Love to Hate Korea: Costco


It’s no secret that Costco in Korea is the epitome of a modern hellhole designed to rip your soul out, divvy it up with a rusty and blunt axe, chew it, then spit it right back at you, so you you put it back inside, then turn around and do it all over again. This place steals so much attention and causes so much heartbreak and frustration, but let’s not forget that all it is is a bloody supermarket!

But why is the place just destined to constantly infuritate me? I blame people. Because, let’s face it, all the ills of the world are brought about by our fellow humans, and Costco in Korea is a perfect example of this.

To get into the place you have to tackle the car park (because let’s be honest only an amateur would take the bus or train to Costco), where the wonderful Korean driving etiquette phenomenon is magnified. Here, the larger and more foreign your car the more entitled you are to be a fucker, while the little guy who has been bullied really doesn’t care who or what you are, and just drives straight over you. Do you see the difference? That’s right, there is none. Rules out the window to beat the band!

This is a mild description, as the car park is really only a primer for the zoo downstairs. In this Parthenon of consumption every man is equal (but some believe themselves to be more equal than others) and wealth and status can no longer be displayed by the make and colour of your car.

I used to think people were just so damn disgusting towards me because I was a foreigner, but the more I have observed this phenomenon I can steadfastly proclaim that no one gives a shit about anyone but themself in this passage to hades of a glorified 광장시장! In fact it’s worse than there. A. Lot. Worse!

It’s like people take the shopping trollies merely as a tool to beat other people out of the way as they browse. Not only do they not look where they’re going, generally I believe they study the area they want to go before hand, and then plot the most insane crowd inducing route possible, including where they can dump their trolley. I find the people who buy one or two things, like a packet of Calvin Klein underwear and some dried jujube, to be the worst perpetrators.

For else that may be right or wrong with Costco in Korea, it’s the culmination of so many people milling around oblivious to the fact that there are a few million within spitting distance of them, and then when they notice these other people they look at them as if they are something disagreeable inside their shoe, that really makes Costco an awful experience that I would reluctantly wish on my worst enemy.

And I am not even going to go into the details of the food court (and here too!)!

But…

I am a consumer and Costco is fantastic because the stuff they sell there is so much better than any other bog standard Homeplus or Emart, and that’s a fact; (generally speaking) better meat, better fruit, better vegetables, better selection of bread, drinks, alcohol, dairy, and whole lot other stuff. And I like eating nice food and buying over priced goods that I probably don’t need Yes you can find better quality stuff in Korea, and cheaper too, but if you are talking about better quality products at an affordable price then Costco is your man.

(Added bonus tip: Costco has a decent electronics section, which is good value, and they also are very helpful with returns and damaged goods, which a lot of the cheaper websites will not even look at you sideways when you’ve even a whisper of complaint)

Yeah I know I’m repeating the same draft that so many other people trump the place by, and believe it or not, the insane fellow customers are in fact worth the battle to get your hands on all that crap which make living in Korea more doable. Hell, I’d do it every week for the bread and cheese only.

Of course, having and car and being able to take home a whole boot load of food makes this whole experience worth the madness.

Essay on Korea’s National Image – “What is Modern Korea?”


In October I entered an essay competition organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Korea. The competition sought to find out what foreigners thought was Korea’s national image. I entered, you’ll be happy to hear, but not because of some overwhelming desire to share my thoughts on what made Korea Korea, more because top prize was a new computer, and I fancied my chances.

20120831181019639_0O5QW146

So I dutifully brainstormed a notion and worked away on the essay, then forgot about it, then remembered about it, and of course I waited until the last minute to submit it.

Now, it has to be said that I do have issues with this kind of competition (and with everything else of course), because the way I see it is they’re really just kind of clueless about what they think people think about Korea, and for all the polls they make at Incheon Airport they can never get a satisfactory answer. So they tried this essay competition. I never saw the winner announced or published, but I do know of one person who at least won a prize, which was a slight relief. I would like to have read the winning essay, if only to fuel (or extinguish, let’s be fairish) my cynical belief that they were looking for a specific answer, which would have doomed me from the beginning.

*Update* Follow this link to find a press release from MOFAT about the competition and winners

Here it is in its untarnished form (by that I mean I’m copying it straight from the file I sent to them without reading over it and finding a thousand typos and spelling and grammar mistakes, among other faults). Enjoy. Ish.

What is Modern Korea? by Conor O’Reilly
October, 2013

A common decoration in all royal palaces in Korea is a screen which sits behind the king’s throne. While brightly painted, it is a relatively inconspicuous and simple painting that is not too elaborate considering the weight of its position, providing relief to the most important seat in the land, the throne of the King.

