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My first point of action after arriving in China was getting a SIM card for my phone. A friend recommended the company, China Unicom, to me. 3G data and a modest phone plan for my iPhone for 150 RMB. Super easy and got it at the airport. Look for the machines by the bathroom after you go through customs. An employee will be there that speaks English and they’ll walk you through the plans. I think it’s totally worth it just to get around with, since I have found no free wifi around Beijing.
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Suki Kim’s excellent new memoir Without You, There Is No Us: My Year with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite surely ranks as one of the greatest Gonzo journalistic feats ever, right up there with Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels, or Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between (about a guy who walked across Afghanistan in the months after 9/11). You think you’ve got a tough teaching gig? To get her story, Kim, a Korean-American, lived for a year in Pyongyang, North Korea, teaching English composition at the Pyongyang University for Science & Technology (PUST), a university run by Christian missionaries.
I mean—just imagine . . . having to live with Christian missionaries for a whole year!
And, sure, I guess living in a repressive totalitarian state was pretty tough, too.
Her remarkable undercover stint has resulted in one of the best books on North Korea in recent years. Without You, There is No Us belongs squarely in the first tier of works that seek to illuminate the darkness of this mysterious, closed society. To be sure, Kim’s access was limited to just a geographic and demographic sliver of North Korea. However, no book, not even the best defector accounts such as The Aquariums of Pyongyang and Nothing to Envy, detail such real, extended, relatively unscripted interaction between real North Koreans and an “enemy” American.
At first glance, there aren’t any big revelations here. Much of what Kim presents should be very familiar to anybody who has read any travel accounts in North Korea: the constant presence of the “minders” who “mind” (spy on) your every move; the “sightseeing” mostly restricted to mind-numbing, eyeball-glazing monuments to the Great Leader and Dear Leader; the endless demonization of America; the grinding poverty of a ruined economy lurking behind the paper-thin façade of modernity. This is all well-trodden territory, but Kim presents the familiar themes of barren / creepy / repressive North Korea with her novelist’s sharp eye for telling detail.
Where the book really breaks new ground, however, is in the author’s day-to-day accounts of teaching—or attempting to teach—the fully indoctrinated young men of the book’s title, the “sons of the elite.” All of her students were sons of Pyongyang’s elite ruling class (though she never talked to, let alone met, any of her students’ parents). How do you teach opinion or persuasive essays to people who have been taught—warned, even— never to argue, never to have an opinion? How do you teach them to back up their ideas with supporting evidence when “facts” or “the truth” have always been simply what the Dear Leader declares them to be? “Their entire system was designed not to be questioned, and to squash critical thinking,” Kim writes. In North Korea, “there was no proof, no checks and balances—unless, of course they wanted to prove that the Great Leader had single-handedly written hundreds of operas and thousands of books and saved the nation and done a miraculous number of things.” She sums up trying to teach essay-writing to such blinkered students in one word: “disaster.”
Simple conversations with students in the lunchroom or classroom were just as difficult and fraught with dangers. Every day was a dance through a DMZ minefield of forbidden topics. In answering students’ endless questions about the world outside their hermetically-sealed borders, Kim knew that revealing anything about the wealth, openness and freedom of “out there” was risky, for both herself and the students. A simple, honest answer to an innocuous question like “How many countries have you been to?” would let students plainly see the opportunities available to her that were utterly denied to themselves.
Yet as abhorrent and alien as much of their views, behavior and upbringing are, Kim, like any good teacher, can’t help but grow attached to them over her two semesters at PUST. She often calls the students “beautiful” and “lovely” and refers to them as “her children.” Throughout the book, Kim explores the wrenching ambivalence of wanting to open up their minds yet not wanting to get them in trouble—either as students or in the future when they would supplant their parents as the top-echelon leadership of the DPRK. In dealing with one particularly inquisitive student, Kim and her young T.A. Katie realize that saying too much might get themselves deported, but could very well get the student killed. “Until then, I had hoped that perhaps I could change one student, open up one path of understanding,” Kim muses. “But what kind of a future did I envision for the one student I reached? Opening up this country would mean sacrificing these lives. Opening up this country would mean the blood of my beautiful students.”
