Monthly Archives: September 2010

Mexiseoul

After yapping about it for a solid week, I located my taco truck in Seoul. On Chuseok, Erin and I spent the day wandering around Hongdae, takin in all the fantastic street art.

We had barely begun our expedition and were still on one of the main roads when I suggested we turn down one of the smaller side streets, lined with teeny tiny cafes, almost all of which had kitschy little old bicycles propped out front in an effort to make them homey and inviting (gross). It felt a little bit like a movie set, and I was just starting to say so when IT appeared! A bright orange beacon of deliciousness!

“There it is!! It’s fate!! THERE IT IS!! My truck!! BWAHAHAHA!!”

The grail!!

But it was closed for the holiday. I suspected as much and simply basked in the joy of having found it at all. Plans were made to return on Friday.

-Cut to Friday-

I’m sick as balls. We spent that afternoon looking for a doctor and visiting the doctor.  And all I kept thinking about was that taco truck and how I better feel good enough later that evening to climb the hills that stood between me and a fuckin quesadilla.  Upon departure, we recruited a few of our friends to join us at the taco truck, me, again, running my mouth about how awesome it’s supposed to be and how it’s like real tacos and how the chef lived in California and how food trucks are the shit.

We arrived to find it up and running, and I did a little dance of joy (no, really). Inside the truck, the chef man. Outside the truck, a few Koreans who didn’t appear to be ordering or eating, just hanging out.  Turns out his family was visiting and they were just chillin’ with him while he worked. Awesome thing #582 about taco trucks: Your entourage can can accompany you to work.

EJ the taco guy

A couple of us stepped up to the window and placed an order. He was out of rice (gee, what a bummer) so burritos were not for sale, but tacos and quesadillas were, and he even made a special vegetarian taco for our friend.

I had me a beef quesadilla.  And being the cocky person I am when it comes to food, I was all “bring it!” when he asked about the ‘spicy sauce’.  Turns out he wasn’t kidding.  Habanero, one of the hottest peppers, is an appropriate name for his truck. Within a few bites my mouth was on fire, but I kept it shut while everyone else waited for their food and chatted up chefman.

By the time they were mid-meal, I was finished and riding an amazing endorphin high from the spice. Might have been related to my newly prescribed medication, or even all the dayquil, but still.  I was in happyland for a solid 10 minutes. And when my friend couldn’t finish the rest of hers because it was too spicy, I greedily grabbed it from her and ate some more. If spice high is the highest I can get here, so be it.

Happy high face

All in all, the food wasn’t quite as authentic as I had hoped. Cabbage only belongs on fish tacos, and its presence in my quesadilla was a good reminder that we are still in Asia. But the cheese, oh the melty delicious, non-processed-American cheese, was fantastic. The tortilla? Hello, TORTILLA! Haven’t seen a single one of those since I got here. And of course, the habanero sauce. Magnificent, buzz inducing habanero sauce, I will return for you. I promise, I will.

-Megan

**If you find yourself in Seoul looking for a decent Mexican staple, avoid some of the icky places in Itaewon that provide frozen chimichangas and marinera salsa.  Go visit EJ in Hongdae.  http://blog. naver.com/tacohabanero.  Thank me later.

What’s up Doc?

Surprise! I’m sick again.  I mean, really, what vacation would be complete with a trip to the local doctor? I’m going to pretend it’s all part of my anthropological study of different cultures and say that my body was just cooperating with me in an effort to further my understanding of hospitals in different countries.  It’s easier than admitting that my immune system has ceased to function since arrival in Korea.

Honestly, I’ve been trying.  I see these snotty-nosed kids at school sneezing and hacking all over everything and I make a mental note each time,  “orange juice! orange juice!!”.  I’ve been staying hydrated, exercising, eating my veggies and getting a pretty solid night’s sleep most of the time.  But my immune system just doesn’t give a shit and goes on strike anyway.

