HEY fellow travellers (whether you’re really traveling or traveling vicariously through blogs such as mine ;D) ! Sorry I haven’t written in a while! I still have so much I want to share with you regarding my adventures. Today, I want to talk to you about my “home” country – South Korea.
By the way, for people who don’t know this as common knowledge, like 99% of Koreans you meet will be South Korean. North Koreans don’t get out much. Look into it.
I was born and raised in Canada… and it’s safe to say that I’m fairly “whitewashed”. Of course, I’ve been to Korea several times. Aside from my parents and younger brother, my entire family lives in Korea – spread out over Daegu, Seoul, Gangwondo, etc. I go back every now and then to meet new cousins and see how everyone is.
Still, I don’t identify much with the Korean community… but the food is a different story ;).
In March 2015, I went back to Korea with a friend to teach abroad at Seoul International School (SIS) for one month. It was our final term of teacher’s college at Queen’s University, and this was our final practicum placement (practicum: short-term unpaid job that gives you an opportunity to gain experience in your field).
We lived in an apartment near the school. Before I get into actually talking about Korea (the food, the culture… the fooood….), let me just say that teaching at SIS was probably the best teaching experience I’ve ever had. I worked with an amazing teacher, and everyone was just so… kind, welcoming, and accommodating. They made me feel right at home. The kids were wonderful. So motivated, respectful… and everything about them was so endearing. They were so lovely. Observing, teaching, and learning from these grade 8 students at SIS made me consider that maybe I’m okay with not teaching high school students (what I am certified for).
If you have ever wanted to try out teaching, I highly recommend that you do. Even for a month. In any country. Just try it.
Now, about Korea… Korea is very unique. Well, every culture is, really. But Korea is unique in that… everyone is very… Korean. I really don’t know how else to put it. The guys wear super skinny jeans, couples wear outfits that match from head to toe, the school uniforms are super ugly, and general female fashion is a loose-fitting non-revealing top + high-waisted skirt/shorts.
Disclaimer: Of course, I’m not a “true” Korean, so everything I write about Korea in this blog is from the eyes of somewhat of an outsider/foreigner. Also, my experiences will be mainly about Seoul.
In terms of infrastructure, Korea’s pretty developed. Their public transit system is amazing (and makes me wish Canada would hurry up and get with the times). Not only is it extensive, but it charges you based on distance traveled – not a flat rate to go somewhere that isn’t really that far. You just have to buy a T card, which they sell at convenience stores, swipe it upon entering/exiting the subway/bus, and reload it when you’re running low.
If I had to describe Korea in a brief sentence, I would say that Korea is a busy country that values convenience. Cars everywhere. People everywhere. Also, everything gets delivered there – including McDonalds. Jjajangmyun restaurants deliver bowls to you and then later return to pick up the empty bowls (you just leave it outside your door). Food is cheap. And it’s everywhere. There is a cafe on every corner. And a bakery. And a convenience store.
And cosmetic surgery clinics.
You may have heard that Korea is big on cosmetic surgery. It’s true. You have no idea how true it is. Everywhere, there are billboards promoting cosmetic surgery. Get into a subway train, boom. Get out of the subway train, BOOM. Staring at an entire wall-sized advertisement promoting cosmetic surgery. I have many Korean – and non Korean – friends who have gone to Korea to get something done on their face. Of course, not everyone is upfront about it because Western culture isn’t quite as accepting of this practice as Korean culture. In Korea, getting cosmetic surgery is almost looked up to. The majority of Kpop stars have had something done. Cosmetic surgery is gifted as graduation gifts by families to their children.
My grandmother wanted me to get cosmetic surgery! She offered to pay for it. This is something I am supposed to be grateful for, by the way.
So yeah, there’s that. It’s pretty interesting. Technically, there isn’t anything “wrong” about all this. They appreciate beauty (by their definition), and they don’t think there is anything wrong with surgically beautifying themselves (often to make their features more Western-looking) the same way we don’t see anything wrong with using makeup to enhance our faces. Like, they also eat dogs the way we eat cows. (Actually, I no longer eat cows and cow products. This is why. Click at your own discretion.) People do what they want/need in order to feel comfortable and confident. We’re all amazing, and if the one thing stopping you from feeling amazing is your physical appearance, then changing that might actually be better for your future happiness.
