Monday, March 31, 2008

Good thing I'm a "people person"!

In my residential neighborhood outside of Seoul proper, it's sometimes easy to forget that over ten million people call South Korea's capital home. A short subway ride into the heart of the metropolis offers a quick reality check. Here are some photos that demonstrate just how packed this place is. Weekend jaunts for shopping or sight-seeing can be exhausting, battling dense crowds pushing and shoving as everyone vies for that last seat on the subway train.
Above, a shot of a traditional market area in Namdaemun on a weekend. It's difficult to stop and ponder merchandise at any of the stands because the crowd pushes you through before you have a chance to really look.

This shot was taken as I was transferring from one subway line to another on a Friday afternoon. Rush hour was approaching, so things only got worse after this photo was taken. Because I'm so short, I usually have no idea how far I am from my destination. I have to focus on the floor to make sure I'm prepared to maneuver any steps that come up. The mass of people undulates through the hallways like a snake, all of us swaying together, taking slow, short steps toward our destination.

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Abby meets Christopher Hill

**Original post December 1, 2007

Today I met someone whose name I've read at least once weekly during KBS news reports. He is Christopher Hill, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and also chief nuclear negotiator with North Korea. Hill has been in Seoul the last couple of days in preparation for his second trip to Pyongyang (the capital of North Korea) on Monday. There, he'll check on the progress of the North's nuclear disablement. He expects China, the host of the next six-party talks, to receive a full declaration outlining the country's nuclear program within the next week. I attended a lecture given by Hill to a crowd of just around 30 people at Ewha Women's University in Seoul. Hill gave a thorough, yet straightforward and uncomplicated account of North Korea's nuclear issue from the U.S. perspective. He also took questions from the crowd, and sitting in the front row, of course I jumped right in! He was an extremely laid back, affable man who seems to care genuinely about resolving this issue in a diplomatic fashion.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Worldwide Friendship today!

Be sure to check out Worldwide Friendship this Saturday. Haewon and I will bring you the usual news roundup, plus listener letters, Discovering Korea, and some K-pop music. Send your e-mails to and we'll read them during next week's show. Also, we'll answer your questions during our Q & A corner, so ask us anything you want to know about Korea.

Don't forget, if you're chosen as listener of the week, you'll receive some great presents from KBS!

Friday, March 28, 2008

Happy Easter from the KBS English Team!

Abby, Mr. Chae, and Sophia wish you a "Hoppy East-ah!"

I love 삼 겹 살!!!

Korea is famous for barbeque restaurants where patrons cook their own meals atop grills built into each table. Nearly any meat can be grilled, but a very popular variet is samgyeobsal, or slices of pork. It's not the healtiest choice, as each slice contains three layers of fat (hence the "sam" in the name), but it's absolutely delicious! Coupled with a big pile of 김 치 (kimchi), grilled veggies, and an assortment of sauces, it's my favorite Korean meal. Here's a picture of my friend Jessica and me celebrating her birthday at a samgyeobsal restaurant in Jong-no.

It's Good to be a Korean Kid

**Original post 3/10/08

As Sophia and I were going over the day's shows this morning, a woman I didn't recognize approached and laid two brightly-wrapped, rectangular boxes on our desk. She said something to Sophia in Korean, Sophia smiled and replied, then the woman continued to pass out more boxes around the office. My typical modus operandi when someone hands me a gift and/or money is to take it, no questions asked, but as with most things in Korea, I figured there was probably an interesting story behind this apple-green box on my desk. Sophia explained that the woman (who, apparently, I should have recognized) was distributing gifts of tteok (Korean rice cakes) in celebration of the 100th day of her son's life.

The son was nowhere to be found, but as I glanced down the length of our office, I spotted at least ten people either pulling apart pieces of sticky tteok or shoving it in by the mouthful. We're talking a lot of brightly-colored boxes, all in honor of someone who can't even roll over on his own. Now, for me to criticize this ritual would be somewhat akin to the pot calling the kettle black. Once I was old enough to realize that my birthday was, in fact, a day to honor me, I quickly moved the party venue from the dining room table of my home to a more spacious location where I could sit atop a pool table to open my presents while all my adoring fans watched from a decidedly lower level. (All of a sudden it's becoming clear to me why the audience for my birthday parties slowly dwindled over the years.) Later in the day I was researching for a show when I realized maybe I shouldn't feel so bad about demanding such undivided attention on my special day. I found the picture below on with the caption: The lucky baby boy delights in his first birthday party, known as "Dol" in Korea, at the Seoul Plaza Hotel, Sunday (Mar. 9).