Her portrait of her students is fascinating, empathetic, and immensely sad. In South Korea, foreign English teachers often bemoan their students’ lives that are equal parts grindstone and pressure cooker, yet the most haggwon-oppressed, sleep-deprived South Korean student would not survive a week in the shoes of Kim’s North Korean students. They are never alone—never, not a single moment. They are partnered up in a “buddy” system for the clear purpose of keeping an eye on one-another. It’s breathtaking how carefully the State raises a population of snitches. Also heart-rending is the physical labor that students are submitted to—most of it either pointless or made pointlessly difficult by the absence of tools or technology: cutting crass with scissors; standing guard in freezing cold weather over the ridiculous shrine to “Kimjongilism;” being carted off during school vacations to work in harvesting or construction sites. Even as sons of high-ranking party members, life is an brutal, endless slog, even if they will never face starvation. For them, attending a weekend math haggwon would be like lounging pool-side with a fruity drink.
Despite the glibness of my lead graph, living with Christian missionaries was, for Kim, its own brand of, well, hell. At times, her evangelical colleagues spur as much forehead-slapping disbelief and anger as the North Korean authorities. When Kim wants to show students a Harry Potter movie, the idea is shot down not by the North Korean officials (who must approve every book and every lesson plan), but by the school’s head teacher who calls it a piece of anti-Christian “filth.” “What would Christians around the world say about our decision to expose our students to such heresy?” the woman rages with staggeringly misguided righteousness.
At one point, a colleague openly talks with Kim about how her reason for being there was to “bring the Lord to this Land,” how “this life here is temporary,” and that the suffering North Koreans “will be received by Him in heaven.” Kim explodes at her, accusing her of delegitimizing the suffering of the North Korean masses: “So are you saying that it’s okay for North Koreans to rot in gulags because in your estimation it isn’t real? . . . If the eternal life waiting for them in heaven is so amazing, should the millions who are suffering here just commit mass suicide? Why don’t you go check out a gulag and then dare to tell me that it’s temporary?”
Kim’s portrayal of the school and its Christian faculty has garnered some controversy. The school has openly expressed hurt and anger over what they call a betrayal by Kim. They deny that they are Christian missionaries at all, and that Kim both misrepresented them in the book and misrepresented herself when she landed the job.
On her website, Kim counters these charges with a simple, powerful statement:
There is a long tradition of “undercover” journalism—pretending to be something one is not in order to be accepted by a community and uncover truths that would otherwise remain hidden. In some cases, this is the only way to gain access to a place. North Korea, described only recently by the BBC as “one of the world’s most secretive societies,” is such a place. [….] I did not break any promises. I applied to work at PUST under my real name. I was not asked to sign and did not sign any kind of confidentiality agreement, nor did I ever promise not to write about PUST. Meanwhile, in the six decades since Korea was divided, millions have died from persecution and hunger. Today’s North Korea is a gulag posing as a nation, keeping its people hostage under the Great Leader’s maniacal and barbaric control, depriving them of the very last bit of humanity. So what are our alternatives? How much longer are we going to sit back and watch? To me, it is silence that is indefensible. (read the full statement at http://sukikim.com/ethicsnote)
Given the fact that Kim didn’t hide anything about her past or her career, it’s strange she got the job at PUST in the first place, a point she also makes in the book and in the full text of the above statement. She wrote several articles for Harper’s and The New York Review of Books about previous trips to North Korea, most notably an outstanding account of the New York Philharmonic’s trip to Pyongyang in 2008. That article, unlike a lot of the accounts in the mainstream press, dug underneath the official North Korea-sanctioned feel-good story of “we’re not here for politics / music can bring us together!” Instead, Kim focused on the pointlessness of interaction with North Korea when the interaction was entirely on their terms. Also, her well-received debut novel, The Interpreter, has enough sex to make a evangelical Christian blush (which is to say, any sex at all). Ten minutes of internet browsing might have suggested to school authorities what Kim had in mind in seeking this job. Equally puzzling was North Korea granting her another Visa after those earlier articles—they even assigned to her one of the same minders from the New York Philharmonic trip.