The painting on the screen in question includes an orange sun and a white moon, and five mountain peaks that rise and fall sharply and steeply. From these mountains flow waterfalls, and in the foreground tall trees all but complete the scene. There is one final element which is not actually part of the painting but which is still an essential component to the image; the throne and the king who sits in it.

This throne and the king were situated in the centre and symbolised the harmony of the universe and also the crucial fact that the king was the central pivot of this image. Without the king situated in his throne completing the scene with the mountains and the sky, the painting showed a mere landscape, and modern Korea is very much the same as this.

It has to be taken into account that during Chosun Dynasty Korea knowledge of the world beyond its borders would have been extremely limited, and it would not be unreasonable to suggest that for the vast majority of the people living then, Korea was their universe, and the King as their ruler was their representative and the symbol of their own very existence. In this respect the King not only represented the universe, but also the people, and this is of greatest consequence.

Without the people who have made Korea into the country it is today, Korea would also be a landscape deprived of those who have persevered to create their own vibrant and adaptive universe that still relies on traditional relationships, not only among actual family but which even extends to strangers in the street.

And for me it was these very people who appeared to be everywhere I looked the first time my airport bus drove steadily into the centre of Seoul. At first these people were only recognisable through the shape of the many tall apartment buildings which seemingly sprouted up along the banks of the Han River, like copses of trees on the verge of a larger forest.

The bus’s journey deeper into that great big constant bustle of a city transformed my wide perspective to one which seemed to zoom in closer on the finer details of Seoul with every few hundred metres the bus passed. From driving through Yeouido beneath the 63 Building, crossing the Han and seeing rows and rows of more and more of the city, and as the bus looped around it somehow found its way to Jongno-ro, where I was amazed further.

I still marvel at the centre of Seoul today despite living in Korea for several years. I come from a small town in Ireland of around eight thousand people where the tallest building is a church steeple. To come to Seoul and witness a building I always admired for its height dwarfed by all but the smallest of buildings, I was knew I was facing more than just engineering prowess. To achieve such a feat as modern Seoul, a society must have more than just money. It needs pride, determination, and a universal sense of community and understanding to drive them forward.

What really struck me more than anything as I drove through the city on an airport bus for the first time was that I wanted to know who built everything and how could I not know about the city in front of me before? How could this human achievement be missed, and what would it take for such a spectacle of the ability of human beings ability to shine independently? I was younger back then and would soon know that I was arriving late to the story that of the Korean people and this is a story which continues today.

If there is a twenty-first century comparison for all that encapsulates Korea it is Jongno-ro. From Gwangwhamun the street passes east as a busy shopping with nightlife close to Jonggak Station, and then by Insadong presenting a different more subdued style of Seoul. Both of these throb with life under the shadows of the high-rise homes of Korea’s corporate powerhouses, such as Hanwha, SK, and Samsung.

This street that stretches from Gwangwhamun Plaza, watched over by the erstwhile Admiral Yi Sun Shin, to Dongdaemun Gate is only a few kilometres long, but along it you can experience more of Korea than you could in famous locations, such as Psy’s virally renowned Gangnam. There is much history on Jongno-ro, such as Tapgol Park, Korea’s first city park, and of course the internationally recognised Jongmyo Shrine. There is the lively neon lit nightlife side streets which almost every visitor to the capital aspires to photograph.

Jongno-ro runs parallel to Cheongyecheon stream, another honest symbol of a new and modern Korea, yet as it moves east the buildings lose much of their glamour and wealth. Here a different Korea can be seen, an older Korea, one with roots in community. It is one which still retracts to the older ways that life was lived, seen in the crowds ever busy around places like Gwangjang Market, which in itself is a reflection of hundreds more urban markets across the country, where small businesses work together in their own street-side version of a modern day department store. This is as much a part of modern Korea as high-rise glass buildings and multi-national corporations that reside nearby.

As you move down the street the city transforms in all but a few hundred metres of walking. You pass by stores selling everything from cosmetics, traditional clothes, to home lighting, hardware, picture frames, and butchers. Nor can you ignore the ubiquitous gold and jewellery shops which always heave with anxious customers considering varieties of fluorescent dazzled necklaces and rings. There is less glitz, but this is still very much Korea.

Here, the tall exuberant buildings of Gwangwhamun and the teeming and vibrant streets around Jonggak Station are forgotten as you meet an older city, where people have the jackets closed tightly against their chest. Here they walk with less leisure in a bustle to get somewhere to do something. This end of the street as it comes closer and closer to Dongdaemun is a wiser and more cautious part of the city, a part of the city that has seen more of troubled past and lived through these lessons. This part of the city knows that time has passed but it continues to accept change, while still holding on tightly to the ways which established its current situation.

