Archive | June, 2012

Ten Tips on How to Survive Korean School Lunches

27 Jun

I love school lunch at my public school in Busan, South Korea. I stuff my face with pretty much everything on offer, much to the amusement of my Korean colleagues who I’m told “like someone who eats well, so they like you”. The self-serve buffet of steaming deliciousness is not without its pitfalls, though. Luckily for you, I’m here to give you the benefit of my wisdom. Bear this advice mind, should you ever find yourself working as an English teacher in a Korean public school. Complete with unnecessary footnotes.

 

1) Beware of unfamiliar foodstuffs.

It may sound obvious, but it’s an important thing to remember. When you’re starving and all around you children are stampeding* to get to wherever it is they eat like the herd of Gallimimus that nearly take out Sam Neill in Jurassic Park**, it’s tempting to get over-excited. You want to load up your tray with generous helpings of everything. This is a mistake.

Some of the unfamiliar items I’ve enjoyed at lunch include acorn jelly in soy sauce, some kind of fragrant leaves in red pepper paste, dried anchovies (more on these later) and some kind of root vegetable that looks like coral crossed with a slice of brain. These now rank as the most delicious things on the menu, but they taste unlike anything else I’ve ever eaten***. In the early days, you need to become accustomed to new tastes, and show your colleagues that you enjoy Korean food. The latter is especially important if they don’t speak much English, as food, and your enjoyment of it, will become your main form of communication with them. It’s best to take a little of everything, and clear your plate. This way you’ll look appreciative, and know what you enjoy and what you don’t when these things appear another day. 

Acorn jelly is actually quite nice. Photo from http://www.maangchi.com

2) Beware of familiar foodstuffs.

Every GET here has a horror story about a food item that looked friendly, but turned out to be something completely different. The obvious example to be cautious of is anything bread-crumbed and in nugget form. It might be delicious chicken. It might be prawn. It might be a fish-cake. It might be squid. It might be something totally unidentifiable. Don’t relax and load up your tray just yet, my friend. Especially if any of those items sound like something you don’t want to eat. Leaving a few leftovers is usually fine, but turning your nose up at an extra large helping you served yourself? Bad plan.

This rule applies to Korean items you think you recognise. Allow me to give an example. I hate squid and octopus (a big problem in Busan, whose streets are literally swimming with seafood) but I love vegetables. There is a dish composed of strips of a pale item in sticky orange sauce. This is variously cabbage, squid, or reconstituted fish. I can genuinely only tell which I have on my plate by the texture. It’s the Russian Roulette of food.

 

3) Beware the stealth tentacles.

As I previously mentioned, I don’t like cephalopods. Something about the texture of a tentacle upsets me. The idea of popping a whole baby octopus into my mouth makes me shudder. I’m not a fussy eater, and I enjoy fish, but these guys just squick me out. Since arriving in Busan I have discovered that people are actively hiding tentacles in my food. Often they appear in pajeon, a delicious Korean pancake filled with vegetables, sometimes prawns, and the occasional waving squid arm. Soup is another excellent tentacle hiding place. If you dare to stir up the sleeping miniature krakens at the bottom of your soup bowl, don’t say I didn’t warn you. 

The terrifying waving tentacles of doom. Picture by etheralmoor on deviantART.

4) Kimchi is your friend.

Kimchi, the ubiquitous fermented cabbage**** smothered in red pepper paste, is an acquired taste, present at every meal. Literally every meal. I’ve recently learned to appreciate its angry red presence at school lunches, because nothing will hide or alter the taste of something gross better than kimchi. Soup a little bland and salty today? Throw in your kimchi, stir it up, and you instantly have a tasty chilli pepper soup to dip your rice in. Reconstituted meat patty complete with grisly bits got you down? Load it on your spoon with some rice and kimchi and you’re good to go. Nothing at lunch except waving purple tentacles, taunting you with their creepy little rubbery suckers? Rice and kimchi, kimchi, kimchi.

 

5) I hope you like rice.

Rice is the other thing, alongside kimchi, that comes with every meal. Rice stops the spicy chilli that often appears in Korean dishes from blowing my head off every lunch time. It’s a Korean lunch flak jacket, that protects you from all the fearsome foodstuffs aiming to tear apart your innards. Please excuse that metaphor, but as an IBS sufferer, sometimes that’s exactly what eating feels like to me. Getting used to a new style of cooking is difficult for everyone, not just those with already grumpy guts. Rice is a good way of easing yourself into Korean food. If you’re fussy, it’s your safe option. If it’s too bland, try dipping spoonfuls in your soup. Don’t worry about eating it with chopsticks – the Korean sticky rice is difficult to get OFF your chopsticks, so you’ll have no problem shovelling it down.

