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Christmas in Gwangju, South Korea

I expected when I first came to Korea that Christmas would be nonexistent here, or at the very least, a much smaller affair. However, Korea embraces Christmas wholeheartedly, see Korean Santa. There are a few twists on the classic Western Christmas though. In Korea, Christmas is more of a couple’s holiday, like Pepero Day, only bigger. People who are single celebrate Solomas, that is “solo” + “Christmas”. My students laughed at the idea of spending Christmas Eve with their parents. Apparently parents go out and kids stay home and do their own thing.

Their Own Thing

home alone in koreaKids stay home alone during Christmas and watch Home Alone. That’s right, the 1990 Macaulay Culkin masterpiece about home invasion, is Korea’s Christmas Story. It even plays around the clock on Korean TV. However, Koreans don’t call it Home Alone. Here it’s called “Kevin”, after the protagonists first name. There’s a joke in Korea that if you are single during Christmas, you’re going “on a date with Kevin”. I don’t know what would be worse, going on a date with Culkin on Christmas or staying home and watching him as a child star.

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Christmas in Korea

merry christmas in korea from halloween

Many of the great Western Korean traditions survived the voyage over the Korea, but a few were lost to the sea. For example, there are no candy canes in Korea, that I’ve found. I’m sure they’re available at Costco somewhere.

 

Many places in Korea decorate with lights, wreaths, and Christmas trees. They’re mostly coffee shops, but in my opinion they still count. [divider_flat]

Nicole and I held a holiday party of our own for a few of Nicole’s close friends. It was a cookie potluck, the best kind of potluck in my opinion. We held a Secret Santa as well. I “won” a Wack-A-Mole key chain that’s both as awesome and as annoying as it sounds.

We also celebrated with my friends and coworkers on Christmas day with delicious Turkey stew and another secret santa and a Christmas Story.

Matching Pajamas

matching christmas pajamas in koreaNicole and I couldn’t just celebrate Christmas the way the West does, that would be culturally ignorant of us, and I already feel guilty occasionally eating Taco Bell in Itaewon. We decided to celebrate Couple’s Christmas, the Korean way, with same-same pajamas. I picked out the most Italian tablecloth-like pajamas I could find, which were surprisingly easy to find in downtown Gwangju.

Nicole and I also exchanged presents of our own, aside from the adorable pajamas. I got her some awesome sparkly gold Vans and some really cool bearmuffs as well as several delicious stocking stuffers. Nicole got me some delicious Rogue beers like we had in Seoul, a sweet grey cap, and Flax Snax from iHerb.

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While Christmas is different here in Korea, it was an incredibly fun experience. I’m really enjoying my time here and all of the new, often bizarre, experiences I get to have each day.

Birthday Weekend in Seoul: Good Beers

Bus to Seoul for my birthday weekend

The month is November. Nicole and I are running ragged from too much work and not enough fun. Our bodies are ravaged by illness and runny noses, but hark! What is that in the distance? It’s December! The last month of the year and an oasis of vacations in an otherwise bleak desert of work weeks. Nicole and I eagerly look forward to Christmas and New Year’s, but first…

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December 1st, My Birthday in Seoul

December 1st, first day of the last month, and also my birthday. To celebrate, Nicole and I headed North to Seoul for a much needed vacation. Neither of us had visited Seoul since the Color Me Rad Weekend months before. Nicole and I left Gwangju Saturday morning via the bus terminal. We arrived in Seoul early in the afternoon and made our way to Itaewon, for some delicious sandwiches, Sam Adams, and Dr. Pepper. This might sound like an odd combination, but it comes with the territory. Korea only imports certain things and the selection seems pretty random. For example, Dunkin’ Donuts and Popeyes Chicken are everywhere, yet, there aren’t any McDonald’s in Gwangju.

[box type=”alert”]Disclaimer: I make a habit of eating mostly Korean food, with my trips to Seoul being the rare exception[/box]

Aloha from Itaewon

After sandwiches, Nicole took me to a bar called Praha in Itaewon. The bar serves a fantastic selection of beer including several of their own home-brews. Nicole and I enjoyed our beers and watched a selection of ironically, or possibly seriously, terrible music videos, including this gem…

Mail, Cookies, and Chili

After lunch, Nicole and I wandered around Itaewon in search of stamps. I had a lot of postcards from Japan that I had never got around to actually mailing. My quarter-century anniversary of being alive seemed an appropriate time as any to use the Korean Postal System.

