The Kimchi Project

Fermented goodness.

Fermented goodness.

Living in a different country for a year has lots of obvious benefits: abundant travel opportunities,  a daily sense of adventure and an excuse for excessive shopping. But it’s the less obvious, seemingly insignificant details that have stuck with me in post-Korea life, and seem to pop up in my daily routines and conversations. Casually explaining the story behind a ceramic incense burner, or referencing Yeoju’s famous sweet potatoes. I like to think about how Korea is now relevant in my life, and how Korean culture permeates my daily routine or conversations with friends and family. It’s also cool to see what is interesting to different people about Korea; while some ask about my students and life as an ESL teacher, others inquire about the meaning of Gangnam style and why the hell it was so popular. But I have to say, the cultural asset that has most successfully weaseled its way into my life in America has been Korean cuisine. It’s delicious, healthy and more readily available in the United States than I ever realized. Now that I’m finally living in my own space again, with a beautiful kitchen and an abundance of top-notch cooking supplies thanks to my three culinarily-inclined  roommates, I figured it was time to take a stab at Korean cooking. Obviously, I started with kimchi!

Readiness.

Readiness.

Here. We. Go.

Here. We. Go.

Kimchi is the staple food of the Korean diet. There really doesn’t seem to be an American equivalent; we are a country of immigrants, with a wide variety of culinary habits and influences. Korea has been inhabited by the same ethnic group for thousands of years, and remains the most homogenous country in the world. They’ve been eating this stuff for centuries.

What is Kimchi?

Vegetables – typically napa cabbage, radish, scallions or cucumbers – are fermented anywhere from 24 hours to months at a time, soaking up spices, fish oils and hundreds of other possible ingredients. Kimchi is filled with probiotics and nutrients, and Koreans boast that it prevents cancer. To me, it’s the perfect compliment to any meal (although I did have to get used to eating it for breakfast), adding a major flavor zing to just about anything. It’s sour, spicy and savory, and I’ll admit that I didn’t initially take a liking to it. But after a few months in Korea, a meal without kimchi felt like it was missing something. Koreans eat kimchi with breakfast, lunch and dinner as a side dish, and also use it as a main ingredient in stews, rice pancakes, dumplings and other many other dishes. People say that those who eat kimchi regularly have a certain smell. So…uh…let me know if I start to smell, please.

Making kimchi and thinking about how great I'm going to smell!

Making kimchi and thinking about how great I’m going to smell!

When I was in Korea, I desperately wanted to learn how to make it, but lived in a tiny studio apartment with only basic kitchen supplies. I asked co-workers and Korean friends if they would teach me, who usually laughed and walked away. I later figured out that no one makes his or her own, they all get massive amounts every winter from their mothers and don’t know the first thing about making it. Sigh.

Now that I’m back in America, with my own space, a longing for that sour/spicy goodness and roommates willing to taste anything, I decided it was time to reintroduce kimchi into my diet and conduct a science experiment (aka, make kimchi).

The process was pretty crazy. I spent about 3 hours reading dozens of online recipes and consulting with my Korean American friend Nana (and her mother) about the process. There are literally hundreds of variations, such as the type of seafood with which you ferment, or if you even use fish at all (Nana does not, but I used oysters, some use shrimp or squid). The amount of each spice, whether to use sugar or not – I found one recipe that used pears and apples as a natural sugar, which I loved – and even different opinions on how to soak the cabbage before mixing it with the spice and paste. Like anything food-related, everyone has a different taste and preference.

But the basic process of kimchi making goes like this:

1. Soaking cabbage in saltwater for about 2 hours, so it is soft and malleable

Soaking and rinsing cabbage.

Soaking and rinsing cabbage.

2. Making a rice-flour based dough to thicken the fermenting paste

Rice flour dough.

Rice flour dough.

3. Mixing the rice dough with the spices, flavorings and oils, includin: ginger, chili powder, crushed red pepper, chili pepper, fish oil, green onions, garlic, oysters, apple and pear

Cabbage and kimchi paste.

Cabbage and kimchi paste.

4. Combining the paste with the soaked cabbage, mixing it up, rubbing it in

Pre-fermented kimchi. I made this!

Pre-fermented kimchi. I made this!

5. Fermentation! I let it sit for a week. Then keep it in the fridge.

Le final product.

Le final product.

6. Consume. Currently I am eating a bowl of white rice with some kimchi mixed in. I’ve also mixed it with eggs, chicken, noodles and other veggies.

I’m still working on the final step: having a Korean person taste it.

Shout out to Rachael Smith for the camera loan!

I don't have the research to back this up, but I'm pretty sure it actually tastes better when eaten with chopsticks.

I don’t have the research to back this up, but I’m pretty sure it actually tastes better when eaten with chopsticks.

 

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Culture Shock in Austin, Texas

It's good to have goals.

It’s good to have goals.

I’ve heard this city called many things. It’s a blue dot in a red state, the Brooklyn of Texas, or just simply put: Not Texas. Austin prides itself on “keeping weird” throughout growth and gentrification, and the natural changes that occur in a thriving American city. It has arguably one of the best live music scenes in the country, and is not-so-arguably home to the most popular music/tech festival in the country. (South By Southwest, for all you under-the-rock dwellers.) Austin is indeed unique–there is no doubt about it. Where else are you torn between spontaneous outdoor cafe concerts on a regular Sunday afternoon, to be succeeded by eating at a collection of parked food trucks offering some of the most delicious organic/local/vegan/gluten-free concoctions you have ever tasted? No where else. (Okay, maybe Brooklyn.)

Sunday afternoon at Jo's Coffee on South Congress. Live music on a Sunday afternoon - pretty ideal.

Sunday afternoon at Jo’s Coffee on South Congress. Live music on a Sunday afternoon – pretty ideal.

The city’s residents, transplants and natives alike, make valiant efforts to differentiate themselves from their Lone Star brethren, through things like co-operative grocery stores, unique outdoor film events, deliciously unique food offerings and bans on plastic bags. And they’ve done a pretty good job of it.

Neon reindeer line up at G'Raj Mahal - a tasty Indian restaurant.

Neon reindeer line up at G’Raj Mahal – a tasty Indian restaurant.

Food trucks galore.

Food trucks galore.

It's pretty at night and with some help from Instagram.

It’s pretty at night and with some help from Instagram.

But Austinites, here’s a newsflash for you. No matter how many gluten-free bakeries you build, or refurbished port-o-potty collections you turn into female-author-only bookshops, this is definitely still Texas.

Images from my tour of the state capitol building. Tourism rules!

Images from my tour of the state capitol building. Tourism rules!

Prior to moving to South Korea, I mentally prepared for language barriers and culture shock, knowing that I would be faced with new cultural practices and different everything. I read books about Asian manners, studied a bit of Korean history (yes, Wikipedia does count) and tried eating kimchi to prepare my pallet. Never did I think this sort of preparation would be necessary in my move to Austin. Afterall, it’s the Brooklyn of Texas…what could be so shocking?

I had visited Austin twice before, visiting my then long distance boyfriend and clouded in a sea of live music, new sights and tastes; that general travelers excitement of being in a new place. There was no culture shock–I was just an excited visitor.

Hanging out at Sculpture Falls, a watering hole, after a rare rainstorm. Nature is so easily accessible here.

Hanging out at Sculpture Falls, a watering hole, after a rare rainstorm. Nature is so easily accessible here.

stubbs

Stubbs BBQ Gospel Brunch – feed your stomach, feed your soul.

As a working resident of the city, the culture shock kicked in almost immediately during the tour of the office at the communications firm where I am employed, just two days after my flight landed in Texas. I naively assumed that the Austin office would resemble the firm’s New York headquarters, where I had interviewed, with its contemporary white and red furnishings, sleek interior decór and trendy little receptionist. Instead, I was surprised by wall photos of cowboys (literally!), LBJ posters and a conference room–charmingly nicknamed “The Texas Room”–with tawny leather chairs and a wooden conference table with spurs on the corners. (Okay, there are no spurs. But still…it’s rustic and wooden!)

