Friday, June 15, 2012

The Top Five Baffling Things in South Korea I Can't Even Partially Understand

One of the most interesting things about living in a country so different from my own is observing the differences in culture.  South Korea is vastly different in many ways than the USA.  Some of these differences are simple and easy to understand, like taking off your shoes in many establishments or bowing when you say "hello" or "goodbye."  Some of these differences are a bit more complicated but you learn to understand them over time, such as the Confucius hierarchy system or the fact that napping at work is completely acceptable.  However, after being here for some time now there are still some things in Korean society that I have never been able to grasp.  I have compiled my top five most baffling and mind bending cultural differences in Korea that my American brain just can not fully absorb.  For those that have lived in Korea these are nothing new, but to others prepare for a virtual trip to Ripley's Believe it or Not.

5.) Guy Love

I will say that this one is not on the list because it is completely confusing, but for the fact that it still makes me giggle each time I see it after being here for almost two years.  The sight of two grown men in business suits walking hand in hand is so unnatural to me.  Prolonged amounts of touching between two straight men is as natural in Korea as a chest bump is in America.  So when you see two company men seemingly skipping down the street with interlocking fingers it means they love each other, but they don't love-love each other.  Of course if you tried this America your friend would probably smash a beer can on your forehead.
"Hey ladies, wanna hang out with two dudes who are totally secure with themselves?"
The first time I was exposed to this is when I met some of my male co-workers after I arrived in Korea.  Shaking hands is pretty much the norm for me but the grips loosen after 2-3 seconds.  In Korea the grip never seems to loosen.  In fact after 2-3 seconds the shake just turns in to a hand holding love affair.  Then I'm stuck trying to form words within the small talk, but my mind can only focus on how I can unlatch myself from the man hand.  I don't want to be rude and tear my hand away, so the strategy is to make the conversation as short as possible.  So it usually ends with me saying "I have to make copies now" or "I don't understand what we're talking about" and a vacant stare.  Awkward on awkward is the best way to get out of the man hand.

So next time you see two grown Korean men walking in each other's embrace, just remember it's Guy Love.



4.) Ajummas

What does retirement look like for the average Korean woman?  A perm, a huge visor, ridiculously non-matching clothes, sharp elbows, a cranky demeanor, and days spent pulling weeds, foraging for recyclables, or selling produce on the street corner.  Korean woman inevitably end their lives as what is referred to as an ajumma.  While the word ajumma technically means any married or middle aged women, it is generally used to describe the old grannys who have all adopted the exact same lifestyle.  So if I were to call one of my married female co-workers an ajumma it might come off as a little insulting.

What baffles me is why all the old Korean woman have subscribed to this way of living out their golden years.  I understand Korea is a country of communal thinking, but this is just beyond that.  I can not imagine anywhere else you could gather more than three grandmothers together and they all have matching non-matching outfits and the same haircut.  It's like Korea is cloning old women to pick up the country's trash and landscape the government buildings.  I swear after a certain age some one must hand a Korean woman a pamphlet with certain instructions on how one should dress.  It must also include tips on how to body check bystanders, cut in line, and give foreigners the stink eye.
The pamphlet comes with pictures like this.
Most young Korean woman are beautiful and quite obsessed with how they look.  They are also very fashionable and like to show a lot of leg.  It's rather difficult for a foreigner to see the difference between a 20 year old and 40 year old Korean woman.  So what's very confusing is how the transition from an up-right beauty to a bent over faux pas happens.  Maybe one day they just wake up like that.  I just don't know!
This pretty much illustrates my point. (

