Monday, December 21, 2009

Expat USA Update

Well, I hope all is going well in the K-blog world and Korea in general.

My wife and I have finished our cross-country tour for now. We hit some great places and even got some solid ideas as to where we will settle when we head back to the US in 2010. Denver and San Fran are looking up, but I have a feeling that the job will dictate our location.

It's great being back and even better being here with the entire family. My wife's brother arrives today and we're all geared up for a huge family Christmas. The eggnog and bourbon have been flowing and I made sure to buy some Soju just to keep things interesting.

Have a good few days leading up to Christmas!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Expat goes home...

I will most likely be away from the blog and computer for most of the month as my wife and I are in the US getting things situated for our 2010 return.

We're cruising around the country though. In fact, I'm writing this from the Grand Canyon which has been slammed with a blizzard and is amazingly beautiful.

If you care...

We've done Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and now are in AZ. We're now in the Grand Canyon. Tomorrow we're heading to the Hoover Dam and Vegas.

In the upcoming days and weeks...

LA (Koreatown)
San Fran
Salt Lake City

See you in a month, dicks.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Why are you dick bloggers such arrogant dicks?

Here's the question:
Why are you dick bloggers such arrogant dicks? No one cares what you dicks think.
Wow. That's eloquent.

I'm not sure if this guy is serious or if he's just trying to get a response to a stupid question (I get a lot of these), but I guess I could give it a go.

First of all, I'm impressed that the word "dick" was used three times. I might need to work the word back into my vernacular, dick. I've been pretty big on "douche" for the past few years and -thanks to "Always Sunny"- I've been planning a return of the word "bozo". Soon enough, bozos.

So, this fellow thinks that us "dick bloggers" are "arrogant dicks" and that "no cares what" us "dicks think". Maybe he's directing that towards me and generalizing about the entire K-blog world or perhaps he really thinks we're all "arrogant dicks", but does this accusation hold?


I only have a couple ideas. Many of us opine on issues that matter to us. That's why we started our blogs and that's what we do. If we make claims or statements that irritate people, then I guess they can call us names. The fact is that many of us pay very close attention to Korean issues. We feel pretty connected to the nation in that way and perhaps that knowledge comes across as arrogance. I'm not a know-it-all. I'm constantly put in my place and educated by people through this blog, your blogs, journalists, academics, pols, my wife, my students, my friends, my parents and even my dog. There are a few things that I know to be true and the rest of it is just a stab.

I guess that some of this perceived arrogance could also come from comments we leave on other blogs. I know that I get pretty obnoxious on ROK Drop when American politics are being discussed, but for the most part I stay out of the comment boards. They tend to get nasty, snarky and offensive way too often and way too quickly.

Do we know more than non-bloggers? Nope.

Do we care more? Who knows?

Do we spend more time reading, writing and thinking about all things Korean? Probably.

Does anybody care? My 56 followers and my wife appear to and that's all I care about.

So, how about you guys, my fellow bloggers: Are you arrogant dicks?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Homemade Thanksgiving/Turkey Dinner in Korea

Here's the question:

Have you ever cooked an American Thanksgiving meal in Korea, turkey and all? My Western friends and I decided that we wanted to make a Thanksgiving dinner for our Korean friends, and I'm a little bit stumped about the turkey. This may well be purely a matter of this being my first time cooking a turkey and not knowing what I'm doing. I do have some questions about turkey in Korea, though.

1. Where is the best place to get a turkey? I might already know the answer to this. We might be able to get a turkey from someone one of us knows in the American military. I've heard that's the cheapest. But, if we go to CostCo, are we likely to find a fair deal for a turkey?

2. Once we actually get a turkey, will we be able to find a roasting pan in stores in Korea? Or would we be better off trying to borrow one from a church or other institution that might serve a Thanksgiving dinner? (Our dinner is on Friday, not Thursday).
I have never tried and I think it's great that you are, but Korea is not the easiest place to start learning how to make a proper American Thanksgiving dinner. My advice? Don't mess with it. Not only will it be extremely stressful, but I doubt that you'll find all the ingredients to do it well and, of course, the oven is another problem. If you don't have an oven in your apartment, you're setting yourself up for disaster.

You could go the Costco route (and probably find a big pan there as well), but I can't speak from experience. Two years ago (when I was searching), there were no turkeys to be found. That doesn't mean they're not there though as things might have changed, but again, finding the turkey is only the beginning.

In 2008, Kimchi Ice Cream said,

Apparently if you can get a Korean friend to call a turkey farm (assuming there's one near you--a farm, not a Korean friend, lol--there is one that's not too far from our university) you can ask a Korean friend to call for you and buy a turkey. The farmer will, for a fee, kill the turkey, de-feather it, and then deliver it to your place 

I doubt that you have time for this though, so if you want your Korean friends have a good meal, then I'd suggest taking advantage of 10 Magazine's list of places to get a good Thanksgiving dinner. Most of the places are reasonably priced, well-cooked and a lot of fun.
Now, you do have one more option: ordering a turkey/Thanksgiving dinner from a hotel. We did this last year and it was affordable, fed over 15 people and it was delivered to us at the time of our choosing. Many major hotels will be serving turkey and if they are not, they'll make it for the occasion. We customized our entire dinner and it was fantastic. If you want to eat at home, go this route.

I'm sure other people have many other routes they'll be going, so please share. As for me, well, I'm not a big turkey fan, so my wife and I will be enjoying a Brazilian Thanksgiving dinner this year.

Good luck though!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Why do schools leave the windows open in winter?

I have been quite busy fielding hate mail from my recent article in the KT. Good stuff, guys.

Here's the question:

Why do some schools open the windows and doors in the hallways in the winter? My school opens nearly half the windows and doors to the outside even when it is near freezing. This is hard for me to comprehend because a) it's a major waste of heat/energy b) everyone is wearing sandals and c) they are worried about students getting sick, and a cold school is a good way to make students sick.
I've always wondered the same. I used to hate being in public schools (or even some hagwons) during winter. There's nothing worse than sitting down on that ice-cold toilet seat. I remember how cold the stairs were in my first hagwon. Brutal.

My best guess is just that, a guess. It wasn't too long ago that many schools in Korea used space-heaters and other styles of old ovens in the classrooms. There was no reason to heat the hallways since students spent most of their time in the classrooms. I guess.

You raised some good points as well. It seems like it's a major waste of energy and you could argue that well, but most of the schools I've been in don't have any heating units in the hallways, so at least the heat isn't pouring out. Of course, the classrooms are connected to the hallways which would certainly reduce the warmth in the classrooms. So yes, it's a waste.

The kids do wear sandals or slippers in most schools and it seems that the cold air in the school could lead to an increase in illnesses. I guess we could assume that this practice is supposed to curb outside germs from getting inside which is highly debatable, but I think it also decreases the need for teams of janitors in schools. Less dirt (which most schools have fields of) on shoes would decrease filth. Regardless of the reasoning for the slippers, I'd like to see some comparative illness stats before assuming that it leads to more sicknesses. It makes sense to me though.

I also think it's perfectly reasonable to assume that a cold, drafty school is a potential health hazard, but I have a feeling that some school officials believe that by leaving the windows open, the bacteria, germs and viruses will be sucked out by or killed by the cold.

Anyone else have any ideas?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Friday the 13th in Korea

Here's the question:

One of my co-workers was talking about Friday the 13th and how this year was very unlucky because there were 3 Friday the 13th’s in 2009. Yeah, yeah, yeah, blah, blah, blah, I get it. Koreans are superstitious, but I really do wonder why she believed in Friday the 13th? Isn’t there an Asian equivalent?
Friday the 13th is one of those superstitions that everybody knows about, yet the origins are still pretty unknown. You can snoop around Google if you really want to get a look at what some people think, but it doesn't really matter. Maybe I'm wrong, but the fact that I had to look-up the origins of the date suggests that I'm more aware of it only because of what happened at Camp Crystal Lake back in 1980 and since "Friday the 13th" is ranked in the top ten movie franchises of all time, there's no doubt that the slasher flick had some sort of effect on many Korean nationals from that generation as well. Simply put, eveybody in the globalized world is probably aware of the Jason's hockey mask (and Freddy's metal-clawed brown leather glove) as it has been referenced over and over again in pop culture.

