What’s Worse: Culture Shock or its Reverse?

Staring up from your luggage at an entirely new scenery is daunting no matter where you go, but returning to your home country may yet be more intimidating. People come and go—it’s a natural ebb and flow through time—but now its your turn. That feeling may very well be the worst.

I don’t know what was scarier: throwing myself into a country where I had only basic functional language skills and vastly different lifestyles or watching all my friends disperse to their respective homes across the globe, knowing that I must also do that all too soon. With the constant lectures from family, friends, and the school coordinating staff, I knew full well what I was to face with my decision to spend five months abroad—or did I?

MySeoul

I packed my bags and left the quiet life of Kansas behind for the hustle and bustle of Seoul with an open mind. I had been abroad once to Ecuador as a volunteer and knew that I would have to approach the tech-savvy South Korea differently. I never was an avid drama or TV watcher, so I had few ideas of Korean life which I needed to be disillusioned from, but I had enough working knowledge to know what not to do. My mindset was simply to learn as I go and to build my humble knowledge. I figured that my meager knowledge was inadequate, which initially led to some unnecessary anxiety on the trip over, but I found that this open-mindedness would come to serve me well in the long run.

On the flight over, I sat next to an older American gentleman who happened to be a culinary arts instructor in Daegu for a number of years and was returning from vacation. Originally he thought I was on my way to become an English teacher and he began narrating his tales—and his passion—of Korea to me. As I enjoyed his conversation, I did not want to break in to tell him that I was merely a college student going for a semester at Yonsei University. He continued to detail his story for several hours, explaining what he wished he knew before coming. I found my fears being relaxed away and by the time we landed I was in a state of pure exultation, if not for the new experience ahead, for the fact that the seemingly incessant plane ride was over!

Samgapsal

After stepping off the airplane and flowing through customs and immigrations, I immediately connected to the free airport wireless (one of the perks of South Korea!) and zipped off a message to my penpal who was kind enough to pick me up. We found each other easily and, between her broken English and my broken Korean, headed off towards my accommodations in Seoul. We spent the rest of the afternoon together at ease, trying my first Korean meal and orienting myself among the maze of Seoul streets.

I expected to have a wave of culture shock hit me at any moment and for the high of newness to wear off, but nothing could damper my enthusiasm. Two weeks passed and I left my guesthouse for the school dormitory. A month passed and I was well into the rigors of my study. Yet another month slipped by and still no sign of the foretold “devious” culture shock. Nothing reasonably unexpected came up and slapped me in the face. Nothing stifled my excitement as the school counseling said it would. I was in Korea and determined to learn and love it!

End of Year Class Dinner

Months flew by and soon I found myself at the end of my stay. One by one, my international friends began to leave as I awaited my mother to join me on one last adventure gallivanting around Seoul. It was time to say goodbye to the last of my friends. I dreaded the flights back home, taking 30 hours in its entirety. At the same time, I was thrilled for the future; the prospects and the classes I was to take the next semester were the meat and potatoes of my curriculum.

We landed in a terribly windy snowstorm and arrived home in the thick of night only to collapse in our beds from utter exhaustion. Sleep came easily—too much so, as a matter of fact. Jet-lag tore at my mind and exacerbated my emotional state. I was in a constant state of tiredness and the on-rush of preparations for my next semester inclined to destroy my sanity. One application after the next, one box packed to another, the tasks on my list compiled until I was all but completely overwhelmed. I longed to rejoin my friends in Korea. I made embarrassing mistakes out of habit. I could not fathom how everyone else remained exactly as when I had left them. I had to force myself not to follow my desire to lock myself away from society until my brain rebooted and processed that Seoul was no longer my doorstep.

KSU + Snow

A couple weeks upon my return, I moved back to school. I had high hopes that school would distract me from the distress of the reverse culture shock, only to find my longing increased. Each day I woke up without registering that I was back in Kansas. Only after a month passed and all my faculties were employed in my coursework did my mind start to sort the mess out.

Perhaps it was the support I received from both Koreans and other ex-patriots that made my transition much smoother and culture shock nearly non-existent. Or perhaps it was my lack of desire to return to my home country that heightened the effect of reverse culture shock. Either way, reverse culture shock was certainly the worst for me. What about you? Do you have any experiences with the two? Which do you think or have heard is the worst?

Seoul Lantern Festival

The Seoul Lantern Festival with my friend, Kelly, from revvontulet! This is Seoul’s equivalent to Christmas lights in November!

Kelly

Last Tuesday I went to Seoul Lantern Festival (서울빛초롱축제) at Cheonggyecheon Stream and Plaza (청계천 & 청계광장) with my friend, Diane. The festival has been going on since 2009, featuring hundreds of unique paper lanterns from local and international artists.

Diane and I decided to stop by after class. It was crowded and we didn’t plan to stay long because it was cold, so we walked along the street and looked down over the railing.

