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Ok so thanks to Chris Backe at http://chrisinsouthkorea.blogspot.com/ for supplying me with the Korean for my how to be a vegetarian phrases. They are written in Hanguel as follows:

1. I’m a vegetarian – 나는재식주이자 임니다 – Na Nun Jae-shik-Ju-ee-Ja- im-nee-dah

2. I don’t eat meat of seafood – 해물하고, 고기안먹어요 hae-mool hago, gog-ee an-mogoyo
3. Does the […….] Have meat in it? – […………] 고기있어요 goggee iss-o-yo?
4. No meat – 고기없어요 goggee op-soh-yo

Secondly as was pointed out by someone else on the comments blog there is a chain of vegan restaurants in Korea called the loving hut. http://www.lovinghut.kr/kr/. I’ve been to the one in Ulsan and it’s pretty good and very cheap, if you don’t mind a long wait and slightly cold food. They do a mix of western and Korean food, and show a delightfully indoctrinating TV channel mysteriously called ‘Supreme Leader’.

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I have some experience of being a vegetarian in a foreign country other than Korea. One of my strongest memories of holidays as a child is of eating assiette de frite after assiete de frite in that most meat loving countries, France. That was on holiday however, and spending a year in a country is different.

Yum Yum

I must admit that I really like Korean food. Not so much that I’d want to eat it for every meal every day, but enough that I know that I will sporadically eat it for the rest of my life regardless of where I am. When I came to Korea in the winter of 2009 I was an avid meat eater. As such, I found that Korea had a cuisine that was more than adequately varied for my tastes. In October of last year however I made the decision to become a veggie (not for the first time: I spent 7 years as one as a youth). The effect that this change had on my eating habits was dramatic to say the least. Although the changes were not altogether bad, it did present some problems when it came to negotiating dinner time. Korea is a country that loves its meat, and it is not entirely accepting of those who choose the way of the carrot. Vegetarianism isn’t exactly an alien concept to Koreans, thanks mostly to the Buddhist influence on society, but sometimes it certainly feels as though it is. Consequently, even without the language barrier, navigating Korean cooking can be tricky.

Language – Some Basic Useful Phrases for the Vegetarian in Korea

(Sadly, I don’t have a Korean keyboard so I will romanise as best I can the Korean words.)

  1. I’m a vegetarian – Na Nun Jae-shik-Ju-ee-Ja
  2. I don’t eat meat of seafood – hae-mool hago, gog-ee an-mogoyo
  3. Does the […….] Have meat in it? – […………] goggee iss-o-yo?
  4. No meat – goggee op-soh-yo

Eating out

Due to the sheer number of cheap restaurants in Korea, eating out is a part of my daily routine. It is often much cheaper to spend 4000 won (£2.50) at a restaurant, than it is to buy and prepare food for myrself.

Kimchi Bokkeumbap

In Korea there are roughly types of restaurant: traditional (where you sit on the floor and everyone eats the same dish), fusion (kind of a café vibe where you can order individual dishes) and western (as opposed to eastern, rather than where cowboys eat). Western restaurants are as you’d expect, although the y are expensive and it is an awkward experience to eat there on your own. Easily your best veggie bet is at the fusion style restaurants where you can almost certainly find something vegetarian such as Kimchi iBokkeumbap (fried rice with Kimchi) or the bibimbap (a rice of rice and assorted cold vegetables with a chilli paste). Just be sure to check that they don’t contain some form of subtle meat.

Bibimbap

Easily the most fraught with fleshy danger are the traditional Korean restaurants. This is mostly because they only serve one specific kind of meat. Thus going to a beef restaurant and enquiring about vegetarian options will almost inevitably result in a bowl of disappointment (or plain rice, which is essentially the same thing). The other problem is that these places usually only cater for groups of at least 3 people. Thus if you go with 2 meat eaters, you’ll certainly end up feeling left out.

