Chungmuro Kalguksu (충무로 칼국수)

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Kalguksu, literally translated as “knife noodles”, is Korea’s staple noodle dish, right behind ramen. The noodles, as the name suggests, are made from slicing thin strips of wheat flour and afterwards, the noodles are added to a broth made from (traditionally) anchovies, shellfish and kelp. Now priced at around 4USD a bowl, the dish wasn’t always so cheap. In the Goryeo era of Korea’s history it was considered a rare treat due to the high price of wheat. Beyond this anchovy based standard, kalguksu can also be found with a variety of other broths, including a spicy yukgaejang broth, a cold soy milk base and janchi guksu, known for it’s especially thin noodles.

While this dish can be found anywhere around Seoul, it’s not all created equal. Out of all the places I’ve eaten it at, Chungmuro Kalguksu, near Chungmuro station, right behind Namsan Xai Apartments, is one of the best. For one, you get a bang for your buck. The menu consists of two soups (Kalguksu or Kongkuksu), each priced at 6,000 won (around 5 USD), and the portion sizes are generous. What at many restaurants would be a 곱빼기 serving (double size) is the standard here. Add to that, the kimchi’s always fresh. The bowl itself has a really nice, clean, light broth heaped with dried seaweed and a bit of pepper powder. The restaurant is always packed, with sports games or dramas usually playing on the overhead TV and the older men and women working there are always in a rush, bustling around, but always kind. Every time I enter and leave I’m greeted by smiles. Overall, worth the visit if you’re in Seoul.

And to my friend who said, after I posted this photo on Facebook, “…I’d venture to guess one of the reasons you choose to stay in Korea is the food”…I’ll just say, let’s talk once I finish this bowl.

American in Korea

I usually use this space to document places I’ve visited in Seoul and abroad, but I’d like to start treating it as a journal as well. I miss writing a bit more personally, so I figure I’ll use this post as a way to say a bit more about myself than I usually do. As my friends and other familiar readers know, I graduated from Sogang University’s Korean Language Center here in Seoul a few months back (July), and since then I’ve been teaching English, editing and getting back into shape. I still feel, however, like I’m in between my education here and something else. As much as I enjoy teaching, I’m hoping to move into a different field here in Korea; where I can make use of my Korean and everything I’m learning in a broader way. That’s part of the reason I continue maintaining this blog and shooting photos. I love writing and shooting, and I believe my writing, at least, could be something I bring to my future career, be it as a journalist, blogger, marketer, etc. In the meantime, I’m learning a lot still from teaching and just simply living my life here in Seoul, working on the language, meeting new people and pushing myself in different ways.

It’s strange. People ask me often “When will you go back to America?”. I imagine some day I will, but as of now I’m able to live here doing what I am and I’m building upon the skills I’ve decided I want to work on (photography, writing, exercise, editing). So, regardless of whether I’m in Korea or America, I’ll still be pursuing these things. On top of that, I enjoy it here. I feel energized in Seoul. Despite the frustrations, occasional loneliness and challenges, I receive inspiration from my surroundings to learn more and, in the end of the day, something keeps bringing me back to the culture and language…something inside of me keeps driving me to learn more, even though at times I feel like just throwing my hands up. Note: For anyone who hasn’t learned Korean, it’s tough. Yet, it’s definitely worth all the stress and hard work so long as you’re properly motivated. (I’ll write some posts later about my Korean learning experience/story).