As far as an Asian equivalent, I'm not sure. I don't know what all Asian people believe and I don't believe there's a Korean equal to such a day, but there are a few loosely related things that come to mind. I don't want to even begin to compile a list of Korean superstitions and myths myself, but maybe a few just get the conversation flowing.

The Number 4

While it's hard to say whether or not the number "4" is as universally feared or disliked in Korea as the number 13 is in some other nations, the fact that many elevators in Korea read 1...2...3...F...5... is at least an indication of its fearful roots. In the Chinese language, the word for "death" sounds just like the number "4" in the Korean language ("사")  and since many cultural and lingual traits of China have trickled into Korean culture, it's no suprise that this one stuck. I wonder though, does China also omit the number 4 from elevators? I've been there, but I think the massive amount of Tsingtao blurred my elevator experiences. Or maybe I didn't have any.


Don't throw your fingernail clippings on the street. Otherwise, a rat (or mouse) will eat them and therefore consume a part of your soul. If you do happen to accidentally do such a thing, don't worry. All you have to do is get a cat to eat the fingernail-eating rat and BAM! -you've got your soul back. Of course no really buys into that, yet it's not too uncommon to see Koreans wrapping their clippings in a paper towel or toilet paper before disposing of them.

The Morning Spider

Never, ever, ever kill a spider before noon. If you do, brace for bad luck. Why? No idea, kiddos. I've just heard this one too many times not to mention it.

The Red Name

Anyone who has taught kids here has heard that writing someone's name in red suggests that they are dead. And if they are still alive, then it's bad luck. I used to do it just to get a rise out of some of the naughty kids, but don't have the chance to do so anymore.

Who else had heard some interesting superstitions? Oh, and I please no kimchi/fan death comments.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Is Swine Flu Paranoia Justified?

Here's the question:

Do you have any idea about what are our rights when it comes to swine flu? Like for example, my friend got sick, and her school made her go to the hospital, where they injected her with multiple things--she has no idea what--and then gave her several unknown drugs to take. A week or so later, she still had a cough, so they made her go back to the hospital, where they gave her Tamiflu, and her school ordered her to take it. I'm not sure how much you know about influenza or Tamiflu.....but that was the most illogical move imaginable. She even got tested for swine flu, and the test says she doesn't have it!

Will I get deported if I don't let them inject me with things? Can your school order you to take drugs? I'm so scared!
I knew this was going to happen. A couple weeks ago, I had a sick teacher who claimed he had a fever. Fair enough, so he stayed home. When I told my boss we had a sick teacher, the immediate reaction was that he had to go to the hospital to get tested for swine flu. I calmed the situation by taking a possible gamble and saying that he didn't have a fever or flu-like symptoms. Of course if he did have H1N1, I could have been risking the health of co-workers and students, but I presumed he didn't and was correct.

I did that (and perhaps it was wrong, but I'm no bioethicist) and avoided my teacher being forced to the hospital and my institute being closed for a week or so. However, this situation raises some serious questions: Can an employer force an employee to be vaccinated? Is it a business decision, government policy or genuine health concern?

And if an employer forces an employee to stay at home or go to the doctor against their will, should they be compensated for the missed wages or any incured costs?

Big questions really. I understand that a school might need to close its doors for a week or so, but only in the case that students' have been confirmed to have had contracted the virus. Many public and private schools have done this. If a teacher contracts it, then they need to seek treatment and be absent from school. I also don't see a problem with an employer forcing an employee to get tested for the virus. Payment is a different story and I imagine each school is different.

Treatment is another animal.

The title of the questioners email was "Swine Flu Madness" which was reminiscent  of our beloved Mad Cow protests a couple years ago. This fear, however, is infinitely more legitimate  and grounded in genuine concern and not politics (unlike the US). Last week alone, the number of cases more than doubled in Korea and have shown no signs of slowing. (Here for wolrd trends.) That trend is quite troubling from a public health stance and, if you look at its effects on the ground, the reality of the public's fear is becoming real and a strain on private education.

I know that enrollment is steadily (and probably temporarily) decreasing in many cram schools. I understand that 수능 is around the corner, but I fear that after the tests, some hagwons will have drastic drops in enrollment. My classes, which are usually packed, are hovering at 70% what they used be and even enrolled students are staying home. While it doesn't affect my pay, it's devastating to the school and since I'm the manager, this is a problem for me. If one of my teachers was ill with swine flu-like symptoms, we would certainly force encourage them to get the proper treatment as prescribed by Western medicine. They could refuse of course, but at the same time it would be totally irresponsible of  me, the teacher and the school to allow that teacher back in the building before they're cured. The main goal is containment.

In the end, I think that schools have some ground to stand on when forcing teachers to be vaccinated or treated. There is nothing wrong with a school asking you to get tested and if you have something, get it treated...for yourself. WebMD doesn't have all the answers.

So, let's get to your questions:

If your friend doesn't have swine flu and is certain of that fact, then tell her not to take the medicine. There is a chance though that the doctors are not being "illogical" and that they -perhaps- might know better than say, a teacher?

I don't think that you can be deported for not getting shots, but a school could fire you which would lead to a cancellation of your visa. Sounds harsh, but make sure you get tested for the flu first. If they try to stick you with something BEFORE knowing what you have, then I would be suspect. Again, I don't think schools are wrong for being paranoid. This is not only a financial issue, but a public health issue as well.

Also, your school should not be able to force you to get shots without having any traces of the virus. As of now,  the "health ministry said inoculations will be administered first to medical staff, patients, the elderly, pregnant women and infants." You are not in that category, but you do have a lot of exposure. No one can force you to take medicine except yourself. If you believe that you do not need medication, then don't take it. They won't be pinching your nose, Indian Jones-style.

Let me finish up with this question for you guys as I know some of you are on flu vacation:

If an employer forces an employee to stay at home or go to the doctor against their will, should they be compensated for the missed wages or any incured costs?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

How to survive a noraebang with a bad voice...

Here's the question:
How do you sing well in a noraebang if you're not a good singer?

You've come to the right place on this one. I've got to be one of the worst, most tone-deaf singers ever, yet I used to frequent the places somewhat regularly. The following advice is actually more what I used to do to cover my horrid singing skills.

Sing very popular songs...

If you sing a popular song it usually means a lot of other people are going to get into it as well. You should also shoot for a loud one so you can blend in with the others. We used to always sway in a big group while the mic was passed from person to person. I made sure that the mic didn't stay in front of me for too long. Under the Bridge should suffice even though it's kind of a mellow song. Everyone knows the words whether they want to or not.

Sing songs that you really love...

If you really love a song and have listened to it thousands of times, then you can usually mimic the voice pretty well. I love the Grateful Dead and I can mimic Bob Weir's voice quite well, so when I'm singing in the shower, Cassidy usually comes out. However, Korean noraebangs typically don't have Grateful Dead songs, so that doesn't work for me. Hopefully, your favorites will be in there.

Look for easy hooks...

Songs with simple hooks are perfect. I'm not talking Heat Wave here, but some songs have hooks that aren't that easy for bad singers. I usually go for "Night Moves".

Rap and hip-hop...

This brings up another set of challenges for me. I can't keep up with the speed, but some people can really nail it. If you've got good rhythm and know the words, go for a rap song. Your speed alone might be enough to dilute your poor vocals. Most noraebangs have "Changes" by Tupac which seems to be the only one I know.

Be the tambourine guy

I know it's lame, but sometimes tapping or even clapping is just easier. It worked for the sax player in "Dancin' in the Dark".


