Good Times


Well, I’ve been packing all day and getting things in order around the apartment. I need to head over to the subway station no later than noon tomorrow to hop on the airport shuttle to take me to Incheon. The subway takes roughly the same amount of time (40 minutes to 1 hour) but considering I’ll have to luggage bags to check in I’d rather just pay the 9 dollars for the direct transportation and not have to worry about transfers or getting glared at for taking up too much space on a possibly crowded train car. Last minute errands such as grabbing a refill on my contacts and picking up a lot of crunky bars and other assorted candies have filled my day. I’ve loaded a ton of movies on my iPhone for the flight and researched what I can bring through customs to the states. This part was kind of undefined, vague to say the best.

My friend in Arizona has a foodie amigo who had requested I bring in some kimchi. I got the processed kind in the sealed bag so hopefully that’s fine. I also couldn’t figure out what the limits on Soju were, a friend said he brought 12 of the small bottles and a few bokbanjoo’s (Korean raspberry wine, whose spelling I’m probably butchering) and some Chongha (sweeter little sister to Soju usually favored by the ladies). I’m a little more cautious and am just bringing four of the plastic bottles and a single of bukbanjoo. I guess worst case scenario they take a couple of the two dollar bottles away. No big loss, I’m not a huge fan of the stuff but it’s nice to bring some form of local beverage for the friends back home to experience.

This last week has been a stutter between killing time at my apartment and rushing around town saying goodbye to friends. Friday was a real treat when my good Canadian friend from Ilsan and I went to the Jeju Rock and Resistance Show in Hongdae at Freebirds. Ten dollars got you entrance to see all ten bands. My buddy’s girlfriend was one of the volunteer coordinators for it, she usually does a lot of work promoting awareness of the Korean “comfort women” who were sex slaves used by the Japanese during World War 2. This makes particular event was to raise funds and awareness of the ongoing opposition to the proposed US Naval base being installed on Jeju Island. The area in question is the site of much natural beauty which has earned it a UNESCO placing and also Gangjeong Village. From what I heard there it is an amazing area and the people are strongly resisting displacement, many also said that it was not the US Navy who was pushing for this exact location but Samsung who is a partner in the site construction/development. For more information check out this link.

Powerful speakers and killer bands really delivered a strong message for this cause.

The bands were quite varied in both genre and skill but all in all I think most everyone was quite happy to have come out for the show. I was pleased to actually hear my first reggae band perform and, wonders never cease, one of the musicians played the rarely scene mellodica which is kind of like a small handheld keyboard you blow into while you play. Awesome! My favorite band of the night was an instrumental trio of two girls and one guy. The gent played a small traditional wooden flute, acoustic guitar and did some synthwork using a Macbook. The girls were both playing their hearts out on their respective traditional instruments I had never seen before. The first was a Haegeum and the other was a Geomungo. This was a mesmerizing performance and it was great to see these amazing ancient instruments creating such powerful and resonant music. I was also quite happy because it took me back to my childhood when I used to play with the miniature Japanese variants of these that hung from our Christmas tree. My father had acquired them during his stay in Japan as part of a high school exchange. Oh yeah, Seoul’s belly-dancing troupe did a performance. I was impressed at their grace and art. I was also cracking up at seeing many of the guys there getting elbowed in their ribs by their girlfriends when they outright gawked at the performance with open jaws. I always try to watch respectfully but was glad to be single at that particular instance, haha.

Saturday I showed the two new hires (a couple) to my school around Itaewon and Haebanchong foreign areas of Seoul. They have only been here a couple weeks and have taken a liking to Korean food but really appreciated breakfast at Wolfhounds and a trip to the High Street Market to see their selection of comfort foods from home. The same friend from Ilsan and my Korean buddy who I’ll call London because of his strong accent after studying their came out and we grabbed a bite to eat and some drinks at Phillies Pub which I highly recommend. One of the new hires was from Philadelphia so he got a kick out of the namesake. Ilsan and I went to a quick show while London showed the duo around Itaewon. It was one stop past Itaewon in the opposite direction of Noksapyeong in a small DIY concert space setup under a coffee house and adjacent to a small bar. It was titled an “Experimental” show and was definitely quite original. From discordant thrash like Christfuck, to the ever building/looping/cascading waves of sounds of the band Ten (recently back from Japan) to a unskilled drummer/kazooist who invokes a sense of Andy Kaufman style humor “I am sorry I not so good, the trumpet player Kenny G is in England tonight.” It was, well, an experience.