Indeed, Kim worrying about having her cover blown—by both the North Koreans and her Christian colleagues—makes her day-to-day life even more stressful and adds another layer of dark tension throughout the book. In the end, the tension, the stress, the isolation, the bleakness, the cold, and the unceasing vigilance of the State—Orwell’s Big Brother incarnate—grind down her spirit of resistance, as it all was surely designed to: “The sealed border was not just at the 38th parallel, but everywhere, in each person’s heart, blocking the past and choking off the future. As much as I loved those boys, or because of it, I was becoming convinced that the wall between us was impossible to break down, and not only that, it was permanent.”
However, in an incredible coincidence, on Kim’s very last day at the school—a day filled with the bittersweet teacher-student goodbyes that any of us who have taught for a living might recognize—something happens that suggests just maybe that this wall might one day vanish into history: Kim Jong-il dies. Her final glimpse of her students as she’s leaving for the airport is of them in the cafeteria eating breakfast, refusing to look at her, “their eyes swollen and red, [with] no expression on their faces. It was as though the life had been sucked out of them.” She makes no comment on whether or not these tears are real or forced, or perhaps some of both, but simply wonders if their world will change for the better. Three years later, we’re still asking that question.
Just wanted to take a minute to say Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to anyone who has taken the time to read my blog over the past few months! I hope you have a wonderful day.
Kathryn and Malteser
Filed under: Living
© KATHRYN GODFREY
The “Interview” Fits a Long Tradition of Really Stupid US Portrayals of North Korea (but SK Film is much Better)
I am not quite sure what to make of all the hacking controversy yet, but in the run-up to the film, I wrote this quick comparison of North Korea in South Korean and US film. Not surprisingly, South Korea handles NK far more intelligently, whereas the US seems to have a weird, somewhat creepy obsession with North Korea invading America. Yes, really; read the review below: the US will have four ‘NK invades the US’ movies or video games in five years. I am still trying to figure out what that means.
Anyway, this was first written for Lowy Institute; the essay follows the jump.
Later this month comes the release of a comedy about North Korea. In The Interview, two American journalists are recruited by the CIA to assassinate Kim Jong-Un, who is portrayed as an obese, cigar-chomping playboy (which is likely not far from the truth). In response, it appears that North Korea has hacked Sony Studios. This North Korean reaction is not too surprising. As a neo-patrimonial sun-king cult, it cannot easily tolerate mockery of a leadership it suggests is semi-divine. It is also increasingly clear from Northern cyber-attacks on South Korean institutions, that North Korea is ramping up in this area. Indeed, cyber, with its unclear rules for what constitutes aggression, is an ideal twilight space for North Korea to operate.
Last month I wrote here about the South Korea film industry and its geopolitical penchant to plot around over-the-top American villains. Antagonists are often from the North unsurprisingly, but usually the Northern and Southern characters find their shared Korean brotherhood as the film unfolds. Together they then rally against the real enemy, a role often conveniently filled by the Yanks. But this month I thought I would look at portrayals of the North in South Korean and American film in the run-up The Interview (which unfortunately does not look very good; its pre-release Rotten Tomatoes score is just 44%).