Nicole and I managed to track down a little shop selling stamps and purchased 14 stamps to send postcards home to family and friends. On the way to the mail box, we also found a delicious cookie place called Ben’s Cookies and picked up some awesome cookies.

[box type=”info”]Ben’s Cookies was Nicole’s favorite cookie place in London.[/box]

After cookies and stamps we went to this shop called High Street Market that specializes in foreign food. They ship in foreign beer, cheese, meats, Kraft macaroni & cheese, and a plethora of other hard to come by foods. I bought some vegetarian chili and Nicole and I bought two Rogue beers to share.

Looking for Lodging

Nicole and I tried to find a place to stay in Itaewon that night, we wandered up and down the main street and stopped in a few hotels. Itaewon has a few western-style hotels, but, as Nicole and  I found out, they also come with western-style prices. We decided to return to the hostel we stay at every time we visit Seoul, but to our dismay the hostel was booked. Many foreigners visit Seoul (and specifically Itaewon) on their weekends to indulge in their western guilty pleasures of good beer and delicious tacos.

Richard’s Copycat Diner

Richard's Copy Cat DinerDejectedly, Nicole and I decided we would get a hotel in a different part of Seoul, but not before satisfying Nicole’s appetite for western diner food. There’s a place in Itwaewon called Richard’s Copycat Diner. It was created by a Korean chef who visited New York and fell in love with a particular diner. When he moved back to Korea, he opened up a restaurant with an identical menu and called it Richard’s Copycat Diner. We walked over to the restaurant and stopped in for a bite to eat only to realize that it was closed for the next two weeks for remodeling. The entire restaurant was under construction and the door was left unlocked. Nicole and I took a peek inside and walked around. It looked like a nice place. I unfortunately slipped in some wet cement and may have left a footprint in the cement. If you visit Richard’s Copycat Diner and find a mysterious footprint, it probably belongs to me.

[box type=”alert”]Disclaimer: If you are in fact Richard or his Copycat Diner, I did not slip in the cement and that must be some other handsome foreigner’s footprint.[/box]

Indian Food and Insa-Dong

One would think that being without a place to stay AND finding out that your potentially favorite restaurant was closed would leave us crushed, however, we persevered. I remembered Mary and Joseph were turned down by every Inn in Bethlehem and they ended up giving birth to a baby Jesus. Since Nicole and I were turned down by every hotel in Itaewon, perhaps something miraculous would happen to us. As long as it didn’t involve giving birth to a savior, I was on board.

Nicole and I had a nice little Indian meal instead, consisting of curry and delicious Naan bread. After dinner, we caught a subway over to Sinsa-dong. Sinsa-dong is known for its trendy shops and restaurants as well as its overabundant selection of love motels. It’s a popular destination for young Korean couples. Our subway car only had couples in it aside from one girl with a cake, about which I told Nicole, “Oh, that girl has a lover and his name is Cake.”

love motel in seoul with pool

In Sinsa-dong, Nicole and I stopped at a few love motels and were turned away at each one. With all this hotel rejection, I was certain we were going to give birth to a baby Jesus at any moment. Bizarrely enough, the hotels kept telling us that they were full and that we should come back in two hours. Apparently people rent out their hotel rooms to guests for a few hours for parties…or other things. Some of the rooms even come with private pools and bowling alleys. Although we couldn’t find one on this particular trip, I know what we’ll be doing on our next trip to a love motel in Seoul…bowling!

Ninjas, Beer, and Shooting

Nicole and I bided our time in the park nearby enjoying our Rogue beers like homeless people until out of nowhere a dozen ninjas ran into the park… or maybe they were just Korean teens, dressed in black, practicing parkour…. either way it was the perfect way to enjoy a park at night.

poop keychain birthday weekendAfter we checked in, the two of us headed out to Hongdae to enjoy fine beers. For my birthday, Nicole found the best bars in Seoul and luckily they were nearby. Before we made it to our first stop, we found an old-school shooting gallery off a side street. Nicole and I got pretty good at that shooting game, like, potential assassins good. Nicole even won a free poop keychain. That’s right, a keychain stuffed animal of poop.

After the shooting range we stopped into Oktoberfest, a neat little German beer hall in the basement of a nondescript building. It reminded me of the Hofbrau Haus in Germany and my Europe trip. While the place wasn’t an exact reproduction of the famed Hofbrau Haus, because there were no pretzels and everyone was Korean, it was pretty close. Nicole and I each got a beer. I got the Dunkel and she got the Hefeweizen in classic Austin and Nicole fashion.