Not much happened after this except making new friends with a bunch of EPIK (public school) teachers just out of orientation, last call at Sam Ryans and an after hours party back at Phillies Pub some of the regulars invited me and Ilsan two. Amazing how many new friends you make right before you leave for a while. Irony!

Well, I need to get back to packing before heading out to one last samgyeopsal (BBQ pork) meal and Winter Hof night with the coworkers. The next post will be a photo blog about my trip yesterday to Insadong and Gyeongbok Palace but right now I don’t have time to upload all those photos. Until then, Syonara my friends!

It’s been an eventful last week. I had a pretty productive weekend and went to the dentist for the first time in a few years. If you go for a span without a cleaning there is a certain amount of apprehension before breaking the spell of not visiting. My worries were eased. Though I did have a couple very minor cavities the dentist assured me that they weren’t anything to be concerned about and that all in all the chompers were in great shape.

The hygienist was a little nervous and giggling quite a bit as she worked on me. She was mortified when she sprayed the water pick across my face and inadvertently jabbed me with the dental pick. I took it all in stride and was laughing with her as she dried off my face “I didn’t know I was so sad.” Haha. With no insurance a cleaning and an X-ray  only cost me $120. The appointment is setup in June when I get back to tack care of the cavities and all in all I was feeling pretty satisfied.

Saturday I dropped by Hongdae with one of my Korean buddies. I felt kind of bad for how things turned out. He doesn’t really kick it in that neck of the woods so after a dinner at Shamrock I showed him the ever infamous Zen Bar 1. For the record this fiasco of an establishment isn’t really my bag of tea but he wanted to see some of the more packed establishments and likes hanging out at establishments similar to this. It was early into the night so this was one of the few places with many patrons. I grew weary of the noise and excessive intoxication and decided to head out before the last subway departed back home, my Ilsan homies were incommunicado after a COEX food/wine buffet and was feeling uninspired. Unfortunately he wanted to stay and hang out with some Americans he met. I received a text the next day stating that one of the girls he was talking to charged a few bottles to his tab for the price of 800,000 won ($700ish). I hate it when other foreigners, especially ones from my home country, act scandalous.

The following day was a group excursion up to Kintex in Ilsan for the 4D festival. While this sounded great in theory with appealing promo videos the reality was disappointing. What my friends didn’t seem to translate when looking up this event was that it’s pretty much geared for kids. I love teaching kids but it’s not my idea of a good time spending an afternoon at flashy yet simplistic, glorified amusement park. Especially in a foreign country where there is no English directions. Lesson learned? Look up some reviews from other foreigners beforehand, don’t be the Guinea Pig.

Graduation was on Monday which went off without a hitch. My kids were outstanding in delivering their speeches to the biased audience of their parents. One of my highlights was definitely the conversation with the father of one of my more mischievous students. “So my daughter was behaved in your classes?” He asked with a stoic face. “Yes, she was.” I answered somewhat untruthfully.” He broke into a big grin and replied “You are a nice teacher, but I don’t believe you” and proceeded to laugh heartily. Classic.

My vacation has now begun and it’s off to a superb start. Yesterday was a holiday so six of the crew from school all went out to Yeouinaru on the banks of the Han river. One nice things about being right next to this subway is that it is the lowest in South Korea and if artillery coming from up North were to fall (incredibly improbable) you can take shelter 9 stories below sea level. Tandem bikes and groups of families and young adults on mats were abundant as everyone wanted to enjoy a rare 50+ (Fahrenheit) day. The evening was finished of by a visit to a local Chinese/Korean restaurant near our apartments for Shabu Shabu. This is a dish which starts out with one large pot of boiling broth which is divided into two sides. One features a salty flavor and the other a spicy. You are given a base of greens, bok choy and mushrooms to add to the soup and an assortment of banchan (ever present Korean side dishes) including thinly sliced radish kimchi, sesame tofu ribbons with green onions and peanuts. The selection of protein is up to you and our group of 7 choose the mix with thinly sliced lamb, beef, tripe, frozen tofu cubes and seafood (octopus, muscles and scallops). Sustainful feasting ensued and the entire meal cost a mere 40,000 won ($35) for all of us. I was a little shocked I hadn’t tried this yet but not a month goes by I don’t discover a new cuisine Seoul has to surprise me with (especially since I started eating meat in the last two months).