This past year, however, with all the drama of the election season in America, it’s been harder than usual for me to place most of my focus on Korea. I was caught up in and passionately supporting Bernie during his run, and since his loss, despite my disappointment, I’ve continued following the debates and everything else happening. The whole spectacle of this year’s election has been like nothing I’ve seen before and so often resembling a drama more than an actual race, without Bernie’s influence bringing in the real issues as he consistently did in the primary. For me, however, it’s not so much the details of this time period in America that have so transfixed me, but rather the intensity of it. America looks as if it’s undergoing a massive transition, as if this era of American hegemony is beginning it’s decline. From here, I often feel a desire to be back with my people, amongst the familiarity of my culture, during all that’s happening. Yet, on the other hand, I enjoy the distance. It gives me an ability to look in and observe what’s going on more objectively, without all the emotions so present in my surroundings. But all this has brought me back to myself as an American in Korea. When I first came here I dreamed about assimilating, about making my place amongst the people and really blend in to the crowd. There’s a few problems with that. One, I’m a tall white guy. Two, I never will be able to fully assimilate, nor do I wish to. What I failed to realize at first was that while my orientation to Korea would change over the years, through my experience and language learning, Korea wouldn’t. The cultural differences between America and Asia, and particularly America and Korea, are vast. The challenge, in the end of the day, seems to be being able to tolerate always being a bit outside of the culture. To be okay with some of that loneliness or confusion, rather than to attempt to break that divide. The divide’s always going to be there, and I’m learning to embrace it while simultaneously appreciating how far I’ve come in my own way to adjusting and adapting to a culture so different from my own.

So here’s to America, in all it’s current pains and joys, and to my new home, Korea, in all it’s grit and beauty.

Jeongdong Road (정동길)

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There’s a superstition that if you walk down Jeongdong Road, the road following Deoksugung Palace’s southwards facing wall, with your boyfriend or girlfriend you’ll break up. I guess you could say my girlfriend and I took a a leap of faith and walked it anyway, joking along the way that it was a final parting stroll. Neither my girlfriend nor I knew the origins of this, so I looked it up on Jungu office’s website where it’s written:

“There are three theories that explain the origins of this saying. One theory holds that the spirits of court ladies, who were obliged by their status to renounce marriage, still reside in the neighborhood, while another theory says that the family court used to be located nearby and couples had to walk along this street to get divorced. The third theory says that the street is so long that couples easily get bored and end up arguing with each other.”

I can understand the first two. The third, which seems most practical, is a bit of a stretch in my opinion, as the street’ really not that long. I guess if you’re out of shape or already prone to arguing it could hold true. Anyway, like the quoted article states the road is, ironically, ideal for dates. In the fall, the tree lined road is cast with a orange/gold glow and the shadows of the trees leave speckle the palace’s outside walls. Following the wall, you eventually end up in Jeongdong, a neighborhood famous as Korea’s entry point to the Western world. Up until the 1880s, true to it’s nickname “The Hermit Kingdom”, isolationist polices (instituted during the Joseon period) kept Korea largely untouched from foreign influence. Before that time foreigners weren’t allowed to live within Seoul’s city walls. With the first American envoy being allowed entrance in 1884, this city section began to undergo major changes, becoming a conduit for the introduction of Western style education, architecture and religion. Jeongdong, congregated by many foreigners, was soon after referred to as “Legation Street” or “European Quarter” by locals (Koreanet).

Today, despite the passage of time, Jeongdong’s history remains intact to see, from the Seoul Museum of Art (formerly the Supreme Court of Korea), Chung-dong First Methodist Church, the central hall of the Salvation Army (completed in 1928), to the Russian Legation (where King Gojong and the crown prince sought refuge in for a year after Queen Min’s assassination). This is a history not easily observed in a country long characterized by such isolationist policies and preservation of it’s own architecture/culture, contrasted with the early adoption of Western attire/Architecture by Korea’s close neighbor, Japan. So, while walking around the leaf-strewn streets with Winnie, sounds of a mock-procession of the guards in front of Deoksu Palace in the distance, I was reminded of the Western-Asian mix of Shanghai’s streets; stain glass tiled windows on the nearby church and sharp angles of Western buildings juxtaposed against the iconic Korean style curved tiles marking the Palace’s wall.

Seoul’s cafe craze, it’s obsession with coffee and the European cafe aesthetic, blends really well with the surroundings in Jeongdong. Sometimes modern style cafes, flushed with white, modern interiors, can feel out of place in neighborhoods packed with Korea’s pervasive neon signs, old pubs and cheap eateries, but here, set among the wide, tiled street, the western style cafe’s blend into the surroundings naturally. Winnie and I stopped by Jeongwangsu Coffee House, a small chain in Seoul before heading on our separate ways. As usual Winnie ordered a sweet iced latte and I ordered black coffee (or “poison”) as Winnie likes to call it. Afterwards we made our way back to City Hall station, along the way passing a group of older Korean men clad in Joseon-era apparel, in between shifts performing in front of the palace. A picture with one of these men is a classic souvenir from Seoul, but something I’ve never felt compelled to get myself. Yet, while passing I caught eyes with one of the men, dressed in red garb with a large red hat, suggesting “yangban” status (the privileged upper class of old Korea). He smiled and waved for me to come by his side. I laughed and posed for a shot. Fitting that this would happen in Jeongdong.

