Sunday, December 14, 2008

Andong Mask Festival

Here's a belated report from an early October trip to Andong, Gyeongsang Province, a few hours southeast of Seoul. The area is famous for traditional Korean cuisine eaten to honor ancestors (heotjesabap, similar to bibimbap), an old Confucian academy, and Andong's annual mask festival. Matt Kelley and I joined throngs of festival goers on an uncharacteristically hot October weekend. Here are some photos from the festival. For more information about North Gyeongsang Province, visit Matt's "Discovering Korea" website.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Seoul, city of SOCKS!

Can't decide what to buy your friends and fam for Christmas? I suggest socks! And Seoul has plenty of 'em. One can't help but notice the prevalence of sock vendors around the city; in the subways, along the sidewalks, and one after another in any shopping area. They range from the practical to the downright wacky. They're long, short, plain, colorful, and some even get political. Korean heartthrobs grace the cotton of some varities, along with old standbys Mickey and Minnie Mouse and Hello Kitty. Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and "Coach" socks go for just two or three dollars a pair on the streets of Itaewon. In fact, they're as afforable as their less illustrious counterparts. So, this holiday season, stuff the stockings with . . . stockings!

I'm particularly keen on the variety of tights in Korea. In a rainbow of colors, they come with feet, without feet, and even with half a foot . . . but no heel. A fashionista's options are endless!

Wintertime offerings get warmer 'n fuzzier, but socks are plentiful in Seoul year-round.

The won-yen exchange rate has brought many a Japanese tourist to Korea in recent weeks just for shopping. Something tells me they aren't buying "Dokdo Love" socks, though. I wonder if there are "Takeshima Love" socks in Japan???

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Street squatting

In a previous post, I marveled over the prevalence of squatting among Koreans. It seems like anywhere you go, from the bus stop to the peaks of Mount Seorak, you'll find locals young and old resting on their haunches for seemingly excruciating amounts of time. I thought I had seen it all until I noticed a particularly dangerous display of this cultural phenomenon on my way to work a couple weeks ago. Does this woman have a death wish, or what?! Unfortunately, my video doesn't actually do this death-defying act justice. By the time I wrestled my camera from my bag, the traffic light was changing from green to yellow and the cars were slowing in speed and frequency, but you get the picture.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


'Tis the season for kimjang (김 장)! Ask people worldwide what comes to mind when they consider Korea and you're likely to hear "kimchi", the famous side dish of spicy, fermented cabbage with a powerful taste and a distinct smell, especially on your breath a few hours after you've eaten it! Kimjang is the centuries-long practice of making loads of kimchi to last through the winter. The custom has become less commonplace in modern times, as today's career women simply don't have time for the hours upon hours of washing, chopping, stuffing, and storing, and buying imported varieties in supermarkets is cheaper (and easier) than making the real deal. Still, many Korean homes are equipped with a refrigerator designed specifically to hold massive amounts of the accoutrement. Some families continue to store kimchi outside, buried underground. Since the trademark dish is served with nearly every Korean meal, making enough to last a family three or four months is surly a daunting task. My "Worldwide Friendship" co-host, Haewon Yoon, recently toiled with a group of friends for two days, turning 200 cabbages into kimchi. She was nice enough to take my camera along to capture the event.

This is how it all begins. Haewon and friends used about 200 cabbages for this year's kimjang. The entire process takes about one week. Day 1 is spent washing the cabbages, preparing other ingredients, and soaking the cabbages in salt water.

Just a few of the many tubs of ingredients.

Haewon, middle, and friends, preparing cabbages, radishes, and onions for kimjang.

The cabbages are halved and soak in salt water overnight before being stuffed on Day 2. Kimjang can be great exercise; Haewon came into work bemoaning sore limbs after two days of throwing hundreds of cabbages around.

Here, Haewon is mixing up kkakdugi (깍 두 기), another popular side dish, made of cubed daikon radish, red pepper, garlic, onion, and spices.

