Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Art of Drinking in Excess in Korea

I am convinced, that there is no other drinking culture in the world quite like the drinking culture in Korea. There hasn't been a day yet where I haven't seen someone passed out in the street, or slumped over in a bar indefinitely. It's fascinating to watch, really.

Basically people work 6 days a week, sometimes 12-14 hours a day. And the business culture here is to take your clients out to dinner and show them a good time. That good time generally means going to a BBQ place and pounding Soju and beer for hours on end, parting ways, and stumbling home. I can't even count how many times I've seen a dressed up businessman just peeing on the side of the road, on a sidewalk, or in the bushes. Once a guy even saw me, turned while peeing, and waved at me.

What's really brought this into focus for me though, is a new website called It is an epic website of pictures of Koreans passed out all over the place. Sure, it might be an invasion of privacy, BUT if you're that stupid to pass out in the worst positions and places publicly then you should really suffer the consequences.

Drinking in Korea is perhaps a bit out of control, but if you're a person with any kind of self restraint it can be a lot of healthy fun. There's no closing time, no last call at most places, an age restriction for 19 and under, and you can buy Soju for a buck and wander the streets with their lack of open container laws. It really is a fantastic playground for alcoholics.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Lost in Translation...Still

You always hear these stories about people going abroad, and learning the language over time. They don't seem to study, they just kind of pick it up via osmosis or something. Or maybe they just really focus on trying to learn new words and sentences each day, practice in conversation, and then over time it all just kind of ... happens.

That has not been my experience here.

Firstly, Koreans speak English pretty well, and if they don't their skills at charades are impeccable. Secondly, 90% of foreigners are here to teach English. The Koreans have such a lust for learning English that it's almost impossible to try out Korean on them without them responding in English and turning the conversation around. You're a one trick pony, and if that pony starts improvising they lose all interest.

That being said, one should take it upon themselves to learn some things on their own. I can read the language (luckily it's phonetic, and this can be done in a matter of days), write it if necessary, and I can say basic phrases and directions. One of my biggest regrets is not making a better attempt at learning the language though. Time just... got away from me. The first 6 months here are spent getting the lay of the land, and then the last 6 months you're preparing to go home. For me, I stayed 3 months longer. Then 4 months longer, then 5 months, and finally 3 months and didn't take one Korean class and money was an issue. This hasn't entirely bothered me until today. A regret for sure, but bothered? Not so much, until now.

I go to this little shop 3-5 times a week, easily, to get Galbi Mandu (meat dumplings) and tteokboki (spicy thick rice noodles). The staff changes there fairly often, every couple of months. And lately, there are these two people - a man and a woman, who don't speak a lick of English. They get a kick out of the fact that I come there so often, order the EXACT same thing, and go off on my way. It's also on my way to and from home a lot, so they're really friendly, wave, and say anyong every time I walk by. But tonight, they were just rapid fire Korean speaking at me, and I didn't pick up one word. Usually I can figure out the subject of a conversation, but this was tough. I finally heard the words "hagwon" and "Eolmayo" - "Academy" and "How much?" and then they started rattling offer numbers like 30, 40, 50. I assume they were asking how much money I was making working for a hagwon. I tried saying I don't work for a hagwon, and we all laughed at how hard it was to communicate. Then some random customer decided to offer his translation services, and turns out, they just wanted to know my age, but I didn't realize this, and kept telling them that I was 50. Slightly embarrassing that I never bothered to learn the phrase, "How old are you?" in a country where age is of the utmost importance.

This obviously, isn't an isolated instance. A few weeks ago, a man stopped me on the street and asked me for directions, and it took me about 10 minutes to figure out what he wanted and how to tell him. He was so excited that I did it that he gave me a fist bump and yelled "MIGUK!!" (America!!). I believe he was just testing me, since there were dozens of other Koreans around.

So while I'm not the only one who didn't learn, and in some cases I'm better than most, I still should have made a better effort. If anyone reads this who is coming to Korea, its VERY easy to get by without knowing the language. A word of advice though, it's much more fun to learn to read it, and it would have been really helpful to have attempted to learn to speak it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Efficiency of Dating & Weddings in Korea

Korean dating practices and weddings are in stark contrast to western ways. A friend forwarded me an interesting article about Korean Weddings in the NY Times and the unique practices that go along with them. Which got me to thinking about what I've witnessed in my time here, and I think by mapping out the whole process, you'll be entertained (of course, this is an overall generalization, but I'd say it represents 90% of what I've seen):

First, dating here is amusing. I really do think that sometimes this country is what America must have been like in the 1940s and 50s. Most people (especially the majority of women) live at home with their parents until they get married. The ideal marrying age here is probably sometime between 26 and 32 for women, and maybe 28-35 for men. After that you're considered too old to get married. Oh, and of course these are in Korean ages, which means western age is probably 24-30 and 26-33, respectively. So, dating is pretty much of the utmost importance to almost everyone because they have to meet that target. Occasionally you will find the random forward thinker who's focused on their career, is looking for love, or who just isn't focused on marriage.