Wonjo Ssambab Jip (원조쌈밥집)

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Somewhere hidden along this street is Wonjo Ssambab Jib, a meat restaurant included amongst Baek Jon Won’s plethora of chains. Yet, at first glance, you’d have no idea his name’s attached, famous more as a successful businessman than a food connoisseur/cook, his restaurants are staples amongst the Korean food scene. A shabby looking place like this doesn’t quite evoke images of the clean and polished exterior’s of his more recent additions, BaekDabang (Dabang being the name for old style Korean cafe’s and Baek his name), and Chadolbaki Jeonmunjeom (Chadolbaki being a type of thin sliced beef and Jeonmunjeum meaning “specialty house”)…The restaurant itself is hidden down a tight little side alley…As we approached a foul smell emanated from the door and inside multiple large table spreads were covered with food left uncleared. I’m pretty adventurous but I’ve had enough bad experiences with unsanitary food in Asia to become a bit hesitant around places like this. At first glance you’d be hard pressed to place the name Baek Jon Won with the interior and atmosphere, yet that’s not to completely bash on the place either. It had a old style charm to it and a cozy atmosphere, with wooden lockers and keys to drop your shoes in before sitting down. On the wall were cliche spread posters of ancient Tigers and electronic bells (like doorbells, common at Korean restaurants) on the walls, indicted by squiggly lines drawn around them in red marker.

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The food came out fast and it was good, albeit likely low end in quality..Consisting of a wide wooden tray of lettuce and other green leafy vegetables (for wrapping the meat), the standard doenjang jjigae (soybean soup), and a seafood ssamjang paste (a paste added to the meat consisting of gochujang (pepper paste) and doenjang (soy paste) combined with added bits of squid and octopus. Two servings of thin sliced beef was probably enough, but the food was good and the atmosphere pleasant so we chose to go for a third round of samgyeopsal (pork belly, like thick cuts of bacon), before heading out to walk off our full stomachs.

Wonjo Ssambab Jib’s not a easy find, tucked in the backstreets of Dongdaemun. Nor is it ideal for those picky about cleanliness, but it offers a peak into old Seoul, or as Winnie put it..into a “very old school Korean restaurant”. Give it a shot, and if you get lost along the way, there’s no lack of other options nearby as you can see by the picture above.

 

International Wedding (국제 결혼)

I made a trip outside of Seoul yesterday for a good friend of mine’s wedding. I’ve been to a few wedding’s in Korea before, but this one was a bit different, being the first international wedding I’ve ever attended. My friend’s Korean and his wife American. I met them both through teaching at another friend of mine’s English Cafe/private school. Despite having been formally married for 3 years, they hadn’t yet done the official wedding celebration. Having met my friend for dinner and drinks from time to time the past few months, it was clear they were both working hard to finish all the wedding preparation and feeling some of the stress from it. As Americans, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Wedding’s in America can be long, stressful ordeals for the bride and groom, particularly the bride and her family. Yet, the average Korean wedding is in a category of it’s own. This stress is typically avoided by couples by hiring an agency to arrange/set up all aspects of the wedding and hosting it in a wedding hall, a commercial space devoted to hosting weddings, where one couple celebrates, quickly followed by another, in short hour intervals.