North Korea in South Korean Geopolitical Film
This is a huge topic. Not surprisingly, North Korea is a constant, lurking background for much Korean film, but I thought I would focus here on a few major geopolitical films in the last two decades. The overwhelming emphasis, contrary to US portrayals of evil North Korea, is on the DPRK as a tragically divided brother of the same family. The heartbreak of national division is regularly (and rightfully) mined for deep emotional impact on the viewer, as films on civil wars (such as Gettysburg) often do. For readers with little knowledge of Korean film but interest in North/South issues, the following are worth your time:
1. Brotherhood of War (2004). This is the biggest and the best of the recent South Korean films on national division. It portrays the Korean War with disturbingly graphic yet credible violence, and demonstrates just how confused loyalties became. While the North is the aggressor, Southern atrocities and poor leadership are shown as well. Such honesty is rare in South Korean film and a major mark in favor of the movie. Two brothers are shown landing on different sides of the conflict. Although this is a fairly transparent metaphor to show the division of Korea, it does reflect the reality that national division in the 1940s did split some families (although not nearly as many as you see in the movies). In the midst of extraordinary carnage and waste, the two brothers eventually face each other on the battlefield. While much of the plot and characters are cliché, and the film clearly rips off Saving Private Ryan, it is still the best Korean War film I have seen. It conveys the confusion, heartache, and sheer horror, without the silly North Korean comic book villains that mar so much western film.
2. JSA: Joint Security Area (2000). Another strong film that investigates the pain of national division, with an extremely poignant ending shot. Two border guards from the South and two from the North (rather improbably) strike up a friendship across the Demilitarized Zone. This leads to much metaphorical line-crossing, intermingling, and references to one another as ‘brother.’ Again, it is fairly emotionally cliché but powerful nonetheless, and I find that Koreans I have watched it with are quite moved by the interaction and inevitable tragedy that ends it. Once again, the North and South are cast as tragically and inexplicably opposed brothers of the same family. Ideology is scarcely mentioned.
3. Shiri (1999). This is a mix of Mata Hari and James Bond: a beautiful female North Korean agent infiltrates Southern intelligence, launching plots that could provoke a war. Her romantic involvement with a Southerner again serves to blend the two Koreas and stress their unity against a tragic geopolitical backdrop. Also again, no mention is made that, by the period in which the film story occurs, persistent national division was almost exclusively the fault of persistent, post-Cold War Northern intransigence. While I did not find this particularly good, it was a big hit in South Korea and fueled a wave of inter-Korean movies in the 2000s.
4. 71: Into the Fire (2010). Yet another sad film about the brutality and awfulness of the 1950 war. Based on a true story, a group of Southern students fights to defend their high school against the Northern invasion. Rare for Southern film, the North is portrayed harshly as aggressive imperialists.
US Film on North Korea
In contrast to South Korea’s marked seriousness and constant tragic emphasis, US film almost exclusively uses North Korea as a: 1) punch-line, or 2) preposterously powerful comic-book villain. Aliens, Nazis, and post-Soviet Russian gangsters have been over-used as villains in movies so many times that I guess we need new ones now. But the Chinese movie market is now too big and too censored to alienate Beijing with believable stories about Sino-US competition (a shame, that). So instead we get North Korean villains standing in. They are ‘Asian’ enough to give a hint of China, without actually provoking the wrath of its censors:
5. Team America: World Police (2004). Probably the best ‘portrayal’ of North Korea in American film, because it is a hysterical lampoon that does not take itself seriously like the others below. It’s very funny, although don’t overlook the ethical issues of laughing about the worst country on earth.
7. Homefront (video game), (2011). This is not a movie, but it does seem to have a launched (below) a bizarre entertainment sub-genre of North Korean invasions of the United States. Here is where the US entertainment industry goes off the rails and abjures serious treatment to South Korean filmmakers. Homefront is basically a video-game re-make of the film Red Dawn (1984), in which a group of good-looking young American resistance fighters wage a guerilla conflict against a Soviet invasion of the continental United States. That film has become a campy pseudo-classic of the Cold War, but the game update simply flies over the edge in asking players to believe that North Korea re-unifies Korea, absorbs Japan, and then Southeast Asia. These resources in turn fuel its invasion of the US west coast. Hah! There are so many leaps of logic, that the whole thing just falls apart. But there are always enough idiot fan-boys to suggest it might actually happen, dude!! And it sold well enough that the Norks will try again to reduce America in next year’s sequel.