On top of this, it is not uncommon to order some food, having told the waiting staff (or shown them in a phrase book) that you can’t eat meat or seafood, and to have it arrive with octopus tentacles or gorilla forearms (or whatever… I only made the second one up) nestled cosily within your fried rice. I in no way want to blame the staff of these restaurants, as I’m sure I’m at fault linguistically, but never the less it is a frustrating and embarrassing experience for the both of you.

In some ways I think that this problem is caused by Korean pride in the national cooking. I always imagine the restaurateur baulking at the notion of a snotty westerner coming in and asking for a severe alteration to the proud heritage of Korean cuisine. On the other hand I think that part of the problem is down to the conception of what constitutes meat. I like to think of this problem as “subliminal meat”.  If I order Kimchi fried rice for example, I have no reason to assume that it will contain meat and I’ll be surprised if I subsequently find small pieces of spam in it. I get the impression however, that “a little bit of chopped spam” does not constitute meat content in the same way that a whole piece of steak or chicken hefted on top might. I may be wrong in the assumption, however it would help in explaining the issues that I have been having on this front. The bottom line is: check, check and check again.

School Dinners

Yes I know it's delicious. No, I don't want to eat it.

If you are working at a school in Korea, the chance s are that you will have to eat out with your colleagues sooner or later. Regardless of the food I have always found this to be a pleasurable experience, and one of the only times that my co-workers loosen up a bit.

Sadly, as a veggie it can be an excruciating experience. In my experience, my co-workers will veer erratically between embarrassingly sympathetic (my co-workers at my last school ended up ordering pizza into the school for my leaving party, thus sacrificing a much needed night away from work) and a sadistically teasing mentality. As I mentioned above, I adore the taste of meat, and having people try and tempt me back to the dark side is an irritating experience that I haven’t experienced since I was at school.

I certainly don’t want to be the kind of veggie that begrudges other people eating meat, but it can be hard sitting down to a bowl of rice and some Kimchi (which by the way occasionally contains fish oil) whilst my colleagues chow down on delicious smelling Korean barbeque and what-is-more having them tell you repeatedly how delicious it is. Like I don’t (sadly) already know.

Eating at Home

Ah beloved kimchi. Watch out for the fish oil

One of the best things about becoming a veggie was that it made me cook more for myself and made me plan my meals better. For this I am very grateful. There are however still some issues with doing this in Korea as opposed to back home.

For one thing, the price of western food is expensive in Korea. This even extends to vegetables. Like I said earlier, it often makes prudent financial sense to eat out than to eat in, particularly if you are living on your own. Then you have the problem of finding ingredients. It’s all too easy to find a great veggie recipe online only to find that you’re not going to be able to get some of the ingredients (cheese in particular is a nightmare to find). Lastly, the lack of an oven can be a real pain. I was lucky enough to be given a toaster oven by my director and it is immeasurably useful. Without one, there are many dishes unavailable to you. (Toaster ovens can be found at large supermarkets for around 50,000 won (£30).)

Tips For Surviving as a veggie in Korea

1. Become a regular at a conveniently placed restaurant.

You’ll probably get bored of the food, but at least you’ll know it’s safe.

2. Shop where you know there’ll be real cheese

I now define a good supermarket on the availability of cheese

3. Get a Korean friend or co-worker to write out a card in Korean explaining exactly what you don’t eat

My friend has one of these for nut allergies, but it just occurred to me that it could be put to the same use for vegetarians. Just make sure  that whoever writes the card doesn’t have a weird sense of humour.

4.  Try and find a vegetarian restaurant in your city

There are two that I know of in Ulsan, and I’m sure that more must exist.

5. Kimchi bokkeumbab and bibimbap

6. If someone offers your boshintang. Don’t.Eat.It………

7. Beware the “subliminal” meat

All in all I must confess that being a vegetarian in Korea is not so bad. There are times when it is frustrating, but it is far from impossible.

All together now, GOGGEE OP-SOH-YO!