That’s another thing. The average Korean wedding isn’t an extended ordeal. It’s designed for speed an convenience, so guests can come and go without having to put aside there entire day plans to attend. A typical wedding lasts between 30 minutes to an hour, after which guests are free to leave. It’s not a slow, meandering exit, either. Oftentimes, as soon as the event’s time is up, people start packing up quickly, and in a wedding hall, if the time is exceeded, often the staff usher people out to make room for the following event. To an American, it can seem rushed and impersonal, yet it’s undeniably simple and straightforward. My friends, being an international couple, had to decide how to approach their wedding – in American style or Korean. The result was a wedding half-way in between both worlds, held in a beautiful complex of Hanok living quarters (traditional Korean homes), in the countryside outside of Seoul, with the service led by a Buddhist monk. Yet, nonetheless, it followed the traditional procession of an American wedding and was followed by a dance party…or rather, an attempted one. Korean’s aren’t as eager to dance as us Americans, so what started out with dancing eventually shifted to Jenga tournaments and games of Apples to Apples. A few notable differences were my friend, as the Korean male, paying respects to his mother in law by offering a full bow, with head and knees on the ground, and a friend’s vocal surprise, exclaiming, “We can’t image this in Korea!” when the bridge and groom took turns throwing pieces of cake at each other after cutting it.

It was a bit surreal for me watching the event, as the officiant spoke in Korean about the challenges and values of an international marriage, about the courage it must take to live overseas and settle into a new culture, about the significance of such a union, etc. It was hard, watching it, not to reflect on my own experience here as an expat…Starting out completely lost in Korea, unable to comprehend a word said around me, and flash forward to now where I can communicate with people, make jokes in Korean, and navigate somewhat well cross-culturally between my roots as an American and my new-identity here as foreigner. I guess I saw myself through both of them, understanding the choice they had to make is a large one, one that takes courage. Having dealt with all the complexities of a cross-cultural relationship, the language and culture differences and the unique challenges of being far from home, gave the event a greater significance for me. Above all, I was happy to see my friends, who seem so fit for each other, go through this passage, alongside friends and family. Unfortunately, as is the case with most Korean weddings, neither the bride nor groom were able to eat any of the food served, for a reason I don’t quite understand. They’re required to greet guests while everyone’s eating, followed by more photo shoots, allowing no extra time to sit down and eat. This still strikes me as something completely avoidable, and a somewhat ridiculous aspect of Korean weddings. Yet, I guess there’s some parts of tradition that are more easily avoided than others. As for me, I’d at the very least, find a way to sneak in a few bites.

Dean – “130 Mood: TRBL” (딘 – “130 무드 투러블”)

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(Album Cover -Dean: “130 Mood: TRBL)

        After eating some Seollangtang (설농탕 – Ox bone soup) in Myeongdong the other day, I stopped into a small record store to see what CD’s were on sale. Since I first came to Korea people have always asked me if I’m into K-Pop. I’d always say no. Both the K-Dramas and K-Pop never appealed to me. It sounded all the same to me and I didn’t sense any creativity in it. My tastes in art and music have always drawn me towards artists outside the mainstream and styles such as jazz, electronic and hip hop. I found the heavily made up, and often plastic surgery “enhanced” faces, of the dancers (or icons) on TV, dancing in perfect unison, to be interesting, but I was never moved or attracted to the music. Yet, as time has passed in Korea, and the more of my surroundings I can understand through the language and culture, the more I’ve become curious about the world of K-pop and K-Drama.

Recently, I’ve been following the famous show “Unpretty Rapstar” (언프리티 랩스타) every Friday night, the female alternative to “Show Me the Money”, an American Idol-style music competition show based around hip hop. Each week the rappers take turns preparing solo performances, battles or freestyles and each week a member or two is voted off. Along with the hosts of the show, each week a celebrity (either a famous Korean rapper or producer) is chosen to participate as a judge. The winner of the week then has the opportunity to make a song with said producer/rapper. Through following these shows I’ve started to learn more about the world of Korean rap, and thanks to the Korean subtitles played along with the raps, can follow a decent amount of what’s going on/being said. While rap is far from the easiest medium to practice my Korean listening skills, it’s still the form of music I’m drawn most to, both in American music, as a big hip hop fan, and here in Korea as well.