3.) The Never Ending Battle With Climate Control
This one probably infuriates native english teachers the most, especially in winter.  It is generally believed that South Korea is a modern society.  One of the things that defines a modern society is possessing buildings and homes with the ability to adjust the inside temperature relative to the outside temperature.  Koreans even went so far as to install an ingenious floor heating system in every up to date establishment.  However, they have difficulty in properly using these advantages that their country has afforded them.  Every native english teacher has the same story.  The teacher has their classroom to a respectable temperature in the dead of winter.  The students shuffle in to do some learning and within minutes they are complaining that the room is too hot.  The teacher politely explains to them that if they were to remove their winter jackets, sweater, hats, etc., then they would be perfectly comfortable because they're indoors after all.  The students refuse and begin to open the windows instead.  At this point the teacher is all like:
"What?  Why?  Take off your coat!"
So the teacher decides this is not happening and closes the windows and explains again for the students to remove their winter clothes meant for the outdoors thank you very much.  Then the students complain more and come up with excuses like "I have two dollars in my coat pocket" or "I have no shirt on underneath my coat."  By this point the teacher is all like:
"Don't make me say it again."
So then teacher agrees to a compromise and decides the window is allowed to be open for one minute and no longer.  After a minute the window is closed and the teacher attempts to continue the lesson but now the students are sweating and complain even more.  Now the teacher is just like:

What's even worse is that Korea considers itself one of the most environmentally responsible countries in the world.  However, in the winter the windows are opened when they're too hot inside with their coats on.  I can't think of anything more wasteful than letting all that energy flow outside.  My whole youth my parents would yell at me not to heat/cool the whole neighborhood!  This phrase does not exist in Korea.

2.) It's Good For "Stamina"

I should really title this one Anything For A Boner, because that's pretty much I'm going to talk about.  I thought it might be too crass.  Anyway in America, when a man loves a woman, he wants to share his love in certain ways.  When that man gets older he may have more difficulty expressing his love in that way.  If it comes to it, a doctor may prescribe that man such innovative products as Viagra or Cialis.  Products designed to help the man and have been proven to work.  Proof is an important element to this one.
Wow!  It really works!
Koreans tend to still have beliefs in the old ways, or as I like to say "Hocus Pocus."  When ever I'm out for a Korean dinner with my school and something is put in front of me that looks like a tongue and is still slightly moving, one of my co-teachers explains, "It's good for stamina."  It's a fairly polite way of putting it.  I applaud the Koreans for their use of the word stamina.  So if there is something unrecognizable on your table chances are it's good for stamina.
Question: Live octopus?  Answer: Good for stamina.

Question:  Dog meat?  (Which I have tried).  Answer: Good for stamina.

Question:  Rhino horn?  Answer: Good for stamina.

Question: Dead baby pills?  Answer: Good for sta.....wait what?!

Yep check out what was discovered a couple months ago.  This is real:
Good job!  I have no idea what the logic is behind this.  It's also probably the same logic that women don't drink coffee when they're pregnant because it will turn the baby brown.  Not because of the caffeine or anything.  So that's what we're working with in Korea.  Just take some Viagra.  Really.


1.) Fan Death

This was the easiest and most obvious choice for number one.  Everyone that has lived in Korea has heard of Fan Death and of course it is outrageous.  It's a widely held belief that a simple house fan can straight murder a person.  No joke.  Of course America has it's share of urban myths but no one actually believes them.  This is an urban myth that Koreans truly believe.  Supposedly in a closed room the fan can suck out the oxygen and the victim can die of asphyxiation.  It looks something like this:

Can't argue with science.

In fact, the Korean media reports on fan death and its dangers.  All fans are sold with timers and consumers are encouraged to use them.  You know, so it doesn't suffocate you.  Another potential risk is hypothermia.  A fan can lower your body temperature to the same point as falling through the ice of a frozen lake.  Somehow this phenomenon only exists in Korea.  How have I survived the 600 or so nights that I've slept with a fan on in my bedroom in Korea?  Well I consider myself the luckiest man alive and not everyone gets a second chance at life.  Seriously, I've asked several Koreans if they believe in fan death and most of them do.  Wikipedia has a great article on it that everyone should read: Fan Death. 


