Yesterday, we went to see Gyeongbukgung Palace in Seoul.  We arrived rather late in the day, but it gave us just enough time.  We walked up to the palace, and paid our ₩3,000 entrance fee, and entered the main gate.   We arrived just in time to view the changing of the guard, which was a pretty cool traditional ceremony.  Afterwards, we were about to enter the palace when a man approached us and asked us if we would like a free tour guide.   We looked over at the group of children dressed as tour guides, clearly brought here to hone their English skills.  We agreed, and once again looked over at the group.  There were three young girls, all of whom were very enthusiastic, and one boy, who was looking at the ground and kicking dirt.  The tour guide informed him that it was his turn, and he begrudgingly walked over.   Still looking down at the dirt, he mumbled something about being our tour guide, and only looked up to push his glasses up on his nose.  He turned around, indicating that we should follow, and we did.  As we walked, my friend Matt asked, “How are you?” “Bad,” the boy answered.  “Why?” I asked, expecting the same answer we get from our kids at school all the time.   “English academy homework,” he answered.   

                When I used to receive this answer from kids, I would feel a wave of guilt.  Now, I just give them the answer my Korean coworkers do, because there is nothing I can say about an educational system I don’t agree with.  “Well, if you do all your homework and go to a good university, some day you can have everything you want,” I tell him.   Unfortunately, that is the sad truth in this society, which results in overworked kids who turn into overworked adults.   “Yes,” he tells me, “I know.”  As we walk to the palace, I was worried that the tour was going to be difficult to hear and that my friend (who was only visiting for two weeks) was not going to have a good experience.  However, our little tour guide seemed to buck up and gave us a very informative tour.  I was amazed at the amount of information he memorized!  From the colors painted in the palace, to the numbers of toes on each dragon and their representation, to the location of each building’s chimney (to release the smoke of traditional wood smoke heating systems), this little boy knew it all.  This wouldn’t be as big of a feat if the palace were one building, or smaller in size, but it was a very spread out maze of large buildings with elaborate artwork and intricate construction.  Sure, he lacked confidence and was hard to hear at times, but I learned a lot and was very grateful for that.

                As our tour guide went through, we had a few questions.  Some were personal and made us unsure of whether to ask them, for fear of crossing any boundaries.  Others were more straightforward, like why certain dragons didn’t have a certain number of toes.  At one point, we asked our tour guide his name, which he responded to by hitting his head and saying to himself “stupid stupid stupid!”  When he looked up, he said, “oooooh, I’m sorry, I didn’t tell you my naaaaame… it’s Daniel.  I forgot that.”  We reassured him, telling him that we hadn’t introduced ourselves either, but he still seemed pretty mad at himself.  I also learned that he is 13 Korean age (12 American age).  For our more on topic interrogations, he had one of four reactions: either he had memorized this fact and could tell us about it right away, he had to consult his laminated book of facts about the palace, he “didn’t learn about that,” or he pounded his head and called himself “stupid” repeatedly.  It was very disappointing to see this.  Not only was his pronunciation and lexicon well above any of my students, but his confidence was lower.  I’m not sure if this is a direct result of the length of time he has obviously spent at English academies, but something is clearly wrong if a child with English skills of that par doesn’t feel confident.

                As far as the palace is concerned, it was absolutely breathtaking.  We have already made plans to return in the spring.  Every elaborate detail is representative of some really awesome historical fact, and the location is gorgeous.  It’s set in the mountains, and with the construction, color, and gardens, its stunning, even in the winter.



So, on Saturday evening we were sitting in our apartment.  I had noticed that there was a small bit of mold growing in the corner of our bedroom. I sprayed it with mold killer, and left it on for about 15 minutes.  Then, I wiped it with an old rag.  When I went to wipe it away, however, it didn’t come clean.  Instead, the wallpaper peeled and revealed even more mold!  I went to talk to Jason about it, when we noticed that there was mold in our living room as well.   We peeled away the wallpaper in the corner and discovered, to our horror, an entire wall of black mold.  After using bleach and mold killer, we realized there was nothing that we could do that was going to successfully kill our mold.




The only experience or knowledge either of us had with this was my small bit of research spent on the black mold that grew in my high school.  I researched further, and discovered that both of us had suffered from a lot of the symptoms of black mold exposure.  We also found a really awesome blog called “My Stinky Billa,” that acknowledges and offers solutions to the problems that arise from the construction and design flaws that plague Korean billas (which is Konglish for “villa”).  Essentially, the walls are made of concrete and there is no airflow, which makes it very difficult to keep your apartment dry and mold-free.  After discussing it, we decided that our mold problem existed prior to us moving in, hence the mold caked on every layer of wallpaper we peeled off.  We were going to tell our school that we needed to move.  We called our coteacher and she set up a meeting with herself and our school director on Monday night.