Bust out the moves and minimize your time on the mic. Not only will people appreciate the show, but you can showcase some of your badass and long-retired dance steps. Maybe a little "Jam On It" by Newcleus?


Hold a bottle of beer or soju and encourage everyone to drink with you. Drunk people don't care or remember how bad you might have sang "Piano Man", but they do remember how much fun it was.

Who the f*ck cares?

Who cares if you sing well. Unless you're trying to impress a boss or a potential partner, you're there for fun with friends. Let loose and shriek Queen as loud as you can.

And now for my favorite noraebang song (which doesn't work with my voice at all)...

Fun question. Thank you questioner "Marsha G".

Anybody have any more advice or personal favorites?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Who Wants to be an Ajumma?

Here's the question:

Halloween is next week and I want to be an ajuma. Any ideas on how to
make me the world's greatest ajuma?

Aside from snark in me that wants to chide you for not being very original, morphing into the world's greatest ajumma takes years and years of line-cutting and subway-pushing, but there a few accessories that can help.

To start with, I assume you're talking about a 할머니/아줌마 hybrid. These are usually the one's who people dress up as because they are typically the funniest.


If you don't have a perm, then you're not an ajumma. It's just that simple. There are many different styles you can sport though, so I would recommend heading to the local 주부 hairstylist in your neighborhood and start scoping out what works for you. The curlier or more dyed the better, but remember, there are varying degrees and forms of the ajumma. Your perm says a lot about you.

Eyebrow Tattoos

This one is simple. Even though the lady in the photo above didn't go for it, you should. All ajumma's must have temporary eyebrow tattoos. It'll run you about 80,000 won, but it lasts for a year.

Tacky Shirts

Take another look at that hybrid ajumma. That is pure ajumma goodness right there. She's got the furrow, the umbrella, the electric-looking collared shirt, the perm and the eyebrow tattoos. She's amazing. Finding the perfect shirt is very important. Flowers, bright stripes or animal-prints are a must and if you combine the shirt with baggy, black or purple pants with an elastic waistband, well, you might as well just move to the front of the line. You've earned it.

Active Ajumma

Have you ever seen an ajumma just resting? Doubtful and if you did, they were likely hitting their backs, stretching or getting ready for a fully decked-out hike around Seoul Grand Park. But most of the time, they're carrying bags of fruit or getting ready to dig around in some roadside soil looking for roots, but they're always on the move. The point is that you need to look busy. I would recommend buying some gloves, carrying heavy bags or maybe you could even prepare some vegetables just in case you find a good place to setup on the sidewalk.

Protection from the sun/wind/air

The hybrid ajumma hates the elements. She doesn't like earth, wind or fire, so she protects herself. She might have her entire head and face covered or she simply might be going for the sun visor.
The rest of it is up to you. I would suggest that you should head to Dongdaemun. There's a lot of great finds out there. For ajumma behavior, I think a visit to the authority on ajumma-related subjects would be worth it.

Any readers want to add something?

Love Sticks and Corporal Punishment Revisted

Yesterday, I wrote about "love sticks" and while I still maintain that parents who employ such methods are devoid of expression and patience, the study and video I included suggested that parents who spank or smack their children ran the risk of lowering their kids' IQs and this is proving a bit problematic for me.

Essentially, it's saying that...

Corporal Punishment = Lowered IQs

That's way too simple for me, so I prefer this:

Corporal Punishment + __________ = Lowered IQs

The missing link is quite nuanced though and I should add that this was an American study, so applying it to Korean households doesn't really work as well. That missing link might be that the environment at a home where corporal punishment is taking place is not a very nurturing one. There are many more problems there other than discipline. As I said, I strongly believe that parents who resort to physically disciplining their kids totally lack the communication skills and patience to properly express themselves, so they hit. It's very human, yet overly animal-like.

We could jaw for hours about what that missing link is, but as one of my Korean friends said last night,

"Why does the result have to be lowered IQs? Koreans have the highest IQs in the world and our parents used love sticks."

Corporal Punishment = Higher IQs

Of course, this summoned my KDS and like most cases where the syndrome surfaces, it turns out that he was right. Koreans, on average, actually do have the highest IQs in the world with Kim Ung-yong leading the world with a verified IQ of 210.

Of course, we'll need to figure out that missing link again.

Corporal Punishment + __________ = Higher IQs

I'm not qualified to get into this matter except for saying that perhaps the Korean education system, with it's emphasis on math and science helps give Korean IQ test-takers an advantage. Korea students are typically not allowed to use calculators or formula sheets when doing math. They have to understand why 2+2=4, unlike their American counterparts who only need to know how to type an equation or formula into a calculator. That, and the fact that Koreans are master test-takers.

Again, I'm not the best person to be talking about corporal punishment. I'm just a guy who dribbles about Korea and expat issues. This is a bit out of my league and, honestly, my interests. All I know is that my Korean wife and I have discussed this and neither one of us are going to be heading to the love stick store in the future.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Spanking and Love Sticks

Here's the question:

I teach in a private academy and am probably naive, but I read about a "love stick" in the Korea Herald the other day and was wondering if parents knew about the use of them as well.

You are being naive and I assume you're talking about Brian's piece on "Discipline in the classroom."

"These days corporal punishment in school is technically illegal, though still widely practiced. However, both the larger size of students and the widespread possession of cell phones with cameras has made teachers think twice before using the "love stick."

The use or sight of the love stick or "사랑의 매" is extremely common in Korean schools. But as Brian mentioned, kids are using their phones as protection against their use. YouTube features some pretty brutal videos of corporal punishment in Korean schools. I should point out that not all objects used to hit students are officially love sticks. While some teachers clearly prefer love sticks and brooms, others go for bamboo sticks or the good ol' fist.

You and I know that abusing children is disgusting and should result in jail time, but as the quote above says, schools usually try to circumvent law or superficially ban the practice by outlawing cell phones in class. Just this year, a student was flogged over 100 hundred times on the feet only to go home and commit suicide. The punishment was for being absent from the after school study session that all high school students are required to attend. The story here is not that a teacher hit their students, but the level of acceptance that the other students displayed.

"Students in the school told the investigators that the degree of punishment the student received actually "wasn't too harsh" compared to the "usually very harsh punishment."
Throw that in with this 2004 study and you've got a majority of students who simply are not all that affected by this abuse.

최근 한국사회조사연구소가 전국 272개 초·중·고교생 8100여명을 대상으로 설문조사한 결과에 따르면 응답자의 79.6%가 '올해 교사에게 체벌을 당한 경험이 있다'고 답했다. 응답자의 15.8%는 자주 체벌을 당했다고 답했다. '체벌 경험 비율'을 연도별로 살펴보면 △1998년 93.7% △2000년 85.0% △2003년 86.3% △2004년 79.6%로 학내의 체벌 문화가 점차 개선되고 있는 것으로 나타났다.

That says that 79.6% of respondents experienced some sort of physical punishment while in school. It's clear that the numbers are going down, but 79% isn't in anyway a low number. (I couldn't find a recent stat.) Why so common though?

I blame the parents.

First of all, parents often times buy these love sticks for teachers as a signal that beating their child (if necessary) is okay with them. I have seen many love sticks in my years in this industry and teachers usually have a few of them in their classroom. Some of them might be in plain sight and others might be in a closet or desk drawer. They're there though and if the parents are giving them to teachers, you can guarantee that they have them at home as well.

Secondly is the fact that companies actually specialize in selling these sticks.

Look at that picture. It's actually not the official "love stick", but rather a "discipline stick". The very fact that these are being sold is a pretty huge indicator that it's still quite prevalent. However, not all parents spend money on these sticks. Some make them themselves and force their kids to take pictures with it.

"Smile or I'm going to hit you!"

I have yet to find more than a handful of adults who have not experienced some sort of corporal punishment from their parents. Some got popped with a shoe horn and others got the ladle. Without jumping into Confucianism in Korea (which really tires me out), let's just say that it's what today's parents learned from their parents, so they do the same thing to their kids. Stuff Korean Moms Like has a more playful take on the whole thing as well.