Oh yes, soup. That’s the other thing that comes with every meal. I love soup, even if it’s just as a flavouring for my rice. Keep your eyes peeled for the kimchi soup options – these are generally delicious.

 

6) I hope you like chilli paste.

Korean food is quite spicy. That’s not to say it’s always spicy – some days there’s nothing spicy on my tray but the kimchi. You do get used to it, and there is always a non-spicy option, even if it is just plain rice. Be warned though, if you hate spicy food you’ll be missing out on the best of Korean cooking.

If like me you don’t mind spicy food, then you can relax. Koreans will generally wave you away from anything they consider too spicy, or at least warn you before you shovel a great, heaped spoonful into your mouth. For many foreigners in Korea this can get pretty frustrating, especially when every time you eat anything spicy your Korean colleagues coo in amazement, or restaurant owners try to stop you ordering your favourite dish. Just shrug it off. Koreans are proud of their food, and they will be proud of you for enjoying it. The only thing to watch out for is the runny nose – blowing at the table is a no-no (in fact any indiscreet public nose blowing is frowned on) but wiping with a tissue is completely fine. Be warned that Koreans don’t tend to drink water whilst they eat, so if you have a spice overload, chomping some plain rice is the only fast relief available. With that in mind, always save some rice until you’ve tried everything on your tray. Trust me, it’s safer this way. 

Kimchi is your friend. Photo by Nagyman on flickr.

7) Try everything, no matter how disgusting it looks.*****

This was some of the best advice I received before I came to Korea to teach, and now I’m passing it on to you. I think Korean food is, for the most part, completely delicious. Sometimes it doesn’t look delicious. Sometimes it looks revolting. I suspect this is a trait of school dinners the world over. Try it. Try everything. You never know when some mulchy grey-brown goop is going to turn out to be completely heavenly. It happens. I recently discovered that pork feet are wonderfully tasty and tender, for example. The dried anchovies in particular seem to put off a lot of Westerners, who are not used to eating their food whilst their food is eye-balling them reproachfully. This is a mistake, as these sweet, crunchy, fishy little guys are really quite nice.

 

8) Don’t ask what something is until you’ve finished it.

On the same theme, if you’re eating something and you’re not really sure what it is, don’t ask. Whether you’re enjoying it or not, if you’re determined to finish everything on your tray, ignorance is bliss. My co-teacher has a tendency to lean forward with a smile when she sees me swallowing down something obscure-looking and saying with glee “do you know what that is?”. Chicken necks, pig intestines, the ever-present cephalopod threat. These things are all easier to eat when you don’t know what they are.

 

9) If you have allergies, you should probably ask what everything is.

I’m completely contradicting myself, I know, but this is important. A lot of Korean dishes seem to include some kind of seafood or nut. If you have an allergy to either of these things, you are probably better off opting out of the school lunches and bringing in your own lunch. Try it out for the first couple of days to show willing, but be prepared to eat nothing much more than plain rice.

On the other hand, I’m dairy intolerant (part of the aforementioned IBS) and I’ve found avoiding dairy remarkably easy. Following my rules about taking small portions of unidentifiable items has certainly helped, but there also isn’t the same cheese obsession here as there is back home in the UK. It used to be stealth cheese I worried about turning up in an omelette, instead of tentacles. Those were simpler times.

 

10) Monkey see, monkey do.

If in doubt about how exactly to eat something, copy your Korean colleagues. Careful observation will show how to de-bone a fish with chopsticks, or get a slab of tofu into your mouth in bite-size chunks without any ending up on your lap. Sometimes when I get particularly stuck trying to eat something, a Korean colleague will pitch in with her chopsticks and, sometimes, feed me like a baby bird. You might think this sounds demeaning, but as long as I’m eating, I’m happy to be babied.

Much of the meat served at my school is still attached to some kind of bone. This seems to be very common – for example, a lot of fried chicken pieces are just whole fried chickens hacked up. You’re likely to come across some unfamiliar bones whilst navigating your lunch. If you’re one of those people who is grossed out by bones, you’re really out of luck. Most of the time it’s impossible to prise the meat off, and you’ll see a lot of Koreans just popping the pieces in their mouths whole, and then pulling the bones out afterwards.

Your colleagues are your guide as to what is appropriate, and what the hell you’re supposed to do with these weird leaves or flimsy pastel-coloured pancakes. Smile, say “ma shee say yo” (this is delicious) and whatever you do, don’t ask what it is you’re eating.

 

Enjoy!******

 

 

Footnotes:

*I don’t use the term “stampede” lightly. I once saw my kids knock over and trample an older Korean teacher who my co-teacher had to rescue by wading in, screaming, through the tidal wave of hungry students. I clung to the wall, terrified of being flung down the stairs. Another reason why teenage girls are not to be trifled with.