The Alluring Neon calling out to Couples in need of privacy

Given that it is common for young Koreans to live with their parents until they get married, it is probably not surprising that there is a surfeit of places catering to the amorous young couple in need of some privacy.

Perhaps foremost amongst these is the love motel. These are in effect small and cheap hotels in which to spent the night (or a couple of hours if you have a curfew).

The idea of the love motels seemed pretty grim when I first heard about them, but the reality is not necessarily as seedy as I first thought.

Last year when I was living in the country side I made use of many a love motel when I was on weekend trips to the city as a cheap place to crash. They usually cost between 25,000 to 50,000 won a night (around 15-30 pounds). For obvious reasons they don’t require pre-booking.

The range in quality of love-motels is broad. It can be very difficult to tell from the outside whether it is specifically a love motel, or simply a cheap, down-market hotel. I guess there isn’t really much difference between the two, but inside there are some tell-tale signs.

For one, Love motels tend to have vending machines selling, uh, provisions for the evening. On top of this, the quantity of mirrors situated around the room (and especially next to the bed) is a bit of a give away. You can also find little-cards promoting the working-ladies of the area to lonely businessmen. Perhaps the most obvious sign that you’re in a love-motel is the provision of a circular bed, which just simply screams debauchery.

The Hall way. Try not to think of The Shining

Love motels are often clustered around one area, usually next to night-spots and train stations and the like, though they can be found elsewhere. This makes haggling rather easier (I would definitely recommend haggling, even just to see the ajumma’s exasperated expressions as you try to do so). Usually when I have stayed in one, I have been somewhat under the influence, and so deciding on which one to choose is usually cursorily based on external appearances which often have little to do with the interior quality of the place.

Once you have made your choice and entered, you approach the little hatch in the wall in front of you. If the hour is late, it is not uncommon to have to wake whoever is lurking in the room on the other side. I have seen whole families sleeping on the floor in there before. After paying for your room, you’ll probably be given toothbrushes, a razor and perhaps towels.

Circular Bed. Alright!

Then comes the fun of finding out whether your choice was a good one. The least I would usually hope for is cleanliness, but there is no guarantee. Much of the time the bathrooms are kind of dirty, and on some occasions there have been no sheets on the bed. At best the motels are comparable to 3 star hotels in the west, although to up your chances of finding these it makes sense to pay a little more, say around 50,000 won.

Generally speaking however, Love motels are a great way to spend a cheap night,  as well as being a true Korean experience-particularly for the slight feeling shame you might feel upon leaving the next day, even if you stay was an entirely chaste one.

Standard Bathroom. Watch out for the peep-holes

The Happy Couple



So this Saturday I went to my Korean friend Thomas’ (Korean name Hyun-Tae) wedding. Not only was this to be my first Korean wedding, but I was also going to be a part of the ceremony, reading a poem on Thomas’ request.

The wedding was over in Busan at Geum-Gang wedding convention centre which is essentially a building which has several chapel-like rooms which are hired for an hour or so in which to hold weddings. We arrived half an hour before the ceremony and had a look around. The place had the feel of an upmarket shopping centre, or of a large hotel.

Once we had found the right chapel (I believe there were four in total) we met Thomas and his fiancé Min-Ju and had some photographs taken with them and some of their relatives (including their hanbok wearing mothers).

Wedding Hall

The chapel itself was nicely decorated and had many round tables to sit at, although many of the Koreans in attendance chose to stand at the back of the room.

As the bride and groom walked up the aisle, a pair of machines spurted hundreds of bubbles out over the room, which was surprising to say the least. This would perhaps be tacky if done in the west, but in oh-so-cutesy Korean it seemed to fit very nicely.

After a lengthy speech by the man presiding over the ceremony, it was my turn to read the poem. I came to the front and was pleased to find that I was to direct my poem at Thomas and Min-Ju rather than at the audience, which would have made me more nervous. What did make me more nervous was the plethora of guys with video cameras filming everything. All in all it seemed to go ok.