Today I visited the pension offices and was pleasantly surprised at how easy the whole process was. My round trip ticket didn’t raise any eyebrows and it only cost about 10 minutes of my life. 10 days after I depart I get 10% of my income deposited into my Korean bank account. I applied for a global Visa card from Woori Bank (1-2% surcharge on all purchases) and should be able to easily visit Los Angeles after Arizona before I cruise back North to the Pacific Northwest and my beloved Seattle until the end of April. I’m also hoping to pick up a new laptop while there so these funds were kinda crucial for that kind of spendage. Tonight there is a benefit show in Hongdae with some friends and start my round of goodbyes until Spring before departure next week.

Now I just need to decide what to do for my remaining 8 days. Visit a Jjimjilbang for the first time? Maybe see a Japanese vs. Korean rockabilly band battle? Not quite sure yet. I do know one thing. I love it when your biggest looming problem is how to deal with the freedom of a two month vacation. Viva!

 

This month is off to a good start. We’ve had a few sporadic snow flurries (nothing sticks and it is minuscule amounts falling at best) but it has been very cold in the twenties at night and extremely dry. Hand and face lotion as well as chap stick are items I rarely use back home but over here it is a necessity. On the plus side these shorter days a lower temperatures are really making me look forward to my approaching vacation in Thailand. Nothing to increase the anticipation for the warm, sunny beaches of Koh Samoi like the onset of Seoul winter.

Anticipation rising!

The month started out a little somber as some of the friends I spent the most time with departed back home. My friends Jacob and Mary left for a week’s vacation before returning to Portland to reenter their lives there. I was acquaintances with Mary while attending Western and we both laughed as she left that it was our experiences in Korea that really solidified our friendship from being people you said hello to friends who knew the backgrounds and value of each other. Funny how being in an expat community can do that to you.

Ahhh, my futbol watching partners in crime, your presence will be missed over here.

Her boyfriend Jacob was probably my numero uno amigo over here. I will sincerely miss Yahtzee nights at the low-key Irish bar Madigans in Hwagok every Friday and talking smack while playing pool and darts with Ratatat playing in the background. He also had weekly appointments at an area just past my stop so we frequently got together in my hood every week on Tuesday or Thursday and would talk for hours at a local hof or outside the Cultwo Mart. We didn’t know each other in college but through our stories of our time there discovered a plethora of shared friends and adventures.

It’s a surreal feeling talking to a friend you’ve met in Seoul and piecing together that you were both at the same crazy, uber-granola house party in college. Unlike many friends I had to say my farewells to I look forward to future adventures in Portland and Seattle this upcoming Summer. So many of the people you meet here you know you will probably never see again outside of Seoul. It’s good to get the ones where you can already anticipate enjoying epic times in the near future back home.

A similar goodbye was my coworker Dallas. After 3 years at our Hagwon he was ready to try a different style of workplace. Though he will be back in January I do already miss our weeknights out. Not really being one to go huge on the Weekend nights outside of our neighborhood he was surprising keen on having good conversations/watching high-brow or less main stream movies and sharing a drink on the weeknight. An appreciation for these things is fairly lacking  in term of my other coworkers so the notable lack of entertainment on weeknights has been in strong contrast to last month.

Now that my friend base has significantly decreased I’m already hitting up quite a few more shows. Feel like I may have to go to some of those social mixer events to up the networking a little more. This weekend I attended a pretty good show at club spot with quite a few metalcore and some grind bands and then followed it up by attending the monthly spinning at Roots Time in Hongdae. Won a dollar (harhar) from my coworker because I encountered some “Fresh from Incheon” expats who just arrived last weekend at the Little Travelers’ show from the weekend before.

I had told them to check out Roots Time and my coworker had said there was no they’d cruise all the way back up from their base in Suwon to see somebody spinning vinyl at a hole in the wall. Turns out he underestimated the yearning for Reggae in a K-Pop fanatic culture, easy money…

The Little Travelers show featured 6 clubs and over 20 bands with all proceeds going to nonprofits for women with AIDS in South Africa. Nothing like rocking out to a good cause. While I was winning money and dipping my head to the tracks at Roots Time I also ran into my buddy from Finland who is a student at Yonsei University nearby. Libations were had into the wee hours and I gained a healthy respect for the Finnish ethanol tolerance.

