Adventures of an American Seoul-Sister

Adventures and Observations of an American Seoul-Sister

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Too Cool for This School

Last week, my English academy had a party for the kids.  Instead of regular classes, the kids got to have fun for a change!  This was a rare opportunity to see Korean children at play.  Normally, they attend up to 14 hours of classes each day, so playtime is not a naturally-occurring part of their lives.  For foreign teachers (the donkeys of the academy), this simply meant two more hours of work setting everything up.  In all fairness, once the heavy-lifting was over, some of the Korean teachers did lend a hand.

Several of the rooms in the school hosted carnaval activities for the kids: ring toss, face-painting...and even snacks were handed out.  I liked this (even though I couldn't eat them) because usually my kids are starving.  "Teacher, hungry," they plead over and over during normal class days because their parents have not allotted them enough time in their school days to enjoy a meal. 

Melissa Teacher is our Fingernail Fairy

Captain Kris and the Warrior Kyoung Teacher

Sparkling Sue Teacher demonstrates the Korean obligatory-picture-taking-peace sign and tosses back even more caffeine while Warrior Kyoung Teacher shows off her super-human speed.

More pirate hats and peace signs from Christina Teacher.

Esther Teacher might finally fly away, taking English Teacher (who can't tell me her name because she really doesn't know any English) with her.

To ensure that we kept up the pace, the school mandated a ration of energy beverages.

Painted, caffeined-dosed, and butterfly-antennaed, I'm ready to get this party started!

In two larger rooms, the kids got to spend "talent coupons" on school supplies and toys.  The coupons are awarded to the kids in class when they are very good or excelling at their studies.  Generally, though, the coupon's actual purpose is to bribe the kids into not being little shits for 40 minutes.  Hey, whatever works!  Right?

I was assigned to the cheap 10-talent toys: flashing rubber balls, hair clips, toy cars...The most popular, to my surprise were pocket hand-warmers.  You know--those little pouches that heat up for 20 minutes when you pop the inner disk.  I can only imagine these being used by hunters or casual skiiers, but apparently, they are super cool to Korean kids.  Since, I was assigned to the cheapest and blingy-est toys, you can imagine how swamped I was!  To add to the mania, the children were not encouraged to speak English for this event.  In fact, I was discouraged by the Korean teachers for encouraging the English students to speak to their crazy-backwards-thinking-American English teacher in English.  Despite all this, the kids looked so cute.  For some, it was the first time I've seen smiles on their tired little faces.

L to R: Tiny little Alan (piano genius), Rick (notice the peace sign), and Alex (just beaming in from outer space).

Toy table

At the end of 6 hours of "selling," the Americans cleaned up while the Korean teachers went to the academy dinner thrown to show the academy's appreciation for the hard work put in to throw the party.  Needless to say, we foreigners weren't invited.  In fact, we are never invited to company dinners.  Just as well...because after cleaning, I had to put in another 5 hours on my feet teaching middle school kids before going home in utter exhaustion to inhale a pack of ramen through gritted teeth and trying not to cry in frustration as I passed out to a download of Project Runway.

Forgive me, this place inspires major drama! 

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Day in Tangeumdae

Recently, I spent the day in Tangeumdae Park--one of the biggest parks in Chungju. 

Biking to the park took only five minutes, but I had to defeat the steepest drive in the city to enter the park.  The first feature of the park, is an array of modern art sculptures.  My favorite of these was a lovely figure of a woman set back in the trees.  The statue honors a group of women who threw themselves in the path of their enemy in order to save their village.  I can't tell you which enemy or battle, since the country has too many to keep track of, but I gathered that the women "allowed" themselves to be raped by their enemy thereby giving the villagers extra time to escape.  Where the men were, I can't say, but I hope they were not cowardly enough to run for their lives while the women suffered.  However, knowing the degree of respect women have historically received from Korean men, I wouldn't rule out this scenario. 

Many of the additional (and much larger and more conspicuous) statues commemorated war heros. 

An interesting sign along the trail mapped the foot's reflexology points. 