On Day 2, many gloved hands stuff hundreds of cabbages with red pepper powder, fish sauce, minced ginger, garlic, and green onions to create the delicacy widely regarded as one of the world's healthiest foods. After the stuffing, the kimchi will be packed in plastic containers (or earthenware jars, traditionally) where it will ferment. It's ready to eat in about a week and stays good through the winter. In fact, many people prefer aged kimchi over the freshly-made.

Over 2,000 volunteers came together outside Seoul's City Hall last week to make 58,000 cabbages worth of kimchi to be donated to underprivileged families. (Photo courtesy JoongAng Daily)

Friday, November 14, 2008

The CSAT stresses everyone out!

From The Korea Times. A student is rushed by police escort to a testing site.

This Thursday marked one of the biggest, and most high-stress, annual events in South Korea. About 590,000 high school students across the nation took the college entrance exam (College Scholastic Ability Test), which many believe will seal their fate when it comes to their future career prospects. As the Wall Street Journal notes, the exam is a "national obsession", and its impacts stretch far wider than the students who take it. State employees go to work an hour later to cut down on commuter congestion. Oversleepers are rushed to exam sites by police escort. Parents wring their hands with worry that their kids' performance may reflect poor nurturing. Around the time of last year's exam, I posted the following entry to my personal blog:

National University Entrance Exam Day
This Thursday the high temperature in Seoul dropped a noticeable five degrees from the previous day. Those five degrees were enough to make everyone feel like winter is right around the corner. I hadn't really thought about it feeling colder until I was walking to the subway after work and remembered a sidebar to a prominent news story this week. Thursday, November 15, was national university entrance exam day. Legend says temperatures always dip on this very important day for Koreans. When I first heard that theory, early in the week, I was ready to call the BS card immediately, but I'm not kidding you; it was COLD Thursday!

The temperature is just a small part of the story that surrounds exam day. For one thing, it really is just one day a year. High schoolers get one shot a year to put on their best game face and try to earn their way into one of Korea's top three universities. It's called aiming for the "SKY" because the top three schools are Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University. If you score well enough to be accepted into one of these schools, you've got a great chance of making your career dreams come true. If you don't score well enough, many Koreans would say you might as well crawl into a hole and die. That's how much pressure there is on these kids to do well. So much that in recent years several suicides have been attributed to the stress associated with this make-or-break exam.

Korean kids are groomed for academic success from the age of two or three. They're enrolled in "nursery schools" where they aren't just cutting out shapes and sloppily gluing them onto construction paper. They're learning foreign languages, how to read, how to play a musical instrument, and a variety of other things. Once kids start going to school, the intensity picks up. School gets out earlier here, around 1:00 or 2:00, but most kids spend the rest of the afternoon and evening attending several different academies. Sophia's daughter, for instance, goes to an English academy, a piano academy, an art academy, and takes swimming lessons. Most of the time, she doesn't go to bed until after 10:00PM . . . and she's 7 years old! Many parents will practically go broke paying for their kids to attend these academies (or "hagwons") because they know their kids can't be competitive academically without additional instruction. I tutor a 14 year-old once a week in English. I meet with him at 7:00PM to help him learn English, just as he's getting home from spending an hour or two at an English hagwon.

So on national university entrance exam day, the government urges all civil servants to go to work one hour later so the public transportation system is less crowded for kids trying to make it to test sites on time. The military halts all flights and shooting drills so as not to distract students during listening portions of the exam. Mothers across the country take photos of their kids to local churches and Buddhist temples to be placed on altars.

So while all these kids were biting their nails and drying their sweaty palms, I started reminiscing about taking the ACT as a junior in high school. I could have taken a prep course to get myself ready for the test, but I thought it sounded boring. I could have purchased a study guide to familiarize myself with the format of the test, but I needed that money for clothes! I probably could have at least gotten an adequate amount of sleep the night before the test, but I was too busy packing because as soon as the exam was over, I was heading to Florida for a vacation. Although I could have taken the test as many times as I was willing to pay to do so, I felt satisfied with my first score and really didn't want to deal with another four-hour exam, anyway. My score was hardly stellar, but just good enough to get me into the university of my choice. I'm not sure pressure entered into the scenario at all. I can guarantee you that even had I scored very poorly, I would not have considered my life to be over. Ironically, most Koreans would look at me in my current situation and say I'm very successful. The sad part is, that's mostly because I speak English.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

November 11 is Pepero Day!