Still, I can’t quite wrap my head around the idea of all of this being screwed up. This is definitely because I was raised to value inner beauty and loving people for who they are, etc. etc. etc. And yeah so what I’m about to say is still a product of me being raised this way, but… I still think that these values are correct. And that, instead of changing your physical appearance, you should shift your focus to more internal characteristics.
Moving away from this controversial topic on which I am not really passionate enough to pick a definite “side”, let’s get into Korea!
WHAT WE ATE
In short, you should eat every new street food that you see. You should most definitely try
- Jjajangmyun (sweet ish) and/or jjamgbbong (spicy) noodles
- Dduk bbok kee: spicy rice cakes
- All the pastries!!!!!!!
- Every sweet potato flavoured food item ever (pizza, pastries, lattes…)
- Beeng su from a chain called Sul-Bing. They have all kinds of flavours for shaved-ice desserts.
- Boong Uh Bbang: red bean paste filled fish-shaped pastry
- Hodduk: I don’t have a photo of this, but it’s like a brown-sugar filled mini pancake
OK, just eat everything.
WHAT WE DID
Summary (mostly in Seoul):
- Dog cafe: They aren’t super common in Korea, but there are multiple. It’s basically a cafe with dogs. Dogs that belong to the cafe owners and to the customers! There are also cat cafes and whatnot. (I love dogs, so this was my favourite part about Korea).
- Fish foot massage: go into one of those things where the fish clean your feet! Super ticklish but my feet have never been softer. There’s one in MyeongDong!
- NamSan (Seoul) Tower: go there! We climbed up the stairs/hiked up. It was tiring, but worth the view! So many beautiful areas. You can take a cable car thing that takes you up, but we couldn’t figure out now. At the top of the tower, there is this area of locks where people buy and lock up their wishes/promises/whatever and throw away the key. It’s kind of a couple thing.
- Namwon + Jeonju: This is not Seoul. my aunt took me here to show me more about the history of Korea and teach me the stories they tell. There’s a Korean version of Romeo and Juliet. I don’t remember the details, but it was interesting at the time haha.
- GyeongJu: This is also not Seoul. Another “old” place in Korea that my aunt took me to. You should visit these places if you’re into seeing different kinds of buildings and learning about history. They all have English-translated brochures.
- Everland: you could also go to Lotte World. They are amusement parks. In my experience, Everland is like Korean Disneyland (i.e. more for kids), and Lotte World is more about the rides.
- MyeongDong: one of my other favourite areas. Basically an outdoor shopping “mall” with small stores. There are many repeats of the same stores, and it’s easy to get lost (but you’re not actually lost because you’re still in the area of MyeongDong). You can buy so much street food here! This place also sells clothes, circle lenses, jewelry, accessories, shoes, etc. Everything! There are also American stores like Aldo.
- Hongdae: all about the nightlife here! Mostly university students.
- Dongdaemun: night market. They open at around midnight.
- Jjimjeelbang: GO TO ONE OF THESE FOR SURE! So you might be weirded out by the idea of a public bath house… but there’s also a common area (for both genders) where you wear the comfortable clothes they provide you and just chill, go to a variety of saunas, and eat baked eggs & ramen. We went to one and napped for 8 hours in like 5 different saunas :D.
- Bakeries: go to Paris Baguette! And all the other bakeries! I think there was another one that was called Paris something. These bakeries are AMAZING. I don’t know how Koreans stay slim with these bakeries being all up in your face.
Ahh. There are sooooo many more places, but I can’t write about all of them. I spent a month on this particular trip to Korea, which is why this post might seem a little overwhelming.There are so many foods to try and places to see. I’ve heard hiking in Korea is great too (I just never got a chance to really do it, aside from the hike up to NamSan Tower).
THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW
If you go in March, they call it the Yellow Dust Season. Basically, all the pollution from China blows over into Korea. The weather forecast tells you how many microparticles are in the air, and if the level is above 80 or something, it’s really bad for you. The students weren’t allowed out for recess when the level reached 80 or more (every school has a different policy for what level is considered too high for outdoor recess). You can tell when you walk outside and smell the air and can’t see the mountains in the distance :P. My friend developed a throat condition while she was there with me. She couldn’t stop coughing, and had a terrible sore throat :(. We wore masks (see the fish massage picture above) to help, but her condition never went away until we came back to Canada. Just a fun fact.