Face it, many of us have been victims to some of the classic forms of Korean Mom punishment. Whether you were forced to kneel and carry a large bucket of water above your head for hours at a time, told to go and collect your own whip/switch from the backyard, or simply stand with your hands in the air, just know that the worst is not yet over my friend. You can never outgrow Korean Mom punishments. As long as she is able bodied enough to wield a tree branch, a rice paddle, or raise her voice, she will punish you.

I assume that in twenty years, this too will be a thing of the past. After all, Jesus started it.

I must say though, it's easy for me to shit all over Korean parents for this practice, but the truth is that it's not limited to Korea. Sure, the love stick seems to be part of Korea's "unique culture" and we "must understand", but American schools did the same thing as did parents. I wasn't ever hit or spanked by my parents, but I do recall my mom threatening to "wash my mouth out with soap" every time I brought home a new bad word from school.

I think the best way to get this practice to stop is for the Korean media to publish these results.

If only we could tie-in lowered 수능 scores then I'm certain the abuse would stop.

In the end, it's more about the lack of a nurturing environment at home that usually accompanies this type of discipline. The abuse is just part of a whole range of parental failures and hopefully the next generation of Korean parents will pick up the slack.

So, yes. Parents are very aware of what's going on.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Casual English Education

Here's the question:

I have made a Korean friend who will leave for the States in December to go to university. First, he will spend one year attending a language school so that he will be able to speak English more fluently, then he will attend university. We hang out a lot just doing normal things and his English is good enough that he can communicate his thoughts well and I can figure out what he is saying. Sometimes, he becomes confused if I accidentally use some collocation or something, though I do try to speak with as much simplicity as possible. He is super interested in American culture and wants so badly to be able to speak well.

So, I got this idea that maybe he and I could read a book together and as we read, he could underline things that he doesn't understand. I just thought it would be a good platform for some new and different conversation and could be a good way to learn about American culture. Does this make sense? What do you think? Any book suggestions?

It's good to hear that you're making Korean friends and helping them out in a normal, non-scholastic/private medium.

I have spent years around Koreans who are not perfect in English and one thing that I know for sure is that I don't ever change the way I speak when we are in a non-classroom situation. That means that I never adjust my speed, vocab and use of idioms for low-level speakers. There are way too many crutches in place in Korean English education and I don't want to dumb anything down. In fact, I sometimes even ramp-up the level of humor and sarcasm just to expose them to what I consider the trickiest part of learning and comprehending another language.

Your friend is getting ready to move to an English-speaking country. He's going to be surrounded by people who are NOT his teacher just like you are not his official teacher. Confidence is a huge part of learning a language and if he is given an artificial glimpse into how English is practically used, then you are actually putting him at a disadvantage.

Part of my job is to interview potential Korean instructors. Before I actually interview them, I make sure to check their resume pretty closely. I'm not looking for TOEIC scores or SKY schools. What I'm interested in is what city they lived/studied in while abroad. If I see Vancouver, LA, San Diego, New York, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Sydney or Melbourne, they immediately get lower marks from me. (Vancouver is the worst though.) These cities are Korean hubs of English education abroad. Parents drop big bucks on this endeavour as students swarm the schools and language institutes to learn English. Yet once class is over and natural English communication can commence, their parents pick them up and bring them to Korean church/restaurants/study groups. The older students group together with other Koreans and together they all speak Korean, think Korean, eat Korean and live Korean. This is useless for them. Simple being around English doesn't cut it.

Make sure your friend really tries to break free from this. Sadly, it's not that easy. If he's in one of these Korean hubs, then the population there is really going to work on him. They'll try to suck him into their Korean-only world and if he fights back, he can expect to get some harsh treatment from the community. My advice is go anywhere were there aren't many Koreans.

Next, I think that reading a book is a fine idea, but books tend to get a little long and people can lose interest quick. If you do choose a book, maybe it should be a best seller or a storyline that he's familiar with. I'd also suggest news articles, blogs, magazines and even short stories. My biggest goal is to find something that is relatable to students. They stay interested much longer.

In the end, a lot of adult students believe that studying with a teacher or getting some solid exposure (like reading a book with you or chatting) will greatly improve their skills quickly, but that's just not true as those of who are studying Korean understand. He's going to have to diversify his focus and work on every aspect of the language ON HIS OWN on top of with his teachers and non-Korean friends.

Anyone have any book suggestions or anything else they would like to add?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Herpes and Health Checks

Here's the question:

I have a question about the health check for the E2 visa. Do you know how detailed the blood tests are? Are they only looking for HIV/AIDS or will they also be concerned with HSV1/ HSV2 (the 2 types of herpes)? These are conditions that also come up in blood work, but do you know if they are looking for them? Or if found, would it result in termination of your contract??

I wrote about something similar to this before, so check that out as well.

The blood tests are only looking for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and narcotics. At least, that's the stated purpose of the tests. However, the main goal is to detect communicable diseases which, if found, will result in the termination of your visa and contract.

I don't think we're talking about simple cold sores here. The question would not have been posed over a little sore. I assume that since the questioner is asking about this, it's safe to assume that they personally have one or both types of herpes (or are asking for a friend). I don't want to judge this person's character because contracting an STD is a tragic story in many cases, but it's also an avoidable consequence of careless behavior in others. I hope that this case isn't the latter and that we are dealing with a responsible person who is not trying to slide under the radar.

From what I can gather, simple blood tests will show the presence of HSV, but it's difficult to determine whether it's the not-so-horrible kind (HSV1 or cold sores) or the holy-fuck one (HSV2 or genital sores). Even though both can cause oral or genital herpes, HSV2 is much more painful and just plain unsightly.

Let's pretend that the test didn't reveal the presence of herpes and since the doctor doesn't give you a physical or anything, you might get away with it. Of course, that plan might backfire and you could be sent packing at your expense. The rub here is more ethical though.

You will be asked if you have a communicable disease. In fact, you'll be asked five questions:

* Have you ever caught infectious diseases that threaten Public Health before?
* Have you ever taken any Narcotic (Drug) OR Have you ever been addicted to alcohol?
* Have you ever received treatment for Mental/ Neurotic/ Emotional Disorder?
* Are OR were you HIV (AIDS) positive?
* Have you had any serious Diseases OR Injuries for the last 5 years?

In this case, the questioner has caught an infectious disease and therefore has a responsibility to answer honestly. My advice is to consider teaching elsewhere. I know that might sound harsh or like I'm discriminating against people with STD's, but the law is very clear about who does and doesn't medically qualify and having genital or oral herpes certainly disqualifies an applicant.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Friday Reads for October 16th, 2009

I love Korean history and so should you. Here are your Friday reads.

Enjoy your weekend! Jazz Festival anyone?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Korean Derangement Syndrome

Here's the question:

Dear Expat,

I am an anonymous blogger who runs a moderately successful Korea-related blog. Earlier this year, I wrote what I considered to be a well-researched article on fan death, demonstrating that it is indeed plausible. It generated a strong reaction immediately, but what was notable was that even after 10 months, many expats absolutely cannot get their head around the idea that fan death is real, even though I explained the science step-by-step and provided external citations from a climatology expert and the U.S. EPA. At best, those expats cannot believe that my post cannot be anything but satire, and at worst they throw verbal feces at the post, the blog, and my intellectual ability in general. Not even my fabled Korea-Japan Saga generates this level of bile and animus.

Pray tell, the Expat -- What is it about these expats that makes them behave like birthers screeching even in the face of Barack Obama's birth certificate? Why do they hate fan death so much?

- Assiduously Adding Knowledge!

Most of you can tell by the tone and humor that this questioner is none other than the inspiration for Ask the Expat, The Korean. Naturally, he asks one hell of question as well.