During the Dol janchi ritual, the baby is urged to pick up one of the items on the table. Whichever item he or she chooses supposedly determines his or her fate. I'm still battling my decision to dive into my first year birthday cake with reckless abandon. I'm forever doomed to a propensity for overeating and utter disregard for the remains of my last meal on my cheek (the latter, however, is at least in part genetic--thanks, Grampa John).

A yellow spring

Surgical masks seem to be a mainstay of Korean fashion, a trend I noticed immediately upon arriving in Seoul. The accessory transcends seasons as well as generations, with Koreans young and old sporting masks as they go about a myriad of daily activities. Okay, perhaps the pursuit of fashion doesn't really enter the equation, but regardless of their mission, many Koreans strap on white masks whenever they step outdoors. I expected to see an exodus of masks after cold season had subsided, but on the contrary, I've been seeing more of them in recent weeks. And not only has the sheer number of sightings increased, but so has the variety of colors, fabrics, and styles. The other noticeable change around Seoul these days is the air; it's become hazier, and some days it's so thick you consider chewing before taking it into your lungs. The culprit is yellow dust (a.k.a. Asian dust) which journeys from the Gobi Desert in China and Mongolia and Kazakhstan to eastern Asia every spring via surface winds. Seoul has been spared the three significant sand storms so far this year, but is likely to see a powdering of the yellow stuff before spring fades into summer.

I snagged the above photo from the Grace Travel website.
Below, a man protects himself from yellow dust during a weekend stroll through Itaewon.

Six Months in Seoul

**Originally posted to personal blog

Next week will mark my six month "anniversary" in Korea. At times I can't believe it's already been half a year, but then I think back to my perceptions of the country when I first arrived, how much I didn't know, all the things I've learned in six months and it seems like an eternity since I stepped off the plane at Incheon International Airport. For the first several months every day brought a new adventure, an interesting discovery, or an awkward moment. While I'm sure I'll never cease to experience awkward moments in a place where I don't speak the official language and am still working to grasp the intricacies of the culture, I continue to consider such episodes the highlights of my week. Loyal readers will remember my befuddling moment in a taxi a few weeks ago when I realized the driver was relieving himself in the front seat. That story has served me well over cups of coffee and glasses of wine with many a friend and I actually feel privileged to have the tale in my personal repertoire. After I described the incident to my friend and co-worker, Matt, who is currently writing a book about his experiences in Korea, he said, "I need that stuff for my book! Why is your life perfect?!"

About three weeks ago I realized I was at a turning point in my Korean adventure. A noticeable side effect of this developing change is the lower frequency of posts to this blog. I experienced my epiphany as I was heading home from work after what had been a busy day in radio world. I was half way home on the same bus I take every evening around 6:00. I was flipping through a Time Magazine, catching up on the latest in the charade of American politics, but my mind was wandering to my plan to workout when I got home, maybe cook some chicken breasts after that, and the fact that I should soon mail my next car payment to the U.S. I wasn't paying attention to the bus radio blaring the boisterous ramblings of Korean DJs. I wasn't staring wide-eyed at all the bright lights and signboards with their humorous Konglish creations. Even the funky smell on the bus--the origin of which could be anything ranging from kimchi breath, to body odor, to an unidentifiable city stench--was flying under the radar of my normally overactive olfactory function. It was at this moment that I realized this isn't really an adventure anymore. It's just my life. It's not a strange place where simple jaunts to the grocery store are exhausting cultural exchanges that transcend language barriers. At KBS, I take initiative and do my job just like I would in the States; just another colleague, no longer a novelty with blue eyes and a journalism degree. When the work day is over, I socialize with friends or go home to exercise, cook, clean, or watch movies.

So, as the bus PA system announced the next stop in Korean, I didn't wait to hear the English translation chime in afterwards. These days, of all the things that occur to me in every 24-hour period, more of them seem "normal" than seem different, weird, or confusing. So, maybe Seoul hasn't quite recovered from the onslaught of Hurricane Abby--maybe it never will--but I've certainly adapted well to my home away from home.