When I saw one person wearing cowboy boots with a suit, I thought it was a sort of, casual-Tuesday joke. When I saw another and then a third…I realized the joke was on me and my Marc Jacobs handbag.

While people in Austin generally do not have the accents we New Yorkers associate with all those elected officials for whom we don’t vote, everyone still says ya’ll. Saying “ya’ll” is my public enemy number one. “Ya’ll” is my worst nightmare. If you personally know me, saying “ya’ll” is like stepping into a room filled with pigeons and having someone lock the door behind me. Basically, I’m a little self-conscious about saying it. I mean, texting and typing it in e-mails and blog posts is one thing (it feels more like a joke to me than I’m sure it does on the receiving end) but my attempts to say it out loud are worthy of placement in an episode of Seinfeld or Sex and the City (RIP, RIP). But I promise, I’ll keep working on it…ya’ll.

And then there is the mother of my problems, the biggest hilarity of all, that stems from growing up in a place that has just as many people walking around in tubes underground as it does above ground, and subsequently moving to the state that thrives on the automotive industry and its fountains of oil. Yes, I got my driver’s license, went through the motions of driver’s ed and practiced pedaling the metal up and down Broadway a handful of times. I wouldn’t consider this to be driving experience…would you? (If you are my car lease dealer and are reading this for some insane reason…it’s all a joke! Haha!) I now live in a place that requires you to get in a car if you ever want a taco. And you do want the tacos. (However, and this is a big however, Austin is so incredibly bicycle-friendly, I have done very well thus far in my taco consumption and other necessary ventures.)

So there goes my rant, my culture shock laid out for all the world to see. Now I shall pose a question: Is Austin cool because it’s in Texas or despite the fact that it’s in Texas? (Am I wrong to hate on Texas so much? Please, correct me if I am.) Does its bible-belt surroundings and gun-toting neighbors make it shine bright like an actual lone star? Does Austin seem so great simply because of what we have to compare with it? Young hipsters from the coasts and midwest, whose parents worry that their children will become creationist Rick Perry devotees, get a thrill out of moving to the foreign south and being totally badass. Kind of like smoking cigarettes in high school. People feel a sense of ruggedness, too, by living somewhere with a reputation so different from where they grew up.

But I’m not sure this is true. Austin is unlike any other city I’ve ever seen. Austin would be cool and unique in any state. The lack of chain restaurants and shops amazes me, and the majority of residents are clearly and truly devoted to keeping Austin weird, in whatever way that means to them. The fusion of southern charm, open-mindedness, college town folks and tacos and BBQ make it such a special place, no comparison is needed.

Barton Springs - a natural swimming pool. It's like a beach with grass.

Barton Springs – a natural swimming pool. It’s like a beach with grass.

A Jew Yorker in Texas…let’s see how long I can last without passing out before I get a real bagel. Ya’ll.

5 Reasons to Go Backpacking Before Turning 30!

There are a few things that define the psyche, lifestyle and persona of the under-30 crowd in 2013. Entry-level jobs, expertise in texting-based relationships, constant life-trajectory discussions and a hearty awareness of our high school and college acquaintances goings-on thanks to Facebook, just to name a few. We are recent college graduates, we are Girls sympathizers, and we are poor. We are willing to put up with degrading professional situations because of the depleted job market. We also put up with all sorts of crazies that OKCupid has determined to be our perfect match.

En route to Penang, Malaysia.

En route to Penang, Malaysia.

To summarize: Millennials are tech-savvy, great communicators, highly tolerant of unusual personalities, and broke. What’s an emerging young professional to do with this skill set? I don’t know about you, but I only see one option: Travel.

Now is the time, people! Quit kidding yourself; your job isn’t that great right now. If you left tomorrow, are you easily replaceable? If the answer is yes — and I’m willing to bet a collection of Lonely Planet guide books that it is — then it is time to take a break and travel before you start caring about things like spouses, dirty bathrooms or mixing different types of alcohol on a night out.

Here are 5 reasons reasons why everyone should travel before entering the black hole of life in the third decade.

1. Right now, you have a very high tolerance for dirtiness.

Elephant Rides in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Elephant Rides in Chiang Mai, Thailand

We humans become more tightly wound as we grow older. We become accustomed to routine, and eventually tend to treat creature comforts as necessities. We think that things like soft toilet paper and different types of cups for different types of drinks are essential to our happiness. But if you’re reading this and you are under 30, there’s still time!

Get your butt to a foreign country while you are still teetering on the edge of caring about things like clean sheets. At this point in life, it’s still okay to sleep in a bunk bed in a dirty hostel or an overnight sleeper bus. (I should add, however, that there is now so much competition amongst hostels today that most are immaculately clean, even friendly environments! Many don’t even allow guests over 40.) You’re more likely to deal with the lack of toilet paper in public restrooms in a composed manner before the age of 30. It’s a scientific fact.

2. You have more energy than you think.

At the top of Mt. Jiri in South Korea

At the top of Mt. Jiri in South Korea

So that thing called aging. It’s more than wrinkles and mortgages. Apparently old people get tired, really easily. If you think a work week is exhausting, try multiplying that by five years. Now 10 years. Now 20. I look into the eyes of the middle-aged and I see lives lived, weeks worked, and tired faces.

You may think that after a night out, a week of getting coffee and making copies, or house-sitting for your neighbor , you are P-O-O-P-E-D! (Honestly, what is the point of house-sitting? The purpose of this task has always eluded me.)

But trust me friends, you have more energy than you think. And you’ll realize it once you’ve spent a day walking amongst beautiful old temples in Cambodia, spending an afternoon snorkeling and boat riding off an island in Thailand, or hiking Machu Picchu for a week. You have the energy to sleep in a different city every night and walk for hours—street food and ancient ruins can be very distracting. You are basically still a teenager: Use that energy and put it to some good use.

You won’t remember nights out on the lower east side (and if you do, it probably wasn’t much fun anyway!) but you will remember the night you spent on a boat in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

3. It’s cheap.

$5 worth of mind-blowing Indian food in Penang, Malaysia.

If that doesn’t grab your attention, imagine that a hand has just reached out from your computer screen and slapped you in the face. Travel in developing nations in regions like Southeast Asia or South America is so inexpensive, you will be slapping yourself upon arrival for not doing it sooner!

True, flights will make a dent in your blossoming bank accounts, but once you arrive, expect to spend no more than $10-$20 per day and live like a millennial king! And that includes lodging. And about the flights, they might not actually be as bad as you think; discount airlines are quite fabulous. In places where street food is the most authentic/delicious option, bargaining at markets is the word, and things like beach-side rock climbing classes cost $10, you can get a serious bang for your rupee, peso or baht.

4. You’ll learn something.

Ryoanji Zen Garden in Kyoto, Japan

Ryoanji Zen Garden in Kyoto, Japan

We know you read the news. You’ve got the newsfeed article postings to prove it. Maybe you even listen to some great non-fiction books-on-iPod during your commute to work. We are all trying to find ways to enrich our minds and furnish our post-college intellects. But why not do it while getting a great tan, meeting loads of interesting people and eating the most delicious foods?

Perhaps I sound like a nerdy career services advisor or the first page of a Lonely Planet. But it’s time to stop wasting your money on Thai takeout, sushi dinners or Venezuelan midnight snacks and book a flight to your next intellectual journey. Remember learning about developing economies in Econ 101? Communism and its aftermath in Poli Sci 202? Bollywood in your Global Media class? If you walk through the streets of the places about which you spent hours memorizing facts or writing 20-page papers, everything will come together in a beautifully harmonious way, while some of the facts are still fresh in your mind.

5. Um, it’s fun?!

The Princess Diary Cafe in Seoul, South Korea.