In conclusion I'm not trying to say Koreans are stupid or anything, I'm just making light of some of the quirks.  So if it seems like I'm generalizing I am, but I found these things to be mostly true when it comes to Korean culture.  Of course I know there are exceptions to the rule.  Anyway, I hope it was baffling.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Cherry Blossom Season in South Korea

It's been an exceptionally long winter in South Korea.  While every one in America was wearing tank tops and playing bocce ball in freaking March, I was still wearing a winter coat while teaching inside my school.  Yes, that's indoors!  A couple weeks ago spring finally decided to show up to the party and this can be verified by all the trees sporting cherry blossoms.  The cherry blossoms begin showing up at the beginning of spring and stick around for maybe over a week.  In this brief period the city looks quite beautiful and winter depression melts away while we place our long underwear at the bottom of the drawer.

As the cherry blossoms bloom with the arrival of spring, so do the amateur photographers.  After computer games and hiking, photography is probably the biggest hobby in South Korea.  Standing next to each tree is a young Korean with a $5,000 camera with a lens the size of the Stanley Cup attached.  How could I blame them though?  The scenery is beautiful and there's little time to capture it.  I decided to join the fun (with a bite-size camera by Korean standards) and here are some of my pictures:

Get outta that tree!

Jesus and the Cherry Blossoms

The new trend in South Korea: Couple's Raincoats

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Attack of the Ladyboys: Traveling Through the Philippines Part 2

The second half of my traveling began in Donsol.  This town is famous for one thing; whale sharks.  The whale shark is not so much a shark as it is the world's largest species of fish.  It's a freindly animal and it spends most of its time swimming around with its huge mouth open sucking in plankton.  Oh yeah, the whale shark can grow up to 40ft.  It eats a lot of plankton.  Every year the whale sharks migrate to the shores of Donsol around February to feed.  They usually stick around until summer and then migrate to where ever it is whale sharks migrate.
Sheesh, chew your food.
As far as the Philippines go, this was my favorite place.  I never felt like a walking ATM, but I actually felt like a welcome guest.  I believe this is because the locals are extremely proud of the whale sharks.  There is whale shark decor everywhere and the locals love the fact that this is one of the only places in the world where people can swim along side the beast in the open ocean.  Let's hope it stays that way!
Whale Shark Decor
We were there at the very beginning of whale shark season, so we were nervous as sightings could be infrequent.  We boarded a boat with three spotters and a driver.  They drove back and forth off the shore for what must have been two hours.  The first hour we kept our eyes to the water hoping to spot the beast.  The second hour we tried not to close our eyes and succumb to an inevitable boredom nap.  Then suddenly the excitement began and I mean SUDDENLY.  Just when I was getting comfortable on my towel turned pillow, the main spotter was yelling at the driver to steer towards a small fin just above the water surface and simultaneously yelling at us to get our asses to the front of the boat and get the snorkel gear on!  Then he yelled at us to jump in the water NOW as he leapt off the boat.  Next thing I knew I was swimming behind other people's fins looking down for something huge.  Then it was over.  Unfortunately I didn't see it but others did.  The water was unexpectedly cloudy as a result of plankton everywhere.  The ones who saw it said the whale just came out of the mist of plankton without notice and they were suddenly face to face with a fish over the size of 30ft.  I got back on the boat filled with envy.
How can I miss something this big?  It was cloudier than this picture, I swear!
While others back on the boat boasted about what they saw, I sat there with my head down as the spotters began the process again.  Then just as I thought it was going to be time to head back home, the spotter began the yelling again and I was back on the front of boat ready to jump in to the unknown.  This time was much different.  When I got in to the water a whale shark the size of a bus swam directly under me from out of nowhere.  I turned and swam next to it for what must have been a full minute.  I was so close at one point I could have grabbed its top fin and hitched a ride.  The experience felt so surreal that after it swam in to the depths of the ocean I thought I must have dreamed it.  However, we got back on the boat and had three more sightings!  I don't have a water proof camera but I probably looked like this swimming next to the whale shark:
My what a big fish you are.
We were so lucky our first time out that we decided to lounge around the bungalows the next day because there's no way the second time could be as good.  In the middle of the day Caroline mentioned hearing the faint sound of bees buzzing with in the wall of our bungalow.  There were also a few bees chilling on the wall.  Thinking that bees don't usually hang out with people indoors, we alerted the staff.  Two guys came over and pried off a piece of the outside wall to discover a fully functioning hive in honey making mode.  One of the fellows decided the next course of action was to blow cigarette smoke in to the wall.  This of course sent the bees in to a frenzy as bees tend to do when you annoy them.  Cigarette smoke only pissed them off so the next step was to pry off more wall and stick flaming branches in there.  I had been curiously watching outside when the thought popped in to my head that the bungalow is probably going to to turn in to a bonfire.  I rushed in to the bungalow to get our belongings to find it filled with smoke and angry bees.  Quickly I wrapped a wet towel around my head and began blindly grabbing for things to throw out the door.  I was able to get everything out with only one bee sting to the neck and minor smoke inhalation.  Great success!  The staff decided they better find us a new room for the night.
Not the bees! Listen to them in our wall.