Tuesday was also great as it was a good friend’s birthday. We had dinner at the Peruvian joint Cusco. The food was great. My Arroz con Pollo was excellent, I was tempted by the fusion chicken dish but Latin American curry seemed like it might be hit or miss so I went for the standard fare. One friend ordered the octopus ceviche and I must admit, for the first time eating raw tentacles it was really good. I even enjoyed the stringy seafood that adorned the dish along with the marinated red onions and hearty South American corn (bigger kernels and much starchier with a real chew factor). The birthday amigo and his girlfriend split a bottle of Chilean wine branded with El Diablo and spirits were high.

Arroz con Pollo Peruvian style was a great gastro start to the night.

We left there to get a nice cocktail at Lucky Strike up the block. My first month here we pulled this same itinerary and it was kind of surreal feeling my first case of Seoul nostalgia. After 7 months it still feels like I just showed up last week. I stuck with my classic Manhattan and felt like a Advertisement Exec baller as always. Lucky Strike is based on the cigarette which leaves for a lot of retro decor and a cool funky feel. It has a take out window on the side and interesting caricatures of alcohol etched into the windows. Rum is a guzzling pirate and Gin is a lidded, urban socialite. A swarthy Russian Vodka with the stereotypical Moscow tall hat and a bottle sticking out of his pocket while still ordering 1 more with a gloved had accompanied by a passed out Tequila with a droopy stache and a large sombrero complete the quartet.

Proof once more that nothing is trademarked in Korea.

Drinks are well made here and perfectly stiff. However the cost is a bit much (my Manhattan was 10,000 Won) and after already having splurge we went next door to Rock and Roll bar for one last drink before ending an earlyish night out. This was just one more example of how you can walk into a random divey looking basement bar here and be completely taken by surprised. The atmosphere was great, the drinks modest in cost, the help courteous and fluent in English and there was even a huge fluffy cat that walked like he owned the place. Excellent. I ended up having an extra drink of Red Rock (Korean made, fairly decent Amber Ale) on tap due to finding an unspoken gem like this. A brief spate of worry over the approaching midnight hour (average subway cut-off time) was solved by the ever helpful foreign helpline. Just dial 1330 and a friendly Seoulite who speaks English will help you with any inquires from “How late does the two-line run from Hapjeong to Daelim?” to “where can I find a pool with a diving in South East Seoul?”. Thank you Seoul, another successful night!

Well I can definitely say that I will never forget my 26th Thanksgiving. First time away from the fam and abroad and the options for Thanksgiving were kind of limited. I ended up hanging out with a couple coworkers at the local Makegoli house having some beverages and eating some BBQ’ed chicken. Oh yeah, don’t think I’ve mentioned that in the blog yet but for the first time in over 11 years I’m eating chicken again. I am now just one more statistic of a vegetarian who couldn’t stay strong in Korea. I’m taking it in stride though, usually not more than once a week and still steering clear of red meats.

Thanksgiving dinner is pictured below, aside from the chicken there were onion, cabbage, corn, shredded carrots, tangerine slices and quail eggs. Not nearly as delicious as the fare back home but a lot more exotic to be sure. I countered the homesickness by befriending some of the Korean guys there who were my age and students at a local university. Soju was had, charades were used to communicate and new KaKao talk (kind of like Korean Skype) friends were made. Felt good to make due and at least make for one heck of a memorable holiday abroad.

I’m sure most of you have heard of Rockabilly. Born in the early 1950s in rural America, specifically the Southern states. This blues and western swing influenced genre gains its name from the blending of Rock and Hillbilly and the term Rockabilly was originally an insulting term brandished against the early pioneers. Like many such slurs (think Yankee) it was embraced by the very people it was supposed to slight. I was a big fan of the Living End, Tiger Army and the Reverend Horton Heat back in my high school days but had thought those days of fandom were behind me. I was wrong.

This newfound appreciation was due to one epic catalyst known as the Rocktigers. This Korean outfit has even coined a new name for a subgenre within Rockabilly known as Kimchibilly. They play fast, vibrant tunes and the charisma blazing during their stand up bass solos, furious behind the head guitar riffs and wailing tunes of their lead singer truly gets you caught up in the moment. It doesn’t hurt that the charming frontwoman Velvet Geena is mischievously beautiful and quite willing to talk to any fan with a contagious enthusiasm.

I’ve been to two of their shows so far and always have a good time. Sometimes it takes putting a whole new spin on an old favorite to rekindle the love affair, but I’m glad to be a fan of Rockabilly once more. I just had to travel halfway across the globe to find some savage Asian musicians who were fed up with Kpop and ready to blaze a new trail by making inroads to a somewhat forgotten style of American Rock.