The Princess Diary Cafe in Seoul, South Korea.

I think I’ve provided enough practical reasons for backpacking before you get too old to do it. Now all you need to do is convince a friend to join, or convince yourself that you are capable of going alone!

As I mentioned earlier, quit taking yourself so seriously. If you’re ever going to quit your job and get out of the country for a month or two, now is probably the only time you’ll be able to do so. In all likelihood, you don’t have children or the anchor of a spouse holding you back. There are zillions of people on Craigslist or AirBNB.com waiting to sublet your apartment, and I hear backpacks are on sale at REI. There are guidebooks to be borrowed, blogs to be stalked, travel apps to be downloaded and gross bunk beds awaiting your arrival.

Get your passport updated and get out of this country!

Beautiful sunset in Boracay, Philippines.

Beautiful sunset in Boracay, Philippines.

This story was originally published on PolicyMic.com. Click here to view the original piece.

Gangnam Style: Why are we STILL doing the horsey-dance?

Whether you like it or not, unless you’ve been living under a wifi-deprived rock for the last 3 months, the Korean sensation that is PSY (Park Jae Sang, 34) has infiltrated your eardrums and eyeballs, through his record-breaking, viral music video, “Gangnam Style.” And his horsey-dance. The Korean-raised, American-university-educated singer has recently been signed to Schoolboy Records, the label of Justin Bieber’s manager Scooter Brown. At 767+ million views on YouTube since July 15th, he has surpassed viral legends such as Rebecca Black and Lady Gaga in his international hit count, and remains the #1 downloaded song on iTunes. We know the song is catchy and the video is colorful and amusing, but is that all it takes to become a global sensation in a matter of weeks? Those things are certainly important. But why is this seemingly passing-trend of a video taking so long to pass?

Let’s start with the lyrical content. Non-Korean speakers and listeners may not realize this, but beyond the horseback-riding inspired dance moves and bright blue tuxedos, there are some thought-provoking words behind the musical funny-man and his attractive backup dancers. PSY makes subtle yet probing jabs at capitalistic, class-concerned Seoulites who will spend more money on a fancy cup of Starbucks coffee than an inexpensive, instant-noodle dinner. Max Fisher points this out in his detailed assessment of the video in The Atlantic. PSY’s video caricature of a typical “Gangnam guy” (oppa is the Korean word for older brother, which is used colloquially as an affectionate term for male friends) likes “a classy girl who knows how to enjoy the freedom of a cup of coffee.” This line may be confusingly simple to American or European audiences for whom coffee drinking is an ingrained, routine part of life. A girl who drinks coffee? That could include my grandmother or agitated boss. Not so in Korea, where expensive chain cafes (whose parent companies tend are often times international conglomerates such as Samsung, LG, and Hyundai) are a marker of wealth, a westernized lifestyle, and an ability to spend six dollars on a cup of coffee. The Gangnam guy in PSY’s video likes a girl with money, or at least one who likes to pretend she does.

But where the social commentary really shines through is in the satirical depictions of the “Gangnam guy,” who dresses in a funny suit but never smiles, gawks at women in an outdoor yoga class, and hangs out in a sauna with tattooed gangsters (while wearing oversized sunglasses). As he attempts to dance his way down garbage-strewn streets with gorgeous women or observes old men playing baduk (a traditional Korean boardgame), he’s always dressed well, taking himself a little too seriously. He’s making a mockery of the cold, chiseled look that is typically associated with Gangnam guys, from magazine models to mainstream K-Pop artists. This satirical depiction of wealthy young men is universally humorous, the same way Austin Powers and Mr. Bean straddle language barriers and cultural confines.

K-Pop boy band sensation Big Bang – mainstream, serious, & thin: everything PSY is not. (www.allkpop.com)

Another key to the success of this catchy video has been the catchy dance: funny to watch and even funnier to attempt on the dance floor or in front of a mirror (or on The Ellen Show if you are Britney Spears). In a CNN.com interview, PSY—short for “Psycho”—explains the derivation of the horseback riding impersonation, which is easily picked up and has helped this song become a must-hear on any night involving a dance floor and speakers. “Let’s ride a horse” is a Korean expression that refers to having a drink and letting loose, hence the dance and the scenes in a westernized horse stable (in my opinion yet another reference to an affluent attempt at a western lifestyle).

Courtesy of The Atlantic

The Korean-born pop star has risen to fame in a matter of months, spoken at Oxford University, danced with MC Hammer, and won a prestigious American Music Award. He’s got a talent for writing satirical, subtext-infused lyrics, inventing funny dance moves, and ideating visually appealing music videos. Who cares if you can’t understand what PSY is singing about—can you honestly say that you keep up with every rhyming lyric in a Dr. Dre or Jay-Z song? I’m excited for more creativity, innovation, and catchiness from PSY!

Thailand Takeover: Jungles, Beaches, Temples and Sedated Tigers

Thailand. The name of this tribe-amalgamation of a country rolls off your tongue like sweet pad thai and a cold Singha beer on a hot [every season]’s day. It’s almost like an onomatopoeia, with a sound that imitates the beauty, diversity, and carefree nature of the country. I’ve fantasized about visiting Thailand for as long as I can remember, and I don’t think I even knew why up until I started doing my research.

Wat Arun in Bangkok

Magnificent mountains in Chiang Mai

Approaching Maya Bay in Ko Phi Phi

Thailand sits west of Laos, east of Burma, and north of Malaysia, amidst the clearest turquoise waters I have ever laid eyes on. I departed Incheon International Airport with Ollie, headed for Bangkok, and embarked upon a jam-packed 14 days of travel in one of the world’s most visited travel destinations. We hit up Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and the southern islands, sampling a small dose of the many beauties Thailand has to offer.

Bangkok

We checked into Lub d Silom hostel, the archetype of what a hostel should be. Clean and modern design, friendly and knowledgeable staff, well-stocked bar and breakfast menu, and of course lots of other backpackers. The next morning we toured the city, and really only had one day to do so. We took a private boat ride down Bangkok’s main river for 300 baht (about $9) for a few hours, stopping off at various temples, shrines, and a few tourist traps. A cool way to see the city and some residential areas, we also befriended our boat driver who used to work in the American Embassy in Bangkok. He had a special affinity for America and was all smiles. Of course I can’t remember his name.

Bangkok canal homes

Temples along the river

We hopped off the boat to go explore more of the city on our own. My favorite spot that we visited was Wat Arun, one of the older temples we saw, which has some of the most intricately detailed architecture I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot of intricately detailed architecture.

Wat Arun

Details

We had lunch right on the water at a relaxing, delicious restaurant, and then ventured out into the rest of the city.

Riverside food

Pad Thai foreva

Ready to check out the famous Khao San Road, we hopped on a tuk-tuk (a 3-wheeled small motor vehicle that weaves through traffic like a snake on speed) and our driver offered to take us to 3 other places in addition for a 300-baht deal. This was the first of many moments that highlighted the way tourism works in this country: it’s a way of life, and everyone is in on it. It feels like every local you interact with is working to make as much money off of every foreigner they see as possible, and help out all their friends along the way. He ended our little “tour” of northern Bangkok with a stop at a suit-making shop because he said he could get free gas there. Well of course we ended up wandering into the shop and buying 2 custom suits for $200 each. We’re pretty sure the suit store pays for his gas.

Buddahs for days

Boat bargains. This lady was selling goods from her boat!

Temple complex

View from Wat Arun

We also had a long layover at the end of our trip, so we taxi’d into the city for dinner in Chinatown; pretty similar to every other Chinatown I’ve ever been to: crowded and energizing with amazing food. We had a massive fish dish with fermented plums, Tom Yom soup, and chicken fried rice. We wandered the streets for a while, soaking up our final moments in Thailand before we had to depart, and eventually wandered into a fancy hotel in hopes of finding a rooftop for a view of the city.