On Monday, we went to school and had our meeting.  Our director told us that in Korea, people live like this and that there’s nothing wrong as long as the mold is dry.  His plan was to dry it out and to cover it with another layer of wallpaper.  We informed him that we felt this was a health hazard and that we could not live like this any longer.  He then agreed to help us move.  That night, I slept in a co-teachers tiny apartment because I didn’t feel comfortable sleeping in our mold-encrusted billa, and Jason slept at home.   In the morning, our director met us and took us to five different billas with a realtor.  Finally, we found our lovely new home.  It’s spacious, clean, and has windows in every room to help with air flow. 

1. A sense of humor

Seriously, you will see some crazy things in Korea.  From ajumas (older women) pushing you in subway stations to Korean doormen rejecting your presence       at their establishment based on your waygookin (foreigner) status, you are going to be in the wake of some transactions that would be considered socially unacceptable by Western standards.

2. A good amount of cleaning supplies


In Korea, it is standard for the person moving in to the apartment to clean it.  Yes, that includes exhausted, illiterate, traveled wagookins who walk in to find     not only a black film over everything (from the air outside), but also whatever the people living there before left behind.  I have heard accounts of animal hair, human hair, rotten food, and much worse.  There are websites where you can order the supplies to be delivered to your apartment ahead of time.  I               strongly recommend this option, especially since it usually includes a hand-held vacuum.  When you look at Korean apartments online, you typically think they have wooden floors.  Don’t be fooled.  The floors are actually just covered in wallpaper that looks like wood, so they get dirty VERY easily.  We bought a swiffer, and it changed our lives forever.  A handheld vacuum would do the same I think.

3. A basic dictionary

(Photo from Writer Lingo)

So, you might think that because you are moving to Seoul, Busan, Incheon, or another large city in Korea that there will be a large amount of English. False.  So far, I have run into only one person at the bank who spoke English.  Every other transaction has involved Korean.  Sometimes, if you say words that are in English but add vowels at the end, they will understand you.  For example, I went to the store yesterday and asked to put money on my “T-money cardu,” which is obviously just a card, but since Koreans add vowels to syllables, it’s easier to communicate this way.

4. Patience

You are not going to walk off the airplane and absorb all of the know-hows of Korean language and culture through osmosis.   Unfortunately, it takes time to adjust to your new lifestyle.  Hopefully you love it, but it’s going to be a slow process.  We have been here for five weeks and still feel confused by our surroundings.   The easiest way to deal with this is by being patient with yourself and those around you.  Unless you are in a diverse area like Ittaewon or Hongdae, 99% of the people are Korean.  Don’t blame your server, cashier, hair stylist, or taxi driver for not understanding your English or your accent.  It’s really not their fault.  And don’t blame yourself for having an accent.  You grew up speaking in a completely different way.

5. A willingness to learn

Photo from the University of Arizona On top of a good dose of patience, it’s important that you be willing to learn.  From reading Hangul to paying your bills, everything is different in Korea. Sometimes, I am amazed at the convenience of Korean technology.  Other times, though, there are things I don’t understand.  Still, you need to learn how things work and how to say certain things in order to survive.

6. An open mind and an open palette

homestyle.freedomblogging.com When you don’t speak a language, going to a Korean restaurant can be quite the experience.  You might know about foods like bibimbap, galbi, or kimbap.  When you try something new, though, it usually involves pointing at pictures.  Our second week here, we looked under the seafood section of the menu and pointed at a picture that looked like breaded, saucy shrimp and/ or octopus.  When the dish came out, however, it was crunchy and not very good.  We looked at it more closely, and we’re pretty sure it was chicken feet.  We looked at pictures online when we got home and they confirmed our suspicions.  Things like this happen all the time in Korea, so it’s important to accept that this type of thing is not the end of the world.

7. A great pair of shoes
fusionsouth.com Even with the extensive bus and subway systems in Korea, you will be doing a lot of walking.  The roads aren’t always flat, either.  There are lots of hills and the sidewalks can be uneven.  A good pair of comfy sneakers is key.



8. Fabric softener


For some reason, the detergent here is really harsh.  Also, you (probably) won’t be able to read the instructions on your dryer.  Fabric softener makes it more  bearable to wear your clothing after it’s been washed.







9. Wall hooks


Because space in your apartment will be limited, wall hooks will help you control the clutter.






10. Sandals


If you have wide feet, it is crucial to pack these.   Jason wears a size 11 ½, and he can find shoes that are long enough, but not wide enough.  Sandals are worn at school, in the shower, and out during hot months.  It’s important to bring these with you.

Bus Ride Darwinism

Recently, one of my friends from college published a blog post on bus etiquette in Colombia.  I thought this was an interesting topic, so I’d like to share our experience thus far with bus etiquette in South Korea.  Living in a society in which one is illiterate is a very challenging task.  In order to catch a bus, Jason and I look for the number we need, and wait for an unknown period of time until that bus arrives.  Honestly, we have no idea how often they come, we just wait.  We have never waited longer than 10 minutes before.


