Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

McDonald’s delivery to your door and other tales of Korea’s customer service craze

Since moving to Korea four months ago, I’ve experienced only minor difficulties with the communication barrier. Most people speak at least a little bit of English — though I admittedly feel guilty for expecting them to speak in my own language when I’m in their country. I’m working on it!

Things like asking for directions (or, conversely, giving a cabbie directions), shopping, and ordering food have posed little problem (though Alex and I once wound up with one stinker of an appetizer when we blindly ordered off the menu at our neighborhood hof. Wriggling octopus? We eat it. Pig’s anus sausage? Not nearly as bad as it sounds. Actually, quite tasty. But the dried squid “jerky” that we accidentally ordered is not at the top of my list of favorite Korean foods. I digress.)

My point is that customer service here — at least in my experience — is outta this world. So what if shop owners shadow me while I walk around the store? They’re more than happy to answer any questions. When the cable guy installed my service (hallelujah!), he realized I didn’t have a remote control. After motioning that he would be “right back,” he returned in under 10 minutes with a brand new remote, batteries and all.

McDonald’s has home delivery service here, for God’s sake. Don’t feel like getting outta your pajamas to enjoy a Big Mac? Don’t. Just order in and you will be enjoying greasy, MSG-laced burger goodness in a flash. In fact, all food delivery in Korea is spectacularly different from what I’m accustomed to in the States.

First, take-out isn’t relegated to crappy Chinese restaurants and pizza. You can get just about anything delivered here. And — here’s the kicker — there’s no delivery fee. How is that even possible?! This has lead to an overabundance of crazed delivery drivers on scooters tearing around the city at a breakneck speed to bring you your food while it’s still hot and fresh (and risking their own lives in the process). But damn, it’s worth it.

From phone call to feeding my lazy face in less than 10 minutes: that’s what I call service. If you order from McDonald’s or a fried chicken joint (yes, Koreans love fried chicken — I’m in heaven), you’ll get your run-of-the-mill paper and plastic accoutrements. But if you order from a sit-down restaurant, they’ll also bring you real china plates, silverware, napkins — the whole nine. When you’re done, just put the dirty dishes outside your door. They’ll pick it up later. The U.S. is gonna have to step up its game if it ever wants to see this expat again.

But all of this foodie fabulousness pales in comparison to the real inspiration for this post: NongHyup Bank. Yep, bank service is pretty miserable at the best of times, even when the teller and I speak a common language. But imagine trying to send money overseas in a country where you know next to nothing about bank-speak in the native language. The results could be catastrophic (to borrow a recent North Korean phrase).

Enter Seong-Mo. This unassuming dude works at my local bank, and he is a life saver. After hours of trying to figure out how to transfer money on my own (unfortunately, NongHyup Bank’s website is not as fantastic as their employees) I decided to bite the bullet and go to the bank by myself. I was prepared to do epic battle. Not only did I not have to wait in line (unheard of!), Seong-Mo spoke excellent English and told me exactly what I needed to make the transfer. He even got me a coffee while I waited. (Well, that’s a lie. He sent his secretary to get me a coffee.)

Unfortunately for Seong-Mo, I am babo (stupid) and wrote down an incomplete account number. Apparently, I also wrote down my phone number incorrectly, because the poor guy spent the whole next day trying to get in touch with me, to no avail. Fortunately, he was actually listening when I told him what school I worked at, so he called my school and explained the situation to them. I went back to the bank and he worked it all out. Another of my expat friends said that Seong-Mo actually came to her house to help her with internet banking. While I feel that this is borderline creepy (especially since he told me that my “students are so lucky to have such a beautiful teacher”) no one can deny that it’s some radical customer service.

So thanks, Seong-Mo, for making my life here in Korea even better.

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

Love and Basketball: Hello, Daegu Orions

Before I extrapolate on the wonders of basketball in Korea, let me take a moment to celebrate the fact that it’s Friday; that I saw my first Korean snow yesterday; that my ondol heating system is on full-blast; that my open class is over (observations suck);  that I’m drinking a beer (even if it is Hite); that I’m snacking on string cheese, courtesy of Daegu’s Costco; and that I’ve got Creedence Clearwater Revival’s greatest hits as a soundtrack. The neighbors are in for an impromptu norae bang treat when “Bad Mooon Rising” starts.

Yes, life in Korea is good. Especially since I’ve discovered the Orions, Daegu’s very own, very crappy, basketball club. No one can ever call me a fairweather fan, though. I’ve already got a branded t-shirt, noise makers, and even a cell phone charm (so sue me) repping my new hometown b-ballers. But big ballers they are not.