Bangkok’s China Town

Final Thai meal

Bangkok by night

Chiang Mai 

Our second stop was Chiang Mai, a northern city with lots of character. It’s the second biggest city in Thailand and attracts lots of western tourists, but maintains a relaxed, small-town vibe because of the types of travelers it attracts. Everyone here is looking to take advantage of northern Thailand’s enticing jungles, wildlife, and countryside. If you’re backpacking on a budget like us, I highly recommend staying at Julie Guest House, the epitome of chill. (Although there were TONS of other options and all seemed really similar.) Not only is the atmosphere of this place so relaxing and so Thai, they will help you sign up for any type of activity, and will even assist you in purchasing visas to neighboring SE Asian countries. On our first day, we rented a motorbike for 200 baht (about $6) for 24 hours, which was an awesome introduction to the city.

Chiang Mai outskirts

Temple in Chiang Mai

Photos of the Thai Royal family are all over Thailand, from massive prints at the airports to tiny calendars in family homes. It is a crime in Thailand to speak ill of the king, even for foreigners.

We saw a lot of these.

We biked to the Tiger Kingdom, a strange place indeed. You can lay on, touch, and even play with the tigers who all seem extremely tired and well-fed. Signs throughout the park insist that “tiger no need drug” because they’ve been raised amongst humans and are thus domesticated. It seemed pretty obvious that they were sedated, though, and was kind of sad. Although we did get to take some sweet pics…?

Hello Kitty

Sedated tigers at play

Tired tiger

We signed up for a 2-day (overnight) jungle trek, which was probably the best decision of the whole trip. Our hilarious tour guide, Good, picked us up at the hostel, along with 2 other groups: a Dutch family of 4 and 2 Spanish couples from Madrid and Pamplona. Meeting the other travelers was a highlight. We hiked through the gorgeous jungle in the rain for a few hours, working off all the pad thai and spring roles we’d been gorging on, and made our way to an elephant park. We rode elephants, took our photos, ate lunch, and finished hiking to the top of a mountain.

Elephant rides in the jungle

Jungle boogie

Jungle boogie 2

Jungle boogie 3

Top of Thailand

We then headed to our beautiful, simple accommodations for the night.

View from our little bungalow

Inside the hut.

Hill Tribe sleepover

The next morning, we hiked down the mountain to a waterfall, and then to a white water rafting site. The natural beauty of Chiang Mai is outstanding; if you go to Thailand, you must head north.

Chasin’ waterfalls

Mamas and babies

We also took a cooking class! Collectively we made Pad Thai, 2 curries, Papaya Salad, Spring Rolls, Deep Fried Bananas, and Coconut-Mango Sticky Rice. The chef took us to the market to explain the foods to us, and Thai food is actually really simple to make. It can be however sweet, spicy, salty, or sour you want it to be — it’s not any less “Thai” if you take out the spiciness. We cooked with folks from the Netherlands, Ireland, and New Jersey. It was delightful to cook with everyone, and then eat dinner together once we finished.

Thai cooking class

Our teacher explaining the differences between sticky rice and regular rice.

Ko Phi Phi, Railay 

Southern Thailand is home to some of the world’s “top beaches,” most crystal-clear, turquoise waters, and the softest sand to ever come between my toes. We flew directly from Chiang Mai to Phuket, the biggest island and definitely the most touristy/resorty of all the southern Thai islands. We spent the night in Phuket, but didn’t stay for long and immediately hopped on a ferry (with our friend from college, Maxine, who had been leading a teen summer program in Thailand!) to Ko Phi Phi, a beautiful spot on the western coast.

Why you come to Thailand.

Cliff diving Ollie!

Boat ride beauty

Phi Phi is drop dead gorgeous and unfortunately saturated with tourists, and finding a balance was important. Dance clubs electrify the beach at night, and the beaches are simply amazing. We went on a long-tail boat ride around the islands and surrounding areas to snorkel and ogle at the rock formations and turquoise water. We swam (and then climbed up a crazy rope-ladder-contraption in the middle of two massive rocks that was so much harder than it looked) to Maya Bay, a pristine inlet where the 1995 movie “The Beach” was filmed. Imagine scouting for a movie called “The Beach.” With Leo DiCaprio.

Ko Phi Phi

Our new friend Peter!!!

After 3 days, we had enough, and decided to check out another island spot. We headed to lesser known Railay, a tough-to-reach spot that isn’t technically an island but can only be reached by longboat because of the rock formations surrounding it. Raily has no motor vehicles and is much smaller than Ko Phi Phi, with a much less touristy feel.

Sunset in Railay

So many boat rides

Bass goes swimming with the fishies

A mecca for rock climbers world-over, we decided to partake in the local past time. Ollie had done this before and knew what we were in for. It was challenging but awesome. Railay was the perfect ending to our time in Thailand.

Rock climbing locale – right on the beach

Thailand lived up to the hype, however touristy it may have felt. I can’t wait to go back in September during my 7-week backpacking trip!

Bassen Your Seatbelt :)

Top 10 Things to See & Do in Seoul: A Guest Post for “Tripping”

After living an hour outside of Seoul for almost a year now, I’ve figured out some of my favorite spots in Korea’s capital city, and have visited several “must-see” destinations. I seriously love this city and am really happy with the amount of Seoul searching I’ve been able to accomplish.

The folks over at Tripping, an awesome service that connects travelers with people to meet and places to stay all over the world – from “couches to castles” – found my blog! Hooray!  I’ve written a guest post on their blog about…that’s right, Seoul! Check out the post, of course, but definitely peruse the rest of their site for all the interesting services they offer to travelers!

In case you’re too lazy to click, (or you simply can’t stay away from bassenyourseatbelt) it’s also posted below.

Seoul is a city that needs no introduction, but I’ll give you one anyway. The ultimate example of a city straddling the old and new in a harmonious balance, South Korea’s capital mega-city will surprise and delight you, and will leave you wanting more. From spicy street foods at Gwangjang Market, to dozens neon-illuminated shopping centers, to tranquil temple complexes in the heart of the hustle and bustle, Seoul has so much to offer. Whether you’re an English- teaching expat living on the outskirts of South Korea’s capital, a backpacking college grad with a thirst for the novel, or a world traveling duo celebrating your 25th year of marriage, every site on this list is a must-see in Seoul. And don’t forget the travelers’ curse: the more you see, the more you want to see! There is always more to do, taste, and experience, in the land of kimchi, K-Pop, and K-risma.

1. Insa-dong. A neighborhood that was inhabited by poets, artists, and liberal thinkers back in the day, this area is now home to a bevy of traditional tea houses, unique shops, winding, cobblestone roads, and dozens of art galleries. Wander the streets, take photos and peek into the artisan shops. You’ll stumble upon the Bukchon Hanok Village, an area perched up on a hill encompassing a small neighborhood of traditional Korean houses, still inhabited by human beings. It’s a nice first-stop for many visitors: not insanely crowded with an emphasis on the traditional – you won’t find any chain stores or restaurants here. The storeowners of Insa-dong are insistent on keeping the area as homegrown and non-commercialized as possible. Return at night for authentic Buddhist “temple food.” I’d recommend well-known Baru-gong-yang (Gyeon-ji-dong 71, Chong-ro-gu, Seoul, 02-2031-2081) where you’ll be treated to delicious vegetarian foods, herbs grown in mountains, and new flavors for everyone. After dinner, sample some tea at a the local teahouse, for which this neighborhood is famed. (Take subway line 3 to Anguk Station)

Insa-dong

2. Cheonggyecheon River. A narrow park that slithers its way through the best parts of the city, the Cheonggyecheon River is a beautiful escape from the noise, crowds, and smells of Seoul. Until 2005, the Cheonggyecheon was more like a sewage system than a river, covered by pavement and the concrete jungle. Lee Myung Bak, then mayor of Seoul and South Korea’s current president, took on uncovering the Cheonggyecheon as his signature project, creating an awesome green space for Seoul’s inhabitants and visitors. It reminds me of New York City’s High Line Park – an abandoned elevated train track that is now an elevated park – in myriad ways. Not only do these two parks both posses an overgrown, all-natural aesthetic, but they are both the result of restoring pre-existing urban components into something green and enjoyable for the people. (The Cheonggyecheon stretches 5.2 miles starting at Seoul’s City Hall, and can be accessed at several points throughout the city.)