When the bus finally does arrive, a good deal of boldness and patience both will land you on the bus.  If you really want a seat, you should be willing to battle the ajumas (older women) who will stop at nothing to be first in line.  Men are pretty competitive too, but ajumas are pretty famous for getting what they want when they want it.  However, if you’re okay with standing, you need to be in line, but realizing that it’s not a race will help you in the long run.  Once you climb the stairs onto the bus, you swipe your t-money card, which is a transportation card that allows you to pay for the bus, the subway, taxi fare, and convenience store groceries.  This card can come in a variety of forms, from a small piece of plastic that dangles from your cell phone, to a credit-card sized floppy card that you keep in your wallet.  Jason and I both have the latter.

Once you are on the bus, if you are lucky enough to spot a seat, you need to bolt to it.  If you chose patience as your method of bus entry, you need to grab ahold of the nearest pole or handle.  If there is a seat available, you can work your way to it, using the handles as monkey bars.  The bus driver absolutely will not wait for you to take a seat.  In fact, if you forgot your t-money card, the machine accepts cash, but you better hope your won goes into the machine correctly the first time, because if the driver has to wait, he (or she, but our drivers have always been male) will close the doors and start driving as you try to put your bill into the machine.  If there are people behind you, the bus drivers send you to the back of the bus, where there is another machine.

One time, on the subway, I saw a forty-something woman give up her seat for an ajuma.  This was the first and only time I have ever witnessed this.  I have seen a teenager sit in their seat and stare into the eyes of an ajushi (older man) or ajuma standing, holding plenty of heavy bags, and appear to be completely apathetic to the situation.  Let me caveat this by mentioning that as most families do not own cars in South Korea, almost everyone carries multiple over-stuffed bags everywhere they go.  Age and gender seem to be completely irrelevant on bus and subway rides, with the exception of the one-time subway incident.  If you can get a seat, enjoy it.  If not, you’re stuck standing.

Getting off the bus is a different story.  In order to exit the bus, you have to again swipe your t-money card at the door near the back of the bus.  However, the time allotted for exiting the bus is short, so it’s best to plan ahead.  Almost everyone pushes the button to let the driver know to stop well in advance, then makes their way to this door and swipes their card before the bus stops.  That way, when the bus does open its door you have enough time to exit before the doors close.  This is the only time on the bus that I see any form of consideration for others.  People will move out of the way to allow you to swipe your t-money card, but certainly not let you in front of them.  Essentially, I would describe bus etiquette (if you could even call it that) in South Korea as survival of the fittest.

It was my second week in a foreign land.  Still adjusting to the time and schedule change, I could feel my body growing weak and hungry.  I muddled through my busy day at school, constantly correcting students’ pronunciation problems and trying to establish a difference between “r,” “l,” and “w.”  Though I was enjoying myself, my exhaustion and hunger were taking over.   The dinner I enjoyed at school had consisted of tofu and oyster soup.








While it was delicious, my western body was not used to classifying such substances as a meal.    No, I needed much more to feel satisfied.

Finally, the last bell rang, and I entered the teacher’s lounge to pack up my things.  As I packed my bag, I glanced up and made eye contact with my comrade Jason: we both knew what needed to happen.









We exited the building and began our search for buttery, western goodness.  As we meandered through the back streets of our neighborhood, the foreign, neon characters confusing us in our paths, we both suddenly stopped.

The store sign seemed to glow much brighter than the rest in the hazy night, a welcome sight to our hungry and weary selves.   Without a word, we both slowly walked towards the sign, as if it were drawing us in.  Mystified, we hardly noticed anything else in the world.  Children played outside the storefront with water guns, laughing and dancing.  As we approached the front door, the warm aroma of the crunchy batter filled our senses, and completely washed over us.  We both closed our eyes and opened ourselves to the experience: it was too wonderful not to.

We entered the store and looked at the pictures—in a society where we are both illiterate, pictures are crucial.  The pictures were bright and colorful—and easy to understand.  The man behind the counter came into the seating are and offered his assistance.  I pointed to what I wanted, and he said “colpop?”  The word sounded so ordinary, so plain… little did I know the wonders I was about to behold.

As I sat waiting for my food to be prepared, the children ran in and out of the store spraying their water guns.   I hardly noticed as I was enthralled, watching the man deep fry tiny pieces of chicken and pour cola into a cup.  He refrigerated the cup of cola, and pulled out a smaller cup and placed it on the counter.  When the chicken was done cooking, he poured the pieces of chicken into the cup, and covered it in some kind of red sauce.  Then, he pulled the cup of cola out of the refrigerator, and placed the cup of chicken inside of it!  He put a straw through both cups, and two toothpicks in the chicken.