Yup just stick that there burnin' branch in the hole.
Our heroes?
Any honey in there?
After Donsol Caroline had to go back to Korea to teach, but I still had a week left of vacation.  I wanted to go somewhere easy to meet people, so I decided to go to the Philippines "premier" destination; Boracay.  The island has a very nice and long white sand beach that is perfect for wasting the day away, but Boracay is one of the most overwhelmingly touristy places I have ever been.  Just off the beach are resorts that would cost me a week's budget for one night of accommodation.  Places with names like Shangri-La, Golden Phoenix, and Ambassador in Paradise.  I stayed in a hostel behind one of the big boy resorts.  Then there are huge tour groups of umbrella-holding Chinese tourists following a yellow flag up and down the beach while over-weight, ultra-tan, speedo clad Germans soak up the rays.  Then just when I am getting relaxed a Filipino carrying two hundred sunglasses asks if I want to buy sunglasses after I point at the sunglasses on my face.  Then another Filipino asks if I want to pay $30 to ride a wave-runner for 15 minutes.  After I decline another offer an old woman asks, "Sir, Ma'am, Sir massage?"  Yup, it's back to the walking ATM look, except this time on steroids.
Oh it's a good thing they have this beach.
Not only did I look like an ATM, but by being male it must have looked like I was desperate for some love.  And not the type of love between a man and a women, but the kind of love between a man and a ladyboy.  For those who haven't been to Southeast Asia, a ladyboy is a skinny Asian man who has made himself look very much like a lady.  Not the kind of lady that you see walking though a department store, but the kind of lady that lurks around dark lit avenues at night.  Boracay, the Philippines "premier" destination, is filthy with them after the sun goes down.  The funny thing is that I never encountered any prostitutes that were actually women.  It made me wonder about Boracay.
I was very tempted to put a picture of a ladyboy here, but then I didn't really feel like googling ladyboy.  So here's another picture I took of the beach.  Ooooh good thing they had this beach.
Boracay did have some good things, like cool people to hang out with and ridiculously cheap bottles of rum.  I met some people and we soon discovered the best way to spend an evening was on the beach with cheap rum, a chaser, and new friends.  One evening we decided to meet at a cluster palm trees with rum and supplies in tow.  I was the first one there and I was hanging out for just a few seconds when I heard the faint calls of "Sir?"  I looked around and from behind the palm trees heads were popping out. "Sir?"  I couldn't really tell who was behind the trees but I could see a few head shapes through the darkness.  "Um...yes?" I replied.  "Sirrrrrr?" is all the heads said and then suddenly there was a ladyboy standing right next to me grabbing my forearm.  (The story gets a little graphic here.)

