Archive for June, 2011


Exam success

During my stay here I’ve also taken the opportunity to do some Korean classes. Its been tough to balance work, study and catching up with friends but it’s paid off because I passed my exams (just)! We had to get minimum 60% for each test – listening, speaking, writing and reading. All of them were fine except for listening which I barely scrapped in the requisite 60. But I made it and now I have advanced to a new level.


Ten observations from my time in South Korea

I am now one of those old-timers who remembers what things were like in Seoul back in the mid-90s when I made my first sojourn to Korea. Needless to say Seoul and its people have changed dramatically since then. Since I left Korea in 2003 I have only been back a couple of times and usually for just a week or a few days. This current visit which lasted from March to June is the longest period of time I’ve spent in Korea since 2003. As such, I have complied a list of 10 memorable things/observations from this trip (in no particular order):

1. Gyeongbuk Palace

Gyeongbuk palace was the first Korean palace I ever visited when I was a student on my first trip overseas in 1995. If you read some of the signs around Gyeongbuk you can notice that 1995 was the year that they began restoring a lot of the palace. That work has now long been completed. Gyeongbuk is now a picturesque mixture of palace buildings and park areas. And right next door is the impressive Folk Museum. Its always a pleasure to take a stroll around Gyeongbuk Palace and great value at just 3,000 per adult.

2. Grass and flowers

Cheongyecheon is perhaps the most well-known of the new greenery in Seoul but that is really a small part of the picture, and not the best part. The best part is the small squares of grass and flowers that are dotted around at intersections and outside buildings. I went for a jog along the Hangang and was very impressed about how green and pretty it has become. This is a wonderful change as it alters the whole atmosphere of the city and makes it feel much more pleasant. A few flowers can have a powerful effect.

3. Changing view points and changing ways

Mabye it’s the area in which I work, but many of the people I’ve run into while I’ve been here are quite well-travelled. In some cases, much better than me. There has been much less peer-pressured drinking and even a few occasions where I felt we could’ve had one more and still been home at a reasonable hour. During my visit there has been much greater scope for accepting or rejecting a drink or eating different foods and less obsequious bowing to higher ups. Like I said, maybe this change is just in the area I work, but its still a positive. And today I read that schools are getting ready to move to a complete 5 day week – things are certainly easing up in Korea.

4. Koreans got fat

The number of Korean fatties waddling around has been a big surprise during this trip. In the past there appeared to be few overweight Koreans. And it always felt like Koreans were a little smug about how slim they all were. Especially in the face of consistent international news stories about how fat many individuals in the Western world had become.  But I guess they aren’t so smug anymore. Turns out the will power of some Koreans to turn down fatty foods and that extra donut is on a par with individuals in the Western world who are also losing the battle to avoid temptation.

5. Great coffee and café Bene

Coffee and coffee shops in Korea just keeps getting better and better. First came Rosebud and now Café Bene. There are many places in Seoul to grab a great cup of coffee and loads of trendy cafes to enjoy a cuppa along with a delicious treat. Some places even have smoking areas to enjoy a coffee and a cigarette. Although I quit smoking I remember how much I enjoyed the combination of sitting in a café enjoying a coffee and cigarette.

6. Donuts (and now waffles)

I’m not convinced this donut obsession is a good thing. I find it a bit tacky. However, I have personally succumbed to the waffle temptation a couple of times. I think waffles have a bit more class. That’s obviously a subjective opinion. And I’m worried that waffles are going the same way as the donut and will soon be too omnipresent and will become tacky.

7. JimJjilbang

Getting a scrub remains one of the highlights of Korea. And the jimjjilbang’s are a great way to spend time. The idea of having a place to just hang out and relax, have a sauna, watch TV or whatever is a great idea.

8. Awful beer and expensive imports

Unlike the coffee, beer in this country is still crap. Imported beer is now much easier to find but are way, way, way too expensive. Craftworks taphouse does a good beer (all of them are good actually) but has terrible service. It’s a shame that after all these years this place appears to be the only one breaking into a much needed niche market.

9. Great food, cheap prices

Some things don’t change – you can still find good food at cheap prices served with great side dishes. The best part being that for a three month sojourn, I don’t need to worry about cooking or buying ingredients for cooking while I’m here. I can eat heathly delicious meals at prices that make grocery shopping unnecessary (especially considering the time and waste that cooking myself would involve).

10. Loads of non-Koreans

Since I’ve been away, I’ve often read in on-line papers that the population of non-Koreans has increased dramatically over the past years. And you can really notice it. Not just the obvious Western white people who stand out but also people of South Asian and Southeast Asian appearance. There are loads of non-Korean looking people not only at the usual places like downtown, Itaewon and Hongik but also in quieter areas there always seems to be a few non-Koreans wandering about.  Its not a multi-cultural society by any stretch but its certainly different to what it was.

I should also note that there were some things that I didn’t get time for during this trip. That includes travelling outside of Seoul and testing out the fast trains. I also didn’t get time to do any mountain climbing, a favourite pastime of mine when I was living here. I guess those things will have to wait until next time (whenever that may be).

June 2011
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