I spent a good half-hour reading his post again and the subsequent comments. The overriding majority of them were people trying to poke holes in the argument by over-sensationalizing a tiny part of The Koreans argument. The rest of the comments were either in agreement or under the impression that the Korean was joking around. Read them yourselves. Oddly enough, that thread is more civilized than most Fan Death threads.

The best thing to do is this:

First, find an English teacher. No wait, find twenty; a hundred, it doesn’t matter how many, just find them. I don’t care where they’re from or what they look like. Now that you have their attention, tell them that kimchi reduces the aging process and helps keep skin younger and fresher. No wait, that’s not good enough. Tell them that you believe in fan death and just sit back and listen to them roar with laughter and accuse you of being illogical, irrational or just plain ignorant. Wait until the laughing and name-calling subside and then tell them that you still believe in fan death. Careful though, their head might explode or they might launch into a self-praising tirade about how science and logical reasoning works.

Some of you might be laughing now. Some might be making really clever insults up like how I’ve "been in Korea too long" or that I probably think that "kimchi is very spicy". That’s fine though. I don’t suffer from Korean Derangement Syndrome (KDS). This syndrome is a self-imposed barrier that blinds and forbids the mind from accepting anything that doesn’t fit into one’s pre-determined narrative of who Koreans are and how they think. It’s an illness that forces the brain to disregard proven facts and instead offer knee-jerk reactions based on unfounded and unwarranted emotionalism.

The origin is hard to figure out, but I think it has to do with Korea's constant claim to superiority over other Asian (and western) nations. We could be talking about how scientific Hangul is, why Koreans are good at golf, or how chop sticks have made Koreans so good at hand sports, it doesn't matter. There's just something about these superiority claims that riles people up. After reading and hearing about so many Koreans who belief such claims, the reaction starts to become more and more aggressive and dismissive.

If you hear it too much, KDS can be triggered simply by someone highlighting a point of pride in Korean history or culture. It doesn't even have to be a contentious point. Like this:

"Did you know that in the founding legend, Dangun's mother was named Ungnyeo?"

"What? That's so stupid! Koreans are so gullible to believe that myth! Where's my Bible?"

That might be an extreme example, but the point is that KDS has trained people to react this way. Do people view it as a threat to their own idea of supremacy?

Let’s take a look at the fact that kimchi is easily among the world’s healthiest foods. Those suffering from KDS would claim that Koreans are just being overly nationalistic in their enthusiasm, but Health magazine says,
"Kimchi is loaded with vitamins A, B, and C, but its biggest benefit may be in its “healthy bacteria” called lactobacilli, found in fermented foods like kimchi and yogurt. This good bacterium helps with digestion, plus it seems to help stop and even prevent yeast infections, according to a recent study. And more good news: Some studies show fermented cabbage has compounds that may prevent the growth of cancer.”

Unfortunately, facts don’t matter when dealing with KDS-infected expats. They can be shown an extremely comprehensive study proving the claims’ validity, but it will still be wrong. In their perfect minds, they’re correct and the Koreans are trying to make themselves appear more exceptional than they deserve. Luckily, since KDS became so fashionable among expats, Koreans can no longer be proud of kimchi. Phew! That was close!

How about fan death? Most expats don’t bother to look into the science of fan death and rely on faux-claims of suffocation and hypothermia, but if they were to inform themselves, they would see that fan death is in fact very true and very real (albeit rare). Luckily, just as the Korean understood, he knew not to quote a Korean scientist and went with an American source known as fucking the Environmental Protection Agency,

"Portable electric fans can increase the circulation of hot air, which increases thermal stress and health risks”
“Don’t use a portable electric fan in a closed room without windows or doors open to the outside.”

Hyperthermia is what could get you, but again, those pesky facts don’t matter because someone told those freshly-minted expats that Koreans are unreasonable. How else could they believe in such a thing?

I wish I could say that it’s limited to those two items, but I would be lying. As I mentioned above, sufferers of KDS have deeply-instilled gut-reactions to many points of Korean pride. Dokdo and the East Sea come to mind. While the argument is one that continues to truck along, many expats prefer to assume that it’s Japanese territory and that Koreans are just overacting. You will probably be laughed at by some if you make the simple statement that Korean history started in 2333 BCE when Gojeoson was founded. In their superior minds, Korean history started in 1953. I could talk about spicy food, dog meat, medicinal food and Korea’s clearly unique and separate cultures from China and Japan, but it would do no good. Korea Derangement Syndrome is just too strong for facts.

And if it sounds like I’m talking down to those who suffer from KDS that’s because I am. It’s a willful ignorance that parallels the loons in the US who believe that Obama is not a natural born citizen and that he wants to create death panels, also known as “birthers” and “deathers” respectively. I don’t know if KDS is about western superiority or arrogance either; it’s just a blatant denial of facts which don’t fit into a fixed idea of what Korea is or should be.

I must say that I can understand a bit of my fellow expats frustrations. Sometimes it's hard to find a lot of diverse opinion in Korea. If you ask one Korean about a particular issue, there's a high chance that a large majority of other Koreans feel the same way. Take the stereotypes that teachers or American military personnel put up with. We are both accused of being criminals, but that's just not true. The US military is still viewed as 100% guilty for the Armored Tank incident and that's all the Korean population needs to know. Of course, as GI Korea knows, there's much, much more to the story, but Koreans know what they know and they don't care. Did you know that Yongsan Garrison's soil has been destroyed by the American military? Expats might not know that. The US military might not know that, but the Korean people ALL know that.

The point is that Koreans take a lot of what they hear at face-value. I'm not saying they're gullible or unreasonable, it's just we -the expats and non-Koreans- have to put up with so much misinformation about us and the world's interaction with Korea that after awhile we shut-down and start rejecting everything we hear as being bullshit. It's not fair, but the fault falls on both sides.

I would recommend that Koreans tone down a bit and double-check their own facts and figures and that my fellow expats start reading books and papers a bit more and rely less on what online forums and whiny short-term expats claim. I understand that some might get tired of hearing about the same Korean highlights over and over again, but no one is forcing you to repeat or promote them. Do some research; make up your own minds and stop following the lead of that one expat who infected you with KDS.

So, it's not fan death. It's being bombarded with reasons why Korea is special.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Why is Christmas a romantic holiday in Korea?

Check out the podcast if you have a few minutes.

My ideas...

  • Separation of Christianity, Santa and family traditions from the now Koreanized holiday
  • Commercialization and Pop Culture
  • Lack of romantic opportunity, expression and the prevalence of romantic holidays in Korea

Anyone else want to add anything?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Are birthdays important in Korea?

Here's the question:

I have a Korean co-worker who has a birthday coming up and when I asked her if she was celebrating with anyone, she said "no". What's going on here? Do Koreans celebrate birthdays?

Odd really because Koreans, like everyone, love to celebrate their own birthday. Who wouldn't like an entire day where you can guilt other people into celebrating YOU? I just had my birthday and even though I didn't guilt people into anything, I had fun being special for the day. In this specific case, I going to have to conclude that your co-worker was just not that into you and probably didn't want to share her day with you. Sorry.

There are a lot of holidays in Korea. Some are national and others are family-oriented. This past Chuseok alone saw a 25 million people traveling around the peninsula which is a huge number and obviously a very celebrated holiday, but is it the biggest or most important? This got me thinking a bit, so I asked about 50 of my students what they thought with a quick survey.

First question: For you personally, what is the most important holiday in Korea?

Second question: For the Korean nation as a whole, what is the most important holiday?

Individual Koreans thought that Christmas, their own birthday and Lunar New Year (설날) were the most important, while as a nation, Lunar New Year, Harvest Festival and Solar New Year were the most important. You can look at the breakdown yourself.

Clearly, birthdays are important to Korean people. I should also note that 환갑, or the celebration that commemorates a person hitting the age of 60 (and now 70) received a lot of attention in the second question, but that's likely because it's viewed as more of a milestone than an individual celebration.