Lantern FestivalLantern FestivalLantern FestivalLantern FestivalLantern Festival

There were so many people, the walkway was packed! I took a ton of pictures hoping some would turn out decent, but my phone’s camera couldn’t handle the high contrast. I also took a short video of a Christmas Tree lantern since the changing colors were so pretty~

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Public Transport: A Brief Guide to the Seoul Subway

If you are new to Seoul, probably the first thing you will want to do is familiarize yourself with the subway system. But fear not! It’s very easy to use and does not require you to know any Korean whatsoever (although I’d still recommend having some knowledge up your sleeve).

I come from a suburban-leaning towards rural area in the U.S. where we lack all forms of public transportation, so you can imagine that I was very nervous on figuring out how to get around. On top of that, I came alone and my plane touched down two and a half weeks before school started, meaning that it was all up to me to figure out how to use it. Fortunately, I had two Korean friends pick me up from the airport and guide me to my first destination. I picked up a few tips from them and my experience that I’d like to share.

1. Jihachul. First and foremost, there is an application for the Seoul subway that is available on most OS’s. You can find it by typing ‘jihachul’ into the search window of the app store. This app is handy as it not only gives you a map, but allows you to select your beginning and destination in order to see the time it takes and number of stops you will pass through. It also provides you train departure times, which is helpful when you need to catch the last train. It also operates offline, so you don’t have to worry about wifi or data availability. (There is another version of this for the Seoul bus system as well, but I will describe it in another post.)

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2. Subways are just like airports. No, you aren’t flying anywhere or running from terminal to terminal (that is unless you are trying to catch a quick transfer). However, that is not what I am getting at. Subways are like airports as in they are well marked. All you have to do is follow the signs and it will guide you step by step through the transfer, platform, or exit. The signs are written in both Korean and English so there is no necessity to know how to read Korean if you don’t want to—but I definitely recommend learning at least how to read  because it will make your time in Korea a lot more enjoyable.

3. 5 minute rule. Generally speaking, a subway train will come about every 5-10 minutes depending on where you are at. The inner circle (line 2) runs more trains through than the far branch of, say, line 5. Even so, the train system is quick and efficient and does not require you to plan your schedule around it.

Subway Train Location Sign

4. Subway cards. There are many types of card that you can use for the subway and bus system. These include (but aren’t limited to) Pop Cards, Korean Debit Cards, Korean Credit Cards, and some Student/Work ID’s. Anything with T-Money compatibility will work in the subway. You can get at Pop or T-Money card at any convenience store (if you land at Incheon International Airport, they usually have a huge stock of them). They don’t cost hardly anything and you can add the balance when you buy it. If you need to recharge your card, there is always a line of self-recharge machines by the gates to the platform that take your cash and fill it onto your card. However, if you can’t find these or they are under maintenance then you can go to the convenience stores down in the subway (or on the streets) and ask for a recharge. Just give them the card and the cash you want to put on and they cashier will help recharge your card.

Recharging Station

5. Subway charge. A single subway ride on the Seoul system starts at 1050W up to 10 kilometres. You pay additional 100 won every 5 kilometres up to 40 km, and 100 won every 10 km after 40 km. You can also transfer to another form of public transportation (for instance, a bus) without paying the base charge again if you manage to transfer within 30 minutes normally (this time varies) up to 4 times. The base costs of the means of transportation are not always the same, so the maximum cost applies. Therefore, if you transfer from the subway (1,050 won base fee) to a city bus which belongs to Gyeonggi-do (1,100 won base fee) you will be charged 50 won when you get on the bus, and you will pay additional cost based on the total travel distance when you get off. It may seem confusing, but it is actually rather quite simple and painless overall.

Charge

6. Timing (can be) key. Of course, like any other major city, there is rush hour. If you try to get on line 1 or 2 around 8am in the morning or 6-7pm at night, you’re in for some fun. In Seoul, there are no conductors to push you into the car like packing peanuts, but most Seoulites are not afraid to pack in nice and tight. If you have claustrophobia, don’t go during rush hours. It’s not worth it. Also worth noting is that the subway opens at about 6am and closes at midnight (standard buses also stop running at this time). If you miss the last train, there are other options such as the Night Owl Bus or taxis, but they are more expensive, of course.

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Whether you are here for a few days or for months, chances are you will use the subway system at one point or another. Hopefully, these six tips will ease any worries and prepare you for an amazing time in Seoul!

Learning Korean

오늘의 표현 (Today’s Expression):

여기서 잠실역까지 얼마나 걸려요?
yeo-gi-seo jam-sil-yeok-gga-ji eol-ma-na geol-leo-yo?
How long does it take to get from here to Jamsil Station?

단어 (Vocabulary):

역 (yeok) – station
지하철(ji-ha-cheol) — subway train
호산 (ho-san) — subway line
입구 (ip-gu) — entrance
줄구 (jul-gu) – exit

한글날 (Hangeulnal) – Korean Alphabet Day

Hangeul Day2

October 9th comes with yet another South Korean holiday, 한글날 (Hangeulnal) or Korean Alphabet Day. Known as Hangeul Day in South Korea and Chosŏn’gŭl (조선글) Day in North Korea, this national holiday commemorates the creation of the Korean alphabet (Hangeul/Chosŏn’gŭl). The alphabet was invented in 1443 and proclaimed as the official alphabet in 1446 by King Sejong the Great.

