Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

New Year Festivals in Korea: Insert foot and mouth

I had planned New Year’s Eve for over a month.

In true Korean tradition, Chickpea and I would take a train to the small city of Pohang on Korea’s east coast and head to Homigot , known for the large, eerie hand reaching out of the ocean. The annual festival would keep us entertained all night long — concerts, soju, fireworks, traditional games, soju, mascots to pose with, free food, more soju — until the sun’s rays peeked up over the East Sea horizon.

With thousands (millions?) of others across the country, we would watch as the first sunlight of the new year cast its glow on the Korean Peninsula.

Then, someone put foot-and-mouth disease in the proverbial punchbowl.

South Korea has suffered from an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease since April, but it looks like efforts to contain it have not been entirely successful. And so, many festivals in the eastern provinces have been canceled. Look for a list of cancellations here.

If you don’t care about the festivals, though, you can still head to Homigot or some of the other places to watch the sunrise by your lonesome. The cancellations are not to protect your health: humans very rarely contract foot-and-mouth disease.  Agricultural officials are more worried that thousands of people tromping through these provinces will spread the disease to other areas.  Since FMD-tainted meat cannot be sold, this would have a deep economic impact on Korea’s domestic and export meat sales. That means more expensive galbi for those of you in Korea.

Plan B? Visiting a petting zoo.

Just kidding. We’re heading to Busan and watching the sunrise from a large mountain. You should, too.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

One piece of advice: “Go with a very open mind” [video]

Shot in a dim bar over a couple of Maker’s Marks on ice, this is an interview with a friend of mine who has taught English in Japan for two years.

“Go with an very open mind, because you are going to meet people that will confuse you, will baffle you, will try to perplex you,” he begins. Hilarity ensues.

This is part of an ongoing series of short interviews asking for “one piece of advice” for English teachers going abroad to teach.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Welcome to Korea: Toilet paper at the dinner table?

Yes, it’s true: One of the strangest things for a Westerner to see upon arrival in Korea is that TP is no longer relegated to bathroom functions — it’s a multipurpose paper that serves in place of Kleenex, paper towels and even napkins.

I can’t tell you how weird it was for me the first time I sat down for lunch with my co-teachers and someone plunked a roll down in the middle of the table.

And have you ever tried drying your hands with two-ply tissue paper? It’s not super effective. But it sure is efficient. Why use myriad different paper products when all your cleaning needs can really be served with one? Oh, those clever Koreans.

— Chickpea

I find it strange that while there is toilet paper all over the lunch room and restaurant dining areas, there is rarely any in the public bathrooms. Which is not cool when you consider most public bathrooms have these:

— Alex

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

And the deskwarming begins ….

Today is officially my first day of deskwarming.

For those of you unaware of the great deskwarming debate in Korean public schools, let me elaborate: Deskwarming is coming to school for seemingly no other reason than to warm that desk of yours.

Students are on vacation. Teachers are on vacation. All of your lesson plans are finished and the principal has approved them. You’ve cleaned your office, your classroom, some other random room just because you’re bored.

You. Have. Nothing. (School-related). To. Do.

And yet, you are still required to be at school for the full 8-hour day. There is no lunch served. There may or may not be heat. There’s a good chance you will not see another soul for the entire day. And still, you are sitting at your desk. Warming it.

Some foreign English teachers get really upset about deskwarming. “It’s unfair!” they shout to friends at bars during December and January. “Why do the other teachers get two months and we sit here for no damn reason?” Just the thought of “missing out” on another month of vacation time enrages them more.

I admit, I would love the extra time. But I signed a contract and knew what I was getting into. If I didn’t like it, I should’ve been a Fulbright Grantee or something. Or went to Vietnam.

Deskwarming is not so bad. Why, I just spent 10 minutes of it on this blog post!

In honor of my first deskwarming day, here’s a link to one of the newest blogs to join my blogroll: The Waygook Effect, which is one of the better expat blogs out there. The blogger has a hilarious video — featuring Hitler — all about deskwarming. Check it out!

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Korean Magpies: a visit from the good news bird in the midst of North-South Korea tensions

While the world watches and worries as tensions between the Koreas reach a boiling point (I’ve  been a constant visitor to Voice of America’s Twitter feed all day) I figured everyone could use some good news.

Last week, my co-teacher and I shuffled along a crinkly-leaf strewn sidewalk to Africa Coffee Shop in Chilgok to continue my Korean lessons. A bird landed in the withering grass nearby and began its peck-peck-pecking in search of food. I’d seen many of them since landing in Daegu. “What’s it called?” I asked. “Ggachi,” she said. “If you see one, it means you will have a welcome guest.” (I don’t know if it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, but my co-teacher did visit my house for the first time later that week.)

I’ve been charmed by the ggachi since we first came to Korea. I’d never seen one before, and although they look pedestrian at first glance — like an outsized raven, maybe — upon inspection they’re beautiful birds. Striking white markings cover their underbellies and their wings are tipped with shimmering blue.

What my co-teacher said intrigued me, and I decided to do a little research of my own. Turns out that these bearers of good news and welcome guests are Korean magpies, or pica pica sericea. Of course, I was surprised to find that the Western symbol of greed, frivolity and vanity is one and the same as a Korean symbol of good.

So, as I sit here glued to my Twitter feed, fretting over North Korean nukes (and my English Winter Camp lesson plans) I’m hoping that Koreans got it right: maybe my magpie friend will bring a bit of good news.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

“Are you busy?”: Our brush with Buddha’s Witnesses

Alex and I were in the harried midst of hanging our clothes to dry (yep, no dryers here in the good ol’ ROK) before setting out to downtown Daegu for another Orions basketball game when we heard a knock at the door.

