Humidity is…

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We’re about halfway through the typical summer months here (or so I’ve been told) but the worst is yet to come. I’ve heard people talk about the “terribly humid summers here” – not an exact quote – and yet, so far, I’m not too impressed. Sure, there’s more water in the air here than in Colorado’s annual rainfall but, really, does that surprise anyone? We didn’t exactly set the bar very high. The point is, though it takes some getting used to, it hasn’t tested my limits yet. Maybe I let my imagination run to extremes when I tried to mentally prepare myself, but I’m still waiting for the kind of summer people were talking about. I’m not saying it isn’t muggy here; it is. And even if I can imagine it being worse, it’s still uncomfortably toasty.

So, today I felt like talking about humidity. In this post, it’s implied that I’m referring to humidity paired with heat. I haven’t had enough experience with “damp cold” to be really able to talk about it. Plus, it doesn’t fit the season. Also, it’s a little hard to remember what “cold” feels like at the moment. (Just kidding…Koreans love their air-conditioning so I get blasted with icy air every time I enter a building. Maybe that’s the real secret as to why this summer hasn’t felt unbearable; I spend the hottest times inside.)

There might be the makings of a decent poem here but since I’ve little practice nor inclination, I stuck with a list of sorts.

Humidity is…

  • bare feet sticking to a floor that feels like it was mopped with soda and then given time to dry. Every step makes an awkward “schlepping” sound.
  • stronger than your anti-perspirant deodorant. Keep trying, my friend; it’s a losing battle. But, we love the underdog and for the greater good, we must continue to hope that the next time will be different.
  • ordering a cold drink or ice cream on a gloomy, cloudy day because – despite the misleading visuals outside – it’s still hot enough to make you sweat
  • when your clothes feel like they just came out of the dryer and everything you touch radiates heat. The breeze may as well be that blast of air that hits you when you open the oven door, for all its lack of “refreshing” qualities
  • walking those three minutes to work and looking like you just completed a triathlon
  • feeling constricted in clothing of all kinds, no matter how light and billowy they’re meant to be
  • believing that your sunburn has less to do with the strength of the sun and more to do with the powerful effects of vaporized water. I have yet to get sunburned on unexposed skin but once it happens I’ll have evidence to back up my theory.
  • feeling just how heavy air can be

Once summer really hits it’s peak, I’ll let you know. I’m sure I’ll find new things to say about it when it does.

For those of you planning to visit….