Anyway, being that everyone lives at home for the most part, there are hundreds of places called "Love Motels" all around this country. And they're just that... a safe haven for those who need it for, uh, "activities" that can't take place in the home out of courtesy and respect for parents and rules. You'd think with a moniker like Love Motel they'd be the seediest places on earth, but I can assure you, they're actually quite clean, and very nice if you can get past the fact that there's free porn in every room, and that they hand you a toothbrush, soap, and maybe a condom when you check in. I have stayed in quite a few (sometimes while traveling in this country they really are your only option) and they're just basic motels...with character.

As for me personally, I had an American boyfriend the majority of the time I lived in Korea, but once that ended I did attempt to date Korean men of curiosity and slight interest. And what I found was kind of laughable. A first date cannot be just the boy and the girl. It must be the boy and his guy friends, and the girl and her girl friends. Right there I was kind of at a disadvantage because I'm not the type to have a bunch of girl friends hanging around. Subsequent dates can and will be alone if the first goes well, but it's very cutesy and there's a lot of texting involved. And it's not the sweet single text of, "Had a great time" or "Thinking of you" or whatever, it's the Asian cartoon type text of "kekeke <3 <3 <3 Fun!!! ;) :) ㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ ㅎㅎㅎ" all the time. Not cute. My experiment was very short lived.

Here is a classic example of Korean Dating Efficiency of someone I know:
A 32 yo Korean guy wants to meet a girl. He has his friends set him up on dozens of blind dates. Nothing really interests him over the course of a couple of months. He goes to his bank, which also has a matchmaking service. The bank system is kind of like and asks for your personal profile, information, likes/dislikes, etc. The interesting part of this, is that it also asks you for your assets and income. Then it cross references everything and finds you the perfect partner. So, the man does this, and bam, it sets him up with a 30 year old woman who happens to also live in his same apartment building. They actually have a lot in common - both educated in the States, both have advanced degrees from prestigious American universities, and have a multitude of interests. They met in August, two weeks before she went back to the States to finish her Masters degree. They keep in touch, and she visits once, and they discuss marriage. He tells me her sole purpose in returning to Korea when she finishes school in December is to get married because she can't wait as she's considered too old. The guy has a choice to make, marry her or not marry her. He also wants to get married, because he is also considered to be getting too old. And literally, they are perfect on paper. He told me he will probably propose in late December/early January (by just asking, not doing anything romantic, and will be married by the end of summer next year.

No where in there do you hear him tell me of love. In fact, when he showed me a picture of her and I said she was beautiful he told me she wasn't (trust me, she was). It's kind of nothing short of being a business transaction.

Ok Ok, so this is a BIT on the extreme side, but it's not too far from the norm. In fact, once Koreans do get married, another sad fact happens a little later on down the road. What happens is that children usually come VERY fast after a marriage. The idea could come from the woman or the man, or even both, but it happens fast because that's the point. The women stay home and tend to every single thing in the home. More often than not they also quit their jobs to do this. In order to provide for the new family the men now will work from early morning until well into midnight. The sad part comes in here... since dad is spending so much time in Seoul working sometimes he will go to one of the many "massage" places here, or, even frequent one of the many love motels while the wife turns a blind eye or worse, really just doesn't know. I had a student tell me once, "I don't see dad often because he spends some nights in Seoul. My mom says his company pays for a hotel." Doubtful. I even knew a guy once who actually went all the way to divorce his wife, but still stay in the same apt for the sake of the kids because they didn't know, even though he was oftentimes out with other women.