"Come with me," the ladyboy demanded in a husky voice.
", why?" I replied nervously.
"I think you have the wrong idea, I'm meeting friends here.  They'll be here soon," I say as I glance around frantically.
"Just come on," the ladyboy pressed.
"No, friends.  You know friends.  So, no!" I said starting to get annoyed.  However, the ladyboy tightened the grip on my forearm.
"Come on, I give you message long term."
"Definitely NO.  Ok I really need to..."
"Come on, I suck you off on the beach,"  the lady boy insisted, to which I replied by with a frightened "Aahhh!", tearing my arm away, and fleeing to the closest bar for shelter.  I stayed hidden there and kept watch on the trees for my friends.  When one of the other guys arrived at the meeting point the same ladyboy was on him like a hobo on a muffin.  I ran over and grabbed my friend.  "He's with me!" I proclaimed as we struggled to break free from the death grip of an aggressive, almost rapist, prostitute with man hands.  Lesson: Palm trees are for something else when it is night time in Boracay.
I'll never look at you the same palm trees in Boracay.
There are more stories from Boracay (like being deathly ill for two straight days only leaving my hotel room for more medication and Gatorade, or the story about eating at a Lord of the Rings restaurant where all the servers are dwarfs), but I've written enough already.  In conclusion the Philippines make for some intense traveling, but I was glad I got to have the experience.  The scenery combined with friendly whale sharks combined with some cool people made the effort worth it.  However, I wouldn't recommend anyone to visit who can't stomach terrible poverty and the feeling of constantly being hustled.  It was interesting and nice to know you while it lasted Philippines.  Here's a few pictures to feast your eyes on:
Rum on the beach with Wade.  What I did at night after I ran away from the ladyboys.
Rum and laughs with Peter & Jodi.
I guess this is where they do kite surfing in Boracay.  I don't know how they don't run in to each other.
It looks fun!
A glorious sunset.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Sleeping in a Closet: Traveling Through the Philippines Part 1

The second part of our Winter Vacation 2012 took us to the Philippines.  I found that in this country you have to take the good with the bad.  I have what is referred to as a love hate relationship with the Philippines.  We had some fantastic and memorable experiences, but it was some of the most stressful traveling I have ever done.  It is the first country that has tested my limits as a backpacker, and I have been to many countries in Asia by this point.  I'm going to do that thing where I say something good about it before the insult so I can soften the blow.  Like when a girl says, "I love Tammy, she's like the greatest girl in the world, one in a million...but girl needs to take a shower because she smells like reheated Chinese take-out."  So if it sounds like I'm doing a lot of bitching about the Philippines it's because I am.