**Yes, I am this much of a geek.

***Except perhaps when I was a kid and I actually ate an acorn on a dare.

****Usually, although it can be a variety of different vegetables. Radish and cucumber are the two I come across most often.

*****This doesn’t apply to steamed silkworm larvae. If it smells that bad, and some Koreans think it’s disgusting, don’t eat it. Luckily this is unlikely to show up in the school cafeteria.

******I should probably say that these are just my experiences, in my Busan public middle school. The quality of school lunches seems to vary wildly, as does the helpfulness of your co-teachers when it comes to navigating them!

Second tour of my EPIK apartment

23 Jun

I’ve spent today doing some much needed cleaning of my flat, which I’ve been neglecting lately. As it was looking pretty tidy for a change, I thought I would take the opportunity to film a second flat tour, so you can see how the flat looks now that I’m actually living in it.

 

 

Now I’m going to head out into Dongdaesin-dong and see if I can scavenge up a late lunch, then it’s off to the beach.

Four months and counting.

20 Jun

Today marks four months that I’ve been in Korea (okay, yesterday, but I didn’t finish this post in time). For the curious, the only person who has sent me something in the post has been my mother. Where are my Crunchies and packets of strawberry laces, people?

Ahem.

This last weekend was one of the best I’ve had in Busan. It wasn’t perfect – I’ll plot my perfect weekend for you all soon, I’m sure – but it was pretty close. Let me explain.

Friday lunchtime – I’ve now finished classes for the day. Afternoon classes are cancelled one Friday a month so the students can spend the afternoon on their “club activities”. These seem to be as varied as visiting museums, practising traditional drumming, or learning Japanese. I join my contact teacher and her group – the bowling club. I spend the afternoon at a bowling alley entirely populated by students from my school (there are three or four bowling clubs in total) where I bowl with some of the girls who offer tips, and share celebratory cookies. When you’re sucking at something in Korea, people will raise their fists to you and say “fighting!” in encouragement. A lot of that happens. The girls also teach me how to say “well done!” and we accompany this with high-fives. Bowling club is awesome.

Friday evening – I head to the cinema in Nampo-dong, my nearest “centre” of the city (Nampo-dong is the old town, crammed with shops, cafes, restaurants and bars) to see Prometheus. The film is so unexpectedly and probably unintentionally weird and confusing that when it finishes, the audience bursts into spontaneous, confused laughter. Luckily I’m with a fellow geek, so we spend the evening dissecting the mess before moving on to other, equally geeky subjects (if you were going to reboot the X-Men film series, and do it right, what would you do? Is Once Upon A Time any good, even if it is feminist friendly? Does everyone worth caring about die in A Song of Ice and Fire?). We go home when we realise that it’s nearly 4am.

Saturday – I roll out of bed at 11am to stuff down a bagel before heading over to the Boys Town orphanage. I don’t know what you imagine when you read the word “orphanage” but my mind goes to a very Dickensian place. It’s always reassuring then to arrive and see kids playing on a Wii in the entrance lobby. The building has a hospital/school vibe – vaguely institutional, but not forbidding or intimidating.

Photo from Laura Teague

I join the group of younger boys (elementary school age) who are doing arts and crafts. Today we’re making shapes out of pipe cleaners. Some of the boys are very shy about speaking to foreign women, but most enjoy playing with us after a while. The kids confiscate smart phones and cameras and run around taking photos of each other. Later the visitors produce sweets and a feeding frenzy takes place – the orphans don’t get access to that much of these kinds of treats, so they get very excited about snack time.

Photo from Laura Teague

Sunday – I went to explore the UN Cemetery and the Peace Park, and the Busan Museum. The UN Memorial is a very peaceful place, dedicated to the memory of the UN troops who fought and died in the Korean war, a war which is officially still ongoing. The accompanying park is filled with families enjoying the sunshine. A stroll around was the perfect way to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon, and made me feel that I’d really managed to accomplish something cultural with my weekend for a change!

So there you go, my awesome weekend. Now I just have to find a way to match it again in a few days time!

Sad face

13 Jun

 

Last night my guinea pig died, and I’m feeling pretty sad about it.

 

He was living with my mum, and she noticed he was eating less, and behaving strangely, so she took him to the vet. To cut a long story short, she had to make the decision to have him put down last night.

 

I feel bad about this for many reasons. For starters, my poor mum had to make the decision alone about what to do. My guinea pig was in pain so there was a time pressure on the decision, and she tried multiple times to call me with no luck. She called my mobile phone – but here in Korea no one calls me who I don’t know unless it’s a nuisance call or a weird boy (long story), so I didn’t pick up to the strange number. My laptop keeps overheating lately, and it did so last night so I turned it off and wasn’t on Skype, or email.