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So, I’ve been racking my brain trying to come up with new things to talk about each week. [hint, hint: always open to questions to help direct my thoughts!] Frankly, there are some weeks I just don’t do anything. From the beginning, I didn’t want to stick to just weekly updates for fear it would turn into one of those blogs where I tell you what I ate today simply because I have nothing better to say. Granted…sometimes the topic of what I eat can be very interesting but that’s not my point.
Anyways, it occurred to me that I actually haven’t done a lot of posts just about random stuff I see or hear….things that aren’t necessarily connected to any one event.
It doesn’t take long for a person to adjust to the norms of a new setting. Things I might have found odd before coming here no longer seem all that unique or interesting. It doesn’t take much to put away the mental perspective you had from your old life, like putting away your winter coats when the flowers start blooming. Bring out the t-shirts and khaki shorts of your new mind-set!
Anyways, I managed to remember some of those things that at first struck me as odd or interesting but are now just another part of daily life. A list of “things you get used to/take for granted” if you will…
For those of you who are already writing a pros and cons list for traveling to South Korea, you may want to take the following list into account. I’ve even helpfully indicated which lists these observations should go under…
NOTE: I’ve included links to some humorous cartoons that one guy did several years ago. His art consists of single panels that illustrate some of his experiences in Korea. They became pretty popular due to the fact that many foreigners in Korea end up having similar experiences. They’re entertaining, so check out the links. I didn’t include the cartoons in the post since I felt that they were actually a little distracting, despite the wordiness of this post. Thanks to ROKetship for the entertainment!
PRO: Coffee and coffee shops!
  • There’s one (or several) around every corner. They offer a plethora of drinks to satisfy any coffee drinker as well as the non-coffee drinker. They all have free wi-fi which makes them the perfect place to go to hang out by yourself and get work done, or hang out with your friend.
  • The downside is that it can be a bit addicting and it can add up quickly if you go multiple times a day. If you’re trying to kick a coffee habit or spending habit, this may not be the right place for you.
CON: The sewage smells.
  • Granted, I’ve smelled things that are whole lot worse and far more potent (the landfill and water treatment plant in Senegal, for example). No, instead of trying kill you off quickly the smells here tend to linger ever so faintly, like one of those vengeful wives that kills their husband slowly, lacing his drink with poison over the course of several years. It comes and goes to so you can never quite become immune to it. It may actually be possible for those who’ve been here longer but I haven’t experienced it yet. You might whiff something as you walk through the street only because the sewage drains maybe aren’t as deep as they should be and the grates let it come out. If those are just storm drains then they’re collecting some bad stuff outside because I could swear the smell comes from them. Then there’s the occasional oder that tells you some drunk old man probably pissed against a wall not long ago.
  • I think the humidity only makes things worse. Keeps the smell around. If nothing else, it contributes to that musty quality of all bad smells here. Even laundry can start to smell sour and moldy if you don’t dry it right.
[Extra factoid: Dryers aren’t terribly common around here. Pretty much everyone hangs their clothes out to dry. The other option is taking your clothes to a laundromat.]
  • Not to mention the fact that all used toilet paper goes into the trash can because toilets aren’t made to handle it. Just saying…taking out the trash frequently, makes difference.
[Another factoid: Yup, that’s right. The only thing getting flushed down the toilet is your business. Everything else goes into the bathroom trashcan. I haven’t quite decided how I feel about this. Is it a good way of doing things or not? Is it somehow better for the environment? {Shrug} But it’s one of those things you have to get used to. I keep wondering whether this’ll become second nature to me. Will I go back to the US and find myself reaching for the trashcan each time or will I go back to old habits?]
PRO: Internet, electronics….anything that needs a wire (or in this day and age, wireless or bluetooth devices).
  • Korea has it all. I’ve heard people say that Korea is the most wired place in the world. Internet everywhere. They weren’t joking. I’d even venture to say that Koreans (at least the younger ones) are even crazier about their electronics (esp. i-phones and i-pads) than Americans are. Maybe it’s the rampant advertising or the shameless desire for material goods. Take a look around you and most people will be on their phones either: playing games, taking pictures, watching tv or using their phone in a more conventional way–texting or talking.
  • I haven’t quite caved yet. Now that I’ve bought a smart phone, I have more ability for portable internet use. I’m still in my own little bubble where I mostly don’t access internet until I get home to my computer. It’s handy to be able to look up directions or look at a map while I’m out and about but I don’t sit around at coffee shops long enough to watch tv or play games. It’s nice to know that there’s one facet to internet addiction that hasn’t gotten to me yet. Call me old fashioned…I like my big screens. Though considering the current trend for phone sizes, I might not have the security of that excuse for long.
CON: Internet.
