Recent Blog Posts

All Recent Posts


Last Tuesday night was my birthday, and to mark the occasion we shuffled and coughed our way through the freezing cold to the Novotel Ambassador Hotel on Haeundae Beach. The hotel does a legendary buffet, and having eaten there the week before in the company of our Director and Manager, we were determined to make this visit a little less restrained.

Straddling the seafront like a Neptunian colossus, the Ambassador does a fine trade as Haeundae’s premier Hotel complex and rocking up in my donkey jacket and trainers, I couldn’t help but feel the ominous onset of the Bums Rush. If being a foreigner in Korea means anything however, it’s your innate inapproachability - I probably could have set fire to the curtains and got away with nothing more than a tight grin and a bow. Luckily though, I was here to eat, and for 49 chun a pop (roughly 25 quid) including wine you can really get your moneys worth.

Meaty king crab legs, mussels, prawns, crayfish and a considerable array of raw fish and sushi made for an excellent appetiser, followed soon after by an attack on the mains counter. A number of home favorites were represented here, including beef stew, baked fish, and cauliflower cheese. Needless to say each item had a welcome place at my table and as if there wasn’t enough on our plates, we had a few lamb chops, steaks, and Bay Lobsters cooked to order.

The shellfish was excellent. Served cold (with the exception of the Bay Lobster) it was plain, fresh and delicious. The mains displayed a similar degree of competence, and although the cauliflower was a little overdone and some of the dishes could have been a degree or two warmer, they made for an outstanding midpoint nonetheless. It was in the cooked-to-order selection, however, that the chef’s skill was most obvious. The Bay Lobsters were plump and sweet, giving up a surprising amount of flesh from their squat tails. The lamb and steak meanwhile, were cooked with the kind of care and precision deserving of a quality piece of meat; slightly charred on the outside, yielding to a medium rare pink in the middle.

The only problem we experienced was with timing. We only managed to get a table at 8pm, two hours before closing, and while a more relaxed meal might have involved more of an eat – rest – eat regime, time constraints meant that a quicker pace was required and i unfortunately didn't manage dessert, preferring instead to go for another pass at the savories.

Korean food is great, but when you need an injection of western flavour, you can do a lot worse than the Ambassador.

Tripping Down Memory Lane

Yujin and I took a little trip over the break. We entertained our several options and decided at last to go to Yeosu again and revisit some of the places we had seen there in the days after our first meeting. It was our hope to finally visit Geomundo Island, but we were again foiled by the elements.

We left early afternoon and before we ever walked out the door I was exhausted. I had spent the morning at the bank, paying my bills and sending some money back to the states. For some reason it was a big banking day. When I pulled my number I was 124 and they were serving 91. And there is only one lady who does the wire transfers and she was busy but I informed her that I was waiting and the nice lobby guy (who mopped up the dogshit I had tracked in last time) got a queue going at her desk and it appeared that I was second. I began to contemplate the possibility of auctioning off my now quite valuable #124 but the language barrier and an atypical consideration of self-preservation prevented this.

I was given a paper cup of strong green tea by the nice lobby guy, who, knowing I was there to donate an organ to the fickle whims of the monetary system, went back and put the won/dollar exchange ticker on the big screen and started giving me a blow-by-blow commentary, in Korean and across the width of the bank, to the delight of the hundred or so nationals present whose currency was safely esconsed in shitty Won. As we watched the rate rose and fell and rose and fell and I thought to myself, how are they going to know what rate to pick? I have to sign something and they have to wire something and take something out of my account and put it in the other one and meanwhile this thing is bouncing like Bozo's balls in the Grand Prize Game (yeah, I'll be forty next year). If I worked at the bank and someone was going to get screwed it would not be the bank. Of course, these questions, and many others I would like to ask now go unuttered and I have learned to sit quietly and let the wheels turn around me. It is quite liberating, really, to be helpless.

When my turn came I was delighted to find that the rate had bounced in my favor and I was able to send my penny home through the forfieture of far less Won than last month. When the currency lady was done having her way with my money the nice lobby guy took my fistful of utility bills and tore them into the appropriate shreds and inserted the shreds into the appropriate slot in the bill payer machine and took my bankbook and inserted it into it's special slot and something beeped and a piece of paper I couldn't read was spit out and I was right-o with the electric, internet, and cell phone company. I felt pretty damned responsible at that point, let me tell ya.

