and Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War. It even shows what future warfare might look like, slightly concerning seeing as the two Korea’s are technically still at war.

This huge museum located near Yongsan was once the headquarters of the Korean Infantry before being turned into a museum in 1994. In the outdoor exhibit, dozens of tanks, jets, and guns make up just some of the 13,000 items of military memorabilia and equipment housed in the museum. They even display a replica of the South Korean navy vessel sank by a North Korean torpedo in 2010. Unsurprisingly this makes it one of the largest museums of it’s kind in the world.

Outside the museum the Statue of Brothers serves as a poignant reminder of the division between the two Koreas. The monument shows two brothers standing on top of a dome, embracing each other. The older brother is an ROK officer and his younger brother is serving in the North Korean army, and their embrace takes place when they meet on the battlefield. The crack in the dome symbolises the division of Korea and the hope for reunification.

A visit to the War Memorial of Korea is essential for anyone wanting to truly understand the country’s struggle to get to where it is today. To get there take subway line 4 or 6 to Samgakji station and leave by exit 12. Walk straight and after about five minutes the museum will be on your left.

Top 5 PSY songs…yes, there are other songs!

Love him or hate him, 2012 has undoubtedly been the summer of PSY, with Gangnam Style topping the charts in 15 countries and overtaking Justin Bieber (thank God) as YouTube’s most ‘liked’ song. In the midst of Gangnam fever it’s easy to forget that this is just the peak in PSY’s 12 year career, during which he has released seven albums. Having been to his incredible concert in Seoul a couple of weeks ago, I now have new found love for PSY and his music, here are my five favourite songs! (click on the song titles to watch the videos on YouTube)

Korea – Few countries do patriotism like Korea does (let’s not forget Dokdo), but this song is perhaps one of the better examples, as it doesn’t involve beheaded pheasants. Released earlier this year, with the video set in the grounds of Gyeongbokgung, ‘Korea‘ is a rousing anthem for all things Korean.

Shake It – My personal favourite, this song has me dancing around my apartment like a loon, singing the few words I do know loud enough to compensate for the ones that I don’t! It was released in 2011 and reached number 4 in the Korean charts. It features fellow South Korean entertainer Noh Hong Chul, who also happens to be ‘the elevator guy’ in the Gangnam Style video. This song has a kind of 50s vibe to it and is almost as catchy as Gangnam Style.

Right Now – Although it was released two years ago ‘Right Now’ has done pretty well off the back of Gangnam Style’s success. The song is rapidly gaining popularity online in the US, perhaps proving that PSY isn’t just a one hit wonder. Rather controversially ‘Right Now’ is one of three PSY songs to have been given an R19 rating by the Ministry of Gender, Equality and Family for its ‘obscene’ lyrics comparing life to toxic alcohol.

Champion – This was PSY’s fifth single and it went to number 1 in 2002. However, it too has been at the centre of a recent controversy as many international fans mistook some of the Korean words to be racist slurs. Many people asked for this seemingly offensive song to be taken down from YouTube while K-Pop fans were jumping to PSY’s defence and explaining the meaning of the Korean words. This song remains popular with Koreans today because of its catchy lyrics hailing anyone who can have fun as a champion in life!

We Are The One – Another cheer for Korea, this song was the national football team’s official chanting song during the 2006 Fifa World Cup. It seemed to be one of the most popular songs during PSY’s free concert in Seoul as the crowd were going crazy for it. Unfortunately the team were knocked out in the group stages, and PSY didn’t fare much better in the charts, but I like it anyway!

With a new single rumoured to be out in the US next month, it seems PSY is here to stay!

Korean car parking…

When it comes to parking in South Korea the general rule seems to be that anywhere is fair game if you can fit your car there. Now, I must admit that parking has never been my strong point, I used to drive to the far end of Tescos car park so I could find three or four spaces in a row and just hope to end up in one of them, but even by my standards I have seen some pretty shocking parking in Korea. This, however, has to be my favourite; in the middle of a busy highway in central Seoul.

Seoul International Fireworks Festival 2012

Last night saw over a million people line the banks of the Han near Yeouido to watch the Seoul International Fireworks Festival. The teams competing this year were Italy, China, America and Korea and they certainly did not disappoint; it was incredible! (For more amazing photos from my even more amazing boyfriend check out his Flickr page!)

“Teacher, what’s your blood type?”

One of the many rather personal questions you may be asked when you arrive in Korea is ‘what is your blood type?‘. I remember being asked by my 9 year olds on my first day at school and being a little confused. I hadn’t got a clue what my blood type was, but more importantly, why on earth were they asking??

In much the same way that many Westerners view star signs, some Asian cultures consider someone’s blood type to be a prediction of their personality, temperament and compatibility with others.