  • It’s damn near everywhere…feeding people’s addiction to their electronic devices. I suppose the real blame falls to all those electronic devices that keep popping up. What happened to people interacting with each other and kids playing outside? I’m no exception to the “human interaction” bit and what with my computer addiction but still…
  • Anyways, kids here are probably still more active than many kids in the US and in terms of technology, it really isn’t any different…As I said before, maybe it’s the difference in attitude that makes the obsessions with electronics seem more prevalent here.
PRO: Trash.
  • It may seem a little confusing at first but the Koreans have a system for trash that at least seems efficient and environmentally friendly…sort of. Trash goes in special bags that you have to buy at a nearby convenience store–bags are color coded by districts. Food waste goes in a special bucket. Where it goes after that is a mystery to me. Recycling can be lumped together however you want it.
  • You can see older people in the morning, taking care of recycling (they’ll even go through your trash to take our recyclable you threw away by accident…or so I’ve heard). They walk around cleaning the streets and picking up after people.
Which brings me to…
CON: Trash
  • For all the precisely ordered way people do trash here, it’s matched by the equally chaotic practice of throwing trash where ever people want to. Public trash cans are either rare or non-existent (I one is Mokpo once). It’s maybe too “chicken-and-egg” here to point at the real cause but the fact is the streets are littered with trash (before the old people get to it) and there seem to be no trash cans.
PRO: Food
  • Some of you have asked me how I like the food here. Well, I like kimbap for sure (basically like the california sushi roll) and anything with red beans (often in the sweet paste form) is good. I like black sesame soup. And the dessert drinks are yummy–not a common addition to your meals but a welcome one when it is . I like green tea anything; the exceptions being, the actual drink itself and the Baskin Robbins ice cream. Another favorite is grilling meat and eating it in a lettuce wrap full of other things (Samgyeopsal – 삼겹살).
  • Also, portion sizes here as well as side dishes are generous.
[Factoid: You may already know that the most common eating utensil at the Korean dinner table is a set of chopsticks, followed closely by the spoon. There is one, lesser known utensil that you should rarely be without…The Scissors. Yes, the large, heavy-duty scissors mean business. They are used for things like cutting kimchi (some of those cabbage leaves are really big and you really don’t want to eat it all it one go) and meat. It makes more sense than giving everyone a set of knife and fork to cut their own meat, especially since all the food at the table is shared. It might look a little crude to us….or maybe that’s just me…but it’s effective. I don’t know why Americans haven’t adopted this practice yet. The scissors are often paired with a set of tongs.]
CON: The food
  • It definitely takes some getting used to. I try not to be a picky eater and I mostly eat what’s put in front of me, but there’s plenty of food I’m just “meh”  over and some food I simply don’t like.
  • Sardines and other small dried fish: ick. I manage to choke some down every now and then when I remind myself how good they are for me. Sometimes I can almost avoid tasting them. Unfortunately, I’m not helped by the fact that they all stare back at me with their steady, merciless gazes. If the taste didn’t turn me away most of the time, the staring would do the job.
  • (red) Meat: I’ve got no problems going back to eating meat. I have to make sure I get protein somehow and it’s hard enough making sure my diet is balanced enough without eliminating something just ’cause. The one problem I have is that Koreans love their fat and bones. This means that a lot of cuts of meat have just as much fat on them as actual meat. Something to do with how it’s good for your skin and makes things taste better. I don’t know about the former and I agree with the latter….that still doesn’t make eating fatty chunks of meat any more palatable. It’s a texture thing. And bones….it means that eating takes longer when you have to pull out a ton of bones as you go. Or in the case of pig bone soup….it takes time to find any meat.
  • Cakes and sweet things that aren’t ice cream/and bread in general: They suck; that is, if you like hearty bread full of nuts and grains and that yeasty, fresh bread smell. Bread is of the wonder bread consistency…nothing but fluff. I haven’t been able to find any bread that has substance to it. On the good hand, it means that the pastries meant to be light and airy aren’t so bad. Sweet things are generally too sweet unless it’s a traditional Korean food. Traditional Korean food seems devoid of sweet anything unless it’s fruit. Rice cakes that should, in my book, be sweet are tasteless at best. They’re kind of an acquired taste…one I don’t have yet.
  • Cakes are a tragedy here. They even manage to do cheese cake wrong. Granted….they fail at cheese to begin with so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised but still… Cake is just like the bread: fluffy, mostly air, and way too sweet.
  • Food here just takes adjusting to. As I said, most of it is “meh”: I don’t dislike it but I don’t really enjoy eating it either. It just tastes strange or different. I eat to fill my stomach and wonder if I’ll ever get used to the food and whether I will ever crave it later.
PRO: Public transportation
  • Sure, taxi drivers have a reputation for being bad drivers and scary on the road. They’ve earned it (not that I’ve seen anything yet). But you can get anywhere in Korea with the various modes of transportation – train, bus, taxi, subway – and it’s relatively simple and cheap.
I’ll leave it at that for now. There’s more I could say but that’ll have to wait for another day.