The top of park's tallest hill afforded a nice view of Chungju.  You can just make out the buildings past the trees.

A tiny valley at the foot of this hill contained a Buddist temple--one of the nicest I've seen.  So, of course, I took tons of pictures of it.

Past the temple, at the top of another hill, is the Chungju Archery Range.  This was an exciting place for me because I'd like to learn archery while in Korea.  Korean archery is thousands of years old, and Korean archers still win many Olympic archery contests.  The bows have such a lovely curvature because they are made of water buffalo horn.  Most of the archers were older middle-aged men.  I hung out long enough for one of the old guys to invite me to try his bow.  Most women in this country don't exercise and are excessively thin.  I've even heard complaints that women think muscles make them look fat so they avoid forming them at all costs!  Because of this, I'm sorry to inform you, they are quite weak.  So, when I pulled back the string with ease, the entire company of 30-40 archers let out a surprised, "AAAHHHHH!!!" and started flexing their muscles and pointing at my arms.  It was a gratifying moment.  As it turns out, the guy who let me try his bow lives only two buildings away from me.  I'm hoping for lessons once I find a bow of my own. 

Other interesting features of Tangeumdae include a two-story gazebo, a small outdoor amphitheatre, and bathrooms with Turkish toilets.  Sorry, no pics of these!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Un-Fair Food

I absolutely love fairs, festivals, and food.  All of that cotton candy and fry bread is hard to resist.  Korea, however, has its own version of festival faire.  And although I cannot eat most Korean food without dire intestinal consequences, I am still in love with Korean festival food.  First of all, it is so brightly-colored, I am sure that one simple dish could have inspired Manet, Monet, Warhol, and Lady Gaga.  The orange is so orange, and the purple so purple, that the food actually radiates.  If you are like me, the way to your stomach is through your eyes.  I certainly would love to dig into these glowing wonders.  Then, there is the enticeabililty of the strangeness of all this food.  I look at some of the offerings and ask, "What is that?"  Yet, I am sadly aware of Koreans ravinous spice addiction, so I must feast only with my eyes and sample only with my camera.  It's cruely unfair! 

Here's some of the culinary concoctions I can't eat...

An array of spicy seafood, beef, and chicken stirfries.  All of the dishes are orange-red because they are slathered in Korean spicy red paste. 

Food is displayed on tables lining the walkway.  Seating is behind these tables and ordering is done restaurant-style.

 ...some foods I didn't or won't eat...

Green onions and stuffed squid, complete with purple skin, can be eaten like a Hot Pocket.

Pig roasting on a spit (totally edible and delicious) and ribs of some other animal (not edible and quite possibly dog).

Stacks of yummy-looking crabs of questionable freshness.

...some foods I could easily eat too much of...
Candies and cookies sold by the gram.

Roasted chestnuts are everywhere.
 No festival is complete without fry bread--even in Korea!  This guy works hard for his money.

...and finally, a word on beverages:

Caffeine-crazed Americans know to bring coffee with them to Korean festivals.

It's easy to get drunk while hanging out with Russians. 

Drink of choice: Soju (the Vodka of Korea) served in paper shot glasses.
When you've finished, wipe your mouth with a Korean napkin--a roll of toilet paper hanging from the ceiling.

Even though I have difficulties with some Korean food, I certainly encourage everyone (armed with plenty of antacid and an adventurous palate) to try it.  It's dangerous but delicious! 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Cooking in Korea: Dongchimi

Unable to find any recognizable foods at the grocery store, I find it necessary to learn to cook Korean food.  I cannot, after all, eat Ramen for dinner for the next eleven months.  Whereas the grocer's currently baffles me, I am not at all intimated by the process of learning Korean cuisine.  In fact, I look forward to the day when I can cruise my cart through E-mart and confidently identify more than just the noodles and moon pies. 