Whilst today the concept is trivial and something of a joke to people, it’s origins are rather more sinister. The idea of blood types being an indication of someone’s character can be traced back to the early 20th century. It was used by Nazi Germany, before being adopted by Imperial Japan, to promote their supremacist ideology over other races. As the distribution of blood groups can be somewhat disproportionate across the world, the Nazis realised that blood types A and O were much more common in German people, while Asians and Jews had a higher percentage of type B, and so having the ‘right’ blood type became part of their Aryan ideal.

By the 1920s the theory was gaining ground in Japan, and the government had ordered a study aimed at breeding the perfect soldier through different combinations of blood types. After a Taiwanese revolt against the Japanese occupying forces in the 1930s, research found that over 40% of Taiwanese people had blood type O, which is deemed to be the least submissive type, and therefore their dissidence was thought to be genetically predetermined. The same study found that only 20% of Japanese people had type O, and so the solution was to ‘dilute’ the rebellious blood by increasing intermarriages with the Japanese.

Having lost it’s dark roots, the theory was renewed in a much more light-hearted nature during the 1970s by Masahiko Nomi, a Japanese journalist, in his best selling book. It then spread to nearby countries like South Korea and Taiwan and remains a part of pop culture today. There are films, songs and books that focus on blood types, and dating agencies take them into consideration when matching people up. You can even enter your blood type information into your Korean Facebook profile.

USB sticks with Park Dong Sun’s blood type characters

But what does your blood type actually say about you?

TYPE A is often seen as the best type to have, and so people can sometimes be quite smug about it. They are the ‘goodie-goodies’ of blood types as they tend to follow the rules, and they dislike disruption or confrontation. Often introverts and perfectionists, they are said to be reliable and punctual, but they also have a tendency to over-analyse things and worry too much. They are very considerate and loyal, and they take everyone’s opinions into account as they don’t like to upset anyone. Although they take care of other people’s emotions, their own can get hurt very easily and they are not ones to forgive and forget. They can be rather indecisive, fastidious and stubborn, and they will weigh up all the risks in doing something before they actually do it. It is also said that they can’t hold their drink…

The total opposite of type A, people with blood TYPE B are egomaniacs and extroverts. Type B has possibly the worst reputation of all the blood types, as type B men are seen as unreliable ‘players’ or commitment-phobes and they are not considered to be suitable marriage material. A popular Korean film called ‘My Boyfriend is Type B‘ centres around a (type A) young woman who is advised by her family and friends not to date a boy she likes, who happens to be Type B. They can be selfish, irresponsible and they tend not to care what other people think. They are often very opinionated and usually get their own way as they have charisma by the bucket-load. They hate being bored and want to be amused at all times, so they are creative and often do things on a whim. They are rather lazy and lack the perseverance to see things through. They have short fuses, and they’re not afraid to speak their minds, and this leads them to be quite argumentative. However, they forgive and forget easily.

My Boyfriend Is Type B‘ poster

TYPE O is the joker of the group. They have a strong physical presence, they thrive on being the centre of attention and they rarely take anything seriously. They are seen as friendly, happy-go-lucky and extremely ambitious. They like to be the best at everything  and they have a fierce competitive streak. Their sometimes obsessive drive for success can make them difficult people to live with. They’re the most likely to go over the top with things and throw extravagant parties to show off to their friends. Once they put their mind to something they usually see it through to the end, as they are very practical and diligent. They are blessed with good memories and small details rarely escape their notice. Although they are normally so cheerful, when they get angry they get seriously angry, and they can be ruthless and insensitive. Type Os make natural leaders as they are not afraid to take a gamble. They hate to be lonely so they tend to trust people completely, and they take it pretty badly if that trust is broken.

TYPE AB is something of a mystery, as their characteristics are not quite as clear cut as the other blood types. They are cool, calm and collected, however they can sometimes come across as aloof or detached. They are very rational people, and they are ruled by their heads, not their hearts. Observant and analytical, they can also be very critical and unforgiving, and they keep themselves to themselves. They tend not to care what other people think of them and are often seen as being anti-social. They are not strong team players although they wouldn’t do anything to deliberately hurt other people. They usually have a wide range of interests which makes them knowledgeable and creative. Type ABs adapt easily to most situations but they can be extremely unpredictable. Other types often view them as loners who are two-faced and not to be trusted.

This picture by the popular cartoonist Park Dong Sun, shows how the situation might be if the four bloodtypes were placed in a room together. Type A would be sitting at the edge of the room so as not to attract any attention, Type B would naturally be in the centre of the room, Type O would be mingling and socialising with everyone and Type AB would most likely be daydreaming in a corner somewhere.

Park Dong Sun’s cartoon of different blood types

PSY Concert at Seoul Plaza 오빤 강남스타일!

