Korea in Chiang Mai


You spend enough time in Asia as an Irishman and you give up expecting to find Irish stuff. You know you’ll stumble across something here or there, but at the best of times all you can find is a can of Guinness and a Westlife song. Chiang Mai, despite its large expat population and even larger tourist numbers was no better than Korea, or anywhere else I’ve been. I had hoped for half a day or so, but any hopes I had were soon dashed by the obvious.

Not so much of a disappointment was the preponderance of Korean influences. In fact it wasn’t really anything close to a disappointment. Obviously you can make that Asian connection, which in many respects is a loose connection. More significant to this is the economic connection, the good old supply and demand of goods and services. Despite these two, where Korea shined through the most was in its culture – that being its food and its music.

I could be in Suwon

Herself is better at spotting Korean music (do you spot with your ears?), and by Korean music I mean K-Pop of course, than I would be. It’s not essentially because she can hear the Korean, which would stand out, but I think because she has a better idea of what songs are out there at the moment. All I could hear was the confounding ‘jumping, jumping, everybody’ song by Crayon Pop. There were other instances too but for the most part when out and about you’d hear a K-Pop tune or two, and seeing as this wasn’t in Yeongtong where everywhere was playing the same K-Pop tune I was not prone to writhing in misery at all stages throughout the day.

My experience of Koreaness in Chiang Mai was by all accounts primarily visual. There was a fair amount around, but this popularity is clearly surmounted by the plethora of Japanese ramen and sushi places, and the unmissable presence of car after car of Japanese manufacture. The big pick-up Toyotas and Izzuzus rumbling up and down filled gangs of workmen are hard to ignore, and while this is notable in my two months there I only saw one Korean car, and a ten year old one at that. You can shun this but don’t forget that Hyundai-Kia are the fourth largest auto manufacturers in the world.

In the supermarkets though, Koreans could hold their own. There was no lack of ramyeon or indeed gochujang or your usual list of regular supermarket supplies. To add to this Korean cosmetics were to the forefront of most major supermarkets, equipped with a Korean flag and pristine models face; you’d almost think you were in E Mart at times.

Around town as well there was a decent number of Korean restaurants, of which we never bothered to eat in, although I think we promised ourselves often enough. Mostly they were barbecue places, but there was a dakgalbi place, and oh yes now I remember we tried a place called K-Pop Ddeokbokki which was, to be honest, awful. Not just for the name, but because the food was really bad, and not because it was Korean food in Thailand, because it was bad. I think the kimbap we had was passable, but maybe not.

There were a few other peculiarities about, like a Magic water purifier manufacturer store which was proud of its Koreaness, and there was a Tom and Toms coffee shop near where we were staying that seemed to be perpetually waiting to be opened. As much as a novelty as this was, I was happy we missed this grand affair. More random than all of this had to be the woman we ran into who was wearing a Lee Myung Bak election hoodie – yeah like the ones you see the electioneering dancers at the corner wear. She had no idea what it was about.

           

There were no shortage of Koreans out and about either. The familiar sounds of their voices followed us around, and it has to be said, I could spot them well in advance. There were the young university aged independent travelers over protected from the warm sun who wandered up and down Nimmanhaemin in the afternoon, and then there were the golf groups of men and women who stayed in the condo where we stayed. They mostly stuck to themselves, I suppose, and rarely came to the pool which I couldn’t understand.

I met one Korean man who actually lived in Ulan Bator in Mongolia – and to think Myself and Herself complained about the Korean winter – who was baffled by many of his fellow Koreans who just came to play golf all the time. While he played a little, he was mesmerised by the wonders of Chiang Mai and that there was in fact a lot to do. The guy was having a good time it has to be said, and was heartbroken when he got called back to Mongolia for work. He did however leave me a bottle of whiskey which he had yet to get around to putting a serious dent into.

For the most part though, Chiang Mai was comfortable place for many Koreans who lived there all the time. I’m not sure what they did but there is a decent core population who send their kids to the international schools, and they work and live in safety and comfort, although nowhere near on the same scale as the number of Japanese in the city. I suppose it’s always reassuring from our perspective to find a Korean community, even if we don’t necessarily interact with them for whatever reasons.

