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Not Another How-to Post

I was thinking about how to survive in your tiny Busan apartment but then I remembered that many of the youngsters here were surviving in a place just as small with four roommates in college but I am going to write a few pieces of advice anyway if only for the people I know (you know who you are) who could benefit from a bit of motherly nagging.

  • First: Even if you are happy in your squalor, recognize that your inevitable guests will not be. Do you dishes. How to: if you have a one-holer, and you do, fill the sink with suds and dishes. As you wash them, place them on the counter where you just made a mess (the suds will drain a bit but that will help clean the counter). Arrange artfully. After all the dishes are done drain the sink and put the clean dishes back in. Clean the counter. Lay down clean drip towel. Rinse dishes and arrange artfully on drip towel, making sure that there is room for air circulation. Smoke a cigarette and admire.
  • Next: Make your bed. This has two effects. First, it causes you to take a basic step toward housekeeping first thing in the morning and this could accidentally lead to others. Second, it gives you a signal that the bed is for sleeping at night. Not at six in the evening or two in the morning. It is, and should be, a special place of sanctuary. Respect it through the ritual of bed-making.
  • Creature comforts. I am a dude. But even dudes, on solitary nights, might find the presence of candlelight comforting. I am always surprised at how a little soft light and jazz (not smooth jazz, but, like, miles or jarrett) can completely change the atmosphere of a room. If you have the energy, get to a HomePlus and pimp out your bed. Pillows, down, the works. And get some nice towels for god's sake. And a throw blanket to wrap up in. All of this, needless to say, will come in handy when you finally get drunk enough to talk to someone of the opposite sex (or).
  • Laundry. Just do it. And the more often the betterer. And don't throw your dirty underwear in the hall. Get a basket and put the stuff that needs washed in there. The stuff you can wear again fold and put at the bottom of the clean stack (duh!).
  • The Bathroom. The shower stall/crapper/toothery/shavities in these apartments present their own special challenges. Anyone who has been ready to go only to sense that they had a facial issue or hair issue has been faced with the following choice: take off your socks or go fix it at work. Solution: I have super-glued a mirror to the exit. This allows me to take one last look at my beautiful mug before launching it into the world while maintaining moisture-free hosiery. And the combination of rubber gloves, a bucket, water, Dawn detergent, stiff bristly brush, and a post-wash bleach spritzer (I have mine in an old Windex bottle [2 parts water/1 part bleach]) will (probably) keep the fungus at bay, unless you live in Nampodong, in which case you should scrub with an old fishing net and sea water.
  • Beer. A little liquor of an evening can lubricate the proceedings nicely. Just put on some music you favor and tipple. It is fun and makes the room seem comfy yet expansive. Take it from me. And Hite isn't that bad after the first two liters. Never, ever, drink Max or Soju. Especially on a school nite.
  • Cooking. A little bit of creativity and you can make a home cooked meal in that closet of a kitchen. I made a delicious soup this evening by sauteing onions, garlic, celery, carrot, baby mushrooms, and scallions in a quarter stick of Land of Lakes butter, later adding three cups of water, 1.5 cubes of Knorr's chicken bullion, and a half of a smoked chicken. After that had simmered I pulled out the chicken and threw in some egg noodles. I pulled the meat off the chicken carcass and threw it back in (the meat, i mean [the skin and bones and gristle I remained to the freezer for carcass soup later]). A friend brought a baguette (the ones at Paris Baguette don't suck) and we dined like rednecks at grandma's house. And then I did the dishes.
I could go on but I will save some of my more pointed suggestions for the inevitable eventuality that these don't work. Again, you know who you are.

My Special Place

Years down the line a psychiatrist may well ask me to visualise my special place and when he does, I’ll probably be thinking of Jagalchi Fish Market. Centered around a huge sail-like building in Busan Port that evokes the Sydney Opera House, Jagalchi is billed as the largest fish market in Korea, and its easy to see why. Covering an area roughly 5000 square metres, a staggering amount of sealife passes through this place seven days a week, and I like nothing better than to wander the aisles gaping the ocean’s harvest in all its weirdness.