The already ubiquitous sweet treat is even more visible today, with the gift of chocolately, crunchy cookie sticks being bestowed upon friends, lovers, and co-workers nationwide. Pepero (빼 빼 로) means "skinny like a stick", and while most Pepero varieties fit the bill, on this special day you can find gigantic examples no averge human could possibly consume on his or her own. Some reports suggest Lotte Confectionary, which manufactures Pepero, makes 55 percent of its annual earnings in November, thanks in large part to Pepero Day. Another newsy tidbit: many schools have restricted their students from Pepero Day celebrations, since the commercial holiday falls on the important national observance of Farmers Day. With bounds of Pepero covering my desk by 3:00, I'm wondering . . . is it kosher to re-gift Pepero?

One of our listeners impressed the English section by sending a huge box with various types of Pepero. Thanks, Steve!

When it comes to Pepero, the options are endless. They range from the inexpensive, but most popular varieties you can find in any convenience store, to more expensive varities available at bakeries. KBS World Spanish service chief, Sonia, poses with fancy Pepero.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

I Voted!

I was a little disappointed that there was no "I Voted" sticker in my absentee ballot packet. Like many Americans, I have become completely immersed in the excitement of this year's election. On one hand, it's a bummer to be half-way around the world as my fellow Americans head to the polls on Election Day. On the other hand, it's been very interesting to live in a foreign country during a historic campaign that comes at a tumultuous time for the entire world.

I've done some very unscientific polling, and concluded that Koreans' opinions about the U.S. election are just as diverse as the U.S. itself. Many Koreans tell me they like Barack Obama, but believe John McCain will win. Most say conservative U.S. policy better serves Korea. Some have blatantly said, "I like Obama, but . . . he's black," while others have intimated that the Illinois senator's good looks should be reason enough to vote for him. McCain's P.O.W. experience pulls at some heartstrings, but some have said he's just too old. And I've been humbled by a few who have said, "I'm not American. I don't care."

Since the results will pour in during my Wednesday morning, I'm looking forward to observing the atmosphere around KBS. I may be the only one riding an emotional roller coaster tomorrow, alternately shrieking with joy and anxiously wringing my hands, but there's no doubt many are looking forward to seeing how America votes.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Hiking Dobong Mountain (도 봉 산)

Hiking is one of Koreans' favorite pastimes, and autumn is the best time of year to catch breathtaking views and comfortable temperatures. Matt Kelley and I headed north to Dobongsan on Sunday to join the crowds for a fun and beautiful hike. We left Seoul around 6am and took the subway (Line 1) to Dobongsan Station. We marveled at opportunity to access an area so starkly different from Seoul by subway in just an hour.

Matt snags a shot of one of Dobongsan's peaks on our way up.

The top! Check out the guy just casually perched on a rock, with death just a slip away! Somehow, I always forget that I'm terrified of heights until I find myself hundreds of meters above sea level with a line of hikers behind me, waiting as I muster the courage for the next death-defying step. Thankfully, Matt was a calming coach.

View from the top (my demeanor was not quite so casual). That's Mt. Bukhan in the distance.

Hanging on for dear life along the ridge line while begrudgingly cooperating for a photo

Descending is more my style

We found these chilies out to dry near a Buddhist temple

Seoul through the trees

Look close for the truly crazy . . . at least they're attached to a rope!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Soju in juice boxes!

I was almost a year into my Korean tenure when I finally discovered a handy dandy innovation that ensures no situation must ever be void of Korea's signature distilled spirit: Soju "juice boxes". Designed to make soju-on-the-go a logistical breeze, the clever packaging means Koreans (or anyone else) heading abroad can tote their revered beverage without concern that reckless baggage handlers will leave their suitcase full of broken green glass and clothes reeking of alcohol. Since the price of soju in foreign countries is often six times higher than the domestic rate, it pays to buy it here and enjoy it there. But of course this nifty option isn't reserved for practical travelers. Since my initial discovery of soju boxes at Costco, I've seen a few people around Seoul actually sipping from the cardboard containers a la Hi-C style.