Cheonggyechong River

3. Gyeongbukgong Palace. This palace complex is the biggest in Seoul and definitely the most popular amongst tourists. Adjacent to Insa-dong and the head of the Cheonggyecheon, you’re bound to bump into the palace even if by accident. I’m not going to go into the history of it, because I’d basically just be copying this. Just look at the photos. (Take subway line 3 to Gyeongbokgung.)

Gyeongbuk Palace

4. Myeong-dong. Lights. People. Lights. People. Neon. Neon. Neon. People. This is modern Asia. Myeong-dong is one of Seoul’s (many) major shopping districts, with every imaginable type of store: from high-end designer department stores, to niche boutiques, to discount stalls, to chain stores. Anything you’re looking for can be found in this crowds-at-all-hours neighborhood. And if you’re not looking to shop, window shopping and navigating your way through the crowds, lights, and hagglers is an unforgettable experience in itself! (Take subway lines 1 or 4 to Myeong-dong, exit 6 is best for shopping!)

Myeong-dong

5. Hongdae. My loyal blog followers know how I feel about Hongdae. It’s my favorite place in Seoul, hands down. Home to the city’s biggest art university, Hongik, the neighborhood reeks of youth and creativity. Kitschy coffee shops, vintage dress stores, handmade leather notebook stands, strange graffiti – the best thing to do in Hongdae is wander, get lost, and find your new favorite café. (There’s a good chance it will have a hilarious theme!) On summer Saturdays, head to the park next to Hongik University for the weekly open-air art fair! You can find amazing handcrafted jewelry, painted sneakers, inexpensive portrait drawings, and more, all brought to you by university students. Hongdae is also known for its energetic nightlife. From dive bars to bumping dance clubs, it’s possible to satisfy your inner wild-child on any night of the week! Try starting off your night at Weolhyang 2 (월향 2호점) (352-23 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Map) a makgeolli bar (Korean rice wine) that offers various types of deliciously flavored makgeolli at reasonable prices. Good prices, and you can sit outside. (Take subway line 2 to Hongik University, exit 1. Walk straight, take your first right, and on the opposite side of the street you will see a BBQ meat restaurant—which happens to be delicious!—and to the left of it there is an alleyway. Walk down the alley until your 3rd right, and Weolhyang 2 is just down the street in a big white house!)

Hongdae Art Fair

6. Gwangjang Market. Supposedly the oldest and biggest market in Seoul, specializing in textiles, a Seoulite friend recommended eating dinner here. It took a little wandering since most of the market was closed for the day, but we finally found the after-work crowd, stuffing their faces with all kinds of Korean street foods. Find a bench, rest your rump and indulge in a cheap yet tasty Korean street food sampler: ddoekbokki (rice cakes with a spicy chili pepper sauce), kimbap (rolls of seaweed with rice, cucumber, spam, radish, carrots, and more), and pajeon (basically a Korean pancake with onion, garlic, and other veggies). Also look out for the make your own bibimbap stalls! (Take subway line 1 to Jongno 5-ga exit 8 or line 2/5 to Euljiro 4-ga exit 4.)

Gwangjang Market

7. Jimjilbang In my year of life in Korea, I have had the pleasure of discovering yet another Korean expertise, the 찜질방 or jimjilbang—the Korean bathhouse or spa. There are tons of jimjilbang throughout Seoul and Korea, and people use them regularly to relax and rejuvenate. Spa culture is an important, engrained Korean tradition, and this becomes evident from the moment you nakedly and nervously tiptoe into the bathhouse for the first time. Usually the spas cost between 8,000 and 12,000 won, and they are typically open 24 hours (you can even spend the night for free!). After finding your locker and undressing, venture into the bathing room where you’ll spend the next few hours soaking in baths of differing temperatures with about 30 other naked Korean ladies (or men if that’s your thing). I highly recommend indulging in a Korean-style scrub, which will cost anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 won. In Seoul, I can personally recommend Dragon Hill Spa in Yongsan, Itaewon Land in Itaewon, and the brand new Spa at Garden 5 in East Seoul. The internet is your friend—use it!

8. Ladies Only: The Wedding Dress Café As I mentioned before, Seoul boasts hundreds of hilarious theme cafes, including the Princess Diary Cafe, a “wedding dress cafe” where women come to revel in our femininity, sip on milkshakes and lattes, and take thousands of photographs in imaginary bridal bliss. One of the girliest experiences you’ll have for a while, or perhaps ever, choose a wedding dress from a massive wardrobe of options and the ladies in the store adjust and pin it up for you. There are awesome accessories to pair with your bridal gown, like pirate hats and bunny ears, along with a selection of heels to choose from. To try on the gowns, it costs between 10,000-30,000 won, depending on the gown. You are also required to order a beverage, and there was a nice selection of coffees, teas, and smoothies. (Take subway line 2 to Ehwa Women’s University, exit 3. Walk down to the little street just before the Starbucks and turn in and look up to your right – you’ll see the sign on a close-by building.)

Princess Diary Cafe

9. Namsan Tower/N. Seoul Tower at Night. Resting at the top of a Namsan Mountain in the heart of Seoul, this tower is visible from most of the city on a clear day. While a daytime hike to the tower can be charming, I’d recommend heading to the tower at night for a truly magnificent view of darkened Seoul, lit up in all its glory! (Take subway line 4 to Myeongdong exit 3, use the road to the right of the Pacific Hotel and walk 10 minutes to the Namsan cable car.)

Namsan Tower

10.  The DMZ. Before heading to Seoul, when you told your friends you were traveling to Korea, did anyone say: which one, North or South Korea? Well, now you can tell your…uh…misinformed friends that you actually had the chance to take a look at North Korea, up close at personal, at the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). Many tour groups run trips to the DMZ, and one full day-trip will cost about USD$96. This is a HIGHLY recommended, unique experience that most visitors to Korea rave about. I would recommend going with the USO-led tour, whose awesome tour guides will show you several sites around the DMZ. Be sure to book at least a month in advance.

The Joint Security Area (JSA) at the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)

Reporting Live from Korea for PolicyMic!

Check out PolicyMic – an innovative news source that emphasizes the importance of online discussion and debate, geared towards the social-networking Millennial generation! The following article about the integration of the school where I teach (all-girls to co-ed) was just published on their site today, followed by my story on Korea’s comfort women. Click the links and join their site if you are interested!

My year teaching English in Korea has been marked by many irreplaceably unique moments, both in and out of the classroom. I stumbled my way through cultural confusions, language barriers, and unfamiliar power structures, all while learning how to teach English as a foreign language. One of the more noticeably outstanding events, transcending international boundaries and cultures, was observing the transition of my school from an all-girls high school to a co-ed one. A shift that would make for an interesting sociological experiment in any country, socio-economic situation, or time period, it has been both fascinating and unfortunately disappointing to watch the impact that gender integration has had in a Korean high school.

According to other teachers at my school and around the city, Yeoju Girls High School, now Sejong High School, has been the No. 2 school in the county for several years. This meant that the boys in town could not attend the 2nd best school, and had to opt for lower-caliber institutions. Middle school boys with high scores on their high school entrance exams therefore had few viable options, and either had to score in the highest percentile of all male students in Yeoju to get into the No. 1 school, or deal with attending one of the low-ranking schools. Thus, the board of education made the decision to integrate Yeoju Girls High School.