As you would expect, the market plays host to an abundance of fresh fish, crabs and crustaceans (much of it live) ranging from the familiar to the downright freakish; Monster King Crabs clamber over each other in expansive tanks waiting for the drop of the sellers net, while four-foot long Octopi stare back at you with their black dead eyes. I recently saw a bucket of turtles here, paddling around happily unaware of their surroundings and have even heard that whale meat is available, though have yet to see any myself.

However, while its fun to watch, the best of Jagalchi is in the eating and in this respect a number of options are on offer. An as yet untried (but no less appealing) one is right inside the market itself, where anything you buy can be gutted, cleaned and cooked for a few chun and enjoyed in an upstairs eating section. In addition to this, dozens of restaurants, tents and eating places line the market fringes, all serving up the day’s catch at incredibly attractive prices.

I recently ducked into one of the latter on an overcast Saturday afternoon, enticed by the fish grilling outside and the busy trade within. After asking in bungled Korean for a bowl of jiggae (a spicy soup eaten with rice,) there soon arrived at my table a whole grilled fish (head eyes, fins and all) a bowl of jiggae and a bowl of rice. The fish turned out to be a happy accident, an abundance of flaky white flesh under crispy golden skin coming apart easily underneath my chopsticks. Delicious on its own, the bowl of dipping soy sauce that arrived with the banchan (side dishes) added an extra, previously untried dimension.

For its part the jiggae held its own; the rich spicy broth complemented with green onion, beansprouts and bits and pieces of sea creatures I don’t know the English for let alone the Korean. The biggest surprise however was the chocolate coloured tofu bobbing around amongst the seafood. This chunky, textured addition was nothing like the slimy, watery meat substitute defended so vigourously by vegetarians in the west, instead adding body and substance to the bowl.

After paying up (the whole thing came to less than £3) and leaving with a hearty “chal mokessayo!” I returned to the madness in search of the night’s dinner (a pair of Mud Crabs as it turned out) and gape a little more.

This is what Saturday afternoons were made for.

Taste Buds, You've Changed.

My last couple of weeks in Korea Land were so stressful (and possibly drunk) that I more or less forgot that this section of the internet existed. A few days in Canada Land, the boredom set in, and I remembered blogspot! I'll be returning to Korea Land in 5-6 weeks. In hindsight, this was probably too long of a gap. Hanging with folks from home? Awesome. Temporary work placements? Snow?

Bi Bim Bap - a loopa

Part of the fun of Korean food is how easily the names can be punned into western song titles. I’ve passed many an idle hour smiling to myself about the likes of Kim-bop, Galbi there and my personal favourite, Getting jiggae with it. However, while puns are all very well, most of the fun remains in the eating of the stuff and this is no less true of the quiet man of Korean cuisine, Bi Bim Bap.

The perfect way to regain some of that strength after going ten rounds with the Kindergarteners, Bi Bim Bap dishes all follow a variation on a basic set-up of rice, julienned vegetables, a fried egg, dried sea weed and sesame seeds. If you opt to go dol sot (which I do, always) then the whole thing arrives in a sizzling bowl adding a bit of pizzazz to the whole arrangement. Into this tumultuous cauldron go a few spoonfuls of gloopy, firey chilli paste to taste, after which it’s ready to go.

With Bi Bim Bap you’ve gotta work for your supper, giving everything a good mix to evenly distributed the various parts. The result is a mighty fine bowl of food. The rice, a staple of the Korean diet is transformed by the chilli paste and sea weed, while the egg provides an indispensible protein fix. While I mostly eat this basic version of Bi Bim Bap at the diner beside our school at lunch times, we will occasionally go to a special Bi Bim Bap restaurant for dinner, where a number of variations are on offer. My personal favourite is an extra spicy concoction that includes a liberal amount of tender, shredded pork and a bowl of mussel soup on the side.