Chris and I discovered soju boxes during a trip to Costco.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Korea Sparkling . . . in Shanghai!

I was so excited to find this Korea tourism office right around the corner from my hotel in Shanghai, China last week. Unfortunately, the office wasn't open when I walked by, but it was great to find a little taste of "home" during my trip.

This week Korea announced 2010-2012 are "Visit Korea" years. The tourism promotion campaign is the third of its kind and seeks to bring 10 million tourists and $10 billion in tourism money to Korea annually by 2012. The campaign committee has plans for more on-site promotion projects in China, Japan, and Southeast Asia. More offices like this could be popping up in a neighborhood near you!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Back from China!

I'm back in Seoul this week after a great trip to China. I spent most of my time in Shanghai, but also visited Hangzhou, a tourist haven about two hours south of Shanghai. I'll post more photos and reaction later, but wanted to share some videos right away.

I took this video in a section of Shanghai referred to as "Old Town" or "Old City". These lively areas where working class people can be seen hustling and bustling around the clock are always my favorite parts of big cities.

I was amazed by the prevalence of bicycles, mopeds, and motorcycles in China. I had never actually seen a moped in person before. Cyclists have their own lane on most roads and even designated signal lights. Here's a shot from an intersection along Shanghai's famous Nanjing Road.

Students at Shanghai's Yew Chung International School singing "I'm a Believer". Yew Chung's student body includes kids from nearly 70 different countries.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Eye to eye with "Jeff from Maryland"

Nearly every week on Worldwide Friendship we read an e-mail sent by "Jeff from Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.A.". Last week, we got to meet Jeff in the flesh! Jeff and his wife, Cindy, and their son, Nathan, came to Korea to adopt a baby girl. Nathan was also born in Korea and was making his first trip back since Jeff and Cindy adopted him. Haewon and I had the opportunity to interview Jeff for Worldwide Friendship, then joined Jeff's family for an entertaining lunch near KBS.

Jeff, Cindy, and Nathan with Jeff's mother and stepfather in a KBS World studio

Nathan and I became fast friends over an Italian lunch

Thursday, September 25, 2008

"Do you know? Dokdo belongs to Korea" (Does it?!)

A few months ago my brother and I were having a discussion about Asian politics, particularly Korean and Japanese issues, since I live in Seoul and he's lived in Japan for nearly ten years. I made reference to Dokdo (독 도), a group of rocky islets inhabited by just a handful of people in the waters between Korea and Japan. Ownership over the outcroppings has been heavily disputed for centuries. Josh had no idea what I was talking about when I said, "Dokdo." He said, "You mean 'Takeshima'?" Had another person been involved in the conversation, it could have become even more convoluted. Dokdo is also known as Takshima, the Liancourt Rocks, and the Hornet Islands, depending on who you're talking to. As the conversation progressed I realized we were each speaking about the controversial islets from the perspective of our resident countries. I used "Dokdo" and "East Sea", while Josh used "Takeshima" and "Sea of Japan". Furthermore, even as a foreigner with no stake in the issue, I found myself getting defensive of the Korean perspective, railing against Japanese imperialism and historic colonization.

This dispute between two rural Illinois siblings is ironically indicative of the larger picture. Korea claims absolute sovereignty over Dokdo, while Japan has repeatedly claimed over the years that Takeshima is Japanese territory. The controversy spikes every so often and most recently when Japan suggested it would claim territorial rights over the islets in upcoming school textbooks. Meanwhile, the United States didn't make things easier for Korea when its Board on Geographic Names categorized the islets as having "undesignated sovereignty". The BGN's designations are used as the U.S. federal government's standard. Although I found myself arguing like a Korean would with my brother, my outsider perspective actually tells me the BGN's classification makes perfect sense. Although it makes a thorny issue even more complex, the U.S. has been calling the islets the Liancourt Rocks since 1977 so as to stay out of the Korea-Japan dispute. Yet it officially recognized the islets as South Korean territory prior to the "undesignated sovereignty" debacle. So with Japan making refreshed claims to Dokdo at the same time the U.S. naming agency delivered a diplomatic slap in the face, it's no wonder Koreans were a little perturbed. Although the BGN name change was based on a decision made some time ago, the untimely release felt to Koreans like a U.S. vote in favor of Japan. Perhaps because this incident came on the heels of very spirited demonstrations against U.S. beef imports and amidst the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement impasse, the Bush administration quickly instructed the BGN to re-designate the Liancourt Rocks as Korean territory on its website.