Home I went, drained physically and financially, and packed the trusty backpack. I took the camera, travel tripod, the spare batteries and charger, the MP3 and its USB charger, the phone, the extra phone battery and its charger, Volume II of the Complete Sherlock Holmes, Lonely Planet's Korea, my sketchbook, journal, pen, pencils and sharpener and eraser, mini-maglight, identification, reading and sun glasses, and basic toilet. Along with the clothes on my back I took an extra pair of underwear for the five day trip but it turned out I didn't need them. (I bought one pair of socks on the road.) There was plenty of room left for the outer water/wind layer of my Columbia two-piece.

We hit the road. Bus 87 to Yeonsandong Station, subway to Nampodong, express bus to Yeosu. We caught a local down to the Ferry Terminal, which was closed. We looked around and found moderately priced accomodation at the Midojang Yeogwan: quiet for a yeogwan and very clean, excepting the sheets. We then walked across the road to the shopping area and had the variety platter at the New York Hot Dog and Coffee. The hotdogs themselves were good all-beef weiners and the toppings were eclectic but tasty. There was a chili dog, a grilled onion dog, and a curry dog, but we liked the bulgogi dog the best. I wouldn't pass up a chance to eat at this place if you are a homesick hotdog fan.

We woke early the next morning to try to catch the 7:40 ferry out to the island but the nice desk lady told us that the seas were too rough and the ferry might not run for a few days. This got me to thinking: what if we finally get out there and then the ferry is cancelled for a week or two. That would be a lovely phone call: "Hello, KidsClub? Uh, listen. I'm, like, stuck on this island..."

We decided to go back to the place where it all began. This was, afterall, exactly like our first date, and on our first date we got up early at the hotel and went to the ferry terminal and were told "no, the seas are too rough", and we decided to go to the pretty little fishing town by the sea with the beautiful temple on a cliff high above. We got there and got the best room in my favorite hotel, the one with two huge windows overlooking the blue sea and a bathtub with powerful jet-like devices which stir up the water around you in the most pleasant and relaxing fashion. We were told that we were very fortunate to have come on the day we did, because the temple was hosting their annual New Year's Eve festival the following evening and the hotel room we were staying in would have cost three times as much if it were available, which it wasn't. At W50000 the place is an absolute steal anyway, but special event pricing would have placed it beyond our budget. If you want to know where this place is and the name of the hotel and the number of the best room, too bad.

We went down the hill to the little bar with a view and a fire crackling in the big cast iron stove and shucked oysters into our mouths and washed them down with some good cold Korean beer and then went to bed early so as to rise at 6am hike up the mountain to watch the sunrise at the temple. We got up at 6am and hiked up the mountain because the nice hotel guy told us that the sunrise was at 7am. Or that is what I thought he said. He actually said 7:20. And the sun really rose at 7:32 and cleared the haze on the horizon at 7:40, at which point I had been standing on a cliff in the wind over the ocean for 55 minutes, the last 15 of which I don't remember because that part of my brain froze. But I was taking time-delayed still images of the sunrise, one picture per minute, and I counted them afterwards and that is how it works out. We staggered, moaning, down the mountain and got into the hot tub and thawed out. Then we had a three-hour nap and took the bus back to town.

The rest of the trip basically sucked. Here is the condensed version: Bus to Mokpo. Heat on high and children screaming and me steaming in long underwear. Step off bus into driving wet snow. Walk to four bus stops before we find the one downtown to the Lonely Planet's almighty recommended mid-level hotel. Finally locate hotel. Hotel out-of-business. Find other less than optimal accomodations. Go to find food. Expensive dinner too horrible to describe. Make small scene at restaurant. Go back to Yeogwan. Alternately freeze without and burn with heating mattress. Get up. Go to museums. Lonely Planet's almighty recommended restaurant nearby out-of-business. Nice museum guy says walk that way ten minutes: many restaurants. Walk that way three minutes: one restaurant. Walk three minutes: restaurant out-of-business. Eat ramen in museum snack bar. See butterflies and poorly stuffed tiger. And funny shaped rocks. And more funny shaped rocks. And Korean art from five generations of one family (Ok, this part didn't suck). In museum bathroom have first signs of terrible illness. Go to next museum. See ships and boats and nets and etc. Start to feel rather poorly. Take taxi back to yeogwan and am violently ill for the next twenty-four hours. Yujin again saves my life with fluids and tender ministrations. Train home [took the KTX from Mokpo via Daejeon rather than the quicker bus (no bathroom) and the cheaper, direct, Mugunghwa train (but 9.5 hours. wha?)].