So this was Korea in Chiang Mai, or at least the Korean stuff which I experieced. I was pretty happy to see this all round, and hope that next time I visit there’ll be a better representation of my adopted home.

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In conclusion I should add that while Chiang Mai did appear Irishless, it did triumph in two particular areas – Tayto (once but once can sometimes be enough!) and cans of Bulmers!

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For those not in the know I spent two months in Chiang Mai from late December 2013 until the end of February 2014. It was a good time.

All photos taken with my aging iPhone 4

The Koreans of Europe


No two cultures are the same but every one is similar, right? You could certainly say that about much of Europe, where thousands of years of breeding, trading, warring, traveling, and sharing across ever-shifting borders has caused a mixology of international characteristics of which one can be difficult to discern from the other.

In Asia, it is a little more difficult to separate the differences because the continent has suffered less fluctuation of its borders, and in terms of today’s map, colonialism for the most part decided on today’s borders. But still you can throw in the changes, regardless of actual influence, of international trade, development, colonialism, the sharing of ideas, television, and migration, and the wind at the weekend if you wish, and you will soon realise the stark similarities between peoples and cultures there.

Now that might seem like a simple notion, and it is, but if you take away cliché comparisons such as the idea that your culture and my culture are very musical, or that we have a distinct cuisine, or family is central to the social contract, then you have to get off your armchair and take a look a little closer.

When I first came to Korea from Ireland I was fascinated by the notion that the Koreans were called by someone as the Irish of the east. I thought to myself as I spent more time here that this was something to connect me with the country, that it was something stronger than the bonds which other nationalities might ascribe to their connections with Korea. But those reasons for which Korea is lauded for its Irishness really didn’t appear to be that strong.

Of course there are very strong reasons for calling Koreans the Irish of the east, such as our tenacity for drinking, our colonial history, the fact our country is divided by a significant border, we’re stuck between two significant world powers, we both have a distinct national cuisine, and we’ve a social structure which focuses on both age and gender hierarchies… oh wait forget the other two.

You see, the whole comparison thing between Ireland and Korea seems to be done by someone who sat down with Wikipedia one day and got this notion into their head that Ireland and Korea are very similar. I suppose they are in some respects but in many respects they are far from complimentary. For example if you considered the alcohol consumption aspect you run into problems. Anyone who has ever drank knows that there is an etiquette to drinking, sometimes very formalised and other times apparently informal, but there is always a way to drink. When we think about drinking, in countries that drink a lot, how we drink and what drink is far more important than how much (because we already know that’s a fair amount).

Now if you’ll excuse me if I turn to some reliable Wikipedia statistics. In terms of thirst Ireland and Korea are ranked quite closely together , but you can’t help but notice that Ireland is not the only country on the top half of that list with a dark history linked with its geopolitical situation. Yes, being fond of a drink is a stereotype both countries fall into, but it is by no means an exclusive club, and if anything it hardly characterises the entire culture and people (but in fairness it probably does).

There are of course many similarities between the people of Ireland and Korea. In the same respect, similarities exist across the entire planet and to single them out as unique to Korea and Ireland, or indeed only to Ireland and to Korea would be selling things a little short.

Take for example Italy, or indeed Italians. For the past four weeks I’ve been teaching Italian high-school students in a summmer camp just outside of Dublin. This isn’t the first time I’ve done it, and if I do come back to Ireland for the summer I use this work as a means of earning a little pocket money for the adventure. It’s generally good fun, and interesting from a teacher’s perspective to meet students from another country where English is also considered very important for university and employment prospects.

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A building on the university campus where I taught for four weeks under typically Irish summer skies.

First impressions present Italians as completely the opposite as Korean students. They are lively, opinionated, and vocal, very vocal. The stereotype of a Korean high school student is anything but this, and I come across the remnants of their much discussed experience in the university students I teach. They are generally shy, reserved, and for the most part quiet, very quiet.

Now I recall that when I was in university that we were also quiet but that was probably more out of fear that we would be asked a question. We were not afraid that we might get the question wrong, but because we knew we would have no idea of the answer to the question asked. Anyone who ever took a foreign language class in secondary school probably cannot recall the classroom being abuzz with Irish/French/Spanish/German/whatever. I think that this is probably close to the same case with the majority of Korean English language students.

