Thursday, May 29, 2008

Greetings from Kaua'i, Hawai'i

Abby and Clarissa greet you from the paradise of Kaua'i.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


Greetings from Kauai, Hawaii! My Dad and friends Chris and Clarissa have met me for a week of fun and sun.

Chris, one of my best friends since age 10, and me in Honolulu. That's Waikiki in the background

My Dad and me in Honolulu before our flight to Kauai

My home for the week!

Chris tests the water

Kauai has gorgeous plant life

Cocktail hour!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Tourist in my own country

First stop, a greasy spoon for a juicy, American beefy hamburger!

Greetings from Los Angeles! I'm en route to Hawaii where I'll meet my Dad and two friends for a relaxing vacation. Had I gone straight from Seoul to Kauai, I'm not sure I would have experienced the culture shock that a one-day layover in the continental U.S. has imposed. In recent weeks I've wondered how my first steps on U.S. soil in eight months would feel, how the place might seem different, and what comforts of home I'd rush to enjoy. My actual experience in the last ten hours has been starkly different from anything I expected. I imagined I would notice more overweight people, catch myself saying, "kamsa hamnida," instead of, "thank you," and maybe even wishing I were home to stay. I certainly was not prepared to start missing Seoul almost as soon as I got here! Perhaps it's the rather dilapidated, suburban area of Culver City I'm staying in, filled with "things" but void of interesting culture and substance, that has me feeling melancholy.

Maybe it's because I feel like people are staring at me as if they know, "She's been living in Korea for eight months. She looks culture shocked." I realized I made an utter gaffe as I was standing in a busy intersection waiting to cross a major highway. I felt like everyone in the cars around me were staring at me, all looking down at my legs or feet. That's when I text messaged my friend Clarissa, "Oh, so knee-length electric blue leggings and short denim skirts aren't in style Stateside?!" She quickly shot back, "What the hell are you thinking?! You've been in Korea too long!" My outfit, chosen for its comfort and traveling practicality, wouldn't catch a second glance in Seoul, even around the office. Standing on that busy street corner, though, I realized, I look like a prostitute! And that's when I also started to sense something I haven't felt for eight months; fear, or at least apprehension, about the people around me. Seoul is a very safe place and although you can never be too careful, I've never felt threatened or fearful walking alone anywhere in the city. Passing by some odd-looking characters in Culver City, California, though, set my heart racing.

I'm anxious to head for Hawaii tomorrow where being surrounded by family and friends will surly bring me out of this tourist-in-my-own country funk. In the meantime, I'll drown my pensive despondence in American beef and other edible luxuries that explain why everyone standing in my hotel lobby today was at least ten pounds overweight. Ah, America!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Going to the chapel

Many areas of Seoul offer a menagerie of architectural designs. The tall concrete apartment buildings are everywhere, of course, but tucked in between them it’s not uncommon to see humble brick structures, modern high-rises with glass facades, or even a gaudy imitation of a fairytale castle. It’s no surprise the random castle-looking ones have caught my eye. They’re wedding halls, and many of them are adorned with massive banners with photos of larger than life couples in Western wedding attire looking blissfully happy. Think titivated Las Vegas chapel nuzzled between city banks, Starbucks, and fitness centers. Some wedding halls are less flamboyant, but they’re also easy to miss among other nondescript structures. After noticing a wide variety of these establishments, I started to wonder how wedding culture in Korea differs from what I’ve experienced in the Western world. It’s obvious based on the advertisements that many Koreans are at least dressing like Westerners when they say, “I do,” but how did the wedding convention centers become the standard venue for matrimony? Unfortunately, I haven’t done the research necessary to answer that question, but I’d venture to guess the blending of cultural traditions, often calling for two weddings in one, has something to do with it. It takes a lot of work to pull off a fancy, Western-style wedding piggybacked by a detailed Korean ceremony, but in a convention center environment staffed with quick, efficient, walkie-talkie carrying wedding professionals, it runs like clockwork. Last weekend I had a chance to feed my curiosity when my KBS co-host, Matt, invited me as his guest to a wedding. The event took place in the affluent Seoul district of Gangnam, so the wedding convention hall looked more like a convention center and less like the fortresses of love that can be seen near my neighborhood. We arrived late, but probably only missed one of three or four walks down the aisle by the happy couple. The bride and groom were wearing Western wedding wear when we showed up, and we either missed the exchange of vows or there never was one. Rather than pews or seating you’d find in a church, the big, square room was set up like a reception hall with round tables for eight crowded with serving ware, bottles of various beverages, and Korean candies. Running down the center of the room was an aisle covered in white fabric and slightly elevated. As the bride and groom took one jaunt after another up and down the aisle, smoke machines and colored lights surrounded them and short snippets of popular love songs played back-to-back through the sound system. I confirmed later that the bride and groom specifically chose the Celine Dion number, a non-Beatles version of “All You Need is Love” and one other catchy, sappy tune. As the earnestly methodical wedding hall staff guided the couple through a series of ceremony musts—cutting the cake, pouring a champagne fountain, greeting guests—Matt pointed out that the entire system seemed set up to accommodate the corresponding photo shoot. As the bride and groom were ushered from the cake station to the champagne station to the arch of love, professional photographers and videographers were right there, capturing every Kodak moment this wedding factory cranked out. Wedding guests chomped away on a multi-course meal while the staff put the couple and their parents through the paces. Once the couple had shown off both their Western and traditional Korean outfits (hanbok) and personally greeted every guest (see picture above), the place cleared out and family and close friends (and me) joined the couple in a cozier room where they conducted Korean wedding rituals. Matt and I couldn’t help but comment to one another about how exhausting the whole process seemed, but once the Korean ritual photo shoot was over, around 7:00pm, it appeared the festivities were complete. From a Western perspective, I’d say the fast tempo of the event, coupled with the wedding factory feel, diminished the warm and fuzzy feelings most weddings leave illicit. That’s probably just my impression, however, and there were certainly many people there who seemed to be experiencing something along the spectrum of warm and fuzzy. Now I’m anxious to see what kind of celebration goes down in the castle-like structures. According to Matt, I just might see wedding hall employees dressed like circus stagehands, blowing confetti from the bells of trumpets as the newlywed couple exits the hall (description based on true events!).

The newlyweds (photo credit: Matt Kelley)

In traditional Korean hanbok

Matt and I pose with the proud mother of the groom

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Two Illini at KBS!

Fellow University of Illinois journalism alumna, Nicole Pegues, visited KBS today. Nicole is a graduate of UIUC's print journalism program and went on to receive a master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Jouranlism. I hadn't seen Nicole for several years, so her visit was a nice blast from the past. Although our paths didn't cross too often in college (she was a print journalism major, yours truly a broadcast student), the connection we share offered a surreal feeling as I showed her around KBS. Thanks for stopping by, Nicole!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Worldwide Friendship--call for letters!

Worldwide Friendship is a Saturday mailbag show that gives our listeners a chance to have their opinions heard internationally. This program has been a listener favorite for years, drawing continuous feedback from radio fans all over the world. Every week, Haewon and I read your comments and suggestions and share news from the Korean peninsula. Write to us today, either by e-mail (, snail mail, or by commenting right here on my blog. Tell us where you're from, what you enjoy doing in your spare time, what you like about KBS World Radio, and how we can improve our service. Or just drop us a line to say hello! Listen to next Saturday's edition of Worldwide Friendship--you might be chosen as Listener of the Week!

Our address:
KBS World Radio
English Section
Seoul, Korea

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Candles against U.S. beef

Just before his meeting with President Bush at Camp David last month, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak announced his government's plan to re-open markets to U.S. beef imports by the end of May. The announcement has stirred intense controversy in Korea where many believe the president is acting recklessly with only U.S. interests in mind. The U.S. government has made the opening of the Korean market to U.S. beef a condition in ratifying the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. Korea and U.S. beef have had a rocky relationship for several years. Koreans, in general, are very concerned about mad cow disease, so a few confirmed cases in the States have them shying away from U.S. beef with the skepticism most Americans would have for dog soup. Mad cow disease and the human strain of the virus aside, many Koreans are also worried about the impact U.S. beef imports will have on farmers in this country. Not only will cattle farmers feel a pinch, but some say prices of domestic pork will drop, too, once cheaper U.S beef is available to consumers. The country is in the middle of a 20-day public feedback period regarding the issue and the public is certainly taking the opportunity to express its views. This week candlelight vigils have been the medium of protest, with well-attended events taking place across the nation. I stopped by one near KBS Tuesday evening where an estimated 10,000 demonstrators rallied peacefully.

Many media reports have mentioned the prevalence of middle and high school-aged kids showing up at the vigils. The kids say they're protesting the import of U.S. beef because if the markets are indeed fully opened, their school cafeterias will opt for cheaper American beef over the homegrown variety.

I wondered how well my white face would be received by the demonstrators, since some people have speculated that the controversy over beef imports has caused an anti-American sentiment among some Koreans. These two girls didn't seem anti-Abby, at least!

Korea has been one of the top three importers of U.S. beef in recent years (when beef import bans weren't in place due to fear of mad cow disease). I wonder if any of these 10,000 people knowingly contributed to that statistic.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The power of soju

Soju is Korea's trademark booze. A vodka-ish distilled beverage, the ubiquitous green bottles sell for a little bit of nothing, but the stuff will get you a lotta drunk. I can't stomach the stuff, but it's clear this guy drank enough for both of us on Sunday before knocking off for a snooze outside Jamsil Stadium in Seoul. I'm just impressed by the orderly arrangement of his penny (or won) loafers.