The train home was actually wonderful. I have written before about high speed rail. It is an incredible way to travel. It is an absolute travesty that the United States does not have it throughout. And when I finally got home I was able to eat for the first time since Wednesday and that felt good. I have some good pictures which I will post in the photo section. Thanks for reading and good night.

Happy New Years to My Face

Among other things, my plans for 2009 included partaking in more healthy activities, developing hobbies that don't include bottles or sass, and not falling on my head.Then I fell on my face.It's like I lost 2009 already.Somehow I ended up by the Lotte in Seomyeon, where I felt I needed to go underground to cross the street. I did not actually need to cross the street there, but I don't have my

I Want to Punch Seomyeon in the Face

Seomyeon sort of looks like what would happen if you gave a 3 year old a pack of crayons and asked them to design a city centre. The streets are windy, disordered, end unexpectedly, littered with trash, and frequently adorned with pissing old men. At 9am. Because if you can't take a piss on the street at 9am, when can you?I'm back. I've only been back for a week, but from the moment the passed

Six Months In Country

Christmas Day marks six months since I set foot in Korea on June 25th. I can't believe it. Time has certainly flown. Before I came I read, and I believe wrote about since, the stages of culture shock. I am glad I did although it didn't help much. There were times when I thought: "Ok, I have moved on to the next stage." Looking back over the time now I realize that I was always behind a little. The honeymoon lasted longer, the low period was longer and deeper, and the comfortable, homey phase is still kicking in. Going through that, somewhat thoughtfully, has been one of the best things about this. It is amazing to come fresh to a new place and make a home there. Not a literal home but a heart home.

My poor blog has been whimpering in the shadows of neglect for a couple of months. I write when I want and I haven't felt like writing down the day-to-day of the life into which I have now, officially, settled. The holiday calendar in Korea is lumpy: there are no official holidays on the calendar for over three months and so we are in the last weeks of a long slog toward Christmas vacation. This has meant little travel outside of regular trips to Daegu, and I have written about that. So subject matter has been lacking a bit.This should change as a week's vacation and a lot of three day weekends are around the corner.

When I first got here someone told me to treasure my first weeks here. The wonderful terror of that first transition is fast fleeting. I am very happy that I wrote as much as I did during that time. I didn't have to go farther than my own street for material at that point. Every trip to the corner for water seemed like an incredible adventure. Although every day still seems magical and I am constantly aware of being an alien here, my main preoccupations now have returned to what they were before I came here: friends, work, and my Sig other.

Each of these things are of course completely different from before for a variety of noteworthy reasons. Friendships here are intense and brief. You meet people and, because of the surroundings and the relative anonymity of an expat community in a city this size, feel both more willing to open up to them and at the same time free of certain social responsibilities (like a keeping in touch afterwards). And people are always coming and going. There is a sizable group of foreigners here who aren't going anywhere any time soon, but the majority of the people (especially the youngest set) are only here for a year, so close friendships bloom and fade. I have been blessed with some very wonderful friends while I have been here. I have no reason to believe this will not continue. My gregarious nature has been a great asset to me here, perhaps the greatest. People are always shocked that I will literally talk to anyone. It's a hobby.

Work here is also an utterly foreign experience. Prior to coming to Korea I was a dabbler, holding down two or three part-time jobs and playing a lot in between. There was a period when I was very unhappy with my job here and I think this was partly due to the adjustment to full-time employment. There were also times when I felt that they expected too much for what they were paying me and that they took for granted all of the extras I felt I was already putting in. All of this led me to feel dissatisfied with my position and unhappy in general. But I have now come to believe that life is a matter of perception.

The Buddhist texts that I have been reading say "You are what you think." I was obsessed with the thought that I was being exploited, ridiculed, and overworked. In addition, I reached the point of paranoia that I felt my employers were looking for a reason to get rid of me. Maybe they were, because I wouldn't have blamed them. My attitude was horrible. Then, one day, after reading about Right Livelihood, I realized that this job wasn't about me. At all. I had become a captive of my own negativity. By realizing that my own perceptions of my position were the only thing that mattered I made a choice to make this about what I could offer to others, not what they could offer to me. What they owed me and whether or not I was getting it ceased to matter at that point and my job became a source of joy to me, not an anchor. I work for the kids. And they need me. And, more importantly, I need them.