 

To say I feel bad about that is an understatement; I feel horrible. I know how hard it is, and how terrible it feels, to have to make decisions for someone else about their pets. I’m grateful to my mum for taking care of the little guy for me whilst I was away, but I wish I could have eased the responsibility for her last night.

 

I’m also sad because – hey, my pet died. I got the guinea pigs when I lived in a tiny flat in London and was feeling pretty depressed about life. They cheered me up, and gave me something else to focus on. As I said in a previous post, I miss having animals around me here in Korea because I’ve always had pets at home. I feel wrong without a pet. I feel weird knowing mine died when I wasn’t around.

 

Merlin, as my pig was called, was a ridiculous creature. He loved to eat, and when he briefly lived with my mum he preyed on her ignorance about the appetites of guinea pigs and grew to a ridiculous size. One time I took him to the vet, and warned him that Merlin was a bit fat. When I lifted him out of his box, the vet laughed so hard he shook and then exclaimed through the tears “that is the biggest guinea pig I have ever seen!”

 

 

Merlin in his favourite “flashing her my balls” pose. Sadly, this is how I will always remember him!

 

Merlin liked to scare the vet by squeaking loudly whilst having his claws clipped so that everyone thought he’d lost a toe. He loved to make popping noises along to the Hollyoaks theme tune (he had terrible taste) and would purr when being snuggled in a towel. He loved to show me his balls in the summer, and climb into my armpits in the winter.

 

I’m taking tonight to mope around the flat and feel bad about it, because sometimes you need to do that. I’m also going to eat junk food and watch shit TV and knit because these things are comforting. It sucks to be so far away from all the people I’d be hugging if I were in the UK right now. Tomorrow I hope to be cheered up by spending time with some awesome people, though. Luckily I know plenty of those in Korea.


Seoul vs Busan

10 Jun

Wow, it’s been far too long since I last posted here. What have I been up to?

I went to Seoul for Buddha’s birthday (which is a long weekend here in Korea). It was my first time in the capital and I was struck by how big and sprawling it is. 10 million people live in Seoul and it feels like it! Whilst I was there I visited Gyeongbuk Palace and was given a tour by a cute first grade middle school girl who was part of a student volunteer programme. It was nice to get some information from a student who had been studying the palace and its history, and I think she was lucky to get a group of super encouraging English teachers prompting her to practise her English!

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Our student guide suggested the Namsan tower as a good place to visit, so we wandered around Insadong in the afternoon and then trotted over to the tower to watch the sunset. Sadly it was a hazy day and view wasn’t wonderful. I did love seeing all the padlocks attached to the railings.Image

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Korean couples come to the tower and lock a padlock to the railings and then throw away the key, symbolising their endless love or something. It’s another adorable example of Korean couple culture! My guide told me she put a padlock up here with her best friend, so when someone suitable comes to visit I’ll be making them do this with me so I can join in on the fun. Image

My overall impression of Seoul is that it is a very cool, very trendy city, especially close to the art university where we were staying – young people here are embracing individualism in fashion and western culture in a way that I haven’t seen as much in Busan. There are so many westerners in Seoul that it feels more international and accepting – I felt like anything went in terms of how I dressed, as opposed to the effort I make in Busan to limit how much chest I show and when I show my tattoos. That said, people in Seoul are used to foreigners being obnoxious and misbehaving in public and so we encountered a few rude or reluctant Korean taxi drivers, and I don’t think I spoke to many Koreans out and about either. Image

In Busan westerners are still enough of a novelty that people are curious about you and want to strike up conversation. I felt Koreans in Busan are friendlier and less judgemental, despite being more conservative. As soon as I arrived back in Busan an elderly woman tried to feed me rice cakes on the bus, and that’s pretty representative of my interactions here. Plus with the beaches and the sea breeze here, we lack the stifling heat and humidity of Seoul. Basically my time in Seoul made me so glad I live here in Busan, and I couldn’t wait to get home!

Since then I’ve had a lot of time off work as my students were on a school trip. The weather has been lovely of late, so I’ve been spending most of my time on the beach! This is really and truly why I haven’t been updating my blog – I’ve been busy out and about having fun and making the most of the sunshine before it gets too hot, in every free minute I have. I’m exhausted now though, and quite thankful that next week is back to my normal schedule!

Other things I’ve been doing that I forgot to mention:

– the Buddha’s birthday parade and lantern festival

– the Sand Sculpture festival in Haeundae

– crab hunting on Dadaepo beach

– conducting and grading speaking tests for my students

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