8. Red Dawn (remake), (2012). This film is simultaneously a re-make of the 1984 original and a rip-off of the game just mentioned (demonstrating yet again how bereft Hollywood is of originality). It is awful, lacking even the camp fun of the game and film. Hot young models in tight-fighting clothes fire rockets and automatic weapons at Korean-Americans with bad accents. Yawn. More interestingly though, this film was the first major casualty of Chinese geopolitical-cinematic pressure on Hollywood. The original version had contemporary China substitute for the earlier Soviet role as American invader. This far more credible (and potentially exciting) premise was dropped under Beijing menacing, in exchange for the preposterous notion that North Korea has the resources to launch a trans-Pacific invasion of America. Whatever…
9. Olympus has Fallen, (2013). Yet a third ‘North Korea invades America’ premise in as many years. Does that mean something? Are Americans obsessed with North Korea, with being invaded, or have we just run out of bad guys? This film’s premise is ‘Die Hard in the White House’: a lone American hero battle Nork agents who take over the White House. Once again, it’s laughably ridiculous, but the White House take-over sequence is actually pretty exciting.
10. Die Another Day (2002). And what would such a list be without a Bond film and a super-villain so ridiculous – and with such fluent English! – that it makes Team America look like sophisticated international relations analysis. (And if you really feel compelled to scrape the bottom of the barrel of direct-to-video, try this.) Enough said.
So there’s so fun geopolitical entertainment for you to relax with over the holidays! Merry Christmas!
There are few places in the world that do public transportation as well as South Korea. Sure, the country may be geographically smaller than other nations but its efficiency in moving its 50 million inhabitants around every day is unsurpassed. Seoul's subway system is particularly impressive, with hundreds of pristine stations connecting the entire metropolis. Even better, on most lines, passengers rarely have to wait more than a few minutes for trains. The KTX, or Korea Train Express, is even faster with a top speed of 305 km/hour (190 mph) and can take passengers from one side of the country to the other in a mere couple hours. With a system so great, it makes me wonder why anyone would ever want to drive on the consistently jammed streets of the nation.
Most Koreans, especially those of the Seoul variety, walk fast. Especially the elderly. Especially when entering and exiting buses, trains, planes and boats. These seemingly innate walking skills make them particularly talented at getting seats on vehicles of public transportation and swiping up all the sale items at E-Mart before anyone else.
In a country where one's self-worth is heavily influenced by the presence of a significant other, being single is not something to be proud of. As such, blind dates, matchmaking and even specified bars where singles gather to seek out a significant other play an integral role in the dating scene. When two potential love birds meet, it doesn't take long to figure out where they stand with one another.
Soon after the successful first date, things really start to pick up. After 100 days, couples celebrate their long-term relationship success by visiting Seoul Tower, publishing a lot of selfies on social media and purchasing matching couple rings, shirts and panties/boxer sets. Territory is marked and leashes are continuously shortened as each subsequent month passes.
Marriage is another important institution in Korea and those that remain single well into their thirties and forties are considered to be lost causes. Therefore, when one begins to approach his or her mid-thirties (though men can usually get away with being single longer), anxiety begins to settle in and numerous efforts are made to rope in the most eligible potential spouse. So long as he or she makes a decent living, has a reputable-ish family and no criminal record (one of violent crimes, anyway), the wedding date is set. It is not uncommon for couples in their late thirties to be wed a few months after first meeting. Baby-making requires a bit of time, after all.
Speaking of weddings, Korean matrimonial ceremonies, despite their importance, are wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am occasions. Families tend to put a lot of dough into over-the-top weddings, if only to show off their financial stability (or to fake it) to the hundreds of acquaintances, business partners and family members that show up for the short ceremony.
The process for the wedding guest is simple. Show up. Pay the customary cash as a gift to the newlyweds. When the ceremony starts, chat with the other guests around you and take your phone calls if needed. Eat the provided meal (which is sometimes served during the ceremony). Leave. Go to the next wedding.