Now this clearly isn't all Koreans, as family really is very important. Many go off to be very very happy. And their weddings are big, lavish affairs to start off their happy lives. In fact, a wedding is one of the best times to show off everything you can. Korean weddings are kind of great in the fact that they take at most 3 hours and they combine the ceremony with the reception. You say hello to the bride and groom as you enter the reception hall, and there's a giant alter in the middle of tables set up for probably 500 people. EVERYONE is invited to the wedding - business partners, every relative, colleagues, every friend, anyone the entire family has ever come in contact with. The ceremony starts up, and a few minutes in, dinner is served. The ceremony ends, and you're probably into course #2. Then the married couple and the parents of each side make their rounds to each table. That's it. There are some traditions afterwards for the smaller family, but the wedding does not take up the whole day. It will end up costing you a pretty penny though. I attended one high class wedding this year that was about $150 per plate. Luckily I did not have to pay that, as to have a foreigner at your wedding ups your status by about 50 cool points. Each guest is supposed to bring an envelope of cash as their present to help offset the cost of the wedding. Which this is the very subject of the NY Times article, as this has been considered a means for bribery to happen amongst elected officials during times of weddings and funerals.

It has been an absolute pleasure to really get to know how truly different another culture can be in the arena of love. In so many ways its better than what I know, and in so many other ways its worse and limiting and holds women back. I gotta tell ya though - and this is purely personal preference - I'll be holding out for love and happiness, and be pretty happy for a chance at a wedding with all the bells and whistles (as long as its small, and a destination wedding, ha).

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sonicbooms, Speed Thunders, Land Elephants, Oh My! Korean Basketball Edition

I have never been more mad at myself for not doing something earlier. I've been here for two solid basketball seasons and I've foolishly spent all my time worrying and paying attention to games back home (as an AVID Syracuse fan, not that silly NBA stuff). What I should have been doing here is being a fan of the Korean team, the Samsung Speed Thunders!

What's a 'Speed Thunder' you ask? I have absolutely no idea. My guess is that it has something to do with lightning as their very effeminate mascot has a lightning bolt on his stomach, but I can't entirely explain it. Taking a further look into it, it seems the whole organization doesn't know what its doing as we have teams that are the Sonicbooms and the Land Elephants. A 'Land' Elephant? Is there a 'Water' Elephant I'm unaware of?

The arena is next to Olympic Park at the Sports Complex stop on the green line. The tickets are 7, 10, or 14,000 won and there really isn't a bad seat in the house. The only downside is that you cannot purchase beer INSIDE the stadium. This seems VERY counterproductive and against normal Korean operating procedures - but don't worry. You are of course, allowed to bring in all the beer your heart desires and drink it inside. It is just a matter of thinking ahead and stopping off at the GS Mart or Burger King near the subway station.

The quality of play is hilarious. Each team is allowed to have only 2 foreigners on the team and they are only able to play 3 of the 4 quarters, so they have to choose them wisely. But as everyone can guess - any self respecting basketball player worth anything would obviously go to a European league if he had any chance of maybe someday making it to the NBA. Playing over here in Korea kind of means you're not going to be Michael Jordan at any point in your life, or even hope to be. But you are going to provide people like me with hilarious entertainment with how fast you rack up fouls, or with how much time you spend lying on the floor clawing after a loose ball.

I now have been to baseball games, soccer games, world cup games, and finished my collection with basketball games and 100% wish I could go back and get season tickets. I hope that I can get to at least one more before heading home, but to all of those out there who enjoy sporting events - its so cheap and fun that there's no time like the present.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Foreigners Bring Halloween to the Korean Masses

Halloween is a funny tradition. I believe it started in Mexico as All Hallows Eve where they honor the memory of the dead and worship spirits and have a dinner to commemorate the occasion. There are variations of it all over, and as an American, I can say we're just in for the candy. It has become less of a "scary" day and more of a costume party for adults to dress up in ridiculous things of any nature.

However, being in Asia for a few Halloweens now, Korea at least tries. Any child who's enrolled at an English Hagwon (academy) gets to celebrate the day with candy and costumes, and maybe even a party if the school really gets into it. My school the first two years completely turned a common room into a really scary haunted house (where I will say the goal was to see how many kids we could make cry). This year I was temping at a school, and during the 5 minute breaks between classes, the kids were able to run up to a different floor and solicit candy from the teachers. It was all pretty fun and it gives the chance to the kids to do something, well, childish, and they so deserve it.

But with anything, when you're away from home on a holiday you just want some kind of connection to it. The foreigners here go all out in full force to the usual areas of Itaewon and Hongdae and just party even harder than normal (which is pretty hard to do in a place of cheap soju and no closing times). This year, I decided to stay away from the masses primarily and just went to a friend's house party in Haebongchan (the neighborhood behind Itaewon). We wandered over to the bars afterward and of course, costumes and drunkeness aplenty.

Not sure how its done in other Asian countries, but if Halloween is your favorite holiday you can at least get a taste of it here.