Thursday I woke up with a sore throat.  Thought maybe it was some psychosomatic opposition to the touristy day ahead of me (I have a bad attitude about sightseeing).  However, as the day progressed it became apparent that it wasn’t just a cold, but something that could only be eradicated by antibiotics.

By Friday morning I was miserable.  Both because I was in extreme ear pain, and because it meant that I would not be going to Everland, one of only THREE things on my list of stuff to do while here.

And that STILL wasn’t the worst part.  The kicker was that I don’t have health insurance.  “Technically” I have health insurance through my EPIK contract.  However, the bureaucracy of this entire program has made it so that I travelled to Seoul sans Alien Registration Card (ARC – it’s ‘processing’), PASSPORT (because it’s being used to process by ARC) and health insurance (or any notion of how to go about obtaining medical treatment).

I ended up relying on Google to direct me to a doctor in one of the more foreign friendly neighborhoods of Seoul.  “International Clinic” it was called.  Sounds good.  Erin was kind enough to give up her day of fun to accompany in my miserable search for a someone who can prescribe drugs, and together we dragged ass up and down the San Francisco-like hills of Itaewon looking for this hospital.

Korean pill packets

Ultimately, it was a kind foreigner, himself searching for the nearby Thai embassy, who took pity on my pale, snotty soul and used his Korean skills to ask someone if the hospital was near.

We rolled in only to find the door locked and no one around.  “Lunch time!” a lady passing by told us.  So we waited about 30 minutes, plenty of time to read the sign on the wall that said “BY APPOINTMENT ONLY.”  Why yes, of course, let me call and make an appointment from my cell phone! Oh wait, I don’t have one of those because I need a fucking ARC.  So I panicked a little bit, but shortly the doctor came back and asked if I was waiting for the office to open.  “Yes,” I whimpered, and then sputtered pathetically, “but I don’t have an appointment…”  He shook his head and said, “That’s fine, no problem.” And then I really wanted to hug him.

I had to fill out a form.  Name, check, birthday, check, sex, check, occupation, check.  Address? Hm.  Insurance? Erm. Phone number? Uh.. I left them all blank.  Turned out the only one that mattered was my address. I had a copy of it in my little book that I don’t leave home without, but I still couldn’t rewrite it on the form.  The poor nurse had to transcribe my info for me, giving me a solid two minutes to feel like the biggest asshole on the planet.

After that, this doctor’s visit was one of the better ones I’ve experienced.  Right there in the hallway waiting room, the nurse asked,  “Um..what is wrong with you?” I pointed to my ears and whined, “My ears.  They hurt.”  She promptly walked me down to the hall to the window next to the door that said Otolaryngology.  She sat me down in the chair along the wall, had an exchange with the lady at the window and told me that there’d be ‘a wait’ for the specialist.  There were quite a few people around, so I thought that would mean maybe an hour or so, especially since I didn’t have an appointment.  But within 10 minutes I was sitting in a cube, doctor at his computer, beginning the examination.

Some 8 minutes later I was finished.  Exam, done.  Prescription, written.  Fees, paid.  And let’s talk about those fees, friends. For a mere 35,000W (that’s  about  $30), I had my examination WITHOUT insurance.  Let’s note that is the same as my co-pay used to be with my fancy insurance in the US.  I was given three prescriptions (don’t ask me what they were, at least one was an antibiotic and that’s all I know). You take your prescriptions across the street to the pharmacy, they hand you a little bottle of vitamin C booster drink (even Erin got one for free), and they fill your prescription in about 4 minutes.  And these THREE prescriptions, well, they cost me a whopping total of 14,000W ($12). They even come in handy dandy little pre-divided packets, so you don’t fuck up your doses. Could this get any simpler?

So for less than $45, without insurance (or even an appointment), I was able to see a doctor and get a prescription in less than one hour. National healthcare, y’all.  All I’m gonna say.

-Megan

Seoul

So we made it to Seoul and we’re mid-vacation, meaning slightly hungover but making the best of it!