I’ve easily been to over a hundred shows in my life. Though I won’t know when I hit the thousand mark I’m looking forward to it. That being said the three shows I went to on my week of vacation were unlike any I have been to back home. Not as much in terms of the type of music but more so because of the environment and my own vibe during the shows.

There is this interesting sensation of surrealism upon walking into a show here and being the only Caucasian in the club. I have never felt so distanced from the “scene” as I did at my first show at Sapiens 7 club in Hongdae, Seoul. Everyone is chatting casually in Korean. Then the music starts and it doesn’t matter what your native tongue is, just the appreciation for heavy music (thrash, hardcore, metal, etc.) and the vibrant bellows and shrieks of the lead singer backed by the righteous riffs, barrages of double pedals and savage, resonant bass lines of the instruments.

During the set breaks you are wrenched out of your comfort zone when the lead singer cracks jokes and tells stories in Korean. Other than his/her tone of voice, body language and the reactions of the crowd you have no idea what message is being broadcast. I caught the part where one lead singer thanked us for coming to this show instead of going to see Incubus that night at the Jisan valley Rock Festival but the rest was decidedly over my head.

Bands ranged from emo-influenced, melodic hardcore to Southern style Panteraesque metal, to a band in the vein of the Brazilian behemoths Sepultura. I befriended a German metalhead who was visiting a friend for a month and a Canadian fellow expat teacher who was the only waygook who played in any of the bands that night (bass in one of the opening acts) and accompanied them to the after party with a few of the bands at a Korean BBQ house. There is a service here where instead of taking a taxi home or drinking and driving you pay a driver to shuttle you back home in your car. I waved goodbye to a series of guttural, victorious shouts and “goodbye Nathan!”s as their van headed back to their rockin domiciles.

After this I snagged some tater tots with my new friend and fellow metalhead from Germany Ollie and his friend Karina. We had some libations and enjoyed deep-fried starchy goodness until about 4am when Ollie informed me his flight left at 9am that morning. I laughed and told him to go home and snagged a taxi back to my apartment on the other side of the behemoth waterway that is the Han river.

My next installment in this series will feature my new favorite Korean band The Rocktigers and their own unique genre of music kimchibilly. Stay tuned and as my 7 year olds say after a speech “thank you for listening!”.

In terms of nightlife Busan did have its options. Even though I know that Korea seems to fixate on the strangest hodge-podge of American culture and that there are no real copyright laws I was not prepared for…”It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” Bar! It was nothing like the show, far too clean with a trendy, hip Korean staff. It would have been priceless to meet a Korean version of Frank (Danny Devito’s character) from the show though. I am not sentimental but will treasure the logoed lighter I procured there until I lose it like all the other lighters (there’s a reason I don’t buy Zippos).

Trademarked logos are nonexistent over here.

Other than this there were a few stops by Wolfhound Pub (kind of ironic to travel to the opposite corner of Korea to visit the sister establishment of the one in Itaewon) for real darts and some liquid and solid sustenance. Their fried cutlet style garbanzo/black bean burger with potato wedges is great, order the added on jalepenos, cheese and fried egg and you’ve created pubfare ambrosia. I also frequent this establishment for the “Veggie British Breakfast” (does this term even exist?!) of baked beans, fried eggs over easy, hashbrowns, toast and fried tomatoes which is quite a filling meal for less than $7, though it does make me miss the HP brown sauce and Newcastle on tap they have at the George and Dragon British futbol pub back home.

Haven't found anything close to this scene over here, *sigh*.

One exceptionally wild evening took place outside of the bars at Haundae beach. Roman candles were shot and lifeguard towers were the base of operations for Soju-swilling and Cass shot-gunning missions. Numerous people were spotlighted by the huge illuminating device on top of the shore-side police/coast guard station nearby. This didn’t stop my coworker (who shall remain nameless…) from eliciting a chorus of shrieks followed by giggles from a nearby group of college-aged Korean girls when he disrobed and ran out into the ocean. Luckily the spotlight did not hit him, I feel public exposure/indecency fines would be rather heavy in a country as modest as Korea.

A much more clandestine activity was visiting the Busan aquarium the next day. This is the largest aquarium in South Korea. After two days of laying in the sun on the beach and a morning spent hiking up and down stairs at a Buddhist temple under a scorching summer sun the cool darkness of the aquarium was sublime. Icing on the cake was definitely my favorite exhibit/animals there….Sea Otters! A most excellent vacation to be sure.

If I could be any mammal on the ocean seas...

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