Teaching at a girls’ high school during my first semester was generally delightful. Aside from a small number of problematic students, controlling classes was easy and required few punishments. As a first-year teacher in a foreign country, classroom control was one of my biggest challenges, and an all-girls setting was a nice way to ease into the job. The students are very bright, studious, and vocal, despite the shyness that plagues many Korean people, especially when it comes to speaking English. It wasn’t perfect, and there were obviously some students who were more outgoing or attentive than others. But when this high school was comprised of all female students, the girls were the group leaders, the class clowns, and the participators. They were the ones getting the right answers, helping classmates, and presenting work at the front of the class. They had opportunities to be at the top, and were honing powerful, salient skills without distraction.

I talked with the girls about the impending change in the school, and most were neutral about the transition. They, however, would not be considerably affected by the transition because only the incoming 1st graders (American 10th grade) would have mixed-gender classes. Each year the school will be becoming more co-ed. But still, they knew that the presence of male students in the school was going to change the tone of the school, both literally and figuratively.

As a foreign teacher, I worried about learning how to handle teenage boys from a different culture, classroom control, and messy handwriting. I was also concerned that the presence of boys would shake the confidence level of the female students, a typical concern in most arguments in favor of single-sex education. I hate to say it, but I was right about pretty much everything. Even the handwriting.

Before coming to Korea, I was aware of the stereotype that Asian women are shy, timid, or submissive. It’s pervasive in our popular culture, and stems from Confucian values, Geisha culture, and things like that. When I arrived, I found this to be true on some levels. But from the moment I arrive at school at 7:30 each morning, this stereotype is smashed to the ground by the energized, hyperactive girls racing through the halls, laughing and goofing around in their few precious moments of free time before class. This female hallway debauchery has not subsided with the addition of boys, but I can say that things have changed inside the classroom.

In my second, co-ed semester of teaching, when I pose a question to the class, hoping for a harmonious chorus of boys and girls shouting out answers, the sheer volume and tone of these post-pubescent boys’ voices drowns out the girls who might have been more vocally inclined in elementary and middle school. And if that isn’t enough to dissuade the girls’ participation, the boys will often draw on the Confucian principles of male domination over females, and totally disregard their input in group activities. When I asked one of my female students why she wasn’t participating in a team competition activity, in which I knew she knew the answers but she simply wasn’t participating, she replied, “They just ignore me. I hate them.”

The difference that the Y-chromosome addition has made at my school was most evident in a lesson I did involving a role-playing activity, where students were randomly assigned a celebrity character and a partner, and had to interview one another as if they were in a celebrity-journalist scenario. The differences in lesson outcomes of my co-ed 1st grade classes and all-girls 2nd grade classes were breathtaking.

When looking around the classroom for their assigned partners, the 2nd grade girls were always content with whom they had to work, even if they were not best friends. During the activity, they laughed and tried to come up with funny answers to questions. They cheered for one another, and enthusiastically performed for the rest of the class. Of course, there were still some shy and lower-level students; Korea is not a teacher-fantasy land. But the overall tone of the 2nd grade classes was a stark contrast to that of my 1st grade classes.

To begin with, many girls had been randomly paired with boys. For the most part this was fine, but several were extremely embarrassed by the idea of working with a boy, and one even told me she was afraid of the boy with whom she had been paired and asked me to give her a new partner. In watching the performances it was as if every wave of feminism had simply skipped over Korea. They had zero confidence, and would hang their heads so far down that they resembled black-haired Cousin Its. It wasn’t every girl, but a significant majority, that acted in this way. It is important to keep in mind that Korean children do not grow up with drama activities in their schools, or any school-organized performing arts for the most part. Activities like this one don’t come as naturally as they would to some American high school students who have school-sponsored drama programs. However, the difference between the single-sex 2ndgrade girls and the integrated 1st grade girls was palpable.

Many proponents of co-education will argue that a major component of school is learning how to socialize with other people, including those of the opposite gender. I concede that this argument is valid in the younger years of education, when elementary and even middle school students are learning how to function in a classroom, make friends, and respect authority. High school students, however, are at a totally different phase of development, one with which we are all familiar. It is during these precious teenage years when high schoolers begin their child-to-adulthood transition, figuring out how to deal with changing bodies, emotions, and social pressures. In other words, it’s an awkward time, for both sexes. They are discovering their identities, and the most seemingly inconsequential social situations make for an abundance of anxiety and insecurity. From first-hand experiences in unusually convenient social experiment conditions, I can tell you that teenage girls feel more comfortable participating in class and speaking English when there are no boys around. If they spend three years of their teenage life (high school in Korea is 3 years) honing those public speaking skills and leadership abilities, without worrying about looking too smart or not pretty enough, I believe that they will be better prepared for co-ed university or workplace environments. Certainly children need to learn how to socialize in school, and for high school students I believe this means separating the sexes.

If I was teaching English in France, algebra in Wisconsin, or PE in Belize, I predict that these problems would persist. I will admit that I can’t say what the change in test scores or class participation has been in other classes. But during conversations with fellow teachers and students, I found that most agreed with me. Teenagers are awkward and rebellious, no matter what language they speak, and deserve to grow and learn in appropriate environments.

The House of Sharing & Korea’s Comfort Women

At this time a year ago, I was in the midst of coping with the end of my schooling years, the impending doom of adulthood creeping up on me as I hurriedly prepared for my upcoming year in South Korea. I knew very little about Korea, especially the recent history of this peninsula and its mother continent, and I began to realize how much knowledge I was about to acquire in the next year. This past weekend was one of the most special realizations of this gap of knowledge, and seriously put into perspective the triviality of those “young adult” worries.

Korea has a tumultuous recent history, due in large part to the Japanese occupation from 1910-1945. During the later years of occupation, falling under the time of WWII, the Japanese military systematically set up euphemistically named “Comfort Stations” throughout their occupied territories all over southeast Asia, which served as brothels for its soldiers. It was in these stations where women placed under sex slavery lived, to service soldiers wherever they were stationed. Impoverished women—as young as 14 years old—from all over southeast Asia (and a very large percentage from Korea) were either kidnapped or told they were being given factory jobs in a different occupied country, and placed at Comfort Stations for as long as 7-8 years.

Photo in the museum of Korean Comfort Women, taken by American soldiers at a refugee camp, during or right after WWII.

They were specifically removed from their home countries so that they could not run away, and were severely punished or killed if they attempted to escape. They were raped dozens of times per day by Japanese soldiers, and many died from venereal disease or injury. The women were commonly given injections of Mercury 606 to rid them of STIs, and it often forced hysterectomies or worse upon their bodies. It is estimated that 200,000 Korean women were abducted to serve as sex slaves, and they were transported to other countries such as Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, China, and more. Later in life most were unable to conceive children, if they survived the comfort station system. Each woman’s freedom, livelihood, and future was stolen in a systematically organized system run by the Japanese military, in a continent where shame and sexual purity are deeply engrained, major components of the culture.

Map depicting one Comfort Woman’s forced movement throughout SE Asia from Korea; sex trafficking.

On Sunday I visited Nanum, the Museum of Sexual Slavery by Japanese Military, and the House of Sharing, located in Gwangju, Gyeonggi-do, which educates its visitors on the history of and the current issues surrounding Comfort Stations. It also serves as a welfare home for the surviving Comfort Women, affectionately called “halmonie,” which literally means “grandmother” in Korean, who participate in therapeutic art classes, meeting visitors, and sharing their stories. It was the most disheartening yet inspiring day I have had in Korea thus far, and shed light on an incredibly important issue about which I knew nothing. This is also the only museum in the world solely dedicated to sex trafficking.

Since 1992, only 234 former Comfort Women have been brave enough to come forth about their pain-stricken lives, despite living in a highly conservative country, and have identified themselves to the Korean government. It is estimated that there are more still living, but are too ashamed to come forward. Many of the Comfort Women stayed in the countries in which they were enslaved for over 20 years, unable to find a way to return to Korea or afraid of the shame they would bring upon their families. But the biggest crime of all is the way Comfort Women are regarded by the Japanese government today.