At the front of the beer hall was a waiting area where Nicole and I noticed a man passed out sitting on the couch. We’d become used to seeing sights like this in Korea. It’s not unusual to see people stumbling down the road at odd hours of the night or day, clearly drunk. I don’t see it as much in my neighborhood, but it’s more common in Nicole’s neighborhood.

praha castle in seoul

After Oktoberfest, we checked out Castle Praha, the sister bar to Praha in Itaewon. The entire building inside and out looks like a medieval castle. Walking inside feels like being transported into Europe. The beer was delicious, the atmosphere was enchanting, and there were no drunks passed out in the lobby.

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Guilty Pleasures

delicious crunchwrap supremeAfter Castle Praha, we stopped to get my favorite guilty pleasure in Korea. Please don’t judge me too harshly for this, but there are certain stupidly silly things that living in Korea causes me to miss. One such thing is the Crunchwrap Supreme from Taco Bell. I’m told there are only 3 Taco Bells in Korea, and all of them are in Seoul. Every time we have traveled to Seoul, I have eaten a Crunchwrap Supreme, and I plan to uphold that tradition well into the future.

This was a great first day of my birthday weekend. Nicole did an awesome job planning a great weekend and it was only halfway over. The next day we visited…Lotte World!!

Pepero Day Korean Valentine’s Day: A Guide

Hey everyone,

November 11th is upon us and, as I’m sure you’re all aware, it’s the day before my mom’s birthday. HI MOM! It’s also a very special day in Korea; it’s Pepero Day. Pepero Day is like Korean Valentine’s Day, not to be confused with Valentine’s Day in Korea which is also a holiday (2/14).

I know a lot of you are probably confused about how to celebrate this momentous day, so I put together this handy guide to celebrating Pepero Day…like a boss.

 

What is Pepero?

[quote]Pepero (빼빼로) is a cookie stick, dipped in compound chocolate, manufactured by Lotte Confectionery in South Korea since 1983.[/quote]

-Wikipedia

Pepero is delicious. It’s similar to Pocky, the Japanese chocolate covered cookie stick, but, don’t tell the Koreans that. It’s sold in 12 different flavors. Although, I have not tried all of the flavors yet, so far, White Cookie Chocolate is the best.

[unordered_list style=”green-dot”]

  • Regular Chocolate
  • Strawberry-flavored
  • Almond Chocolate
  • Nude (chocolate in the center)
  • Nude Lemon Cheese
  • White Cookie Chocolate
  • Hami Melon

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*This list has been unaltered and comes straight from the Pepero website.

pepero day bounty

Why is Pepero Day November 11th? Is there some historical significance?

Nope! Pepero Day is November 11th because 11/11 looks like 4 sticks of Pepero and that’s as good a day as any to celebrate chocolate cookie sticks.

Is Pepero Day only for lovers?

Every November 11th young couples purchase delicious Pepero snacks for their special someone and they exchange their snacks as romantically as possible. If your sweetie lives too far away from you to visit on Pepero Day, you can also mail them Pepero. You don’t even need to ship them in separate packaging. Pepero boxes come with a place to add a stamp as well as a short message. That’s right! So much Pepero is mailed around Korea that they designate a place on the box for a postage stamp.

pepero mail

In case you were wondering what living in the future feels like, it feels like this: chocolate candy sticks with stamps for mailing to lovers.

What if I love my sweetie more than other people love their sweeties? Is there a way I can rub it in their faces?

Absolutely! Pepero Day is a great way to gauge your love for others in the form of chocolate cookie sticks. Nicole got me a giant Pepero stick with a heart-shaped handle, similar to the handle on a shepherd’s staff, or crook, as I recently learned on Wikipedia. Since my Pepero staff, or crook, was far too delicious to photograph, I found this picture online to approximate my appearance on Pepero Day.

Pepero Day Giant Pepero

Halloween in Korea: Costumes and Mummies

Halloween is a whole different beast here in Korea. It seems to have spread to Korea through word of mouth and some sort of long-distance, cross-cultural game of “Telephone.” Some ideas came through and other ones clearly got lost in translation. In short, not many people dress up and there isn’t a lot of candy diversity, but let’s explore further!