Having topped the charts in 15 countries, and still riding high on the success of Gangnam Style, PSY announced earlier this week that he would be staging a free concert to thank his home fans for all their support. And so Thursday night found us right in the middle of an 80,000 strong crowd of students, businessmen, ajummas, and children all doing the famous ‘horse dance’ in Seoul Plaza!

The concert lasted two hours, and he had the crowd singing and dancing along to every one of his songs, just like a huge, public norebang! However, there was one song in particular that everyone was waiting to hear, and as soon as he put on those sunglasses the crowd went wild. People were jumping up and down, riding invisible horses, and screaming every word. It was a truly unforgettable moment.

PSY had promised that if he reached number 1 in the Billboard Top 100 chart this week he would perform the ‘horse dance’ shirt-less during the concert. Although Maroon 5 clung on to the number one spot while Gangnam Style remained at number two, he kept to his promise and tore his (extremely sweaty!) shirt off during the encore of Gangnam Style at the end of the show. 오빤 강남스타일!

Happy 4344th Birthday Korea!!

Today (October 3rd) is Gaecheonjol in Korea, often referred to as National Foundation Day. This day marks the creation of the state of Gojoseon, the first kingdom of ancient Korea.

According to Korean legend Hwanin was the Emperor of Heaven, and every day his son, Hwanung, would gaze down to earth and cry. He was worried about the fate of the humans and wished to bring peace, justice and order to them. So Hwanin allowed his son and 3000 followers to descend to earth. They arrived at Mount Taebaek, in modern day North Korea, and founded a thriving city. It was there that a tiger and a bear approached him, asking if he could make them human. Hwanung is said to have given them 20 cloves of garlic, telling them that whichever one ate only this garlic for 100 days would be granted the wish of becoming human. The tiger soon became impatient and gave up but the bear persevered, and on the 101st day the bear became a woman. Hwanung made the woman his wife, and they had a child named Dangun Wanggeom. On this day in 2333 BC Dangun went on to become the founder of Gojoseon, and the rest, as they say, is history!

Have a good one Korea, you don’t look a day over 4343!

The rabbit on the moon

Ever looked at the man on the moon? Well, in Korea, and other parts of far east Asia, people can see the outline of a rabbit in the dark patches of the moon’s surface. The story varies in Chinese and Japanese folklore, but according to Korean legend, the rabbit on the moon, known as daltokki (달토끼), can be seen pounding the ingredients for rice cakes with a pestle and mortar. Both the rabbit and the full moon symbolise long life and prosperity so when you see a full moon, it is custom to make a wish.

But why a rabbit? According to a traditional Buddhist tale, the ruler of heaven comes down to earth in disguise. He comes upon a fox, a monkey and a rabbit and in a test of their faith, he begs them for food. The fox brings him a fish and the monkey gathers some fruit. However, the rabbit offers himself as food and throws himself onto the fire, but somehow he doesn’t get burned. The man reveals himself, and in honour of the rabbit’s selflessness he takes it up to the heavens with him, and imprints his image on the moon for eternity so people can look at it and remember what he was prepared to do.

Chuseok 2012 추석

Chuseok (추석) is the Korean thanksgiving holiday to celebrate the harvest, and it is the biggest celebration in the Korean calendar. Chuseok falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, which this year was September 30th, and the day before and the day after are also given as holiday to allow city dwellers to visit their hometowns. Chuseok can also be known as Hangawi (한가위), which literally translates as the ‘ides of August’.

The origins of Chuseok are a little unclear, but many Koreans trace the holiday back to ancient worship of the moon. The full moon was considered a special and meaningful event, and so the harvest celebrations were always held on the day of a full moon. Even today it is traditional to make a wish to the ‘Moon Rabbit‘ on Chuseok.

Dancing beneath the harvest full moon

As with Seollal (Lunar New Year in February), Chuseok sees a mass exodus out of Seoul and Korea’s other main cities, as everyone heads to their hometowns in the countryside to visit their relatives and pay their respects to the spirits of their ancestors. For married women, that means visiting their husband’s family and relatives. In the days running up to Chuseok many Koreans tend the tombs of their ancestors, and on the morning of Chuseok a ceremony (차례) is held, offering traditional food and drink to the deceased. A good harvest is often attributed to the blessing of one’s ancestors.

Chuseok 차례 ceremonial table

Food is an important part of Chuseok, and can be very stressful for the women of the family as they have to prepare so much food. Japchae (잡채 is a dish made from clear noodles stir fried in sesame oil with various vegetables and sometimes meat), songpyeon (송편 small, crescent-shaped rice cakes filled with honey, red bean paste or chestnut paste steamed on a bed of pine needles), seasonal fruits, baekju (a kind of rice wine), and freshly harvested rice are among the most popular Chuseok foods.

In addition to the 차례 ceremony, typical Chuseok activities include wearing hanbok (traditional Korean dress), playing folk games, singing, and dancing beneath the full moon.

Happy Chuseok everyone!