I've started with an easy recipe that is a common sidedish for many Korean meals.  It uses a Korean vegetable called mu, which is so huge that it is as long as my forearm and twice as round.  It is a white-fleshed veggie that has a taste and texture nearly identical to the cute little red radishes I am used to.  For this reason, I imagine that this recipe can be duplicated in the states by substituting them for the mu.  If you do use red radishes, don't bother to peel them but wash them very well.
The recipe is called Dongchimi.  It's a "cool water," non-spicy kim chi--one of hundreds of kinds of kim chi found in Korea. 

For this recipe I used:

6 TBS Salt
4 TBS Sugar
2 Qts Water
One Mu
One large glass container

Start by peeling and dicing the mu into 3/4 inch cubes (or one inch long thin slices if preferred)

Sprinkle the mu with 3 TBS of salt and 2 TBS of sugar and toss so that the pieces are evenly coated. 
Put the cubes in the jar, put the lid on, and set aside overnight.

The next day, the mu will be sitting in its own juices that the salt sucked out of the veggie overnight.

Dissolve the remaining salt and sugar in 2 Qts of water, and use this water to top off the jar, covering all of the mu.  Don't fill the jar entirely.  Leave a couple of inches at the top of the jar to make room for the gases that will be released during fermentation.  

Put the lid on the jar.  Set in a room temperature spot for 1 to 2 day until it takes on a vinegary smell. 

Then, refridgerate.  This will last for weeks and weeks!  This is a great recipe for Korea.  It's so humid here that veggies can spoil within a day or two of harvesting.  This may explain why the Koreans have so many varieties of kim chi. Serve this as a sidedish for any type of meat or tofu.  It can also be served with some of the fermented water in the dish.  

Mashikke tuseyo!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Cooking in Korea: Roasted Chestnuts

Here's a quick, easy recipe that I was encouraged to try after a student shared her roasted chestnut with me.  In Korea, chestnuts seems to be everywhere: at the grocery store, open-air market, and vended at all the festivals.  In the states, with autumn setting in, they should be popping up in grocery stores very soon.

You don't need an open fire to make these rusty jems.  This is a simple at-home, stove-top technique. 

First, cut an x mark or drill a small hole in each chestnut with the point of a knife.  If you skip this step, the chestnuts will explode during roasting!

Put a layer of water in a pan, and heat the pan on high heat.  Once the pan seems nice-n-toasty, cover the pan with a layer of chestnuts and cover with a lid.

Roast the chestnuts for 10 minutes, stirring once or twice. 

Dump the steaming chestnuts in a strainer, cool, and keep in the fridge for freshness.

To eat, bite into the shell (it'll be soft from the roasting process) to expose the edible flesh.

Roasted chestnuts have a similar texture to baked potatos, and they taste like a cross between a yam and a strong cashew.  Delicious! 

Roasted Chestnuts at the fairgrounds.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Hanji in Wonju

A few of weekends ago, I took a 1.5-hour bus ride to the City of Wonju to enjoy the Hanji Festival.

Hanji is traditional Korean paper.  It is a fiberous paper that comes in many colors and thicknesses.  At the festival, I got to participate in the many stages of hanji-making, from the pulp beating to screening the pulp to decorating and drying my own piece of paper.

Hanji is mostly used for crafting various objects such as tableware, dolls, and kites.  The items range from delicate, thin fans to sturdy boxes, and even furniture.

My favorite pieces were the the lanterns, which were hanging by the thousands all around the grounds.  Some were made by local school children, and some were obviously professionally crafted. 


Hanji garners so much respect in Korea that it has its own festival grounds and museum.  Inside the museum, I learned the entire history of hanji, from its humble country beginnings to its modern annual fashion show.  The best part of this exhibit was the hanji-making process told through dolls that were actually made from hanji.  

The upper floor of the museum had a beautiful display of hanji art in one gallery...

...and a hanji art contest in another.  The most beautiful piece was, by far, this gorgeous and fully-functional paper sedan chair, shown here with the artist. 

In all, the Hanji Festival was a colorful and worthwhile experience.  As an artist, it was easy to fall in love with this piece of Korean culture.  I brought home a couple of souvenirs and many new crafting ideas.