 

On drinking

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A delicious alcoholic drink called “French coffee.” It looks like hot chocolate, tastes a little like coffee and will probably be too sweet for me in another few years. The best part of this drink is watching the bartender mix it. It involves a wonderful light show in the form of setting it on fire.

This is one of those topics I’m really not an expert it but I felt inspired to write this after a day of work when I discovered that the cafe across the street from my school really does make mojitos. They even gave me the choice of “with alcohol” or “no alcohol”.

I think it’s funny because I had a strain of luck where, every time I went somewhere and ordered a mojito they were always either out of ingredients or they didn’t serve it. Now I live minutes away from a coffee shop that makes mojitos.

Also, it’s funny because it’s a coffee shop.

My lack of any real interest in the matter has prevented me from being much of a drinker. It’s really easy to drink in Korea though, both in terms of availability as well as potability. Maybe not so much the latter depending on your idea of good alcohol but it’s easy to drink a lot even for the unexperienced drinker.

I think there’s more of a drinking culture here than in the US. It’s certainly in the media more and when I say media, I mean dramas on tv (not news shows). People seem to go out and get drunk an awful lot on those dramas.

The beer is generally really low in alcohol content. It makes a lightweight look good. Even the “harder” liquor like soju is manageable. I mean, it doesn’t taste all that great but it doesn’t make me feel like I just swallowed a shot of rubbing alcohol or heavy-duty oven cleaner. 

As for buying it…you can find basics like beer and soju and makgeolli (a traditional rice wine very low in alcohol content) at any small grocery store and convenience store like 7-11. No one asks to see your ID card either. Wine is more expensive and a little harder to come by though.

So, for those of you writing down the pros and cons of visiting Korea, you may want to take this into account. If bar hopping and drinking is your thing, by all means come on over. You’ll fit right in. If drinking isn’t your thing but you want to make your friends back home think you’ve suddenly become a champion drinker then you are in the perfect place to do so. Caution: the illusion only lasts as long as your friends don’t try any for themselves. Leave your friends at home and send them the pictures as “proof.”

If, however, you are a beer snob and you are addicted to micro-breweries, you may want to find different goals and reasons to visit.

Week 11 & 12: Mokpo

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I’ll start with my little news blurb segment before getting to the meat of this post.
Nothing’s really happened in the past two weeks that’s worth mentioning. Same routine. The weeks continue to fly by at a frightening speed causing me to joke with my co-workers that it must mean we’re getting old…while I silently hope that I’m wrong. If this is the speed of life at 25, how much faster will it be (or seem to be) at 50? 75?
I’m getting whiplash from all the times I worry over how quickly everything happens — I need time to plan my adventures — only to turn around and wonder how I’m going to manage another nine months. Those are my bad days
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I went to Mokpo last weekend which is a city along the western coast, south-west of Gwangju. It’s on a peninsula. I went with a girl from my Korean language class, Sara. I didn’t really go with any solid plan. I guess I figured that it would be something like Boseong or Yulpo and I’d be able to just walk around and find things to explore. Not exactly…as I found out. With a bit of walking we might have found the ocean but the plan turned into taking a hike up the mountain, Yudalsan. It was a great hike, minus the heat and the fact that it was more or less, a park in the city that just happened to require vertical motion to explore it (stairs, stairs and more stairs). Not exactly my favorite elements of hiking but the view was pretty nice and there was a refreshing breeze at the top. Other than cooling off our sweat, the wind had the added bonus of blowing away the cloying scent of wilting, rotting flowers emanating from nearby bushes, evilly trying to choke us.
Don’t misunderstand, it wasn’t a bad way to spend my day. I learned that it might be wiser to have a more solid plan (or at least, list of things to do) next time I go somewhere new. I’d like to try Mokpo again, later, when I have a little more time. There are many islands within a ferry ride’s distance that I could visit. That’ll be my goal next time.

Abstraction

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PICTURES: I love patterns and texture, color, and close-ups of very small things — it lets you see the minute details you weren’t even aware existed.

(click on the pictures to see the full image)

The Dancer