This is not an area which is reluctant to change, it is a place where change will only come when those who populate it no longer need their past, a past suffered by so many through occupation, war, and dictatorship. To see these people is to know Korea and to understand why the Korean people, with their undying spirit of national community, have built one of the strongest and wealthiest economies from the scraps of destitution and bloodshed.

But to suggest that the Korean people are the most unique aspect of the country is pretty much a given. Is it worth reducing to second place all the other magical and unique characteristics that make up Korea? There is the food (which I love), the music – from K Pop to pansori, and all the culture and traditions which families and individuals have built their lives around, but all that I try to compare with the hope of recognising something more noteworthy or more exceptional, it always comes back to the people who developed these cultural and national attributes over the years.

You could also argue that the people are crafted by the landscape and environments they live in, and that these would supersede the importance the people creating their own unique identity. Although this is a reasonable assertion, when you look at the history of Korea the only geographical feature which truly influenced Korea was its position as a peninsula protruding into the sea between China and Japan, a fate which was instrumental in the establishment in Korean’s resilience and modern determination to excel above its self perceived lot. There is no doubt that Korea’s geographical position has both threatened and benefitted its existence over the years. However, as the foreign influence was so slight up until the twentieth century, I contend that it is the doggedness of the people which elevated Korea to its current status and earned the respect across the world in every conceivable area of thought and action.

The determination and resilience of the people is continuously apparent as Korea’s name appears on lists with the worlds finest. In the recent Olympics in London, Korea was placed fifth in the medal rankings ahead of countries such as Germany, France, Australia, and Japan. The Olympic Soccer team recaptured the spirit of the World Cup in 2002 with an epic adventure into the semi-finals of the competition, followed by a clash with old rivals Japan. While on the subject of sport, let’s not forget the fine individual efforts of Kim Yu Na at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and the exciting prospect of Korea hosting this event in 2018.

Korean’s success has extended beyond sports, from politics to business to technology, Korea’s influence has spread across the world, and always guided at the helm by people who recognise the national thirst for excellence reaches beyond the borders of the country. For all that is celebrated about Korea; none would exist without the will of the people, because it is the people who we remember more than anything when we leave Korea.

Both the new Korea, one which is modern and wired with Smartphone’s and the latest Italian fashions, and the old, one where old traditions based around ancestors and lunar patterns still resonate strongly, coexist together. You can see it when you step off the bus in any part of a city or country town, and you can see it when people meet and greet each other in different situations, be it with family, friends, or co-workers. Korea’s people are always aware that it is they who determine their nation’s status, and it is they who determine their future. They know that they have been born on this planet to live together in harmony for the continued prosperity, and they fight tenaciously to do this.

Through my years living and working in Korea, it is this determination and sense of purpose which I have witnessed to be what Korea really stands for; these are what make Korea the land of the Koreans. It is here where you can witness so many characteristics which when they are combined together can only be truly described as Korean.

You see the magnificence of aged palaces, the glitz and wealth of the many cities, the countryside tended to diligently year after year, and success after success on the international stage. These standards are so common that you cannot miss them. They are the traits of a nation, and it is a nation which is proud to blatantly display and espouse its characteristics like a trophy.

A Personal History of Eating in Korea


The first time I ate in a restaurant in Korea was an interesting experience, and one that set me up for the next few months of what can only be described as blind dining. It was my first night in Seoul and I had just arrived in the city following a fourteen hour journey from Dublin. I’d already slept a little, so my new co-workers led me across the street from my new school for dinner.

It was a regular Wednesday night and as far as I could tell no one was in the mood for introducing me to anything particularly notorious. We crossed the street as they discussed different options, when they eventually decided on what was described as a little Japanese place.

Inside, we took the lift to the fifth floor and walked into a relatively busy eatery and took our seats at a table next to the window, but I can’t imagine it was for the view. Menus were passed around and I looked down on what I now know is simply Japanese style donkas, which is a sliced breaded pork cutlet and assorted side dishes, as opposed to the Korean style which is a larger breaded port cutlet served on a big plate with oddly chosen sides and drowned in sweet brown gravy of origins unknown.

A discussion developed between the restaurant owner and my co-workers as to whether or not any of the dishes included chicken, as one of them didn’t eat meat except for chicken. They proceeded to ask “chee-ken, chee-ken” to the man.