Yesterday was one of the rainiest days I have ever witnessed, thus our plans to do a bus tour of all the major touristy points were, well, rained all over.  So instead we headed to COEX Shopping Center. Which isn’t just a ‘shopping center’. It’s an ENORMOUS shopping complex, complete with mall, aquarium, airport and grocery store (there’s a lot more stuff too).  Koreans love their shopping, so it was a pretty good way to experience Seoul on a crappy day.

The day ended in Itaewon at a bar that had cheapy Jameson shots.  One shot led to another, there were a few mini dance parties, a tour of one of the more prostitute-populated neighborhoods, and an amazing spicy chicken pita thing from a food truck (!!!).

Overall it was a good first day in Seoul.  But, shockingly, it made for kind of a rough morning today.  We spent the afternoon chillin’ in Hongdae, near our hostel.  Hongik University is right here and there are tons of cafes, bars and street art.  We walked for hours and still didn’t see all of  neighborhood.

I did, however, locate my taco truck (not open for the holiday but still awesome cuz I know where to find it on Friday).  Erin spotted the Condomania!, teehee.  And we saw some freakin awesome graffiti and mural sort of paintings.

More Seoul tomorrow! And eventually a more detailed account of our adventures (hello, I know you want pictures from Condomania!)

-Megan

On the Seoul train (I mean, bus)!

And we’re off!!

After just a couple of weeks of working/teaching, we get a vacation.  ‘Tis the season of Korean Thanksgiving, Chuseok to be exact.  If I were a better person, I would know more about the holiday and its traditions, etc.  But since Wikipedia is a pain in the ass to use here, you’ll have to do your own research.  I can tell you, however, that this holiday is very meaningful to me: I get 4 days off work. (If your name is Erin, you get an entire week off).

So we’re headed out. To Seoul.  This will be our first trip and we’re trying to keep the planning to a minimum.  As we will be staying at a hostel with many of the other EPIK teacher friends from Gwangju, we figure we can plan a loose itinerary for ourselves and then fill in the gaps with a lot of ‘tagging along’.  We’re really good at that.

We do, however, have three things that we’ve decided we need to do on this trip.  Whatever else we don’t accomplish can be postponed until next time because we are confident that there will be more trips to Seoul in the next 11 months.

Here’s what our trip entails this time:  Megan & Erin in Seoul, September 2010

1.) First and most importantly, I understand there is a taco truck lurking around the neighborhood near our hostel.  I cannot tell you how excited I am about this because I hear this is the real thing.  Like, truck chef guy lived in North America and loves him some street tacos.  And burritos and quesadillas.  With spicy as salsa and all the other appropriate taco condiments.  Habanero truck, I WILL FIND YOU.

2.) Everland! It’s a theme park type of deal that will probably be BLISSFULLY empty due to the holiday.  There’s pumpkins to satiate Erin’s need for Halloween celebrations and who knows what other sorts of Asian craziness in store for us.  Bring. It. On.

3.) Condomania. It’s a store with all condoms, in every color of the rainbow. The novelty of this is just too much. I must go there.  And laugh like a 14 year old. And take lots of photos. You’ll see. 

They Call it “Dumb” for a Reason

Language barriers.

Nothing else makes you feel quite so much like an oafish, bespangled dancing bear with Downs syndrome.

Excuse me sir, where is the train station?

This, of course, is my own fault. The language is the ONE thing a traveler can absolutely prepare for before they arrive at their destination. Did I prepare? No I did not. (Unless you count watching episodes of Arrested Development. Kudos if you know what I’m talking about.) I was busy saying my goodbyes to Chicago and pooh-poohing the “KOREAN IS HAAAARD” articles online. Error. Oh friends, error.