Korea isn’t big on costumes

halloweenNoCostumes

As I said, Korea doesn’t really do costumes. Korea is a culture that embraces modesty; ladies aren’t supposed to show too much skin and they should never show their shoulders. This idea is in stark contrast to the western idea of scantily clad Halloweiners, I may or may not have just made that word up. Most of my fellow teachers didn’t dress up for Halloween or, if they did, their costume was limited to cat ears and/or a witch’s cape. My students opted for similar costumes, so I spent most of Halloween surrounded by cat witches.

dramatization of Jade's sweet costume

dramatization of Jade’s sweet costume

Since half of our students attend Monday, Wednesday, Friday and the other half attend Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, we celebrated Halloween on Wednesday and Thursday; October 30th and 31st, respectively. Lindsay, one of my fellow foreign teachers, dressed up as a Care Bear one day and a Librarian next. Conrad dressed up as a punk one day and Dracula the next day. I opted to go as a lumberjack both days with a pair of work boots and a giant construction paper axe. It was a great costume and my paper axe managed to keep my students in line. Jade, one of the awesomest Korean teachers at work, went as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and had an awesome costume complete with weapons.

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Halloween Festivities

holloween mummy

In the afternoon, my academy has younger students in elementary grades. We made little Halloween boxes with them and went trick-or-treating around the academy to other classrooms. During their last class of the afternoon, we had a mummy-making contest. This was one of the highlights of my day. Normally, our school looks down on wrapping the students in toilet paper and marching them through the hallways. I know because I checked my contract. It’s a big no-no in Korea. HOWEVER, on Halloween it’s perfectly acceptable, nay, its required.

Twice a day for both Halloween and Monday/Wednesday/Friday Halloween, I got to help my students cover one of their peers with toilet paper and turn them into a mummy. The younger kids loved it. I have a class of about six 8 year olds who look like the Korean Cabbage patch kids and they went bananas for it. We had a blast and covered one student, Dan, with enough toilet paper to stretch to Seoul and back (3.5 hours by bus…each way).

The older students were less enthused. They’re in that awkward teenager phase where practicing ancient Egyptian burial customs is considered uncool. I was disappointed because as the teacher, it’s usually a bad sign if you’re the most enthusiastic person in the room. I thought for sure they would love it since the middle schoolers’ only interaction with paper products is writing essays and using the bathroom between classes.

 

P.S. sorry for the delay in writing. More to come soon!

Gwangju Kimchi Festival

I haven’t posted in a while. Sorry about that everyone. After Japan, Nicole and I took a weekend off to just relax and recoup.  We were worn out from Japan travels and ready for a break, but after a weekend off, Nicole and I were itching for something fun to do.  Luckily the Gwangju Kimchi festival was the very next weekend.

But First, What is Kimchi?

Kimchi is a traditional Korean fermented dish made of vegetables and seasoning. There are many different varieties of kimchi including radish, scallion, and cucumber, although the most popular is cabbage. When you eat out in Korea, kimchi is always a free side dish served with the main meal. Typically it comes in a little white dish along with several other sides.

On Korean holidays like Chuseok, Koreans make lots of kimchi to share with their relatives and eat throughout the year since it ferments and gets better with age.

Nicole and I are big fans of kimchi and usually buy some while we’re at the grocery store. Its spicy and sour, but goes well in soups and omelets.  It’s also a very good source of vitamin C, which is helpful in a country largely devoid of citrus.

Kimchi is such a staple of Korean culture that it has its own appliance. Families will typically have a refrigerator and a separate kimchi refrigerator with several fermentation and temperature settings.

The Gwangju Kimchi Festival

Kimchi Performance

Kimchi Performance

Nicole and I decided to visit Gwangju’s famous Kimchi Festival in Jungoe Park to find out more about this fascinating aspect of Korean culture. The festival ran October 5-9th this year and included lots of festivities and crafts. Nicole and I visited with two of my co-teachers, Sarah and Alyssa. We got there in the afternoon and walked around sampling the different Kimchis. Each booth had a table with several pounds of kimchi and a plate of samples at the front. People would walk by and take a sample and  possibly buy some. Nicole and I picked out a variety we liked and  bought  1 Kg. We also picked out some souvenirs for our families, which I can’t describe as they’re likely reading this.

The Gwangju Blog Kimchi Festival Scavenger Hunt

Team SuperLate

Team SuperLate

Every year as part of the Kimchi Festival, the Gwangju Blog hosts a scavenger hunt for the expat community. Nicole, Alyssa, and I entered this year as team SuperLate. The name came from the fact that we signed up the moment the contest started and not in the several weeks leading up to the contest. As part of the free scavenger hunt, we all got giant orange t-shirts and a list of clues to go find. To get points during the scavenger hunt, we had to take a picture in front of the clue or performing the assigned task.

The three of us spent the afternoon running around doing all sorts of traditional crafts like ink rollings of Kimchi ingredients or making fried kimchi or looking for a trashcan, a rare site in Korea.