I officially became a fan at my first-ever professional basketball game last Sunday, when we played the Incheon Elephants. Since then, I’ve learned a few interesting facts about Korea’s most under-appreciated sport. First off, to call this a pro club is technically accurate, but is misleading for fans of American ball. Daegu Gymnasium can host a whopping crowd of just over 5,000 — and it’s rarely half-full. I’ve seen high school games with more crowd enthusiasm. Also, there are a few club rules that are unfamiliar for US fans: teams can have only two foreign players (usually, two of their starters) and one Korean-American player. This is to prevent clubs from importing their entire team from abroad.

There are nine teams in  Korea’s pro league. Currently, Daegu is ranked eighth. Le sigh. Despite losing both games I’ve seen, the Orions are entertaining nonetheless. Their stars are Glen McGowan (who was injured in the first quarter of Tuesday’s game against Jeonju); Otis George (Crowd chants: Oh-ti-suh!); and my personal favorite…Number 40…it’s Lee…Dong…Juuuuuuuun! Yes, Lee Dong-Jun is a lanky, long-haired Korean-American (given name: Daniel Sandrin) who dominates in the paint and behind the 3-point line. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s also modeled in Nike fashion shows.

So I’ve got the fan gear. I’ve got a favorite player. I’ve got plans to see many more games. What I don’t got is a winning team. The Orions were up by more than 20 points — yes, 20 — and still managed to lose to the Elephants last Sunday. I had hopes for Tuesday’s game against lower-ranked Jeonju’s KCC Egis. Alas, despite a rousing back-and-forth lead, we fell just five points short of a W.

You can’t blame the cheerleaders for the loss, though. Those gals were shakin’, poppin’, lockin’ and costume-changing as if the win and their adorable little lives depended on it. I also have warm-and-fuzzies for these ladies because, although I haven’t won any (yet), they give out free gear — from signed balls and jerseys to pizza and Pocari Sweat — throughout the game. Another +1 for Korean ball: the mascots breakdance. Take that, stateside b-ball fans.

Worth mentioning is that, with tickets at 9,000 won a pop (about $8), supporting the home team is extremely affordable. Nosh outside the stadium before the game at one of many street food stands (I always recommend a sugar-dipped, double-battered corn dog) or bring your own snacks into the stadium. Yep, I was spoiled by my hometown Tampa Bay Rays open policy on bringing your own food to the game, but the happy tradition continues, halfway across the world. Except that my now my game time snacks include dried squid.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Thoughts in Daegu on North Korea’s attack on South Korea

Here's a map detailing the 150 or so incidents between North and South Korea in the 50 years since the Korean War.

“Are you worried?” asked P.E. Teacher #1 as we walk down the hallway after finishing lunch. I was just telling him how my friends have sent some worried emails to me regarding North Korea’s recent attack on South Korea.

“Worried? No. Are you worried?” I respond.

Hesmiles and says, “A little.”

It’s been three days since North Korea fired artillery over their border and into a community on Yeonpyeong Island, killing two marines and two civilians. On TV, it looks like a nation in panic. In Daegu, everyone seemed nonplussed. But that’s just how it seemed.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Checklist before moving to Korea (or any other country)

Recently, I found my “To Do” list from July listing everything I wanted to accomplish before moving to South Korea. I typed it out here for aspiring ESL teachers headed to South Korea (or, really anyone going to another country for an extended length of time) who have that feeling that you’re forgetting something.

I’ve included some links to help you navigate some of the more difficult tasks.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

South Korea High School Test Day: A National Sleep-In Day for the rest of us!

On Thursday, South Korea’s esteemed high school seniors took their college entrance exams.

These exams — think, SATs — are the single most important test a South Korean will take in his or her life. Accordingly, the rest of Korea changes their time schedule once a year for high school students.

Due to the possible traffic conflicts, most employers give their workers an extra hour or so to sleep in on this day. (Some parents even get the whole day off so they can pray in front of the test site.) Even the military was told to not conduct any noisy activities during the test. The only people (besides high school students) up early were Korea’s public safety officers. Nearly all of them come out to help direct traffic and give rides (by car or motorcycle) to high school seniors running late to their test!

Eat Your Kimchi has a great video about this year’s national exam day here.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Welcome to Korea: Another Sunday, another tub of fish eating your foot’s dead skin

Yes, that’s right. We’ve really been enjoying the bounty of seafood that Korea has to offer, from live octopus to giant clams, fish and squid in various states of dessication and more. So, Alex and I decided to give a little back: We went to Doctor Fish.

These are tiny fish — a little bigger than a minnow, maybe? — that eat the dead skin off your feet. It was originally used to treat eczema and other skin problems, but now it’s mostly used as a spa treatment. I’ve been wanting to try this this I came to Korea (If I’m being honest, since I saw it on the Tyra Show a couple years ago. Full disclosure).