Now while they could have mentioned 닭고기, I wouldn’t have known any better. It was this repeated chee-ken that caught my attention. I was baffled by how anyone could not know what the Korean for chicken was after spending over a year in the country. Little did I know that after six months in the country the only animal meat I could be certain of would be samgyubsal.

While the first weekend kind of happened and it’s a wonder I even remember it, it didn’t take long for any excitement of arriving in Korea to wear off, and I began finding out how to live in the city. One of my first steps was to visit the supermarket. When I walked into the small one around the corner from my apartment I began to cautiously inspect the contents of the shelves.

From a distance they looked unsurprising. There were plenty of vegetables I recognised, although I had no idea how much they actually cost, there were eggs, fruit, and there was a busy butcher’s counter. I soon found aisles full of jars and bottles of sauces and some recognisable condiments, and what seemed to be an entire section devoted to instant coffee and tea, which was impressive for such a small supermarket. Then I found breakfast cereal, noodles, drinks, beer, toilet roll, and toothpaste. It all looked quite normal. I was relieved.

Returning to the fresh food I picked up some interesting looking mushrooms which were cheap, broccoli, peppers, and probably some onions and eggs. Then I went to the meat counter and had a look. My eyes lit up at the sight of stacks and stacks of delicious looking bacon. Here was another relief. I could hardly go hungry in Korea with rashers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, right? I asked for a several hundred grams worth, then paid and went home to cook.

After chopping up some of the vegetables, I lit the stove and threw them all in along with the previously discussed bacon. After allowing it to fry away for fifteen minutes or so, I started to get the impression that something wasn’t right. There was very little of that familiar breakfast smell, and the meat was not really taking on a darkened cooked look, but maintained the pale just turned look.

As I sat down with my plate of vegetables and bacon my room mate entered and looked on the table.

“Are you having samgyubsal for lunch?” he asked puzzled.

“What? No, it’s bacon” I replied.

“No it’s not. You can’t buy bacon like that in the market here. That’s samgyubsal. Fatty pork that you grill for dinner and get drunk over”.

“Oh. Well, I’m sure it’ll be fine like this”.

“Maybe”, he said as he left the room.

As I took a bite I knew that I wouldn’t be finishing the pork, which was clearly not bacon, any time soon. There was literally no taste to it, and the frying had basically turned it all to rubber. It was probably one of the least enjoyable meals I would have in Korea, but a valuable lesson was learned.

I gradually became accustomed to the food in the supermarket, but in my increasing curiosity and half boredom with spending long hours at home I took an extended journey into Myeongdong in Seoul, which I’d heard was usually busy with a lot to see. After negotiating the subway for the first time without going the wrong way or getting off at the wrong station too often (not to mention getting on at the wrong station – don’t ask), I emerged in the busy central shopping district.

I didn’t have much of an agenda other than to walk around and look at stuff, which I proceeded to do. I really didn’t have much of a clue about anything I was looking at or experiencing, and just did my best to take everything in. It didn’t take long for me to feel hungry, and with that my problems started.

You see, I don’t really have any problems eating food and I never have, but what I really struggled with was picking up the courage to actually ask for something to eat. For around two hours I walked around looking in windows at restaurants, many with picture menus of course, but completely terrified by the prospect of having to pick something I didn’t have any idea what it was. My wandering began to get more and more obsessive. I stood practically paralysed looking in restaurant windows salivating at the food. A few times a person even opened the door for me but I scampered away, afraid of looking (even more) like an idiot.

As I walked around I kept passing a long stall that was selling all kinds of cooked street food. This stall is no longer there, but it had a long rectangular vat of bubbling red sauce with thick black sausage cooking away inside. I walked by a few times and most people seemed to be enjoying it. I figured that I at least could point and grunt at this and hope for the best.

The sausage itself was what really intrigued me. It reminded me of black pudding, a kind of sausage we have in Ireland which is made mostly from pigs blood but which we slice and fry until it’s crispy on the outside. I was pretty sure that this looked like black pudding, and if it wasn’t it was clearly some form of sausage, and I wasn’t wrong I suppose. I figured I’d be alright.

As the steaming orange sauce coated sausage was scooped into a paper bowl for me, the guy serving me was eyeing me cautiously. I took a little wooden skewer and handed him two thousand won. I poked my skewer into one of the sausages and the first thing I noticed that it was soft, like an over ripened tomato might be. I punctured through the skin, lifted the sausage up, shook some of the excess sauce free, and then put it into my mouth.

