Adventures of an American Seoul-Sister

Adventures and Observations of an American Seoul-Sister

Saturday, August 28, 2010


Finally went to norebong last night.  Norebong is karaoke, but it's nothing like karaoke in the US.  I started at a bar called Dangerous which is known to be frequented by foreigners because I have definately been wanting to meet more English-speakers.  I was not disappointed.  I was only at Dangerous for 15 minutes before I met about a dozen new people from the US, UK and Canada.  All of them are in Korea to teach English.  (Another great thing about Dangerous is that they have Guiness on tap.)

We all went to a norebong club after a couple of drinks. Unlike karaoke in the US, at norebong you are not singing in front of a whole bar of complete strangers.  For norebong, a group of people get a private room furnished with a big screen TV/song system, a couple of microphones and a bunk bed.  Luckily, plenty of the song choices are English.  Each song plays along with Korean music-video film that has absolutely nothing to do with the song being sung.  Beers are ordered and brought in via plastic milk crates along with popcorn and other snacks while people sing songs for each other.  The whole idea of private rooms is really cool (even if the room does stink after a while). 

It's funny how well everyone sang.  One guy, Jay (a Korean with excellent English skills) sang a LOT of Stevie Wonder.  This guy didn't even need to look at the words on the screen.  He sang most of his songs with his eyes closed.  The norebong system tracks how well you sing (kind of like a video game) and assigns points at the end of the song.  I got the second highest score of the evening (97/100) thanks to my much-loved and much-practiced ABBA albums.

The best part of norebong was hanging out with a group of total strangers brought randomly together in a foreign country, with little else in common besides location, enjoying an activity that most people I know won't do with a group of their most intimate friends!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Liberation Day

Last Sunday was Liberation Day in South Korea.  It celebrates the day (Aug. 15, 1945) when Japan surrendered to the USA, thereby releasing South Korea of occupation by Japanese forces. 

To properly celebrate the day, I went to the official Liberation Day Park in Cheonan (a 3-hour bus ride from Chungju) and learned all about this period in Korean history.
Upon entering the park, it's impossible not to be impressed by the Reunification Monument that towers overhead like some strange concrete bird.  Koreans see themselves as one nation divided (North Korea and South Korea) and wish to reunify and live in harmony with all of Korea.

Following the path from the Monument lends views of the beautifully landscaped park, including water fountains and many flowering trees.  I stopped on the bridge over White Lotus Lake to watch families feed the turtles and giant coy.  One or two coy are cool, but an entire lake swarming with giant coy of all colors is truly impressive.

Moving along, I came to a field of Korean flags (called Taegeukgi), and along this field where archway-covered paths.  The arches were laden with growing squashes that hung down like lanterns. 

 Entering the Independence Pavilion, I lucked upon traditional Korean dancers/drummers.  This troupe was so good!  Each male dancer drummed the rhythm with several types of drums, and even the costumes were incorporated into the movement.  Check out the hats on these guys!

Past the Independence Hall, the museum is composed of several buildings set up in a circle centered around "the Open Space for Harmony and Unity."  I went to two buildings before I'd had enough.  They were pretty heavy-handed, and I need only see one or two blood-spattered mannequins in my lifetime for it to be enough.  Essentially, during the occupation, the Japanese forced all men and boys into the Japanese army.  Only Japanese was allowed to be spoken.  Anyone speaking Korean would be murdered.  It didn't matter to Japan that no one in Korea knew Japanese!  All Korean displays of nationalism were destroyed and replaced with Japanese displays.  For example, all plum trees (national tree of Korea) were cut down and replaced with cherry trees (national tree of Japan).  The Koreans were forced into slavery, laboring for the Japanese government as it took over Korea, or they were just murdered.  We're talking straight up genocide!  The worst part, from my perspective, was that the Japanese kidnapped thousands of Korean women and girls and forced them to be sex slaves for the "comfort" of the Japanese soldiers.  This is where, sick to my stomach and crying, I ended my museum tour and retreated back outside to enjoy cheerful festivities. 

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Chungnyeolsa: Shrine of General Im Gyeongeup

On a long Sunday bike ride southwest of Chungju, in search of a nearby art village, I happened upon a Buddist temple with many beautiful statues of the Awakened One.  Some were only an inch tall, but this golden statue stood about 30 feet tall.

The temple itself was quite lovely, but I didn't take a picture out of respect for the people praying inside.  I did take this lovely pic of the ajoining shrine that was not in use at the time.