Yes, for a person who goes from teaching very quiet and reserved students to a class of lively and mostly enthusiastic students, with the added benefit of being western (even more western than myself I’d hasten to add) it is easy to offer immediate stark contrasts, many of which are likely to have been formed from well established national stereotypes. I’m sure if I stood at a bar in Itaewon or Haebangchon and professed that in fact Koreans were not that different from Italians, and they were in fact more like Italians than actual Irish, I would be shouted down for such a ludicrous assertion.

Before I go into detail here, please take into account my experiences. Firstly and most importantly, I don’t really know Italians in any way as well as I know Irish or Korean people. Most of my experience with Italians stems from teaching them over a number of summers in fairly relaxed situations, and I’ve never even visited Italy, let alone lived there, like I have being doing in Korea since 2005. I think that it’s also important to explain about the students I have been teaching; for the most part they all appear to be middle class, relatively well schooled teenagers, mostly of high-school age as far as I could discern. With these things in mind please ascribe your own prejudice to the study sample.

Anyway, this isn’t a scientific expose, but more a reflection on my past experience teaching Italians in Dublin on my summer holidays, which may also have some significance as you read this words. I did come across some worthwhile comparisons which allude to national character more so than the demographics and historical comparisons which plague Irish-Korean analysis.

At the top of the pile has to be food. Now don’t expect me to give a foodie’s detailed description of each respective nationality’s cuisine. That’s near impossible for me, for now at least. What is significant is that each country is obsessed with food (yeah I know, what’s the big deal?) but more importantly, with their own national cuisine. It could be reasonably argued that a large portion of each country’s economy is powered by its tenacity for its own cuisine. Ireland, unless you count the local chipper on a weekend night, would not fit in here.

I know how good and how diverse Korean food is, and while it may have its critics there is little doubt in how much Koreans miss Korean food when they leave the country. Yes, we can all poke fun at the flocks of ajjumma with instant noodles and gochujang stuffed into their suitcases as they travel, but can you blame them when much of what they know in terms of food is Korean food (and Chinese take-away). Expecting them to revolutionise over the space of one-flight, probably in a tour group full of similar minded folk, is probably asking to much. Anyway, they’re happy so what does it really matter?

It’s always easy to point the finger at people who do things differently, and especially in Korea where many are particularly reserved. I know that it’s easy to praise younger people who are keen to experience new food from around the world, but again it’s equally easy as one who enjoys variety but dislikes expense to notice that much of the international cuisine enjoyed by many young Koreans is indeed spaghetti with seafood and a cream or tomato sauce, or worse, the evil brunch made up of a sausage, an egg, some salad, and some other concoction. Despite this attempt at snobbery you’ll do well to find Koreans who don’t have a list of Korean dishes they crave after so many days away from a suitable supply, and if all else fails you’re bound to find somewhere to stock up on the always reliable ramyeon. I’d warrant that Italians aren’t that far off, at least the ones I was teaching weren’t.

Now granted that the restaurant in the university they were staying in was far from haute cuisine, which could have influenced their thoughts. but a day didn’t go by without some lamenting for “Italian” pasta, or “Italian” food. Their own food of course, which many will tell is fantastic, and rightly so – much like Korean food – but it still bothers me a little when people who apparently obsess so much over food, when given the opportunity to try something other than the stainless steel served chicken and potato slop they’d been divvied out the first port of call for sustenance in Dublin was either McDonalds or Bugger King.

Travel broadens the mind and when it comes to food this is especially the case. Koreans, in their defence, were not really allowed to travel up until the 1980s, and even then it was not on their own that they all began to encroach on the UNESCO heritage sites of the world. This way of traveling is only slowly leaving the mass conciousness of the the country, and independent travel is becoming a thing, especially for university and post-university aged people who are eager, for the most part, to acquire stronger English and also to have a good time before they end up having to sell their soul to a full-time job.

And I suppose my wonderful Italian students, many of whom had only traveled with their parents (I did a survey) and even then only to neighbouring countries on school excursions or lanugauge exchanges, would be far from an acceptable sample to base my argument on, but I can’t help but find this issue which has been recurring over the past number of years when I have taught Italians in the summer.

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One of my classes of Italian teenagers from all over Italy, with their certificates of completion…and me, grinning stupidly!