After than some of Thomas’ ex-students (he is a teacher too) sang a song in a slightly (oh all right, massively) over-enthusiastic way. When they had finished a couple of his female students got up to do a song and dance. Brilliantly, after than Thomas himself sang a song to Min-ju and proved himself to have a great voice. Once again, I feel as though this would often be considered a tacky thing to do in the West, but it very nearly brought a tear to my eye.

After that there were some more ceremonial proceedings such as bowing the parents, but as I don’t speak enough Korean, I couldn’t tell you exactly what was going on.

I should point out that the whole ceremony was punctuated with bursts from the bubble machines, and also dry-ice machines which were fitted into the floor. I was half expecting a laser show to start at any minute.

Something else which was strange about the ceremony was the way in which many of the Korean guests talked loudly throughout. I’ve been told by other people that this is common in Korean weddings but it certainly came across as a little rude.

The ceremony was rounded off by the cutting of the cake. Well actual fact it was a trolley, with a fake cake on top of it which a kind of ceremonial sword with which to pretend to actually cut the cake. This was one of a number of things which seemed to be an homage to western weddings, and seemed to be done solely for that purpose.

Finally, and with ruthless precision, a lighting rig was wheeled to the centre of the room and the group photographs began. There was one of the bride and groom with their parents, one with their whole family and finally one with the miscellaneous other guests. There was finally a staged photo of the throwing of the bouquet to the bridesmaid, another apparent reference to western tradition.

After that was done with we all made our way downstairs for the buffet. It’s usual in Korea for the guests to pay for their own buffet, but we somehow avoided that probably by being western. We went down into what was essentially a cafeteria with a buffet, and sat amongst maybe 2 other wedding parties on long trestle tables. The bride and groom came down briefly and thanked everyone, and that was it. Wedding finished.

Later in the evening I met up with Thomas and a few of the other guests in a bar near the beach. It was all very informal but high-spirited. Thomas and Minju left for their honeymoon in Hawaii today, and they both seemed very excited about the prospect.

All in all it was a fun day out, and it was certainly interesting to see how a Korean wedding works. I thought that the bubble machines and dry-ice were maybe a tad over the top, but they seemed to work well with the ceremony. The major annoyance of the ceremony was the ridiculous intrusiveness of the cameramen who were constantly standing in the way of the bride and groom and who really seemed to depersonalise the wedding. Still, at least there should be an ample record of it in the future.

Buffet

After the Poem

Photo Time

The Korean ministry of culture, sports and tourism has announced plans to impose a daily 6 hour video game blackout for school children, the Korean Herald reports. Under the new policies, under age users will be forced off their gaming networks between the hours of 12am-6am, 1am-7am or 2-8 am.

The news hardly comes as a surprise in a country that has seen deaths from over-extended use of the internet and the recent case of the couple who caused their baby’s death through negligence after preferring to care for a virtual baby instead.

How efficient these measures will prove in reality remains to be seen. In some ways it seems like a reasonable measure to combat over-logging (to borrow a phrase from South Park) and the subsequent possibility of addiction. On the other hand, taking away Korean teenagers’s main relaxation activity seems cruel, especially when you consider that they wouldn’t be playing video games at 1am in the first place if they weren’t being kept so late in schools and hagwons.

Read the full story here: http://www.koreaherald.co.kr/national/Detail.jsp?newsMLId=20100412000752

(For reasons which will become apparent there will not be many photos on this blogpost. The one I have used have been lifted off of Google)

Sign for jimjilbang.

Yesterday I joined a gym next to my house, and experienced my first bang this time round in Korea. Just to clarify, “bang” in Korean means “room” and is a suffix added onto facilities that serve specific purposes. There are many types of bang in Korea: Dvd bang, PC bang, Norae bang and sojubang are just a few, and I will be covering all of these on the blog at a later date. Today I’m going to talk about the jimjilbang, something which I would recommend every foreigner do if they ever visit Korea.