I was instantly bombarded on three fronts as soon as the sausage passed my lips. For starters it had a very soft and squidgy texture that was very far from the crispy, tenderness I was dreaming of. The sauce was not the tomato based one I figured would be the obvious compliment, especially considering it was red, but a sweet and spicy one. To really tie the knot and ship me off was the heat of it, and I mean the temperature, as it touched my tongue it literally scalded my entire mouth. In between the burning feeling, I was trying not to wretch from the texture and keep a normal face at the same time.

All I know is that my eyes shot open wide as I tried to battle off the pain from my burning mouth and the unpalatable texture of the sausage. The fella who handed it to me originally continued looking at me warily, and I did my best to remain normal, probably unsuccessfully. I looked around for some water to help cool my mouth but I had to buy that and I didn’t know the Korean for water, so I stood there pretending everything was normal. I ate two or three more pieces, and as soon as the man who sold it to me turned his back I turned and bolted in a panic searching for a shop to buy some water for my mouth.

I’m sure that it was theorised that the spiciness was what got me, but the spiciness was fine and I quite enjoyed it, but it was the texture and the heat which turned me off, and to this day I still can’t stomach to even look at sundae, let alone eat some.

My adventures with Korean food following this experience were often limited to escorts by Korean people or people who had an idea what they were doing. In my neighbourhood I soon discovered the local E-Mart and Costco, so I frequented them regularly. I also learned how to say kimbap (this took a few months) and started visiting a local restaurant that sold it.

My excitement reached overload when I was introduced to a former teacher of the school I worked in who took me around and showed me a few places with either English menus or picture menus, these included the local restaurant where I bought my kimbap. With lunch now costing no more than 4,000 won, I soon stopped visiting the supermarket so regularly and even found the confidence to take the bus to meet people I knew nearby to have dinner and a few (ahem) drinks. At the weekend I would go to Itaewon and fill up on burgers and other foreign delights, including oceans of beer.

Then I met the woman who my regular readers will know as Herself, and everything changed. All of a sudden I was propelled from random dishes and mediocre western food to the real culinary world of Korea. I was amazed as we went on dates that I never had to choose the restaurant as a selection had already been carefully researched and a route was prepared where we would decide on the best option. I ate soups, stews, cold dishes, spicy dishes, fusion dishes, street food, sea food, Indian, Thai, Japanese, French, Chinese, to the point that I completely forgot about my previous nightmares in eating.

I would go to restaurants and the symbols and lines and squares and circles were suddenly translated into recognisable words which could be closely associated with food I might be familiar with. We would wander down greasy alleys and step over people welding steel in the doorway and take our seats among a throng of fifty-something year olds and soon have a delicious meal plonked down in between us. It was a bizarre transition where I had suddenly gone from looking in the windows to actually sitting in the restaurant and enjoying the food provided.

Another thing that happened was that I developed an opinion on the quality and taste of the food. I was no longer a patron of the local kimbap shop or the mediocre Japanese styled restaurant (a different one, the one at the start of the story had closed down), because now when I went there I could actually taste the difference. I knew why they charged only 5,000 won for certain dishes, so I started to look further afield for better examples of the food I wanted to eat. And I was a better man because of it.

I don’t think I would be lying if Herself found a way to my heart through my stomach, as I suppose this is partly true, and my appetite has certainly been a feature of me establishing myself in her family’s hearts. Of course this isn’t the only reason I love Herself, but back in the day she really did take me by the hand and make me know and understand so much more than I didn’t beforehand. This is especially the case for Korea, and it is equally relevant to food, and most importantly Korean food. And my life is better because of this.

I read this post today on a website called Seoulistic, the post, 30 Delicious Korean Foods You’ve Never Heard Of got me thinking about my own experience with Korean food. After reading through the list I was fairly sure that there were only a few of these I hadn’t tried and I was familiar with all but one of them (which I later found out I had actually eaten several years back).

;

Letter from Korea, May 2011


Suwon, South Korea
24/5/2011

 Dear Ireland,

The summer is upon us. Of course we all have different ideas of what the summer is. For me, it’s the holidays. This June, I will be working through my summer holidays but don’t worry; I have two months of holidays so working through them isn’t as big a catastrophe as it might sound. This summer I will be in Dublin (What of the letter from Korea?  Well perhaps I’ll compromise). Every summer Dublin fills with Europeans students who come to study English. This summer will be no different. I make a living out of this.

At the same time, every year thousands of Koreans leave Korea to study in English. Recently I have started trying to figure out how to get more Koreans to go to Ireland. According to the God of Statistics there are only around 1500 Koreans in Ireland and most of them are language students. Working as an English language professional here in Korea I have been exposed to, what I’ve heard and called myself, the obsession, craze, determination to learn English on a national level. So why isn’t this number bigger? Continue reading