Photos of halmonies who have come forward; some have recently passed away.

Every Wednesday since 1995, the halmonies and their allies have gathered at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul to protest the lack of acknowledgement by the Japanese on the topic of Comfort Stations during WWII and the women who inhabited them. They recently held their 1000th protest. In the early 1990s, the issues surrounding Comfort Women began to surface in Korea, when the first former sex slave went public about her past. Although the Japanese government destroyed most documentation of the highly organized Comfort Station system, Japanese professors were able to find photographs and documents proving their existence. More and more women began to come forth after that, and demand official apologies from the Japanese government. On the issue of Comfort Stations and Comfort Women, the museum explained to us that the Japanese government and public are very much divided on this issue, and that the majority of visitors to their museum are actually from Japan.

Copies of documents from the Japanese military outlining the organization of the Comfort Station system.

There were plaques explaining the stories and experiences of all the halmonies living at the House of Sharing. Incredibly moving and deeply infuriating.

The surviving halmonies, many in their late 70s or 80s, and the NGOs that support them, have seven demands. They are:

  1. Admit the drafting of the Japanese military’s “comfort women”
  2. Apologize officially
  3. Reveal truths about the war crimes
  4. Erect memorial tablets for the victims
  5. Pay restitution to the victims or their families directly from the government
  6. Teach the truth in public schools, so the events are never again repeated
  7. Punish the war criminals

Until this point, as was explained by the museum, Japanese officials believe that enough recognition was given in a bilateral claims treaty signed in 1965. The government today filters their monetary donations through private organizations, but refuses to give money directly from the government. They reject the halmonies’ testimonies that they were forcibly sent to the comfort stations, and insist these women were volunteers or prostitutes. It is also hardly included in the  curriculum at Japanese public schools. The halmonies feel incredibly betrayed by the government of their neighboring country. This lack of apology or acknowledgement is what drives these women to the embassy each Wednesday, with posters and chanting.

Part of a Comfort Station replica. The wooden plaques have the names of Comfort Women on them, and they were turned over if the women had venereal diseases.

After an informative, guided tour through the museum by young volunteers, we were able to meet with several of the former Comfort Women in a common room at the House of Sharing. They were cheerful and eager to meet us, and passionately described their demands for apologies for the suffering they endured. They spoke with firmness in their voices and deep anger at the pain they had endured, and one woman became so angered her lips were quivering and you could truly see the sadness and pain in her eyes.

Sunday’s experience reminded me of the fact that sex slavery is still a million-dollar, worldwide industry today, that manages to function and operate in a highly systematized, organized manner. Although a complex issue that cannot be solved with one piece of legislation or treaty, spreading the word and education is critical to the eradication of sexual slavery.

The passionate halmonies, with one of the amazing volunteers. (He even gave my friends and I a ride home!)

We each had a chance to interact with the halmonies, express our gratitude for their bravery, and hold their hands. It was a beautiful experience.

Paintings made by the halmonies depicting their struggles and emotions. It’s a beautiful way for them to cope with the pain, and also spread information about their issue.

When I returned to school this morning, I realized that the kidnapped women were the same age as my bright, energetic, and altruistic students, who still have so much living to do. The halmonies’ lives were stolen from them, and this is the biggest crime of all.

For information on visiting the museum and the House of Sharing, call: +82-(0)31-768-0064, click: http://nanum.org/eng/index.html, and check their Facebook page. 

Gorgeous memorial in the museum with gifts from visitors from all over the world, including thousands of paper cranes from Japan.

Some paper cranes and artistic gifts from visitors.

Memorial statues outside the museum.

“The Shocking Reality About Xenophobia in Korea” : Bassenyourseatbelt Gets Political

Last semester, one of my best and brightest asked me if I was able to sit down on the floor with my legs crossed, “Indian Style” as we used to say in the 90’s (although it might be a politically incorrect phrase now…oy) and so I immediately took to the floor of my classroom to show off my stuff. I wasn’t sure if it was a practical joke or just another strange inquiry to which I have now become accustomed, but I did it anyway. And asked her, “Why?” She responded, “I heard foreigners can’t sit like that!” #truestory

40 girls. 1 race. 1 hair style.

It’s been a while since I’ve written about xenophobia in South Korea, even though it constantly pops up in conversation and in so many of my daily routines. Although there are 10,000 English teachers, 28,000 American soldiers, a large presence of various other expat groups, and droves of international tourists in South Korea, this peninsula is sadly a difficult place to be a foreigner. At least more difficult than I imagined it would be. I’ve mentioned this before, but South Korea is allegedly the 2nd most homogenous country in the world after…North Korea.

…and we wonder why they think we’re strange.

Even use of the word foreigner struck me as odd when I first arrived; before living here, I always associated the term with a tinge of negativity. Someone who doesn’t belong, unfortunately different, or simply other…and not in the exotic way. In Korea, it feels like a massive group of us have had a big fat sticker plastered to our faces, that entitles every ajumma and ajeoshi to stare at us in E-Mart or at the bank.

Sometimes it feels wrong to complain. Korea has given me an unmatchable opportunity: an interesting job with great pay, loads of vacation, normal working hours, and the chance to cheaply travel throughout Asia in my early 20s. But then there are times when I read, see, and hear things that I simply cannot brush off – no matter how nice my free rice cooker is – such as MBC’s recent “expose” on “The Shocking Reality About Relationships with Foreigners,” as part of their “Think Different” series. Take a look.

So. Much. To. Say. First off, just to make sure we’re all on the same page, this isn’t a joke. This is actually supposed to be journalism, and aired on one of Korea’s main news networks, MBC (Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation). The segment has struck a nerve in the waygookin community, and rightfully so. I’ve read vehement responses from expat K-bloggers, spoken to friends dating Koreans, and needless to say, my newsfeed was blowin’ up…bro. There is even a petition on Avaz.com, asking the CEO of MBC to produce a statement of apology for the video. The response from MBC? In “Korea Real Time,” a Wall Street Journal blog, Evan Ramstad reports a defensive reaction from MBC. No apologies, and cluelessness as to why the alarmist language, extreme xenophobia, and blatant bias presented in the segment might be offensive and discomforting to foreigners living in Korea. “I don’t understand why foreigners get angry about the issue while they are living with their spouses and having no problem,” an MBC spokesperson said. “Foreigner-Korean women couples are living happily, but why are they angry over an issue that has nothing to do with them?”

Wrong. The issue has everything to do with every foreigner. I can’t speak for all transplants, but I can tell you that each time I walk down the street and people take a second look at me, I wonder…I’ve seen it, maybe they’ve seen it…do they think something is wrong with me? Am I actually unwanted in my quaint, peaceful town of Yeoju that I’ve come to call home for the last 10 months? Is the hostile tone in which cab drivers address me in fact due to my big eyes and curly hair? I’m not a western man with a Korean lady attached to my arm, but that isn’t the point. I’m an outsider to them, and now I’m an outsider who is associated with messages like this one. Moreover, messages that my students will see and will affect the way they see me.

Bringing cultures together, one yarmulke at a time.

Another upsetting component in this video is the way Korean women are dealt with. Phrases like “our women” is not only objectifying, possessive, and archaic, they also paint a picture of women who lack self-respect or intelligence – a picture I can whole-heartedly argue is untrue. Women here – although a little too obsessed with skin whitening cream and hand mirrors for my taste – are decisive, altruistic, and highly intelligent. Especially the open-minded ladies I’ve met who choose to spend time with people not of their own culture. There are obviously low-caliber humans of every race and gender, and Koreans are not exempt from that. But it is always wrong to group, generalize, and characterize. I believe that is called stereotyping.