Korea's delivery system is a-maz-ing. There's no other word to describe it. Want McDonald's at 4 in the morning? Done, via motorcycle. Low on groceries? Order them on G-Market and have them packed neatly in boxes at your door the next day. Forgot to send your girlfriend her 100 day anniversary gift? Get it hand delivered in minutes. Delivery here is fast, efficient and something I just don't know if I'll ever be able to survive without.
Perhaps this started when the country needed to rebuild quickly after the war, but even today, buildings in Korea are constructed at record-breaking speeds. It's not strange to visit a neighborhood and see two or three new stand-alone shops or restaurants whose foundations did not even exist a week before. Unfortunately, the lack of safety precautions and use of cheap materials is most likely one of the reasons construction is so fast. Sadly, problems usually arise in new buildings as quickly as it takes to construct them.
Many acclaim Korea's crazy fast internet speeds (the fastest in the world, to be exact) to its huge online gaming industry. At 24.6 megabits (mbps) per second (whatever that means), Koreans can do just about anything online in half the time it takes Americans. And from just about anywhere, too- from the tops of mountains to the depths of the deepest subway trains. Perhaps this is why Korea is also the world's second biggest consumer of porn, despite its illegality.
Korea doesn't just consume porn. They're also the world’s biggest consumers of hard liquor, at 11.2 shots a week on average. Drinking plays an important role in corporate culture and though things are changing, it's still the norm to hit the soju with co-workers after a long day of work. Koreans also tend to drink more to get drunk rather than to enjoy their beverages (which is understandable, considering Korean alcohol is usually less than enjoyable) so even before midnight tolls, streets are overflowing with red-faced, staggering men in suits and are dotted with piles of... Well, I'll just say that Korea knows how to do nightlife, for sure.
When a nation is used to getting things done quickly, it doesn't take much for them to get impatient. Such is the case with trends. Food, music, beauty and fashion trends go as quickly as they come. Such a constant change in people's preferences makes it hard to operate a business, be successful as a musician or even get a cosmetic operation in looks-obsessed Korea (in fact, some are saying reverse plastic surgery is the new thing.)
Strangely enough, some of the latest and most popular trends revolve around reviving the slow pace of the Korea of the past. Slow food. Slow cities. Trips to organic farms, urban beekeeping and weekends glamping in the countryside. All the craze right now. It makes one wonder if these trends will stick around for a while, bringing the younger generations to favor a slower Korea, or if the now-bbali nation will continue to be one of haste.
What else does Korea do fast? Leave your comments in the box below.
Coming to Korea was a huge, daunting move, and needless to say I did a lot of research beforehand; finding out about the culture and customs (bowing your head and removing your shoes inside), weather (yes, there definitely are 4 distinct seasons), and shopping (being told that buying clothes/shoes/underwear was pretty much impossible).
The information I found was helpful, but ultimately it’s living here which gives you the best knowledge. So here, in hindsight, is what advice I’d give myself, and anyone else about to move to Korea.
- Learn Hangul before you arrive
I had a quick look at some ‘learn to read Hangul’ guides before coming, but not in much detail, and I wish that I had. Once you’ve arrived, there’s so much else to sort out and distract you that you might not have the time to focus on learning to read in Korean- this happened to me, and in the end it was a while before I properly taught myself Hangul.
Don’t be put off by thinking it’s too difficult, because it’s much simpler than you’d imagine (everyone else I know agrees that it’s surprisingly easy to get a grip of). Being able to read it upon your arrival makes things much less daunting, even being able to read the city names and find your correct destination when you arrive at the airport.
I used the infamous Ryan Estrada method which can be found here, which I found pleasantly straightforward, and would definitely recommend.
- Phones are generally on contracts
I imagined that I’d be able to get a simple pay-as-you-go phone in Korea and that I wouldn’t use it too often, but that’s a pretty difficult thing to do. I was told by co-workers to set up a contract, as it would be hard to find somewhere to find a pay-as-you-go option.
Everyone I know has ended up setting a phone contract and getting a Korean phone as part of that contract- so if you’re coming out with your own phone, it could be that you’ll end up getting a new one instead.