We encountered stunning scenery, beautiful ocean waters, ate some good meals, and met some very nice people.  However, the best way to describe the Philippines is a trailer park situated in a beautiful setting.  Or the Mexico of Asia but without the delicious cuisine and charming culture.  It's sometimes trashy, sometimes depressing, sometimes scary, and sometimes wonderful.  The whole time I was there I was a walking ATM.  Something to extract as much cash out of as possible.  I wasn't viewed as some one who wanted to soak up the country, take in the sights, do some relaxing, and gain some experiences.  I was viewed as some one who went to the Philippines, threw around all the cash I could, and get out.
Hey Philippines, where's the beach?
We didn't even bother with Manila after hearing all the horror stories about it.  We heard stories of horrible poverty, suffocating pollution, constant scams, dangerous alleys, and the overall opinion that the city is a dumpster fire.  The whole country is poor though.  There are full grown men hanging out everywhere in the streets.  Doing nothing but standing around and looking.  Some one I met compared it to India.  I've been to very poor countries before (Cambodia, parts of China) but I have never seen so many men wallowing on the side of the road.  I don't know what I'm implying, but either the country needs to hire some motivational speakers or everyone is receiving disability checks.
I only saw Manila from the inside of an airport or through a plane window.
The first place we flew in to was the overwhelmingly gorgeous island of Palawan.  When you arrive at a new location in the Philippines, whether by bus or plane, expect to encounter who I like to call "the piranhas".  When we walked out of the airport there were ten guys in our faces saying, "Get in my tricycle.  Give me your bag.  You have reservation?  Give me the money."  When we settled on one driver we next found out that accommodation is a big problem in the Philippines during the travel season.  Elsewhere in Southeast Asia I just find a place to sleep when I get there.  We learned quickly that you don't do this in the Philippines.  I blame the Chinese.  The tourism board for the Philippines must have a huge marketing campaign in China and it's working.  It's working very well.  The problem is there are a lot of people in China and they travel in huge groups of over twenty people.  That's a lot of hotel rooms.  So we spent our first night in Palawan in a utility closet with bunk beds too short for my 5'8" frame and a pack of fighting wild dogs outside our window all night.  Yay, welcome to the Philippines!
Notice how the mattresses curve up against the wall.
The next day we took a dusty seven hour bus ride to the city of El Nido in northern Palawan.  Luckily we made a reservation on the phone the night before.  This is when I discovered that customer service doesn't exist in the Philippines, and if it does then it's extremely awkward.  When you walk in to a store, restaurant, or hotel you are rarely noticed until you grab some one's attention.  My favorite moment was when I had enough of it and decided to do a little experiment.  Now remember everyone in the Philippines can speak English.  So I went in to a store, grabbed two bottles of water, and put them on the counter in front of the cashier woman.  Then it was the battle of who would make the first move.  She sat in her chair behind the counter staring at me and I stared right back at her.  After about a minute of complete silence I couldn't take it anymore and victory was her's.  I finally asked, "Do you want money for this water?"  Basking in her glory, she knew she had broken me and kept staring.  "HOW MUCH FOR THE WATER?!" I snapped at her.  She finally muttered, "50 pesos."  This was an everyday occurrence in the Philippines.
Clint couldn't even win a staring contest in the Philippines.
Another example of bad customer service, or just awkward customer service, is when you got in to a restaurant.  First, find your own table.  Second, wave for a server to come over and they will walk over and stare at you.  Third, say the word "menu".  Fourth, the server will give you the menu and continue to stand and stare at you until you order.  Fifth, take five minutes to decide between a ham and cheese sandwich or a chicken sandwich to punish the server for their horrible service.  Sixth, wait 45 minutes for the kitchen to make a simple sandwich.  Lesson, get to the restaurant 45 minutes before you're hungry.
Can't tell if they're taking their time make a delicious sandwich or they forgot.
My final example is prying the information out of customer service people who have the information you need.  This brings me to arriving in El Nido.  When we got to our hotel we walked in around 4pm and said we had a reservation.  They said "not ready" and did that damn staring thing I keep talking about.  So we asked, "When will it be ready?"  They answer "sometime" and stare.  We ask, "Can you say how many minutes?"  They answer "one hour" and stare.  We ask, "Can you tell us the problem?"  They answer "working on it" and stare.  So we leave and thus is the way of the customer service in the Philippines.

Anyway, I'm putting a break on the bitching and it's time for the wonderful.  The thing to do in El Nido is to go on boat tours of the surrounding islands.  The islands are limestone karst cliffs that rise out of the ocean and are surrounded by hidden beaches and lagoons.  To get to one hidden beach we had to swim through a hole in the rocks at the right time so a wave doesn't smash us against the roof of the hole.  We also swam around in a lagoon filled with caves, corral, and perfect blue water.  It was simply magnificent and here are some pictures:
The view from El Nido and the boats that take you out to the islands.

Such great scenery.

Caroline enjoying the beach.

Snorkeling in a lagoon.

Can you find the hidden beach?  Yeah it's there.


The captain of our boat, a chain smoking sixteen year old.

The clear blue waters of the lagoon.

A good spot for a picnic on the beach.

After a few days of taking boat tours in El Nido, we traveled back down to central Palawan to see the subterranean river in Sabang.  It was voted as one of the new seven wonders of the world.  I don't know if it really deserves that entry, but I'll happily put in the category of pretty cool.  They put you in a tiny boat and a guide rows you 1.5 kilometers in to the belly of the river.  The river actually goes for 8km, but tourists are only allowed so far.  There are literally millions of bats that live in the cave.  Pointing the flashlight up revealed the most bats I have ever seen in my life.  I found out why the mosquito population is low in that area.  It was a worthwhile experience and here's a few pictures:
In Sabang!

Taking a pose in front of the subterranean river.

A helmet for protection.

Almost in the cave.
Oh and watch out for the giant lizards that guard the cave.
The post is getting along so I'm dividing it in to two parts.  In Part two you can expect whale sharks, bees, lady boys, and some more ranting.  In the meantime here is video of the 800 meter long zip-line we found when hiking in Sabang: