Santa Claus Is Coming To Daejeon

Coffee Helps will be quiet for the next week or so, because I’m taking a holiday for Christmas. Oh, I’m going to China in the morning, did I mention that? ;)

I hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas and New Year, and I’ll be back with tales of Beijing and Xi’an come January. I’ll leave you with this beautiful little number shot at the school Christmas party today. Merry Christmas, everybody!

Classroom Assistants

When learning some Korean vocabulary today, the word for “food” wouldn’t stay in my head.

Obviously this is quite an important word for me.  But no amount of chanting or writing it out over and over again would stop it from slipping out of my mind. Frustrated, I wrote “food” on a bit of neon pink post-it, printed the Korean characters next to it, and stuck it to an apple on my desk. That’s how I learned a great many French words, you know! (By writing labels in French, obviously, not in Korean.)

Korean is a hard language. My reading and writing skills are coming along quite well. I’m good at grammar and rules and sentence structure, and I’m swotting away by myself at it, painstakingly working out which ending each word in the sentence should have, and trying to drum the vocabulary into my head. What I am not so good at, however, is conversation. I can barely string a spoken sentence together, and even when I do, no one understands me. Very often, when they work out what I mean, laugh, and correct my pronunciation, I can’t for the life of me hear the difference. This is very upsetting to someone who has always prided herself on having an ear for languages. But that’s what I said!! I feel like wailing, instead choosing to force a smile and ask them to say it more slowly. There’s not a lot of point in me being able to write “I like dak galbi. My parents love music. I drink coffee with my friends.” in Korean if I can’t understand someone saying something using those very words, or if I can’t be understood when I say them!

The roles have been reversed. I used to be amused when the Korean English teachers stopped me to ask a random question like “How much onions, or how many onions?”, and now I frequently stick my head into the office or stop a colleague in the corridor to say something in Korean and have it corrected. When in doubt, I turn to my elementary students, who will patiently correct my pronunciation even if it takes me ten tries to get one word.

They get so excited when I finally say it correctly, I often feel like I’ve achieved something far more noteworthy. You just don’t get that kind of encouragement from adults. And so when I came back into my classroom later today to find that my one pink post-it had somehow multiplied and taken over the room, I felt as grateful as I did amused. I saw them peeping round the door as I surveyed the scene: bits of post-it everywhere, telling me the Korean (and English, I’m pleased to note) for everything from my desk to the board to the walls and windows. Hayley Teacha, do you like it? they asked anxiously.

How could anyone not?! :)

Part of my newly labelled classroom

Part of my newly labelled classroom


I seriously love Korean food.

I didn’t at first. In fact, I referred to Western food as “real food” for my first month here! And I most certainly didn’t understand or agree with comments I’d heard on the subject of the infamous kimchi: “it will grow on you, trust me!”; “you will grow to love kimchi”. Kimchi is fermented cabbage, I said to myself, disbelievingly, I will never, ever love fermented cabbage! And yet a few weeks ago I realised that I’d been enthusiastically polishing off the nearest kimchi dish at the lunch table every day. When the school cook got up halfway through her meal and returned with a new plate of kimchi which she then set in front of me, that’s when I knew I was converted. I even eat it at home now, no matter what I’m having. The meal just doesn’t feel complete without a bit of kimchi!

As for the meals themselves, I can’t get enough of the spicy, marinated, tender meats on offer. There is, of course, a favourite that is way out in front. Its name is 닭갈비 (“dak galbi”), and I think I might be in love with it. I’ve found myself craving it and thinking about it during the day. I can almost taste it and smell it. And because I no longer have many caffeine cravings, I think my body panicked and needed to replace those cravings with new ones. So nowadays, I crave 닭갈비.

Fortunately, I think it’s a fairly healthy craving to give in to, which I do, on a regular basis. It’s chicken in a spicy sauce, all mixed up into what my granny would call a styachy (very hard to attempt to spell that one! It means one big messy mixture) with chopped cabbage, sweet potato, onions, scallions, and rice cake.

닭갈비 - a panful of deliciousness.

닭갈비 - a panful of deliciousness.

Everything is brought to your table raw and dumped unceremoniously into the central pan, which takes up most of the table.  As it begins to sizzle, the waiter cuts up the chicken with scissors – that’s just how they do things here! You get a pair of scissors with most meals, for cutting up your meat or any troublesome large pieces of kimchi. I often think that it would be a good idea if someone somewhere would invent eating utensils that involved using one of your chopsticks to spear food (perhaps give it some prongs), and the other one for cutting (maybe giving it a blade). But scissors will do the trick until that invention comes to pass.

Anyway, your waiter will stay at your table until everything is chopped, warming up, and coated in sauce. Depending on the restaurant, they might continue to come back fairly often to give it all a stir and adjust the heat. Some places just leave you to take your chances with raw chicken, while others will almost leap at you to take the cooking implements out of your hands as soon as you start to do anything. In the company of Alex or Terri, I frequent a specialist 닭갈비 restaurant down the road from my apartment, where they tend to look after us all the way through – partly because they know that we’re regular customers, and partly because they can’t trust foreigners to cook the dish properly.

Few things can be nicer than sitting cross-legged on your comfy floor cushion, listening to the sizzle of the cooking food, seeing the orangey-red mixture come together and emit the smoky, spicy aroma that you’ll carry home on your clothes and in your hair. Waiting for the chicken to cook is hard. We always start picking out bits of vegetable and rice cake (another staple Korean ingredient – basically a squishy, chewy thing that’s tasteless on its own, but which brings a wonderful texture to this dish) before too long. It is just too good for words.

And when you’re almost finished, you ask for some rice (flavoured or plain), which you then tip into the pan and swish around, scraping all the slightly burnt, sticky bits of vegetables and sauce off the bottom and mixing them in with the rice. Mmmm. I have just returned from the restaurant not an hour ago, and now I’ve made myself crave it all over again. Seriously, I have been here for under three of eighteen months, and I’m already have fleeting moments of panic about what I’ll do without 닭갈비 when I leave.

Mind you, I’ll probably have sickened myself of it by then!

Christmas Past and Christmas Present

My work Christmas dinner was on Thursday night.

I must admit, this was the first time since I’ve been here that I worried I might start to feel a little homesick. I was exhausted after work thanks to a late night the night before, so I went to take a nap on the school sick bay bed between finishing work and leaving for the restaurant. As I lay there, I heard a variety of sounds drifting in through the door and echoing in the corridors – sounds that are at the same time foreign and newly familiar. Conversations in Korean between my colleagues. The office radio playing Korean ballads. The secretary’s phone ringing and the photocopier whirring. A mobile shop in the street, with the driver’s voice blasting out information about his wares via a megaphone.

In a semi-awake state, I was transported back to Christmas Past, with memories of childhood winter days spent putting up the tree with The Sister and our mum, going to the school Christmas party, sneaking downstairs on Christmas morning to see if Santa had been. Memories of more recent years, decorating the showroom at work and eating Celebrations with Zed, salivating over the Crawfordsburn menu in the run-up to the work Christmas dinner, laughing with my colleagues in the back of He Who Brought The Coffee’s van as he drove us to the restaurant through the snow and ice. I felt a twinge of nostalgia, and wondered if I was going to be horribly sad as I tried to enjoy my favourite time of year in a country where everything is so completely different.

Then my boss came to wake me up to tell me we were leaving, and we piled into cars to drive to the restaurant. We had a buffet meal at a fabulous restaurant called Steam Pot, where their speciality is shabu-shabu – a Japanese hotpot, where you cook raw meat and fish by swishing it around in a bubbling soup cauldron in the middle of your table. There was a buffet, too, with sushi and a variety of hot dishes. We ate until we could hardly move, and the air was filled with the sound of chatter and laughter. The principal made a speech, and OK, I couldn’t understand much of it, but it was a familiar enough end-of-year Christmas message and toast. After eating, we went to a bar and continued the celebrations for a while.

It even started to snow while we were there. Terri and I, excited, had to go outside to see the first flurry, and as we were taking pictures, a guy who possibly thought we were insane gave us a can of hot coffee each! I’ve never heard of such a thing before, but as we stood there in the snow, with the bright lights of the city twinkling around us, sipping our coffee and preparing to return indoors to our friends, I suddenly realised that it’s not all that different here.

Last Christmas, I was isolated and homesick. The only other person in my life saw Christmas as more of an annoyance than the magical time of love and togetherness that it is to me. I tried to make it feel the same by spending time at the beautiful Christmas market and putting a little tree in the corner of the apartment, but as I sat there alone all through Christmas morning because I had no one to go out with me to the morning celebrations in the snowy town square, imagining my family and friends at home with all the Christmas traditions that I love so much, I cried. I pretended to be having a wonderful time so that no one would worry about me or feel sorry for me, but I’ve never wanted anything more than I wanted to be with my family that day.

This Christmas, things are different. I talk to my family regularly, and feel like I’m still involved in their lives. I have a job that I love more than I’ve loved any other job in my life. I have dozens of new friends, and a couple of fairly close ones. I hardly ever sit in the apartment by myself, and I spend more time laughing and talking than anything else. Sure, I have the odd moment of culture shock and the occasional pang of desire to be somewhere more familiar, but they are fleeting and infrequent rather than lingering and painful. It’s hard to feel sad or lonely when you get a big bear hug from a friend who hasn’t seen you for a week, or when you’re singing Christmas songs in a noraebang with a group of cheerful, smiling, laughing people, or when you’re teaching a group of excited 6-year-olds to sing Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, and baking Christmas cookies with them.

This Christmas is different from last Christmas, and it’s proving to me that being away from home at this time of year doesn’t need to be lonely or sad. It’s different… but in so many ways, it’s exactly the same.

Over to George.

Last Christmas, I gave you my heart,
But the very next day, you gave it away.
This year, to save me from tears,
I’ll give it to someone special.
Once bitten and twice shy,
I keep my distance,
But you still catch my eye.
Tell me, baby,
Do you recognise me?
Well, it’s been a year,
It doesn’t surprise me.

“Merry Christmas” – I wrapped it up and sent it,
With a note saying “I love you” – I meant it.
Now I know what a fool I’ve been,
But if you kissed me now,
I know you’d fool me again.

A crowded room, friends with tired eyes.
I’m hiding from you and your soul of ice.
My God, I thought you were someone to rely on.

Me? I guess I was a shoulder to cry on….

A face on a lover with a fire in his heart.
A man undercover, but you tore me apart.
Now I’ve found a real love, you’ll never fool me again.

Last Christmas, I gave you my heart,
But the very next day, you gave it away.
This year, to save me from tears,
I’ll give it to someone special.

Soju, so cheap!

It has just occurred to me that soju really is, as a Korean friend proudly informed me, “the cheapest strong drink in all the world”.

Drinking is a big part of Korean culture. In some contexts, this is a fine thing. What could be nicer than spending Friday night grazing at a constant supply of Korean food as you laugh and talk with friends, merrily raising your glass in a toast every couple of seconds, before heading to a noraebang to sing your little hearts out? I really love the laid-back, sit-on-the-floor, relaxed and intimate feel that the restaurants here have, with families and groups of friends eating from the same central, still cooking, food dish. I love how people go out for drinks after dinner and cheerfully order enough food to instantly cover the table with plates and dishes again. I love the drinking ritual of refilling each others’ glasses, always careful to use both hands, and joining in with the glass-clinking and compulsory gulps of soju every time the oldest person at the table takes a drink.

On the other hand, alcoholism is rife in Korea, and I can’t help but wonder when some men see their families. As I’ve mentioned before, the work ethic in this country is incredibly strong. People get up practically in the middle of the night to go to work, perhaps not leaving until what most of us would consider bedtime. After work, they go to a bar and drink, presumably to give themselves some pleasure, relaxation, comfort, or whatever else it is that such a work-centered existence lacks. They drink until they can drink no more, but they are not rowdy drunks. They simply find a quiet place, like a doorway or a step, and sit there quietly with their heads in their hands. It’s almost dignified. I can’t help but wonder about their lives when I pass them in the street. Don’t they have friends good enough to put them in a taxi home? Wouldn’t they rather go home to whoever’s waiting for them than get drunk in the precious hours they have free from work? Don’t they have anyone? Or are things at home that bad? And won’t work be even worse in the morning with the hangover they’re going to have?!

Two very different sides to Korea’s drink-infused culture. Which is why I am both delighted and horrified to discover that bottle of soju is cheaper than a carton of milk. In Korea, shops don’t need to have an alcohol licence, so you can pick up your beer or soju when you’re buying your newspaper or your loaf of bread. The alcohol is right there in any convenience store fridge, often just beside the milk or the bottled water! Soju takes up the most shelf space by far, with several brands available in even the smallest corner shop. It comes in infamous and instantly recognisable green glass bottles, and the alcohol content is generally anywhere between 20%-40%.

You’ll get through dozens of these as a group on a night out, but I’ve found that two bottles (shared with my dining companion!) is my limit on a work night when out for a meal, unless I want to go into work with a raging hangover. Which I don’t. So that’s one bottle to myself – more than enough to render me what my Granda would call “tiddly” and what I would call “slightly tipsy” or “very happy!”.

I never really paid attention to the cost, since it’s always in with the food on the bill. But I happened to glance at it in the shop after my friend’s remark about how cheap it is, and I’ve realised that it’s only around 1,000 won per bottle. That’s about 50p, ladies and gentlemen. Yes, in Korea, you can drink watered-down vodka by the bottle for 50p a time… is it any wonder it’s such a big part of the culture?!

World’s most tourist-populated military zone.

On Saturday I took a trip to the DMZ – Korea’s somewhat scary “demilitarized zone”. The only stand-off left over from the Cold War, it’s basically a two mile-wide expanse of wilderness, lined with barricades and armed guards on either side.

Looking at North Korea

Looking at North Korea

It was a fascinating day, involving drives through landmine-filled forest areas, glimpses of North Korea through binoculars, and a couple of run-ins with armed soldiers.

Yes, run-ins with armed soldiers. To enter one of the tour sites, everyone on the bus had to be approved by security. We sat in thrilled but nervous silence as guards wearing masks and carrying guns boarded the bus and marched from one end to the other, looking at us and our identity cards before giving us the all-clear to go through. At the spot with the best view into the mysterious north, guards circulated among us to make sure that no one was taking any photos of the Forbidden Land. If anyone did, they had their camera taken from them to have the photos deleted. The only way to get a picture of North Korea’s visible propaganda village was to stand behind the ‘no photos beyond this point’ line, hold your camera in the air, zoom in, and hope for the best.

This is the closest I came to getting a picture of the highest flagpole in the world. South Korea erected one that was 100mts tall. Not to be outdone, North Korea promptly erected one that was 160mts tall. (Kind of like being in primary school, only with landmines, machine guns, and the possibility of nuclear war.) Sadly, thanks to the photo rule, I failed to get the picture I wanted, of the two flags in the same shot.

They don’t do that in this next place, our native guide told us as the bus approached the next destination, so although it’s still forbidden to take photos, you can get away with it if you’re careful not to get caught.

The bus stopped at the military checkpoint, and there was some kind of kerfuffle at the front.

OK, said our guide nervously, they saw someone taking a picture. Who was it?

Terri slid down in her seat, looking decidedly terrified. It was me… I’m sorry…

They took her off the bus, and I began to worry that she was being arrested or something, but it turned out that they were just deleting the picture and looking through all her photos to make sure there were no more prohibited ones. Sheesh. It’s not your typical touristy day trip, I can tell you.

We walked across the Freedom bridge, where thousands of soldiers had returned from the captivity of the north at the end of the war. We read messages scribbled on yellow ribbons by South Koreans who have never again seen loved ones who were on the wrong side of the line when the division was made – our own guide told us that his father hasn’t seen or heard from his younger brother since the Koreas were divided. We went down into the tunnels dug by North Korea in an attempt to launch a surprise attack on Seoul. That was kind of scary. Seeing the holes from the dynamite used to blast through the rocks sent a definite chill down my spine, and the air became stuffy and hot the deeper underground we went. We also soon realised that our hard hats weren’t due to over-zealous health and safety regulations – North Korean soldiers must be extremely short, because I was bent almost double in places, and some of us took some very hard knocks to the head from the jutting rocks above us!

It was an amazing experience, and for someone who has studied the Korean War, it was like seeing another history lesson come to life and become real and human. And incidentally, I’ve just discovered that it’s possible to take trips to North Korea as long as you enter from China and you’re not South Korean. It’s difficult, and possibly slightly crazy, but it’s possible… hmmm….

Freedom Bridge

Freedom Bridge