Although I would like to wholeheartedly say that I think this is changing with each new generation, I can only express this half-heartedly. Stories like my quirky opener are not uncommon in my life, nor in the lives of my other English-teaching friends. However, these kids have had considerably more exposure to non-Koreans than their elders, and this will certainly impact the way they treat foreigners in their adult lives. I guess I’ll just have to come back to Korea when my kiddies are all grown up, and our 5-year age difference will seem much less significant than it does right now.

Let’s be honest. The producers who created this video probably comprise a group of men who are simply jealous that most foreign women aren’t attracted to them. Sorry dudes!

Tune in Tokyo: 4 Days of Neon, Pornime, Sushi

Japan operates on a time zone that is 14 hours ahead of New York City. But standing at Shibuya Crossing (the worlds busiest intersection) staring up at gargantuan glass structures, heart pulsing to the beat of whatever electro-pop is blaring from hidden mega speakers, I felt like it was 14 years ahead. From the moment I stepped off the plane in Haneda airport, where my body temperature was tested by some camera-like contraption as I headed to passport control, everything in Tokyo felt new. Almost futuristic. It’s as if the architects and designers of this 13-million-person metropolis take their creative cues from The Jetsons. (By the way, the music blaring that night happened to be K-Pop!)

Shibuya’s futuristic architecture.

Shibuya Crossing – the world’s busiest intersection. I love visiting superlatives.

I got to spend 2 days with my family while they were still in Tokyo, which was a very special experience since my younger sister has been obsessed with Japan since her days of 4th grade Karate lessons and 6am Dragon Ball Z marathons. For the second half, I used the online community Couch Surfers to find a local Tokyoite to stay with and learn from. I seriously lucked out. Yukari, my gracious, fantastic, host talked about how cities in Europe and the US are so “old,” and Tokyo is so “new,” since so much of the city has been ruined by natural disasters and war. She has a love affair with New York, hopes to move there some day, and even had photos of my favorite Upper West Side spots from her visit in 2008! Small world.

From moments in Akihabara, the anime center of Tokyo that is teeming with “pachinko” parlors (rooms filled with video games where you can sit and play for days), to strolls down Harajuku street, all the senses are constantly stimulated. I felt like there was no way I could ever be bored in these areas of the city: there is always something bright and blinking to look at or listen to.

Akihabara – the anime hub of the anime city in the anime country of the world.

Pachinko inside the Sega building. Strange places. They are everywhere.

Pornime. Quite possibly the most risque thing I’ve ever posted on the internet.

And the architecture. I had neck cramps by the end of the trip. Definitely felt like a tourist, constantly gawking at the tall buildings, but it was so worth it.

Tokyo International Forum. The coolest building I’ve ever set foot in. Rafael Viñoly, Uruguayan architect, is responsible for the massive boat-like structure, completed in 1996.

Inside is even cooler. Filled with exhibition halls, conference centers, shops, and people utilizing self-timer photography.

I think this building has to do with Mitsubishi.

In Shibuya.

Tokyo is bursting with creativity and innovation. My visit to the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art was also a reminder of how global this city is. It contains post-war art from all corners of the globe, and is itself a beautifully designed building.

My father poses with an outdoor sculpture.

Outdoor plaza.

Inside MOT.

Art.

I also loved the neighborhood surrounding the MOT, the Metropolitan Kiba Park area (East of the Sumida River), which reminded me of low-key areas of Brooklyn. It was also where I got to have my first sushi meal in Japan! Dreams do come true, people!

Sushi in Japan. Check!

Spotted on our walk to the museum.

But then there were the Japanese gardens and Shinto shrines. Oh, the gardens. Stepping into these tranquil, aesthetically perfect habitats of refuge, I would completely forget that I was in the neon capital of the world. The Japanese have such a wonderful perception of space and how to maintain it in the most calm-inducing ways possible. I visited the Koishikawa Gardens in the Iidabashi area, and the impressive Imperial Gardens, which were each special in their own ways.

Koishikawa Gardens at Iidabashi.

Aesthetically pleased.

Rice paddy in the garden. Local students come here to fertilize and grow rice for school projects!

Imperial Garden’s entrance.

Very Old & Very New: Tokyo.

Easy to forget you’re in the world’s biggest city.

Another component of the trip that shed light on some Japanese history was the Japan Open-Air Folk House Museum in the Kanagawa Prefecture (20 minute train ride from Shinjyuku station), a delightful exhibition of traditional Japanese houses, which Yukari brought me to. This was followed by one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had: a massive rose garden right next door. It was almost June, which means it’s rose season (obviously…) and these flowers were bursting with the excitement of spring. Some of the roses had taken on colors I’ve never seen exist in nature, and they were all in gorgeous full bloom. I also tasted some rose ice cream and rose juice! If you’ve ever drank perfume, it’s a similar taste.

Traditional Japanese House. I love it.

Coral-colored roses. Delights the senses.

Yukari and Me in the rose garden.

Spring beauty.

Roses for days.

Speaking of food. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Sashimi bowl.

Tempura. So much lighter and flavorful than in the US.

Conveyor belt sushi!

Sushi.

More sushi. That brown nutty-looking stuff is actually fermented soybean, a Japanese delicacy that hasn’t exactly reached the US because…well…it’s disgusting.

Grilled Riceball inside soup. Unlike anything. Amazingly delicious.

Okonomiyaki. Nomtastic. Eggs, veggies, other stuff. Cooks right at your table! Asians love that.

I also couldn’t help but constantly compare Tokyo with the city I’ve spent the past 9 months exploring. From afar, Seoul and Japan’s capital are practically indistinguishable, especially to the western eye. Massively populated Asian capital cities with innovation bursting at the seams, there were moments I really felt I could have been in Seoul. Or any global city for that matter. But there were a few, yet highly defining differences that reminded me of where I was in the world.

Harajuku!

For one thing, Japanese people are much more individualistic. I noticed a much wider range of personal style, from subway rides to strolling in chic Shibuya to my jaunt down Harajuku’s pink-punk Takeshita Street, people here tend to stand out. They dress with a sense of creativity and defining characteristics, and there are also people who didn’t dress with any sense of style at all–but that was another defining quality. I rarely see people in Seoul or even Yeoju wearing sweat  pants or shabby-looking outfits out in public. Not so in Tokyo! For this reason, Tokyo reminded me of New York more than Seoul. More crazies!

Backside of a “Harajuku Girl” – I tried to take some photos of them, but they were not having it.

Panama Boy, vintage shop off Takeshita street. Scored some awesome finds in this amazing store. They sewed on a missing button on a romper I bought!

Nicknacks at Panama Boy.

Another major difference was the subway system. When urban scholars and weird bloggers like myself think about the big, great subway systems, I think Tokyo’s probably pops up in nearly everyone’s mind. But I was constantly discouraged by its complexities, especially the fact that there are several different companies controlling the underground, so you have to pay for each transfer! Seoul’s system is also much easier to navigate, for English speakers and non-natives like myself. It was a surreal feeling to return to Seoul’s subway system and feel…at home…amongst all the Korean lettering and sounds.

Shinjyuku Station, the neighborhood I stayed in. Also happens to be the busiest subway station in the world, serving about 10 different subway lines. More superlatives!

Awesome sculpture in Iidabashi Station. This thing went down and up two storeys underground.

There was also a much stronger bicycle presence in Tokyo than in Seoul. There are bike lanes and bike parking practically everywhere, which was so refreshing to see. Big cities CAN have bike cultures! On another “green” note, public smoking is basically prohibited in Tokyo and there are designated “smoking areas” throughout the city. People do not break the rules, and instead stand in clustered areas, getting their nicotine fixes, and then going about with their daily lives. While I could see this working in Seoul, where people also tend to follow rules vehemently, it’d be hard to successfully pull off public “smoking sections” on the streets of New York City.

Cyclist friendly.

Bike parking.

My visit of four days was just too short. I plan to go back, one day!

Everything is small in Tokyo.

Eating Yakitori with my family!

Richard, Yukari’s toy poodle!