I originally dismissed this unprepossessing bowl of rice and vegetables as merely a healthier (and as such less interesting) alternative to whatever dead animal I was in the process of shovelling onto my plate, but I am fast finding out that, as with a lot of Korean Food, there is more, much more.

Unqualified Food Criticism: Dave's Fish and Chips

Several friends of mine had recommended the breakfast at Dave's so we decided to head out to Jangsan and try it out on Sunday. I have only had an English breakfast a couple of times before and neither time was in England, so what follows is merely the opinion of my own sizable gut.

There were several couples in the cozy place when we arrived. The dining room sat about twenty four and had a huge (and remarkably clean) picture window which offered a pretty nice street view and brought in a lovely morning light with the southern exposure. One wall was decorated with a hand drawn mural depicting a mill on a stream. Painted on another near our table was a hearth with a roaring fire. It was only noon on a Sunday but I still contemplated sampling some of the beers Dave keeps cold in a corner cooler. The list was impressive. I will definitely be going back for dinner.

The food came out quick and hot. Crispy bacon (I like mine a little chewier, but that is a matter of personal taste), hot toast, and a fried egg (this was exactly the way I like it although I wasn't asked: they must have read my mind), were accompanied by baked beans and a grilled tomato slice. It was all delicious and I don't think they had to wash the plate when I got done (no, I didn't lick it...I used the last piece of toast). And a nice hot pot of black tea. And juice. Many of the coffee shops in Busan serve their sugar in liquid form (sugar syrup) and I went for what I thought was a squeeze bottle of that and it turned out to be lemon juice so watch out for that. There is a dispenser of granulated white sugar in the basket as well.

We arrived more around lunch so we took the opportunity to try the specialty as well and the fish and chips did not disappoint. I like my potatoes fried a little bit more but I suspect that they are done medium rare on purpose. The fish was divine. A huge slab with just the right amount of breading done to a golden turn (that phrase courtesy of Mike Madonia in a catfish commercial back home). It was wonderful.

After our meal the proprietor came out and chatted. He has been in Korea for six or seven years and I don't think he's leaving. I probably told him way more than he wanted to know about my life (sorry...its a habit), but he was a very nice fellow who shared with me the physique of someone who knows how to find the bottom of a bowl or a bottle. I look forward to going back and sharing a beer with him soon.

Dave's Fish and Chips is a five minute walk from the Jangsan subway terminal, three if you are hungry. When you leave the subway station look around and find the 2001 Fashion Outlet store. From the corner it sits on walk to the opposite corner (the intersection has the jaywalk crosswalks) and take the sidewalk on the right. It is about half a block past the next stoplight, 2nd floor on the left. Look for a rather small (by Korean standards tiny) red sign. They are open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner on Saturday and Sunday. Tell Dave Joe sent ya!

I'm Only Happy When It Rains

I have never been a rainy day type person. I am actually a little more mental on cloudy days than I am normally and that isn't good usually (yay! three adverbs) but I love Busan when it rains. This city, for reasons peculiar to itself, really benefits from a bath. It is normally a little dusty, a little grubby, and wears all of its odors maybe a little too proudly. A little rain gives it a shine and softens the stonger smells. It is nice.

And so it has been for the last few days, which have produced a steady drizzle. I don't even need to look. I can hear the rain tread of the tires in the busy street up the alley. I think, BTW that the alley that terminates in at my building is the steepest and shortest in Busan, but this is most certainly wrong. It is certainly fun to navigate when neither of us are too dry (me or the alley).

I went to my first professional basketball game last night, the (Busan) SK Magic Wings versus the team in green. 'Magic Wings' always makes me think of some innovation in feminine hygene but I cannot recall from my subconscious the source of the association. The crowd, like so many here at any sporting event other than baseball, was sparce but enthusiastic. Koreans love to cheer and they aren't afraid to jeer either. Professional Korean sports teams are allowed a limited number of foriegn players, and basketball is no exception. They were each allowed two gigantic African-Americans. Only one was allowed to play in the second and third quarter. we missed the first quarter (Allison, Jiho, and I attended), but when we arrived Busan was about three points down. The center for Busan (who remained in) was a likeable fellow who didn't hog the ball and made some very good assists to his Korean teammates. By the end of the third quarter Busan had built a ten point lead mainly through team defence and excellent passing. The Koreans were not great drivers but they were able defenders and played a complicated pick and pass game akin to the WNBA. The center was several times signalled to stand on the baseline in three point land to draw his counterpart out of the lane, allowing the Koreans to run a successful set play, a role he graciously accepted.