The other area which struck me a bit more thunderbolt like, and is something which is certainly a recognisable trait in Korea, and that’s image.

What always struck me is that the youngsters I’ve taught have always been for the most part, despite the bags under their eyes from self-imposed sleep depravation, very well groomed and image conscious. I won’t say whether they were well dressed or not, but they did obviously take the time to wear what were nice clothes and spend some time fixing their hair in the morning. Now they were teenagers so you can’t expect too much variety from their attire, but that being said even though they were away from their parents they didn’t come in with their clothes hanging off them, unwashed and smelly.

I had a conversation about Irish fashion with these students one day and we went on about how Irish people dressed and whether or not we were considered stylish or not. The general consensus was that it was hard to know because they hadn’t seen too many Irish people, and when they were in Dublin it was hard to know who was Irish and who wasn’t. I told them next time just listen to them.

The conversation developed over the coming days as I tried to get more information from them on their experiences. It turned out that they were impressed by Irish dress sense (not style or fashion mind you). In Italy, I was told, people always had to take into consideration their appearance among others. That their look was always being scrutinised, and that there were in fact many ways to dress in Italy which were socially unacceptable, especially for women. Does this sound familiar to my readers from Korea?

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My final class of Italian teenagers before they packed their bags and headed back to Italy.

I told them that this was also the case in Korea and I gave them some examples, such as keeping shoulders covered, not showing too much skin or clevage, and some others. These youngs adults explained to me that they were impressed by the general social acceptance of one’s own way of dressing. I explained that sure enough plenty of people probably thought they were stupid looking or whatever, but they empathised that this did not stop them wearing what they wore, and it was accepted that this is how some people dressed in public.

I explained to the Italian students, as I was a little misled at first, that don’t be put off by the people on the street who seem scruffy and who don’t apply as much time in the mirror as they may, they probably spent just as much time making sure they looked suitably unwashed. They understood this, but what was important was that they were allowed to do this.

I know that Herself has expressed the same feelings about living in Ireland also. She enjoys being in Ireland because there is less pressure to dress a particular way, and to meet a certain standard. This is not to say that she dresses less fashionably or doesn’t apply herself with as much care, it’s just that she has more options in the wardrobe than she would have in Korea. Of course image is important for every country, and Ireland is definitely the case.

I found this to be, well honestly, fantastic from an Irish perspective. I don’t think the Irish go out and win too many acclaims from the armchair fashionistas of the world, but too me this seemed to be something to be proud of. Now, I’m sure if they were in another part of Ireland this idea would be slightly less obvious, but still the more I think about it the more likely it is the case….maybe.

I know that in this rather drawn out comparison between Korea and Italy may seem to have holes all over it, and I don’t doubt that my arguments and assertions here are quite week. Let me reiterate, they are mere observations, and I hope when you read this, like when you read anything else I read, it gives you the inclination to search around a little more to find another opinion.

What I will assert though, to conclude, is that if anything my loose comparison here should be seen as a way of firstly drawing attention to the ridiculous notion that two countries would be so alike as to be compared as twins. But more importantly I hope that I can give you a decent example of how similar every human being is, and that despite thousands of miles seperating us our different upbringings and cultures do have similarities which are indistinguishable, and even when that is not the case, the differences are what make being a person interesting. In the end let us forget that all our blood is red.

Letter from Korea, February 2013


Suwon
February 2013

Dear Ireland

Today, Thursday February 7 of the year 2013, has been a long and busy day, and it’s far from over. This morning myself, herself, and +1, rose at 6am as we always do, but instead of feeding and returning to sleep, we dressed in a panic, and bailed into the car in sub-zero temperatures. A trip to the airport was afoot. Why? Well, mammy and daddy were on their way to Korea!

It’s kind of a childish thing to describe my parents, or mother and father, as mammy and daddy, as opposed to ma and da, or the ould won and the ould fella, but it’s certainly better than calling them Mum or Mom, and Dad. Not that there is anything wrong with calling one’s parents these, it’s just not Irish, at least not where I from anyway. However, for the rest of this post I shall refrain from calling them mammy and daddy, as that is now how +1 is shaping up to call herself and I at some stage in the not so distant future. How times have changed.