Each time this has happened — a total of only three times in the 10+ weeks we’ve lived in Daegu — we exchange surprised glances before one of us goes to the door. The first time, it was a census lady (there’s no escaping them, trust us. Alex had to fill mine out while I was mid-Skype session with my family). The second time, it was a little lost ajumma who wandered into the wrong apartment. But this time might have been the most surprising of all.

“Could we have something to drink?” said the mid-30s, bespectacled Korean man when I opened the door. I glanced at his companion, a similarly outfitted woman in her late 20s. Both were wearing hiking gear. Maybe they just got of the nearby trail at Hamji Mountain, I mused.  Still, I couldn’t quite figure out how or why they got into my code-secure (or so I thought) apartment building. There’s a convenience store less than 15 yards away.

Nevertheless, I’m not one to turn down a couple of thirsty strangers, so I fumbled through some basic Korean and asked if they’d prefer water or juice. I couldn’t decide whether or not I should invite them in. Despite the awkwardness of the situation, I felt guilty leaving them in the cold hallway. I poured them each a glass of water.

Once they had gulped it down, they asked the questions we get almost daily in Korea. “Foreigners? Where are you from? How do you like Korea?” And then, one unexpected question: “Are you busy?” From our broken conversation, we gleaned that they were going up a nearby mountain. What they now told us is that they were visiting a Buddhist temple … and collecting offerings along the way. Yep, we were hit up by the Buddhist version of Jehovah’s Witnesses (with far less fire and brimstone, and no uncomfortable looking suits).

We politely declined, said we had to get going. They said they’d pray for us at the temple. Praying for my eternal soul in exchange for a glass of water? That’s a hell of a bargain.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Winter in Korea: When will my school turn on the heat?

My foot is shaking. My whole body chilled. But my hands actually hurt. The same kind of pain as when you’ve carried a heavy grocery bag a mile or two and the plastic handles have long dug into your skin. My fingers are visibly red. But not numb. If only, they were numb.

I’m typing this as I sit at my desk inside my office at school. Yes, inside.

Cold weather hit Korea about three weeks ago. Temperatures have hung around 40 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, dropping to the low 30s once the sun sets. Yes, anything below 55 degrees is cold to this Floridian, but with no respite for 8 hours a day in a school that, on some sunny days, is actually colder inside than outside, I think even my Iowa friends would complain.

My classroom is equally as cold as my office, but at least there I’m moving around equally bundled-up students. If I get them laughing enough, I reason, it may raise the temperature one or two degrees. But the hallways are the worst. Open windows line the hallways creating a wind tunnel effect that reminds me of the Nor’easter storms I used to experience in Connecticut.

But my school isn’t uncommonly cruel. This is just winter in Korea.

My teachers say the finance office controls the heat.

“When will they turn it on?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” they answer.

The other day, they turned it on. It was glorious. In my classroom, where one huge heater stands guard behind the teacher’s desk, I even took off my coat. In my office, I left it on just so I could sweat a little.

Then, the next day, the heat was off again.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Korean hip-hop duo Supreme Team in Daegu

In our ongoing effort to embrace Korean music, Chickpea and I hit up Club G2 in downtown Daegu last night to see Supreme Team, who you might remember from my video of the 2010 Daegu International Bodypainting Festival. We spent nearly six hours in a packed, smoky club to catch of a glimpse of our favorite Korean hip-hop duo, which is also the only Korean hip-hop duo we know of.

Highlights: The graffiti art inside the club, Korean guys comfortable enough to dance with each other and my blurry photo of Supreme Team entering the venue.

Lowlights: The $6 beers, the $7-8 drinks, the late arrival of Supreme Team (2 a.m.? Really?) and their short five song set.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Don’t taze me, hyeong!

It was just another Saturday night in Daegu. Chickpea and I met some of our expat friends at Viniroo, a walk-up liquor-in-a-bag drinking establishment, and we made the rounds of our usual haunts downtown.

But we were restless. Our main bar– JEEEP (actual spelling) — was empty and our group of five wanted to dance somewhere new. We were searching for a suitable club when I looked down an alley and spotted a place with a large (fake) fire engine jutting from the building. This was Club Siren.

“Let’s go here,” Chickpea said and our group headed toward the door.

We were 15 feet away when the club’s bouncer came out from behind his podium and yelled to us: “No foreigners! We don’t speak English here!”

Shocked, one of our friends blurted, “That’s messed up.” (Looking back on it, he probably said, “That’s f***ed up.” I honestly can’t remember.)

At that point, the bouncer reached behind his podium and produced a Tazer. Then, he demonstrated its power. Zap!

We walked away at that point — flabbergasted, disturbed and a little sad.

To be sure, this is not common. Chickpea and I have entered several Korean clubs in which we were the only foreigners. We have many friends who have done the same. I find Korean bouncers, bartenders and patrons to be very professional, even overly nice.

But this kind of discrimination does exist. Dave’s ESL has a year-old message board thread listing the bars that have denied entry to foreigners.

A few points to round out the discussion:

I’ve heard there are foreigner-only bars in Korea near military bases and these are run by other Koreans. Also, while I don’t think this makes it OK, I know some bars have had some real problems with Westerners, especially American military. That might account for why this guy had a Taser. It doesn’t make it right, but bad behavior is the same reason why many U.S. clubs have a dress code. And, obviously, U.S. clubs discriminate, too. Just not so flagrantly.

Plus, as some people have noted on other sites, some clubs have complicated rules on drink limits, ordering food, table prices, etc. and some club owners simply bar foreigners because they don’t want to/ can’t explain this in English.

I don’t think anyone should let this play into any decisions about coming to Korea or enjoying the nightlife — it is rare — but words of wisdom: If a club bouncer says “No foreigners allowed,” it’s best to not argue the matter. They might have a Taser.