Back to my original point, I went to this small music store the other day, looking for a Korean hip hop CD to take home. I asked the woman working at the store if she had any recommendations. She said she doesn’t listen to music the young people are into these days, but prefers slow ballads and classic Korean rock/trot. I asked her, then, if any particular hip hop artist/CD was especially popular lately or selling well. She pointed both to EXO’s new album and Dean’s EP “130 Mood: TRBL”, saying “I’ve sold a lot of these lately”. The name “Dean” came to my mind, but I didn’t know where…then it occurred to me that I’d seen him on “Unpretty Rapstar”…”Ah, right….that guy at the penthouse who had all the girls eyeing and gawking at him…”. A few weeks ago, Dean was introduced as a special guest. Apparently he’s considered pretty hot amongst the female rappers, as they all hunkered around him, flirting and giving cheers while sharing beers together. I looked at the purple-drenched, fuzzy album cover and thought “What the heck?”. First, I asked the woman if I could by chance listen to the album first. She said no. I thought out loud, “Blind buy?”, deciding to go with it since it was relatively cheap. The woman, smiling, offered to give me a poster of Hyeona (현아), a really famous female singer here. The poster was in celebration of her most recent album “Awesome”, and pictured a side shot of her face, looking up at the sky, hair draped across her cheek, her features emphasised by layers of makeup. The woman asked “Can I give you this as well? She’s pretty, right?” I responded, jokingly  “Since she’s pretty, sure”.

As for the album, it’s less rap than R&B. Dean’s style reminds me a bit of Drake, with soft vocals and slow hip hop beats, and a bit of a drawl to his delivery. It’s good though. The album carries a bright, bouncy vibe that’s evokes images for me of clubs and night life, of neon lights and late nights dancing. It’s sound and texture, like the cover is synthetic, but the flowing beats and synths create a spacious, soft tone and feel. Overall, a good listen, and memorable enough to make me want to explore more of what Dean and other Korean rappers have to offer. I guess, this time, the blind buy worked out. I told the woman at the store I’d be back. Maybe next time with a better knowledge of what’s in, what’s new, and what I’m looking for.

Shanghai: Old and New (상하이, 현대와 옛)

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I’m back now in Seoul after a short trip to Shanghai last week. It was my first time to China. I’ve been meaning to travel there for a long time, but kept putting it off due to the visa process for Americans. Being in Seoul, I’m just a stones throw away from Shanghai and Beijing. I figured it was about time I get my visa and open the door to explore this vast country. Originally I didn’t have much interest in China. I was turned off by the bad air, the authoritarian government, the bad reputation of Chinese tourists, etc. Yet, as time’s passed for me in Asia I’ve become increasingly curious about the country. China figures predominantly in the current American political narrative and it’s undeniable that China is quickly becoming the strongest country in the world economically. I wanted to get a taste of what it’s all about, so I booked a round-trip flight to Shanghai and spent four days there.

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Now that I’m back, I’m about just as confused as before I went. Shanghai struck me on first impression as an impressive mix of new and old, like Seoul, but on a more exaggerated scale. The modern areas of Nanjing Road, The Bund and Pudong, reminded me of New York , and the European architecture of France. Yet, right around the corner from these spots are small, windy streets and old homes, cluttered, busy neighborhoods where older people can be seen cutting vegetables on the street and aromas from small restaurants and shops permeate the streets. I’ve always seen Seoul as a city, like Shanghai, caught between new and old. Yet, the dichotomy between the two worlds is more profound in Shanghai. Since I came to Korea three years ago, Seoul has changed fast. It’s always changing, both for good and bad. So many neighborhoods have quickly become gentrified, bringing along with the tide new cafe’s, book shops, clothing stores, etc., leaving a lot of old homes and history behind. In it’s move to modernize sometimes it feels in Korea like the governments willing to leave all remnants of history behind. In Shanghai, these two worlds felt a bit more intact, existing side by side, rather than the old fading away rapidly into the new. I wonder if Shanghai will follow along with Seoul and do the same or if the history will be better preserved?

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(Dog I met in the streets of Old Shanghai)

Either way, it was good to get some time away from Korea and see somewhere new, somewhere I imagine I’ll be going back to again. China’s such a large country with so much to offer in terms of history, nature and culture, so as long as I’m here in Korea, I plan more trips back.