Arguing back and forth with Japan, even through the highest diplomatic channels, seems to rarely bear substantial results for Korea. Several admonishments of Japan's claims by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak have done little to temper the issue. So when Korea's favorite phrase stating that Dokdo is "clearly Korean land historically, geographically, and by international law" (I can't count the number of times I've broadcast those exact words to an international audience) fell on deaf ears in Japan, Korea's strategy turned to convincing the rest of the world that Dokdo is, in fact, Korean territory. Nevermind that most people outside Korea have never even heard of Dokdo or care who owns it. Regardless of what the islets are called on a map, they're barely even visible without a magnifying glass.

"Dokdo Love"

Of course the waters around Dokdo, and the sea life in them, are what's really at stake. Koreans seem unanimous in their belief that sovereignty over Dokdo is theirs, and the t-shirts with awkward claims in English point to the country's hope that the rest of the world can be convinced of the same.

Monday, September 22, 2008

KBS World Radio coming to you via RSS feed!

KBS World Radio will soon begin an RSS feed service. This means you'll be able to download our programming onto your computer to enjoy whenever, wherever you wish.

Our first step is deciding which programs to feature via RSS feed. That's where YOU come in! Please let us know which shows you'd most like to see available in this format. Remember, you can always listen to our programs on-demand on our website, but this new option will allow you to take KBS World with you wherever you go!

Send us an e-mail to or leave a comment here on my blog and give us your input.

Heart attacks for sale, but Mad Cow-safe

America's most internationally familiar food chain is exercising damage control in light of Koreans' apprehension of U.S. beef. As though McDonald's customers were pillars of healthy consumption, the company is assuring everyone that its burgers are made strictly with Australian beef. (Personally, I've never dared to guess from where the "mystery meat" used in McDonald's products comes, regardless of where its sold.)

After months of intense public backlash against the government's decision to reopen the Korean market to U.S. beef, many restaurants have been pushing the non-American beef-ness of their products, but I find myself irritated by these signs posted at an American fast food icon. McDonald's should be using its power to advertise the quality of American products and help repair the tattered image of U.S. beef, rather than playing into unfounded rumors and irrational fears. Perhaps coming from farm country U.S.A., I'm too slow to scrutinize American farm products, but I've certainly never worried about the safety of beef purchased in the States. I have, on the other hand, winced when considering the amount of fat and cholesterol in an order of McDonald's french fries. That's what Koreans oughtta be worried about.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Shopping for hanbok

Koreans and Japanese spend plenty of time pointing out their differences, but when it comes to traditional clothing, or at least what they call traditional clothing, both cultures keep it very simple. The Japanese have the kimono, which literally means "thing to wear". In Korea, the typically bright, flowing traditional attire is called hanbok, or "Korean clothing". Several weeks ahead of Chuseok, Korea's annual harvest festival, big box retailers and department stores started stocking racks and racks of low-priced hanbok. These days, it's mostly kids who wear hanbok for holidays, but newlyweds also wear the attire during the first major holiday after their wedding. I also noticed several elderly folks donning the traditional garb last weekend. I recently accompanied Sophia on a mission to purchase a hanbok for a four year-old American boy. For a variety of options and high quality, we headed to a group of hanbok stores in Yeongdeungpo.

One of the shop owners told us a high quality hanbok for adults averages $700. Most Korean couples wear hanbok for the traditional portion of their wedding ceremony.

I made the mistake of telling Sophia I didn't think an American boy would be too enthusiastic about pink pants, although Korean men are more than comfortable wearing hanbok in bright pastels. She clearly wasn't thrilled about my suggestion of above option due to its more masculine colors.

Sophia at the height of frustration. We eventually agreed on some bright blue pants.

Traditional food among traditional textiles