There's another story here though, but before I address it, I'll need to create a survey for you guys. Stay tuned on that front.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Climbing and Korea on the Rocks

Here's the question:

Just a very quick question, my partner and I are wondering if there are any expat rock climbing groups in Seoul or Gyeonggi. We live in Gwangju.

Quick question with an even quicker answer: Korea on the Rocks. I also talked about climbing a few months ago as well.

Common English mistakes made by Koreans

Here's the question:

I read somewhere that you teach adults. I'm getting ready to start teaching adults in about a week and am worried about my ability to teach them well. What are the most common mistakes they make?

Yes, I do teach adults. I don't, however, teach English conversation anymore. I used to though. When teaching adults, you've got to play the expectations game and identify not only what they want, but what you want for them. This is important. Don't let anybody get away with telling you that they want to be fluent. I don't and they appreciate my honesty.

There were some pretty common mistakes that used to really irk me, but the problem with being a long-term teacher here is that you get used to incorrect English and even Konglish sometimes starts to make sense. That's a problem, so let me give you a quick list of expressions that adults say incorrectly.

The Top Ten

10. "He was died."

9. "I'm going to home."

8. "Are you drunken?"

7. "I was today tired."

6. "I had a lunch/dinner with my friends" or "I took a medicine."

5. "Yesterday I got stress" or "I was stressful in the meeting."

4. "She looks like fat."

3. "Here is a notebook, not a folder."

2. "I have an appointment/promise with a friend." (disputed and possibly okay)

1. "I took a rest all weekend." (disputed)

The most common one that I hear is easily "I took a rest". I don't know who is responsible for it, but I've asked teachers from every eligible nation (minus the Irish) and they always thought it came from some other English-speaking nation. I blame Canada.

We all know the problems with B, V, P, F, R, L and Z, so no need to mention those here.

Any additions? Make sure to check the comments for more.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Naughty hagwons being naughty...again

Here's the very, very shortened and paraphrased question:

I work for a school that has placed me in sub-standard living conditions, refused wage payment and constantly lies about everything from visas and taxes to refrigerators and roommates. I want to get out of this school, but don't know how as I have a visa. Also, I'm worried that if I do somehow manage to find a way out, I won't get my last months pay. This is not an option for me due to financial obligations back home. What should someone do in my position--I love Korea other than my school and want to stay?

I get emails like this one almost everyday and my reaction is always the same: When is the Korean government going to get serious about these kinds of shady practices and don't they realize that for every million spent on branding, five million is lost from poor treatment of teachers.

Getting a letter of release is crucial, but the questioner already tried that route in the form of "If you don't pay us, then you must release us." Still, it didn't work out since the director has probably been up to these shenanigans for years.

How to get out?

1) Keep a clear and detailed record of everything that has taken place while you've been working.

I say this because your hagwon probably assumes you're not and they're also hoping that once they pay you, the complaints will fade. You gotta hold on to pat stubs, emails, memos and anything else that you can use to pressure this school into not only releasing you, but to incriminate them when you contact the right people.

2) Stay strong and confident.

Since you have all of your records organized, go into the director's office as much as possible with your files in hand. I mean it. Go in there every damn day and sit down with them and just rail into them with facts. Directors like this are banking on the fact that teachers will just give up and leave, but that only makes it worse for teachers to come. Sure, they might try to laugh it off. They might try to paint a positive picture of what's going on, but you gotta remember that when Koreans laugh in serious situations it's not to express a relaxed confident attitude, rather it's covering up their embarrassment. If they laugh, then you pounce when they're vulnerable.

3) Call the Labor Board.

These guys are getting more organized and will certainly be able to take it to your director. Korea4expats writes this:

Complaints to Labor Board or Commission

An employee's complaint against her/his employer may be heard by either the Korean Labor Board or the Korean Labor Commission. The nature of the complaint determines which body will hear the case.

Types of cases
1) unpaid wages / unpaid severance pay / unpaid overtime pay
2) claim for sexual harassment cases
3) claim for industrial accident cases

Types of cases
1) Unfair Dismissal
2) Unfair Suspension / transfer / reduction wages
3) Unfair labor practices

Ministry of Labor Hotline:
Call 1350 and press 7 for English, between 9AM and 6PM

Ministry of Labor Website:

I hope that one day my inbox won't be filled with these complaints. I hope that employers will one day be held to the same standards that teachers are, but until then you've got to be organized, strong and connected. Final word: Contact the labor board and put the pressure on. You'll be surprised how fast they cave...

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Martial Arts in Korea

Here's the question:

I am planning (the closer to departure stage) on going to Korea to teach English. My question is general and may be easy for you to answer. Martial arts in Korea-- which fighting style is most studied, are there experienced and wise instructors, if I began lessons, would I be around mostly children? Thanks for your help.

I assume you're very aware that Taekwondo is Korea's national sport, but you might not have known that is also boasts having the most practitioners around the world. Having taught kids for a couple years, I know that it is popular among that demographic and, in the past, most Korean men who completed their obligatory military service had to obtain a black belt while serving.

Former K-Blogger Amanda from Amanda Takes Off was really into the sport and I bet it wouldn't hurt to snoop around her site. From what I understand, she learned quite a bit of Korean from her classes there.

There are other Korean and world martial arts here as well and I'm 100% certain that all of them have classes for adults with skilled instructors. As much as I wanted to imagine someone fighting kids like Kramer did (video here), I don't think you'll have many problems.

The other night, I was out having a drink with a co-worker and there was a very raucous table of Malaysians and Jordanians next to us. We joined in on the fun and found out that they were all Taekwondo referees and that they travel to Korea several times a year for tournaments and competitions. The Jordanian woman (whose name escapes me) at the table, although in her 40s now, was somewhat of a Taekwondo legend who became the first woman in Jordan to participate in the sport and is now the leading Taekwondo spokesperson for the Middle East. The point is that Korea is a martial arts destination.

Since I'm not sure where you'll be living in Korea, there's no need to suggest any dojangs just yet. Enjoy!

Teacher Training Tips

Here's the question:

I read in one of your previous posts that you are a foreign head teacher at your school. I'm suspecting you might have some experience training new teachers. I recently replaced the previous head teacher at my school, and I have to train two new teachers coming in (actually, a dating couple). The teachers they are replacing were horrible. I don't know if it related to their training (done by the previous head teacher), their attitude, my performance, or what. I want to make sure that the new teachers receive proper training and understand things generally upfront. I'll also have to do this fairly quickly because we are without two foreign teachers now and the newbies will probably be put to work as soon as possible. Do you have any tips for training teachers?

Proper training can make or break a school and a proper welcome to Korea can make it or break it for a new teacher. And since you're the new head teacher, your ability to train properly can make or break you. Unfortunately, much more of this success has to do with them rather than you, but there are a few things that you can do to ensure you'll have a decent team of teachers.

If you can remember when you first arrived in Korea, the group of teachers or people that you were first surrounded by were largely responsible for your acculturation into Korean life and work. That group has more power than one might think and as a head teacher, it's wise to make sure that it's not full of the usual whiners who frequent Daves. I'm not saying don't be honest about what they should expect. If they were smart then they did their research anyways, but I remember some pretty big whoppers that were laid on me when I first arrived by some soon-to-be defunct expats. Were they true? Not usually, but I still remember most of them to this day.

3 Training Tips that work...

1) Expectations Game

Clearly laying out what is and isn't expected of the teacher is very important. I'm not talking about contractual expectations like being on time and dress code, but more about what a teacher can expect to happen when he gets in the class. They need to understand what the directors, parents and students want from their teacher. Sure, solid English education is paramount, however there are other hidden expectations that students want. For example, if you teach adults then teachers need to know that teaching their own life and telling their own stories (something that happens far too often) is not acceptable if unsolicited.

I might come-off as being too concerned here, but let them know the stereotypes that exist of English teachers. If you present it in a constructive way, then they shouldn't harbor any anger against Koreans. Sometimes you have an American (I've dealt with many) who has never been out of the country before now and you can tell they are a little hot-headed. I like to take them down a notch. It was good for me as well.