- Deodorant does exist-for women
I was pretty worried when I read that deodorant isn’t really used by Koreans, and came out with about 10 sprays in my luggage. Luckily for women, you can find deodorant now in most marts, even if it is the roll-on kind and more expensive than you’d expect.
But for men it’s more difficult. My male friends tell me it’s pretty much impossible to find stuff in a standard supermarket. So for them, they fill their cases with extra deodorant… or resort to buying the female version if they run out.
- Underwear is expensive
On the whole, the cost of living is so much cheaper in Korea, apart from where underwear is concerned. The price of underwear is pretty similar to the price of proper clothes, which I found pretty shocking. Plus, the selection isn’t the best to say the least… If I were packing to move out here, I’d cram my suitcase with extra items.
Oh, apart from socks, which are sold everywhere, are extremely cheap, and also amazing. In fact, I wouldn’t bother to pack any socks and buy them all when you arrive!
- Cosmetics are good
I didn’t have a clue what to expect from Korean cosmetics, so packed double the amount I needed: two makeup bags, extra face creams and wipes, just so many products. But luckily, there was no need as there are so many options in Korea, ranging from the very-cheap to the luxury, expensive items.
I’d guess there are even more options than you’d have back home. You only have to walk into a cosmetic shop to be faced with so many face creams, lotions, cleaners, toners, and goodness-knows what else, that you’ll be in the shop for hours, confused over what to buy.
- G Market is the new Amazon
Amazon ships some stuff to Korea, but not everything. And so the other option is G Market. There’s an English website which is convenient, and you can find most things you’d need on there.
- Buy your winter gear in Korea
Winter is hideously cold, but it’s alright as long as you have proper winter clothes. I came out with a winter coat, gloves, hat, scarves etc., but when the colder months arrived I realised that they weren’t enough, and that I needed proper winter clothes which are actually designed for the freezing temperatures.
They have everything you could ever need in Korea: thermal vests, leggings, hats, gloves, fluffy socks, pajamas, snoods, the list goes on. And while a lot of the winter coats are insanely expensive, there are cheaper options which are still perfect for facing the cold. My coat is my saviour during winter, it isn’t a huge puffer-jacket, and it cost a fraction of the price of the majority of coats.
- There are more and more Western food products
Another thing I read online about Korea was the lack of certain foods, cereal being one of the main things which people claimed you couldn’t find. However I think that now, the majority of things can be found in marts. In fact, there is quite a large selection of cereals in all 3 of our local marts, even if it is slightly more expensive than you’d pay back home.
In the past few months I’ve even seen things like quinoa and oats (yay) appear on the shelves, which weren’t here 18 months ago. The only thing I find I miss are confectionery goods and bread (it does exist but the selection isn’t great, and the taste isn’t as good). And for things which you can’t find in the shops, I Herb is amazing.
- Daiso is amazing
One of the first shops you venture into should be Daiso. It is just the best, selling everything from tableware to shampoo to shower gel to headphones to slippers to towels to decorations for your home. It’s so cheap, but it isn’t rubbish either. Daiso is my go-to shop for most things other than food.
- You can find clothes and shoes
I’d read a lot about the lack of clothes/shoes to fit Westerners, but there are options out there, even if they’re limited/in Seoul. It’s true that a lot of the clothes are tiny, but there are larger shops which have a bigger selection, UniQlo being a good example. My boyfriend is much bigger than the average Korean male at over 6 foot, but he has found plenty of things to fit him here, as have I. And as for shoes, ABC Mart sells bigger sizes, and their biggest size was fine for my boyfriend.
If you’re finding it really hard to find clothes, there’s always Seoul which has a lot of Western shops, so you should be able to find something suitable, if you look hard enough!
- Lastly (and most importantly, the food is good
I obviously had to mention the food in Korea, which I love. But it is something I worried about before coming to Korea, as hating the food would be pretty bad. And there are some strange meals which most Westerners would shy away from (raw seafood and animal innards spring to mind), but there is plenty of normal, delicious food. And it isn’t all spicy, as some people warn you. There’s a list of 20 Korean meals here, to give you an idea of what to expect.