And then there is 손유진 (Yujin), the real bedrock source of joy in my life now. Being around her is like hooking myself up to a battery charger. Her laughter is a like a song that gets stuck in your head. Her smile is like the clouds parting. We have a lot of challenges to face, but I believe that in the end it will all work out. I look forward to sharing many wonderful experiences with her in the future.

There is one sad thing to report. It was with great regret that I bid farewell to my friend Tom this last week. His shipping company had invited him to work in an exchange program and his six months here were up. We met in September and enjoyed many great adventures together, including one memorable trip to Japan. I, and others here, feel his absence. He is a fine individual.

Six months! Merry Solstice everyone!

The Christmas Show

A great time was had by all at the Christmas Program hosted by KidsClub on Thursday evening. I have posted pictures and they are available in the Photo section. Some of them are from rehearsals on days leading up to the performance. I will relate more of the story behind them soon. Merry Solstice!

Grave Mistake

My friend and I purchased an assortment of flowers and made our way to the largest graveyard in town with the intention of visiting the plot of our friend who passed away in the last year. It was supposed to be his birthday. The flowers were the friend's idea; those are the sort of things that really don't occur to me. The lady behind the desk at in the cometary office scanned the information on


I get most of my news from the New York Times and it was nice to see today on the front page of the online edition that South Korea's central bank has announced yet another massive cut in its prime rate. I am not an economist and I know very little about monetary policy and I am not going to sit here and bitch about how this downturn is affecting poor little me, but from reading the article it has become apparent to me that things are worse than even I thought.

The whole premise of the American bailout is that they can get money from Asia and Europe to plug up the holes. But according to the Times, the double-digit growth period enjoyed by the Chinese economy is a thing of the past. The growth rate in China is expected to drop to as little as 8% next year. This credit crunch will eventually affect the dollar as foreign funds become more and more pricey. That is one side of the Won/Dollar coin. The other is this: for two thousand years South Korea has been the ground meat of a cultural and economic sandwich between Japan and China and that has never been more true than today. Korea also needs capital as an emerging economy and far worse. To compound things, the Korean export economy is far more dependent on Asian demand that of the US.

My complaints about income erosion led my boss to tell me what has become a mantra in South Korea: now is the time to save money. It will bounce back. Wait it out. But what if you have no choice? What if you have to turn your hard won Won into dollars? You want to see grown men cry? Go sit in the waiting room at a Korean exchange bank. As of today the exchange rate is $1/1393. It was sitting at $1/950 when I signed in June. That is a drop of something like a rather large number in front of one of these: %.

So ok. I lied. I am complaining a little. Sorry. But I have a readership (and I really appreciate both of you) and I ultimately have to say how I really feel. People email and ask if coming to Korea is a good idea and I am responding with a resounding "IF." If you don't have to send it home right now. If you are good at saving money and can live frugally. If you enjoy working really, really hard and like teaching for teaching's sake, then by all means get your butt over here. If not, go work at Walmart. You can save a lot of money with your employee discount.

The real problem, of course, isn't the world's economy, but my own personal lack of fiscal discipline. I put off sending anything home as long as I could but I can wait no longer. And IF I would have save more this wouldn't have been as painful but... The economy, the paraphrase the poet who wrote it, is a big shit pie and everyone gets a bite.

So if it is time for dinner, lets look at the entire meal and not just desserts. I have said before and I will say it again: I love this place. The food, the city life, the people. And if you have to live on the cheap somewhere, this is a pretty good place. I could be getting paid in pesos or godforbid American dollars. The inflation rate in Korea is so low that it is actually too low. This is a two-edged sword as well: while the local buying power of your income is steady there is little justification for employers to increase salaries. I am wondering how this currency situation is going to effect salary offerings for foreign teachers. We could, after all, go teach elsewhere. But I predict that as the unemployment rate continues to climb in the US many young people might see this as a great option regardless of the economics and thus serve to hold down demand over here. Or maybe blogs like this one will influence people to take a good hard look at the realities of thier finances before making the jump. This, of course, would have done me little good in June. And I did look at the exchange rate and show it to my friends and go: "Look, it's a goldmine." A goldmine with some serious structural issues maybe, but how was I to know?

The other way to look at it is that there is probably no where to go but up. And the action by the ROK central bank yesterday bears out that they are going to do everything they can to stop the skid. Short of a worldwide economic collapse there has to be a light at the end of the tunnel so coming over here now really wouldn't be all that bad of an idea. If....


Subscribe to Koreabridge MegaBlog Feed