The fourth quarter ushered in the other foreign player, a guy who probably would have played point or shooting guard in the NBA, and who thought (mistakenly) that everyone in attendance had come to see him. He asked for the ball every time down the floor and got it and proceeded to drive on triple teams. He usually ended up either laying on the floor, producing a fast break for the other team or being called for charging. The opponents scored 16 unanswered points and won the game handily. Needless to say I was disgusted.

Afterwards we went down to Yeonsandong (my neighborhood "downtown") and walked the narrow alleys until we found a cute little chicken spot to eat. We ordered the variety platter and it was really good. Allison, my new coworker and apartment neighbor, ordered a pitcher of Soju and fruit punch, and ended up drinking most of it. The chicken was great and I brought the leftovers home. So ended another lovely rainy Friday night in Busan.

What to do if you get sick while teaching in Korea:

Go to the hospital. Once you have your alien registration card and your physical you are registered into the country's mandatory medical insurance plan. I pay about 37000 won per month out of my paycheck (employer pays the other half) for the coverage and it is well worth it. I have been sick twice since I got here and both times I got fast and effective medical treatment. Today during lunch (this is why I am writing about this) I went to the hospital across the street with a bad cold. I was examined at the door and sent directly to the doctor who diagnosed me with an Upper Respiratory Infection (URI) and wrote me a prescription. I had that filled at the pharmacy down the street and I took a dose and lunchtime isn't even over yet and I feel better already. I can breath at least.

Moral of the story: get your alien card and physical as soon as possible after you arrive and if you get sick (and you will) go to the doctor immediately. I started working on my alien card fairly quickly and it still took almost a month to get everything back (you have to enroll in the medical plan after you get your card and that takes a minute as well). Also, bear in mind that immigration will be holding your passport while they process your alian registration. I had to adjust my travel plans for the first month to compensate for not having a passport. I arrived at the end of June and the school closed for the last week of July and I would likely have gone to Japan if I was sure I would have got my passport back in time.

And at these prices there is no use trying to medicate yourself with over-the-counter meds. The doctor's visit cost me 3500 won and the prescription, which included six doses of four and a half pills each, don't ask me what) cost me 1400 won for a grand total of 4900 won. That is $3.81 in the current exchange value.

Which sadly brings me to my second topic: the exchange rate. I have tried in this blog to avoid any negativity about my experience here in Korea, and there has been very little of it. My job is hard sometimes, but my jobs at home were as well. I love Busan, my beautiful adoptive hometown, and the rest of Korea (what I have seen) is a gem. The people here are wonderful and kind, and there are many other things I could say about this wonderful experience...but there has been one big downside for me.

Korea sends a major portion of their exports to the United States and as a result of the US financial crisis the won/dollar conversion rate has tanked. Since I started watching it last January it has dropped by about 30% against the dollar. It is still very cheap to live here and there is very little inflation to erode my standard of living (which can't be said of other ESL hotspots where I read that you may go from comfortable to desperate in the course of a one year contract) but I have financial responsibilities and waiting till the currency rebounds (which it almost certainly will eventually) is not an option for me. If you are in the same situation, bear that in mind when looking at your contract: if you need US currency look at the current exchange rate when contemplating a budget. Of course, there is not way to predict what will happen in six months, but is is worthwhile to see what you are working with if you have an immediate need for dollars.

Here is a link to the English language website of the Korean National Health Insurance Corporation (turn down your volume before clicking or you will get blasted with a special video message that's set to stun).


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