Reembarking on my quest for the art village, I lucked upon an incredible shrine honoring the heroic General Im Gyeongeup.  Born in Chungju in 1594 and trained in the martial arts by Buddhist monks, the General is famous for protecting Korea from several invading peoples, including the Manchus.  The General is also said to have been able to single-handedly lift giant boulders and to leap with ease from vertigo-inducing heights.  He suffered a political assassination in 1644.  Given the posthumous, honorary title of Chungmin and enshired just outside the modern city of Chungju, he remains one of Korea's great heros.  The shrine included many buildings centered around the main shrine (including a small museum containing his original iron sword) and a small coy pond.  Walking the grounds, I very much felt as though I had been thrown in to the pages of a National Geographic magazine.

This colorful building is the Buddhist temple on site.  Although you can't see it in this pic, the entire ceiling was also richly painted in bright hues.

Main gate leading up to the shrine.

This is the actual shrine where I lit incense in honor of the General and signed the guestbook.  According to the guestbook, I was only the third white person to have visited the shrine this year, although hundreds of Koreans have stopped by to pay their respects.

I continued biking along the outskirts of Chungju, searching for the art village.  After several hours of nearly fainting from the sweltering heat, I finally found it.  It turned out to be a small elementary school that offered art classes to students.  It was closed for the summer. 

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Fan Death

In South Korea, you should never sleep with a fan or air conditioner on at night while the windows are closed.  Apparently, the cooling effect of the blowing air can cause death by suffocation and/or hypothermia.  The phenomenon is dangerous enough to warrant government-sponsored public service announcements.  To combat Fan Death, you should leave all your windows wide open at night if you intend to use a fan or AC.  Another Korean solution is to equip all fans sold in the country with timers that automatically turn the fan off after so many minutes.  Seriously feared throughout the country, the urban legend of Fan Death exists ONLY in South Korea.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Two New Friends, Two Korean BBQs

I have finally stumbled across some English speaking friends with the help of Facebook and Flight of the Conchords.  My new friends John and Nate are also in Chungju to teach English and were nice enough to take Kris and me to their favorite Korean all-you-can-eat BBQ.  The restaurant was a bit shabby, but luckily, this was reflected in the price.  Thankfully, these guys were there to show us the ropes.  Seriously, when you are frying up a piece of bacon and someone hands you a piece of lettuce and industrial-strength scissors, would you know what to do with them?

Not knowing how to eat my food has been a common theme.  Another drawback to graceful dining is not knowing what I'm ordering.  I been using the point-and-hope method.  This usually works well.  However, later the same evening (after already having BBQ for lunch), a misguided point had me eating BBQ again for dinner.  The evening's BBQ was a bit more elegant with all the Korean side dishes included.

Here's how to eat Korean BBQ:  Spread raw meat, garlic and onion slices on the grill above hot coals.  Use tongs to flip the meat.  Use scissors to cut the meat into bit-sized pieces.  Using chipsticks, place a piece of lettuce in one hand and hold it like a tortilla.  Dip pieces of meat into spicy red paste, then place on the lettuce.  Top this with roasted garlic and onions.  Eat like a Korean burrito.  Snack occasionally on side dishes.  Side dishes include: kim chi, pickled radishes, lettuce with salad dressing, green onions in hot sauce, green beans in hot sauce, spinach-like greens in hot sauce, pickled ginger in hot sauce and a extra side of hot sauce.  Everyone eats directly out of the side-dish plates.  They don't portion out bits onto individual plates.  Sharing soup is the same way.   

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Cultural Exhibit Grabs Some Grub(s)

Saturday, with achy knees and blistered feet, I bought a sweet mint green bike.

Sunday, I rode 10 km south of Chungju-si to Jungangtap and the gardens at the Chungju Museum.  The road featured a wide, slow river on the right and rice paddies on the left. 

Just before the museum was a botanical garden where I got my first glimpse of a lotus garden.  Lotus leaves are about 1.5 feet wide and stand about 6 feet tall.  From the garden, I saw an old Korean man bent over the river's edge gathering some local delicacy from ankle deep mud.  The garden path led me along the river to Jungangtap.  Jungangtap is an ancient pagoda atop a mound.  It was originally built to mark the center of the kingdom.  Now, it's the center of a sculpture garden and several roofed platforms where families picnic.  The museum itself had some cool pottery and a couple of old hanbok (traditional dress) but was otherwise lost on me as it was entirely in Korean. 

Hungry and thirsty (it's very muggy here), I went to grab some grub.  I entered a small cafe where my best attempt at placing an order was to shrug my shoulders at the waitress.  She brought a fried corn pancake with veggies, kim chi, and rice wine.  In the cafe, I was approached by several Koreans who wanted to take pictures with me and offer me maps of Chungju.  Appartently, I was one of the exhibits because, like everywhere else I've been so far, I have been a muched-stared-at cultural oddity.  Still hungry, I went to an outdoor vender that was selling skewered meat and toasted grubs.  The grubs tasted like nuts. (-: