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!