Discussing sexual weekend conquests and boozing is off-limits. It seems pretty clear, but I can guarantee that those of you how are also managers have had to discuss this issue again and again with staff. The student-teacher relationship is held to a higher standard in Korea, so treat it as such.

If you happen to teach kids, then you've gotta play to the parents expectations which, in many cases, is to be an entertaining and educating figure who pays extra close attention "their" student. Impossible, right? Not if you're good at controlling perception.

2) Attainable Goals

I talked about this before and I think it's the key to having a successful teacher and classroom. Students don't actually know their goals. Kids are sent into class to learn English so they can do well on tests. You shouldn't care about that. Adults enroll so they can become "fluent" or communicate with international clients. You shouldn't care about those either. Those goals are not real goals when it comes to language education. Fluency is a dream that might be reached, but when you set the bar that high, you're certain to fail.

Teachers need to set goals for their students. Learning a language is a slow and grueling process and taking on too much at once is a mistake. Set an attainable goal for students (like mastering past and future tense for kids; or having a flawless conference call for adults). Remember, Koreans see a lot of value in completing educational tasks and reaching preset goals. Once they hit that goal, reward them. Give them some candy or take them for a beer (depending on the age).

3) Don't Over-train

Those of us who have been in the industry or in Korea for a while have the tendency to overload newcomers with information. I do it all the damn time and have learned that it stresses people out and makes them feel like they're too far behind to even have a shot at success. As we all know by now, technical training for teachers is less about training and more about trial-by-error. So, have them observe a few classes, talk to a few teachers and write a few lesson plans. They'll get the hang of it soon.

In the end, I think it's about the circle of friends they begin with. I came in at a kids hagwon and met some great people. Many of them are still here today. They set the tone for me. They were typically upbeat about Korea, so that made its way to me. My biggest concern is that teachers arrive in Korea and find themselves in a small hagwon with few or no other foreign teachers. That can lead to isolation real quick which makes teachers unhappy which, of course, leads to poor performance.

I like to take new teachers out as much as possible and even encourage the school to have monthly parties. Camaraderie works and you don't want a runner on your hands.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Help from Fellow Expats

Here's a tricky one:

I was wondering if you could guide me to information about payment obligations regarding repairs within the chonsei system. My specific problem is that we have a leak in our bathroom ceiling and I'm wondering if the apartment above us has any legal responsibility to pay for repairs or to share the cost etc. (i.e. do they pay for repairs that effect only their apartment/living space or does one of us pay for the whole thing? or is there another system that's followed?). Any advice would be appreciated.

Wow, that's a tough one. I would appreciate some solid advice on this one as well. All I know is that when the same type of thing happened to me and it wasn't my fault or the tenant above me, the liability fell on the building's owner and I don't think there was much of a fight about it. However, if your personal property was damaged, I'm sure the wrangling will get more heated.

Sadly, I just don't know to answer and so I appeal to the greater community: Any advice?

Weddings in Korea: How much will it cost to attend?

Here's the question:

The principal of my school invited me to his daughter's wedding. How different are Korean weddings from Western? What kind of gift should I bring? What is appropriate to wear. Are there any big faux paus to avoid?

There are two types of weddings in Korea: Traditional Korean and a Western white wedding. If we really wanted to split hairs, we could throw in different religions which, of course, prescribe to a specific ceremony, but for the most part those two cover the majority of weddings held in Korea.

The traditional wedding is always fun to watch. I had a traditional Korean wedding myself and still love going and watching them if I happen to run into one. They're just that fun. The rest of the weddings that I have been to have been in wedding halls. These are fast, loud and busy affairs where best friends are sitting in the back joking around and talking on their cell-phone as the parents look on -totally expressionless- while the bride is crying uncontrollably. Seriously, I don't like the wedding hall weddings and I don't think I need to say much more to show the contrast between Western and Korean weddings.

If you want a pretty solid summary of weddings and marriage in Korea, Wikipedia offers a pretty comprehensive look at what's going on.

Now, you mentioned clothes and gifts. With clothes, dress seasonally and formally just as you would at home, but as far as a gift goes, it's better to give cash rather than an item. Money is the biggest concern for newlyweds and since some Korean men and women have such unrealistic expectations when it comes to finances, you'll never ever go wrong with a cash gift.

The amount depends on how close you are to the bride/groom. When you walk into the wedding hall or venue, you'll see a table probably sporting an oversized photo along with the name of the soon-to-be-spouses. (On a side note, my wife and I took pictures for over eight hours straight. The pictures turned out great, but it was exhausting to say the least.)

How much money to give?

The standard rate used to go as follows...

* 30,000 won for an acquaintance or someone you're not too close with.

* 50,000+ won for a co-worker or friend.

* 100,000+ for family and old friends (Koreans typically stay in close contact elementary, middle and high-school pals).

Now, however, with the introduction of the 50,000 won note, the minimum has unofficially risen to 50,000 won and, while some people might use the old standard still, it's safe to assume the all the numbers have been adjusted accordingly. Some people even consider how much money to give based on how certain they are the newlyweds will return the favor when it's their turn to get married. For this reason, many Koreans dislike peak seasons because of the high costs.

The method for payment is simple. Go to 711 and buy some celebratory (or just plain) white envelopes. Stuff some cash in it and write your name on the outside. When you arrive at the venue, hand it to the collection table, sign the book and they'll give you a ticket which will get you into the buffet either before, during or after the ceremony. If you're a little late, then wait to go into the buffet until after the post-wedding pictures have been taken. (I've always had a suspicion that the only reason some people attend these things is to get in the picture. Why else would everyone be so rude and talk during the actual ceremony?)

I always encourage people to go to weddings and it never hurts to be a part of something that is so important to your boss. As far as money goes, I think you'd be safe slipping in 30,000 and calling it a day. After all, you're new to the whole thing, so a 20,000 won (faux) mistake is harmless, right?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Where can I buy ping-pong balls in Korea?

Here's the question:

Where can I get ping pong balls? Emart has them, but they're like 7,000 won. Anywhere cheaper?

I'm sure you could find them in a sports store somewhere, but they'd also be expensive. I suggest you go to your local stationary store. Don't ask me why, but for some reason, ping-pong balls (탁구 공) are sold in stationary stores and they're usually pretty cheap. I should add that I typically buy them for beer bong -yes, I still play beer bong- and from my experience, they are usually pretty low quality.

So, if you wanna play table tennis, then spring for it, but if you want to pretend that you're still in college, head to the stationary store.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Chuseok Gifts and the Foreigner Experience

Here are the Chuseok-related questions:

Chuseok is coming up and I'm curious as to what exactly happens. I've discussed it with the Koreans I work with and while it's interesting, much of what they tell me centres around their family's traditions. What I'm wondering is:

- are there traditions that foreigners are expected to take part in? I've seen a lot of gift packages in Kim's Club and the like; are we expected to give gifts?

- what shuts down? Do the buses and subway run on a reduced schedule, or are they 100% closed?

- is it only family-based, like the Thanksgivings I'm used to back home in Canada, or is there a way to take part in a Chuseok tradition - for instance, a "Chuseok meal" in a restaurant?


I used to work for a hogwan and now I have a much better job teaching at an elementary school. My Korean co-teacher has been very helpful with both school stuff and non-school stuff like dealing with my apartment and setting up an new bank account. I was wondering what might be an appropriate gift to show my gratitude. Should I also get her something for Chulsuok? I should also get something the woman volunteer who helps out with the after-school classes. Any suggestions? What is the protocol here? And should I also get my Principal something?
Simply put, Chuseok is a harvest festival where Korean families gather together (usually in the husband's hometown or the oldest son's home) and celebrate the harvest, eat traditional food and pay homage to their ancestors.

Here I am a few years ago...