On Sunday, I found  Namu Story, (for Korea peeps: it’s across from the UniQlo in downtown Daegu) and convinced Alex to go with me. Just as interesting as the experience itself is where the Doctor Fish are: in a a big cafe. Yes, a tank of fish sunk into a raised platform at one end of a large, posh, second-story cafe. So while people are drinking their coffee and eating their pastries, Alex and I (okay, mostly me) were giggling in a corner while tickly little fish ate dead skin off our feet. I thought it would take a while to get used to, but in a matter of minutes I was able to stop laughing and enjoy. It’s like a little massage!

The best part is this: there’s a $3 entrance fee to get into the cafe, but it’s all-you-can-eat croissants and coffee, and the Doctor Fish treatment is less than $2. It was a great way to spend a relaxing Sunday afternoon.

UPDATE (3/8/11): Namu Story, the coffeeshop where we first experienced Dr. Fish, is no longer offering the service. Check back here for updates on other nearby Dr. Fish proprietors.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Traveler Beware: My extremely expensive, and useless, trip to a travel clinic

One shot and I’m out half a month’s rent. The other needle pierced my skin and I lost the other half. Welcome to the world of travel clinics, which exploit your fears just enough to empty your wallet.

Honestly, I partly blame myself. As the weeks until our Korea departure flew by, Chickpea and I started panicking about getting our vaccinations updated. Korea is no disease hotbed, but  we were determined to try as much crazy food as we could while in the country (and a few neighboring Asian countries as well) and a little typhoid sure puts the damper on international traveling. So, I pulled out the ol’ laptop and Googled “Travel Clinic.”

The first entry was for a Maryland-based company called Passport Health. They have an office in Tampa close to my former job, so without looking at any other options, we booked an appointment for the next week. Why would I look anywhere else? We had no health insurance (and even if we did, most insurance companies will not pay for vaccinations related to travel) and I figured most doctor offices would need to order our special vaccines from a place like Passport Health . I knew it was a specialty clinic, and so probably a bit more expensive, but I was woefully unprepared for how much more expensive. Not to mention the infuriating, and factually incorrect, introductory visit.

The day before our appointment, I looked up travel advisories from the Center of Disease Control and my trusty Lonely Planet Korea book. After a talk with Chickpea, we decided on vaccines to protect us from typhoid, hepatitis A & B and meningitis. We would also ask about the need for Japanese encephalitis.

The next day, after work, we walked into the travel clinic office and the receptionist quickly took us back to one of the nurses. We sat down in her office and she pulled out a thick book with “Korea” and our names on the front. She opened the first page.

“So, let’s start with malaria,” she said, and so began our hour of useless health information.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Welcome to Korea: My first day as a middle school teacher

…..well, sorta. Today I experienced a common trend of teaching English in Korea, the infamous….dun dun dun….desk warming!

I was under the impression that I would come in for a little while in the morning, take a tour of my new digs at Gu-Am Middle School, meet the principal and peace out. But, they like to get their allotted time out of you, even if you’re just sitting around doing nothing, so I had a full day of just that.

I did use my time to plan my first few lessons, though. I was on a roll, until they changed the section of the book that they told me to teach and I had to re-do them all. Basically, it took me the whole day to write four lesson plans. I gotta get faster at that!

I was really early for school today, because I left the house super early. I was sure I’d get lost. Actually, I had no problems finding it — a minor miracle. It’s about a 15 minute walk from my apartment. I was taking in the cool morning air, enjoying the new scenery (mountains, whoa!), and thinking about how much better this is than driving everywhere. Of course,  I nearly forgot that sometimes there will be rain, snow and other inconvenient acts of nature. It will be an adventure!

There’s not a whole lot to report for the “big” first day. The school is nice; I have my own desk in the teacher’s room, where most of the teacher’s just smile sweetly and nod when I say hello. I’ve been trying out my Korean greetings, to mixed reactions. Some people seem surprised and pleased that I can even form words in Korean; others seem to grimace at what I’m sure is my miserable pronunciation.

None of the teachers at my school speak much English (ironically, not even the English teachers) so I am still unclear as to how my classes will be run. First they told me that I wouldn’t have a co-teacher (which is actually illegal, a co-teacher is required to be in class with me at all times). I wouldn’t complain though; I think in a lot of ways running a class would be much easier alone. Then they told me I would have a co-teacher, but I’m not really sure who teaches which grades, which part of the lesson I’m responsible for, how much time I’m allotted in each lesson — you know, minor details. In short, I’ve got bupkis. I planned my first few lessons from start to finish so that I’ll be ready for whatever they throw at me.

One of the English teachers is so sweet and cute (although she did make fun of me for my poor use of chopsticks). She offered to help me with my Korean, so I hope that I won’t be so useless at this language for long.

I am still getting the hang of wearing “inside shoes,” “outside shoes” and “shower shoes.” All the teachers look really funny because even though they’re dressed up for work, they’re all wearing these funny indoor slippers (like the Adidas slip-ons that were popular a decade or more ago) and crazy patterned socks with their trousers and dress shirts or dresses.

I ate lunch with the teachers today, which I was nervous about because …