Tag Archives: centum city

How to relax like a Korean.

27 Feb

It’s been a year since my contract in Korea started, and I’m currently surrounded by half-packed suitcases in my friend’s apartment waiting to leave for my trip to Japan (just a two week holiday before I return to the UK). Packing is horrible – stressful and emotionally traumatic (or it is for me anyway – I had to throw away clothes) so I’ve been trying to counter those effects and relax a little. And Korea is good for relaxing.

Does that surprise you? This is a major city in a country famous for “bali bali” (hurry hurry), that my visiting brother compared to Blade Runner (he needs to see Hong Kong before he truly appreciates that comparison, in my opinion).

Like this, but with less replicants. Probably.

Like this, but with less replicants. Probably.

As any foreigner working in Korea can tell you (and probably will, at length) this is also a country famous for last minute changes of plan and general disorganisation. Nothing will FORCE you to relax and go with the flow like a year of being told “oh, you are teaching this class twice today. You must teach next week’s lesson. Did you know?” on a semi-regular basis. You learn that your co-workers don’t have it in for you, nor do they have crazy expectations – this is just how things are done here, and a willingness to accept these changes will show you are a good worker far better than, you know, actually teaching a decent lesson at the drop of a hat.

Like Britta’s advice to Annie when she moves in with Troy and Abed (go watch Community. I’ll wait.) my advice to new teachers would be to go limp. Just limp enough so that a fall from a building wouldn’t kill you, and that the seemingly-deranged behaviour of everyone around you doesn’t drive you insane.

Loosey-goosey. Or is it goosey-loosey? Is it hyphenated? Nevermind - I don't need to know.

Loosey-goosey. Or is it goosey-loosey? Is it hyphenated? Nevermind – I don’t need to know.

A major tool in the relaxation arsenal of the average Korean are the jimjilbangs, or spas that cover the country. A weekly visit to a bathhouse is standard for most families (according to my students). As a foreigner, and a teacher, I opted not to visit any of my local jimjilbangs and suffer the embarrassment of having students say hi whilst we’re all naked in a big bath. Instead I hit Spaland – a haven of natural hot spring water piped up from 1000m underground to the third floor of the largest department store in the world. Oh, Korea.


Spaland is a magical place. For only 12k won (around £7) you can enjoy a plethora of baths. Personally I like to heat myself to near death in a bubbling sodium chloride bath and then drop into the cool one until my teeth start to chatter, then repeat until I’m hungry. By far the best baths are the outdoor ones. Dressed up in rocks with a fake waterfall for a back massage, you can sit watching the steam rise off into the cold air and imagine that you’re hanging out in the hot pools of Winterfell’s godswood (or you can if you are a massive geek like me).


All the baths are naked baths. Being naked in a room full of naked Koreans is a weird experience, but on the whole I didn’t get stared at even with my foreign-ness and tattoos. The lack of kids probably helps here – youngsters will point at me on the street and shout “Omma! Waegukin!” (“Mum! Foreigner!”). At Spaland, under 12s are forbidden. It’s a veritable haven of grown-ups being sedate and returning polite and friendly smiles. The baths are all split by gender, so if you don’t fit a gender binary you might struggle, which is a bit of a shame.

The rest of Spaland is made up of steam rooms and saunas where everyone wears their standard issue pyjamas and pays for snacks using their locker key wrist bands. It’s like a futuristic Norwegian prison colony with fake bamboo. I really enjoy the warm steam room with folding beds, and spent a couple of hours in there yesterday with my book. It’s the only way to survive a cold, dry Korean winter – steamed and warmed to perfection.


I also like to pop into the various hot (and cold) rooms and sample the colour change walls, or pan pipes, or electrons or whatever other weird health things are supposedly going on in there. I pass out easily though, so I try to remember to stay hydrated, and not stay too long in any of the saunas.

My body’s inability to efficiently pump blood to my brain might also be why I prefer the outdoor baths – the juxtaposition of cold air and warm water in the winter helps prevent me from overheating. In the mixed section of Spaland there are some outdoor footbaths, with little padded jackets provided for the winter, so you can enjoy some mixed sex OMG-I’m-totally-a-Stark funtimes.

I would also recommend reading my friend Caroline’s blog post on her trip to Spaland which is far funnier and more thorough that mine.

Yesterday the combined powers of Spaland, a massive steak lunch, and an evening watching Casablanca relaxed me to a near comatose state. Today I’ve undone all my good work by getting wound-up by some confusion (again) over my final paycheck. I must remember to take my own advice – stay limp. 


Anti-foreigner feeling in Korea

15 Jul

This weekend provided two very different run-ins with Korean strangers.

First, my friend and I encountered an aggressive Korean woman in a bar in Busan. We were in the bathroom, and she came in and started hammering loudly on the stall doors. When my friend came out of the stall, this woman confronted her angrily and demanded to know if we could speak Korean. She eventually stormed off after yelling at us in Korean some more. Essentially, this woman was angry because we were talking to each other in English in the bathroom.

A certain number of Koreans seem to genuinely hate foreigners. They get extremely angry at our audacity – hanging around places in Korea, being all foreign, speaking out foreign languages and being, you know, foreign-looking. There are some bars and restaurants that refuse to serve us. Sometimes people will shoot us evil glances, sometimes they’ll yell at us, and even push us around a little, and try to intimidate us.

Well, it’s pretty intimidating anyway, being a foreigner in one of the most homogeneous cultures on earth. We stand out, and we get stared at, and for the most part I don’t mind. I know I look different, and that people are curious about me, and often the extra attention is as harmless as that. Sometimes an old man will be staring at me on the subway, only to eventually come out with “I welcome you with all my heart” in broken English. I’m different, but not everyone hates me for it.

Then there are the people who get angry if they hear English being spoken. Another old man on the subway once punched the train wall in fury at the (quiet!) English conversation I was having with a friend. The woman in the bathroom on Friday night wanted us to shut the hell up or speak Korean. Feeling despised in the country you currently live and work is a horrible way to end an otherwise lovely evening.

Then on Saturday at a coffee shop in the BEXCO centre, a young Korean couple with an enormous cake decided they had way too much to eat alone, and offered a massive portion to my friends who were sitting next to them. Together we did our best to demolish the (delicious) dessert, whilst chatting as best we could in their limited English and our limited Korean. It was sweet. They were curious, and generous, and reminded us that most Koreans are extremely kind people who are interested in foreigners, but not hateful. Those two kids, university students from Daegu, had excellent timing.

Busan Comic World

6 May

I’m a geek, so when I heard there was a bi-monthly comic convention in Busan, I had to go. The BEXCO centre in Centum City was packed full of manga-style comics, cosplaying Korean kids, and adorable merchandise. It was amazing. Behold a selection of the excellent outfits on display:

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