The arrival of the ould pair is a welcome turn of events. Last time we were together was in August 2011 after my brother’s wedding, and since then much of the communication has been through skype. We have not really sensed too much distance, maybe because we’re used to the separation, which was until we actually met them in the airport. Physical bonds and connections can sometimes be under-rated.

I know that there are plenty of so called expats in Korea who have probably not seen their parents in a much longer time than I. But I reckon I’m still old enough to pine for their company a little. Still, let’s face it though, probably the most important reason they’re here is to see +1.

She is the first grandchild on both sides of the family, and that means she is in line for some serious dotage. Herself’s parents are definitely keen on making sure that +1 gets pride of place in all family events, and I think it’s about time that she got some Irish molly-coddling!

A full suitcase at least of clothes, toys, and other gifts came along with my ould pair this morning, not to mention a whole host of gifts from family and friends who managed to link up with the caravan of supplies before it embarked towards Korea. So long story short; we’re spoiled rotten right now.

The thing is, while I survive quite comfortably here in Korea without things like black and white pudding, bacon (the Irish kind), decent chocolate, and a whole host of other ‘delicacies’, receiving a delivery of supplies really makes it feel like a second Christmas.

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I think Korea has a fine tradition of food, and it certainly makes living here much easier, however if there’s one thing that Korea really needs to think about introducing to the national diet it’s more cured pork products. Frankly, I believe that the world needs more of them, and Korea would be a better place with a tradition of curing pork. If you think it’s beyond them, I point you to kimchi, which is essentially cured cabbage with the essential preserving ingredient being salt. However I am not sure if I’m willing to advocate a kimchi-pork type concoction…actually I am, although not in the vein of kimchi jiggae. In fact anything would do as long as it’s not that excuse for ham you find littered around supermarkets. Where am I going with this? Oh yes. Korea, cure some meat for Christ’s sake.

On another note, based on the aforementioned arrival, Korea also lacks something else important, and that’s cheap baby clothes. It’s crazy. Really. Yeah I know you can buy everything cheap online, but frankly I don’t trust buying everything on the internet and I can’t see the economy progressing if everyone is relying on 택배 to survive affordably.

Anyway (avoiding a rant here), if you go to any supermarket or department store with clothing, baby clothes are extraordinarily expensive. In fact all clothes are extraordinarily expensive, especially given the quality. Even everyday outfits made of simple cotton with cute designs, are often not cute and over-priced. Even Ireland has cheaper alternatives than Korea, which is why +1 was supplied with half a suitcase of baby’s clothes! If only she was cognisant enough to realise the significance of this.

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But for now what’s important is spending time with the folks before they head back to Ireland in a few weeks. We’re not sure when we’ll get a chance to see them, and it’s important for +1 to know them, as she is loved very much by all my family but the physical distance presents a distinct barrier to actually developing a relationship. While I know that she is far too young to actually remember or react to this first meeting, I think my parents couldn’t hold themselves back from visiting, even if it is a balmy -12 outside (say nothing of the wind chill).

P.S. Added fun from next Sunday, my brother and his lovely wife will arrive from London! I’m preparing another list!

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).

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12 Rules for Expat Life in Korea Contd.


Today has seen the Korean blogosphere dancing in the delights of this recent article of sorts on CNNgo.

Shocking stuff altogether.

Fortunately a few bloggers have jumped to protect Korea because Korea is such a wonderful perfect place that has never done anything wrong and shouldn’t be criticised for the realities its society presents. Grrrr. What I couldn’t get over was the general belief that this post was taken so seriously and the defence of Korea was so patriotic. So in defence of decency I will try to add my own flavour and sense of balance to this debate.

But first take a moment to read what has already been said:

Roboseyo: CNNgo Trolls Bloggers; 12 ACTUALLY useful tips for Expat life.

Re: 12 rules for expat life in Korea | Chris in South Korea – Travel and life in Korea.

12 Rules for Expats in Korea | David S. Wills.

Of course, no one here is right or wrong. It’s just … well… so what? As David S. Wills makes the point, anyone who reads the CNNgo post will – hopefully – realise that this is a little bit of jolly finger-pointing…at least I think that’s the point he made (I only had a few minutes to read so I read quickly, as in quicker than ‘scan’ reading).

Anyway, the balancing act courtesy of me. Drum rolls please!!!! Continue reading