If you really hate the food, there are Western restaurants even in smaller cities. And there’s guaranteed to be some of the Koreans’ favourite: fried-chicken. Although it might not be the healthiest choice to eat this too often.
I could start raving about food here, but that would be a whole new post…
Filed under: Expat, Korea
Tongdosa Temple from the 1970s.
Hello Again Everyone!!
Tongdosa Temple is situated on the southern slopes of the picturesque Mt. Chiseosan in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. The name Tongdosa Temple means “Transmission of the Way Temple,” in English, and it was first established in 643 A.D. by the famed monk, Jajang-yulsa. Tongdosa Temple is a noted temple for several reasons, but its greatest claim to fame is that it was the first temple in Korea to house the earthly remains of the historical Buddha, Seokgamoni-bul. During his travels and studies in China, Jajang-yulsa visited the Yunjisi Temple. Here, he obtained the holy relics which included the Buddha’s robe, his begging bowl, a portion of his skull, and numerous sari (crystallized remains). Upon his return to the Korean peninsula, and through the support of Queen Seondeok (r. 632-647) he spread Buddhism throughout the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C to 935 A.D), and Jajang-yulsa established Tongdosa Temple to store the Buddha’s remains.
Like all great temples, Tongdosa Temple has an interesting creation myth. According to legend, at the time of the temple’s founding, there were nine dragons living in a pond on the grounds. Jajang attempted to make them leave so he could build the temple by reciting Buddhist scriptures. After they refused, and his previous attempt failed, Jajang inscribed the Chinese character for fire on a sheet of paper and tossed it in the air. He did this while splashing his long walking stick in the pond. The pond water began to boil. Unable to endure the heat, three dragons attempted to escape, but were too disoriented to do so; instead, they died by crashing into a cliff called Yonghyeolam (Dragon Blood Rock). An additional five dragons flew southwest towards a valley now called Oryong-gol (Five Dragon Valley). The final dragon of the lot, blinded by the boiling water, vowed to Jajang, if the monk spared his life, that the dragon would stay in the pond and protect the temple forever. Granting this wish, the dragon became the protector of Tongdosa Temple. And the Nine Dragons Pond, or “Guryong-ji,” in Korean, still remains to this day to the left of the main hall.
From its very creation, Tongdosa Temple thrived throughout its history. From state-sponsored Buddhism to the Confucian led Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), Tongdosa Temple has always been at the forefront of Korean Buddhism. Unfortunately, the temple was completely destroyed in 1592 by the invading Japanese during the Imjin War. But in 1645, the temple was reconstructed, including the Daeung-jeon main hall. More recently, the temple has undergone numerous renovations and rebuilds including the new temple museum which houses several of the temple’s treasures.
Tongdosa Temple is known as one of the three Korean jewel temples (삼보사찰) alongside Haeinsa Temple in Hapcheon, Gyeongsangnam-do and Songgwangsa Temple in Suncheon, Jeollanam-do. Specifically, Tongdosa Temple represents the “Bul” (Buddha) aspect of the three jewels. This focuses on the very spirit of the Buddha.
In total, there are nineteen associated hermitages spread throughout the Tongdosa Temple grounds. It also houses one national treasure, National Treasure #290, which just so happens to be the Daeung-jeon main hall and Ordination Platform (Geumgang Gyedan). It is also home to twenty-two additional treasures spread throughout the grounds, as well as the temple museum. Currently, Tongdosa Temple is attempting to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tongdosa Temple is Korea’s largest temple.
Tongdosa Temple from the start of the last century.
An early 20th century picture of the Daeung-jeon main hall at Tongdosa Temple.
And part of the temple grounds today.
A look towards the main hall at Tongdosa Temple.
The Geumgang Gyedan with the Buddha’s remains housed inside the stone lotus bud.