Since landing in Korea, I’ve picked up a few valid words/phrases to get from place to place, and I’ve had numerous people try to teach me all the different words for all the different seafood we’re eating (“fish” is to Korean, as “snow” is to Eskimo), but maybe it’s the vowel sounds that don’t exist in English, or maybe it’s the consonants that fall somewhere between Gs and Ks and Js and Chs, but it’s absolutely terrifying to repeat Korean to a native speaker. A few attempts with store clerks and cab drivers have only led to much wide-eyedness and gesturing and overall confusion. This is the whitest girl I’ve ever seen…Probably the whitest girl in the entire world…is she choking on something? the panic beneath their calm demeanor suggests. Sometimes it’s just easier to not say anything at all.

So I’m a mute most of the time. I carry notes. These notes live in my wallet. These notes are scribbled addresses of my home, my schools, the Office of Education, etc.  I carry around my own “If lost, please return to…” tag, like a library book or maybe, again, like that dancing bear that’s been hit too many times on the head. Sigh.

This typical American says, “study your foreign languages, kids!”

Let’s talk about TOILETS

Pre-Korea, Erin and I had a conversation about toilets. It went something like this:

Erin: There might be toilets that are just holes in the ground.

Megan: What?? This is a civilized country. What the hell? Are you serious right now?

Erin: It’s that way in lots of Europe, dude.

Megan: Well that makes me not want to go to Korea. Or Europe.

Erin: It won’t be that bad.

Megan: Unacceptable. I don’t understand. It’s 2010. This is bullshit and I don’t want to squat like an animal to do my business.

Erin: My, aren’t you being prissy.

Megan: You can’t even say ‘poop’. Or hear someone say ‘poop’ without squirming.

Erin: I’m not worried about it.

Megan: Well I am. We’ll see. We’ll see, Fahrer.

So I was somewhat prepared for what would turn out to be a less-than-ideal bathroom situation. But I was still hoping that I would be pleasantly surprised.

*Arrive in Korea*

Day two of orientation at Jeonju University and I had yet to encounter an unfamiliar toilet apparatus. In fact, the toilet in our dorm room was downright normal and nice, like the rest of the bathroom. That night at dinner, however, we were treated to some awesome conversation that can only happen when a bunch of strangers are in a unfamiliar place and have already put themselves so far out there that they’ve got nothing to lose. One guy starts describing the predicament he found himself in the previous night. It seems this guy managed to clog the toilet on the very first night and had to go in search of a plunger. This would be a pretty embarrassing and unpleasant situation in America (he was American), but throw in some painfully shy Koreans and a major language barrier and you’ve got yourself a really shitty problem (yeah, I said it).

He managed to get the plunger and take care of issue, but this story opened the door to a lengthy discussion about shit and toilets and travelling. Among the many things we learned that evening, the most impactful was that you really ought not be flushing anything but bodily waste down the toilet here in Korea. I will let you process that.

No toilet paper and, obviously, forget tampons. Your used toilet paper is to be wrapped up nicely and placed into the wastebasket, usually found in your stall. Now, if you are like me (some might say naïve, spoiled and prissy) then this little tidbit horrifies you. I’m still not over it. Needless to say, this creates a completely new bathroom experience. Let’s start at the beginning.

First, you enter the bathroom. You hope three things:

  1. That there is toilet paper on the communal toilet paper roll, found next to the sink.
  2. That there is a real toilet. Not a porcelain hole in the ground parading as an acceptable place to pee.
  3. That this real toilet is not covered in pee or other.

I will elaborate.