We left the store, and I took my first fabulous bite of chicken.  I was mystified.  How could something so simple be so delicious?  I drank my pop, which was cold, and knew I was in heaven.  Jason also experienced some of the wonder and agreed: this was one of the better chicken experiences of our lives.  So delicious, so cheap, and so convenient!  This discovery opened doors for us, and made this foreign land all the more magical.

…But seriously.  Reasons I love colpop:

  1. You can eat it when you are walking down the street, riding the bus, or doing pretty much ANYTHING without making a mess.
  2. It’s delicious.
  3. It costs less than $2.
  4. The pop is cold, and the chicken is hot.
  5. The sauce is DELICIOUS.
  6. It’s sold pretty much everywhere (pizza shops, convenience stores, chicken restaurants, etc…)
  7. If you’re not that hungry, it’s a perfect snack for two.
  8. If you are pretty hungry, it’s a great light meal.
  9. You can get it with honey mustard, too!
  10. I can say “colpop,” and Koreans don’t stare at me like I’m an idiot.
Though my colpop was prettier than this, here is the basic idea:
I know.  Genius.

Teacher Kristen

Now that I’ve been teaching in Korea for a week, I can’t resist but post about my favorite part of Korea so far: my students!  They are all fabulous.  Of course, there are the troublemakers, but they make things a little more interesting at the same time, so it’s not all bad.  When I arrived at school on Monday, I was essentially given a 5 minute “orientation” and asked to teach five classes!  My first thought?  EEEEK!  I haven’t even been in this country for 48 hours and I’m supposed to teach!  Apparently this is quite typical in Korea.

Now, in the United States, I know what would have happened.   The students would have taken advantage of my innocence and lack of knowledge, and the day would have been a disaster.  But with these students it’s another story.  They all know exactly where they are in their books, how to use the computer, and what they are supposed to do for homework, and patiently shared all of this information to me.  This was simultaneously shocking and immensely helpful.

Overall, the curriculum is pretty straight forward and easy to follow.  The biggest adjustment though is teaching students who don’t understand English.   It makes me feel pretty silly when I rattle off three or four sentences and my students look at me like I’m an alien.  So, I’m trying to adjust my talking speed to the level of the students, which can be trying when there are so many students at different levels in each class.  It’s definitely a challenge I’m up for though, because it’s so rewarding when I break through to them.

Every week, we do a current event with the older students.  This week, it was an article about a candlelight vigil held for Elvis (I would like to add here that I did NOT choose the article).  To allow my students to connect to the article, I played this video for them:


Well, they all started dancing and saying they love Elvis.  When I collected their writing, which was supposed to be about their favorite singer and how he/ she compares and contrasts with Elvis, half of them were just about how cute Elvis is with a short sentence at the end about how Elvis is dead and American and their favorite singer is alive and Korean.

My younger students are more enthusiastic than my older students, and love arts and crafts and games, so their classes are more like babysitting than teaching, which is fine with me!  I love it.  They sometimes become overly excited about something and focus on that instead of completing the lesson, so as long as I can get them to finish their lessons, it’s okay with me.

For example, yesterday I was in my beginner class of all boys, and we were learning about the mall.  I printed out a picture of a mall with different places (an ice cream store, a book store, a video arcade, etc…) and asked my students to draw themselves on a separate piece of paper, cut themselves out, and paste themselves in the mall where they like to go.  Most of them drew themselves pretty quickly, with a few add-ons like balloons or puppies.  But two of my students got REALLY excited to draw, and drew themselves being attacked by numerous monsters.  Eventually, I got them to paste themselves (and their monsters) in the mall and explain to me what they all were doing.  This is probably the part of my job I like the best because I get to see my students’ creativity.


First Purchase

As many of you from home may know, I’m not much of a writer. Despite that, when we decided move to Korea we also decided to start a blog. I thought this might be a perfect chance to improve my writing skills. Kristen is more of the cultural anthropologist and is an award winning writer, so I thought I’d leave the more complicated stuff to her for now and focus on what I like best: food! For now I’m going to try and concentrate on giving our readers simple reviews and thoughts on the foods and drinks we experience here during our time. With no further ado here is the first entry:

Yes, our first purchase in Korea was cookies. It is somewhat ironic. I don’t remember the last time I bought cookies in the states.

The first box was somewhere in between a shortbread cookie and a strawberry cereal bar. It was a little harder than I thought it would be. I’m more use to the soft cookies you find back home, but the favor was really good.



The second box may look like a knockoff Oreo box, but don’t be fooled.  It tastes more like the cheap chocolate favored cookies you buy when you can’t afford something better. They weren’t bad, but they didn’t do much for me either. Overall we liked both cookies, but maybe next time we’ll try something a little more adventurous.