Essentially it’s a big sauna/bathhouse. Sometimes they are attached to a hotel or gym but there are jimjilbangs that are independent also. I’m guessing that in the past jimjilbangs were frequented weekly by families who could not afford private bathrooms. These days it is seen more as a relaxing day out than a necessity, but people still go with their families and on one more than one occasion I’ve seen 3 generations of a family all bathing together.

Once you have paid your entrance fee (usually between 5000 and 7000 won (or £3-£5), you go up into the segregated changing rooms. Here you find not only lockers but also comfy chairs, tv screens, and refreshments. You can also have your haircut there (in the buff if you so wish, as many do). Because many jimjilbangs are open 24 hours they are a popular place to take a nap, or indeed a whole nights sleep as I have done on a few occasions (although I wouldn’t recommend doing unless in a state of slight inebriation). The atmosphere really is quite relaxing.

After stripping down (nudity is strictly enforced in the bathhouse area, the men’s and women’s areas are of course separate) you enter into a large room with baths of varying temperatures (from very hot to very cold), a sauna and steam room, a heated floor area, massage tables and rows and rows of showers (it is necessary to shower before using the baths unless you want to elicit angry stares from the Koreans).     I’m sure that there is a particular sequence in which you are supposed to use all the various amenities, however as I am ignorant, I usually just do whatever takes my fancy. My particular favourite is a warm bath that has power jets of water which massage different parts of your body.

Once you’re done with that section, there are rows of plastic stools in front of shower heads and mirrors which are used to wash and scrub oneself. It is a common sight to see men lending each other a hand in the washing duties, something I cannot imagine happening in England.

After that, you return into the changing area to towel off. Inside, there is a row of hair-driers and various grooming products to make use of. If you are going to sleep for a while, there are usually T-shirts and shorts that can be used as pajamas.

The result of the jimjilbang is certainly invigorating. It seems particularly effective to switch between the very hot and the very cold baths, so as to leave you with a certain dizzy euphoria that lasts for at least a couple of hours. At any rate, it certainly ensures a newfound level of cleanliness as well as a newfound removal of modesty.

During my time in Korea I have slept in a jimjilbang on 3 occasions and I could not honestly say that they were ever particularly comfortable experiences. There are no beds, so you must either make use of the reclining chairs, or of the floor. A friend of mine chose the latter option on one occasion and woke up sweating having forgotten about the under-floor heating.

The most interesting time I stayed, was in the big jimjilbang in Haeundae. After a night of drinking we made our way there and had good relax in the baths. As it was nearly morning, we decided to make our way upstairs to get some sleep. As the doors to the lift opened an almost hysterical sight (at least it was at the time) came before my eyes. In a huge room similar in size to half a football pitch, were around 250 sleeping Koreans. They were sleeping on thin mats on the floor. Rather than being segregated, this was a communal area for men and women alike. The men wore blue pajamas and the women pink. It was hard not to burst out laughing so surprised was I to see it. We just about managed to find a small space on the floor and laid our mats out and tried to get some sleep. There was a Korean man snoring next to me, but I was able to drift off before too long….only to be awoken 3 hours later by an ajumma “accidentally” kicking me so she could retrieve one of the 3 mats I was using as a makeshift mattress. Evidently she thought I was hogging them.

All in all it wasn’t comfortable but it was endearing and a great experience, and for £4 I can’t complain. I’d love to see what would happen in England if you tried getting 250 drunk people to share a room together for the night. Well, I’d like to see it, but I’m not sure I’d like to join in.

(One note to those westerners who wish to use Jimjilbangs: the Koreans will doubtless take an interest in your naked foreign form having probably never laid eyes on one before. This is either quite unsettling, or quite exciting, depending on your proclivity to voyeurism. The fact of the matter is that Koreans grow up using jimjilbangs and are quite unconscious about their nudity when they are there. I think in many ways it functions as a bonding experience.)