  1. More often than not, there will be no toilet paper offered inside the stall where you go. Instead you must remember to grab some from the single toilet paper roll stationed near the sink or door. This will most likely be damp, as I suspect Koreans primarily use this roll for drying their hands after washing (paper towels and/or hand dryers are hard to come by here). With this system, you must be able to predict how much toilet paper you will need, pre-bathroom-going. This irritates me. Not because I actually struggle to plan properly, but because I am an anxious person and fret over feeling guilty taking too much toilet paper versus the unlikely possibility of finding myself without sufficient paper.
  2. As you may (now) know there are many (developed?) countries where the ‘toilet’ is no more than a hole in the ground. Evidently. In Korea, I’ve yet to encounter anything that was merely a ‘hole’. There is always a porcelain sink-urinal hybrid sort of thing that is the ‘hole’. To me, this is stupid. You’ve already installed a big porcelain thing, why not add some extra porcelain and put it at human-sitting level, not dog-squatting level? I’m sure there is a reason, but whatever it is I don’t care. It just seems half-assed to me. And really, this whole system might work just fine for Koreans (though the cleanliness of the bathrooms suggest otherwise). If you’ve been using those since you were a child, you’ve probably perfected your squat. I, on the other hand, have not. There’s the fear of splash-back or tipping over or just being that close to an always wet public bathroom floor. Who the hell knows. All I know is that I’m too old to re-learn how to pee in the potty. I passed that test 23 years ago………So (especially at school) I find the ONE stall in the bathroom that houses a full toilet. The funny part about this is that it’s not just a toilet. No, friends, this is a crazy robotic electronic bidet, complete with instructions on the door and buttons with little pictures of butts receiving various… hygienic treatments. Theoretically, Koreans don’t need paper in the stall because they are using the bidet functions on the toilet instead and perhaps that is what I ought to be doing too. However, I’ve heard horror stories regarding said bidet and the surprises that happen when you press the buttons (duh, instructions are in Korean). I’m not interested in experimenting with bidet buttons, especially in a public bathroom where I don’t have access to toilet paper should something go terribly wrong.
  3. If you are lucky, this toilet will probably have pee in it but not on it. Yes, my dearies, someone else’s pee in the toilet is the preferable condition you can hope to find your toilet in. I’m going to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and say that Koreans are trying to conserve water by never ever flushing. I suppose this isn’t the end of the world, but for an uptight American who is used to a much cleaner bathroom experience in restaurants or her place of work, it’s a bummer.

As you can see, it’s a somewhat bleak situation in the Korean commode. I lost my cool the other day because the bathroom at my school consistently smells like a portapotty. I don’t know why this is besides a combination of all the factors previously described (hello, your shitty toilet paper is just hanging out in the wastebasket). I don’t believe that elementary school bathrooms in the US smell like that. But it’s pretty depressing and it really makes you want to avoid the bathroom. This is where a major cultural difference comes into play. See, Koreans don’t drink much water. Like at all. They certainly don’t drink with meals. They do a shot of water on their way out of the cafeteria or what have you. In my office, there are liter bottles of water, which Koreans will pour shots from if they find themselves thirsty. But for the most part, they are a severely dehydrated people and it’s a wonder to me that more of them don’t look like raisins. As a foreigner, you can expect to be stared at for carrying around a water bottle of any size. It just straight up confuses them that you would want or need more than a few ounces of water per day. So this is where some light can be shed on the bathroom situation.

No water > No pee > Minimal time in bathroom > Little concern over bathroom conditions

This is the only conclusion I have come to. The bathroom situation is probably the worst thing about living here so far. There are obviously people who are far more ‘well-travelled’ than I am, and they would scoff at my squeamishness over this entire subject and tell me that I have it good. But I had no idea that this is how it was gonna be. It makes me sad that the bathroom at the bus station the other day was waaay nicer and cleaner than the bathroom where I work. Had I known that was how I would spend a year, you know, I may have thought about it a bit harder. May not have been a deal breaker, but it would have been nice to mentally prepare for.

-Megan

 

We made it!

Yes, after months of being way too busy to post on a blog, Erin and I are here. In South Korea. Gwangju to be exact.

We were hired to come here to English to elementary school children (wipe that horrified look off your face). So that is what we will do. Make English powerpoints and eat kimchi and drink soju.
Also we will write about what a crazy culture shock this has been already. You can look forward to such fascinating topics as “toilets”, “fan death”, and my favorite, “cleavage vs. ass-age”.

Welcome back everyone!

-Megan