First we give thanks and bow to the harvest (Spot the white guy!):

Then we offer it to our ancestors:

And after eating and drinking, we head to the tombs:

That's the ritual and just about as involved as any non-Korean will ever be in the holiday. Unlike myself, most expats here are not married to a Korean, so your participation is limited to enjoying quiet city streets (unless you live in a "hometown") or getting slammed by hours and hours of highway traffic. All public transportation remains the same though. You'll find that a lot of restaurants and stores are closed, but it's not that big of a hassle.

The gifts are part of the fun as well. Korea Times ran a piece today about parents bribing teachers for the holiday, but there are certainly less-tainted gifts that people exchange.

For an older person or boss, most people buy honey (the expensive kind) or a fish called 굴비. For someone close to your age or a colleague, it's pretty common to buy them some dried persimmon () or other dried fruit. Some people try to get away with the famed Spam gift set and even though it's presence in supermarkets might say otherwise, it's viewed as a little "low-class" or "out-dated" these days. For kids, you give them money. If you don't want to be that specific, deok is probably the safest holiday gift and very easy to find.

As far as your holiday plans, either plan a trip out of the country or book your train tickets now because you don't want to deal with Chuseok traffic.

Should we frequent small, sleepy restaurants?

Here's the question:

I've noticed that restaurants are everywhere here, but it seems that the tendency is for people to frequent those in high-traffic areas. There are restaurants throughout the side streets I've wandered, but I don't often see anyone in them. So, I was wondering how safe it is to wander into these off-the-beaten-track restaurants? Can they be a source of great food finds, or are they usually just serving what I can get in the places where everyone else goes?

I can't remember where I read it, but someone said (and I'm paraphrasing), "Koreans don't go to a specific restaurant, but rather they go out for a specific dish." That's dead-on, but doesn't necessarily mean that people don't frequent restaurants with good reputations. It means that if people want galbi, they're going to find some restaurant (probably local) that serves it.

Honestly, I love wandering into the sleepy looking restaurants. While the food is usually just as good as the busy establishments, it's the service that typically stands out. Extra side-dishes is a win-win for me which, ironically, is my biggest issue with these small restaurants.

Many of you know it or have at least thought about it before (just as many Koreans have): Do they really throw away uneaten/untouched food?

I suspected that they didn't and very, very unfortunately, I was correct. It was and still is a very common practice. Luckily, in July of this year, the Korean government thankfully decided to fight back against the insanely unsanitary way of saving a buck and sanction any restaurant that is caught reusing it's food. Despite swine-flu paranoia, I have a feeling that the practice will continue as long as food prices are increasing and the recession drags on.

I encourage everyone to frequent the small establishments. My favorite part of Korea is the insane amount of restaurants that are found on every street in every pocket of every city on the peninsula. If we all stick to the big places, then much of the charm of Korean eating culture will deteriorate to the point that franchises will take over and then I will be forced to leave the country. Also, they have the best kimchi.

So, get out there and check out the small joints and I'm sure you'll be pleasantly surprised. If you want more of a food guide for everything else, make sure you see what Zen Kimchi, Fatman Seoul and Seoul Eats have to bring to the plate.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Cigars in South Korea

Here's the question:

First, I am a smoker. Not a cigarette smoker, but a cigar smoker. I am not an avid smoker...I can survive without cigars...but I would like to know how cigars figure into Korean culture. I've noticed that there are plenty of cigarette smokers around (all males, it seems), and I haven't noticed any kind of smoking ban (although no one seems to smoke in restaurants - thankfully). However, what I'm asking is: Does anyone in Korea smoke cigars (real cigars - not the ones from the convenience stores)? Does Korea have any cigar stores/shops? Are cigars expensive here (U.S. prices range from $5~$12 for a typical cigar)?

Smoking in Korea is pretty much second-nature. Korea boasts one of the highest numbers of cigarettes consumed per capita and cigarettes, despite being responsible for the rise in heart disease and lung cancer, have largely escaped the heavy tax that many other nations have levied in hopes of curtailing the deadly habit.

As far as most smokers being male, I agree to a point, but it is certainly becoming more common to see young women lighting up in the confines of a smokey bar or hof. Some of the bolder ones are sucking down on the streets as well. However, there are still a lot of rules and some taboo-elements when it comes to smoking in public. For instance, many Korean males will not smoke in front of their bosses. Of course, the boss doesn't care that their employees smoke, yet subordinates continue to file out the door and out-of-sight to light-up. Much like many Western families, it's also rude to smoke in front of family members. I assume that many of these practices will become obsolete in time. Further, I'm not too sure what restaurants you happen to be eating in, but I would be hard-pressed to find one that isn't cloaked in a thick layer of smoke. I guess most of the Western or "family" restaurants don't allow smoking though.

I digress. As you mentioned, nearly every convenience store sells some sort of cigar. They're usually pretty low quality and, from my experience with fellow expats who have been cajoled in quitting smoking cigs by their girlfriends, they smell rancid. However, I am not a connoisseur in any sense of the word. Luckily for us, some one else is.

The Seoul Cigar Aficionado Society, which may or may not be active anymore, offers a short list of spots to purchase cigars.

As much of South Korea's population lives in the capital, Seoul, it is easy to understand why Korea's only cigar shops are in Seoul as well. As of this posting date, there are only three cigar retail locations with a wide range of cigars to choose from.

1. Maska's Cigar at the JW Marriott Hotel - Cuban, Non-Cuban, and Flavored Cigars such as Vanilla, Rum, Chocolate, Honey, Cherry, Peach, & Blackberry.
(Email:, Tel: 02-6282-2922, Web:

2. Pierre Ltd. at the Intercontinental Hotel - Cuban
(Email:, Tel: 02-790-4522, Web:

3. Bluebell Cigars at the Shilla Hotel - Non-Cuban

For more detailed answers, email us at:

I wish I knew more, but there just isn't a big cigar-puffing culture here. I would suggest starting there and see what you come up with. Any cigar smokers out there care to take a stab?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

More on the Community Building Project or "The Project"

First of all, I really want to thank all of my fellow K-bloggers/writers and everyone else who has really taken initiative on this project. You know who you are and I'm proud to be part of this community.

Since the meeting on Sunday, I've read some pretty solid ideas of how to go about this and where to start. Charles did an excellent job of laying out what was said at the meeting. You can read it on the Facebook group or on Foreign/er. The project entails three main areas: information availability; community building; and public relations.

I think we all know where the information is because we spend much of our online-time reading blogs, news and other informational websites. However, and as Joy rightly said, most expats probably don't know who we are or where we get our info. Trust me, except for my posts on Korean culture and society, Ask the Expat is a service for people who don't know where to go. They have nowhere to turn and when they go online in search of info, they're most likely going to end up at a recruiters site or a rant on Daves. We can fix this.

Joe's got a new site up and Joy suggested something like I think both of those sites have a lot to offer, just as Hub of Sparkle does. It's clear that a meta-blog is a must.

Public relations is crucial to this project in my opinion, but we've gotta reach out to all mediums of media, not just the papers. Joe was on the radio the other day, we've got all sorts of English-speaking papers covered, multiple podcasters, Korea Beat's magazine spread, Hurt's got his fashion presence and I'm sure we could continue to push. I wonder though: What's going to be our angle? How can we take what we already do and make it work?

I think we should tie that in with positive growth/exposure activities like volunteering; fundraising; cook-offs; quiz nights for charity; blogger bashes; and other things we come up with along the way.

The final thing I wanted to mention was something that Joy also said (I obviously liked her thoughts). Canvassing. We can easily come up with a survey and canvass our local neighborhoods to find out what the average expat is thinking. That would be very easy, quick and a great way to get some solid info. The bottom line is that if we want our community to thrive we have to get rid of the idea of Korea as a hold-over. I can't tell you how many expats and teachers I have met that view Korea as a brief stop and happily move on. If we can get people to think of Korea as a place where you can grow socially, professionally and personally then our community could really take root and start to expand.

So, first things first: What do you all think of coming up with a simple canvassing survey?