It is commonly held that King Sejong invented the alphabet himself and possibly with the help of some of his scholars. Before this revolutionary writing system, all records were conducted with Chinese characters (Hanja), which lead to many commoner lacking the ability to read. In order to change this—and against all royal discretion—King Sejong set himself on a secret project to write the alphabet.

This had to be kept secret from most of the royals because of many factors. Chinese political and military culture was highly regarded and many others were considered barbaric at the time, so deviating from a divine writing culture to another was frowned upon. Another likely reason was that the civic tests were reserved for those who were literate. Oftentimes these civil servants would come from higher class families that could afford a teacher for their child. With a universal alphabet that commoners could use, there was widespread fear that the caste system would be uprooted. Lastly, the political fear of contestation. With more people able to read and write, it would be easier for commoners to get an education and get involved in political activities. King Sejong revolutionized Korean society with his new invention.

King Sejong

Who is King Sejong the Great?

Sejong the Great was the fourth ruler of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea (1392 AD to 1897 AD). He is a beloved folk hero in Korea. A highly educated and ingenious strategist, he is most noted for the invention of the phonetic Korean alphabet, Hangeul. Despite opposition from officials who wanted to keep Hanja, Hangeul is the prevailing alphabet today. King Sejong also established a scholarly research institute and library. Under his rule, Korean literature and culture flourished.

Sejong the Great is one of only two Korean rulers honored with the appellation “Great” in all of Korean history. The only other is Gwanggaeto the Great of Goguryeo (57 BC to 668 AD), the monarch who expanded the Korean territory into Manchuria.

The Ingeniousness Behind Hangeul

Hangeul was written based off of the shape the mouth and palette takes when forming the sound. For example ㄱ ‘g’ represent the shape of the tongue when pronouncing the letter. ㅅ represents the shape of the teeth when making the ‘s’ sound and so on.

consonants-5-groups-diagram

To learn more about the Korean alphabet and how to write it, take a look here.

What to do on Hangeul Day?

Hangeul DayThere are small various events that you can go to on this day. A lot of people tend to go to Gwanghwamun Plaza or the Han River or just enjoy a day of relaxation. This holiday was removed from the list of national holiday because of pressure by companies in 1991. However, starting in 2013, October 9th was reinstated as a national holiday in celebration of the creation of Hangeul.

Learning Korean

오늘의 표현 (Today’s Expression):

올해 한글날은 목요일에 있습니다.
ol-lae han-geul-nal-eun mo-gyo-il-e i-ssum-ni-da.
This year Hangeul Day is on a Thursday.

단어 (Vocabulary):

올해 (ol-lae) — this year
한글날 (Han-geul-nal) — Hangeul Day or Korean Alphabet Day
목요일 (Mo-gyo-il) — Thursday

개천절 (Gaecheonjeol) – National Foundation Day

GaecheonjeolIt’s National Foundation Day in South Korea! Literally translated as the “Festival of the Opening of Heaven,” 개천절 (Gaecheonjeol) celebrates the foundation myth of the Gojoseon state (Ancient Korea). The story places the creation of Gojoseon by 단군 왕겁 (Dangun Wanggeom) at 2333 BC.

The Legend of Dangun

Dangun’s legend begins with Hwanin (환인), or the “Lord of Heaven.” Hwanin’s son, Hwanung (환웅), yearned to live among the valleys and mountains of the earth, so he asked his father to permit him to descend with 3,000 followers. Hwanin gave his son his blessing and permission to descend to the Baekdu Mountains (백두산맥) on the border of modern day North Korea and China. Here, Hwanung founded Sinsi (신시), the “City of God,” where he—along with his ministers of clouds, rain, and wind—taught the humans various crafts and instituted laws and moral codes.

DangunWhile teaching the humans, a tiger and bear prayed that they may become human. Hwanung heard these prayers and gave them orders. With 20 cloves of garlic and a bundle of mugwort, the two were ordered to eat only this sacred food and remain out of the sun for 100 days. Twenty days passed and the tiger could bear no more, so he gave up and left the cave. However, the bear remained, carrying out Hwanung’s instructions. On the 100th day, the bear was transformed into a woman.

Ungneyo (웅녀 ), the “bear-woman,” was made offerings to Hwanung in her gratefulness. However, she quickly became sad for lack of a husband and prayed beneath the Divine Betula tree (신단수, Sindansu) for a child. Hwanung was again moved by her prayers and took her as his wife. Soon she birthed a son by the name of  Dangun Wanggeom (단군 왕겁).

Dangun inherited his father’s throne and built the walled city of Asadal, the first city of the Gojoseon Kingdom (also known as Old/Ancient Joseon.)

10042013_national_foundation_day_001Customs

Every October 3rd, South Koreans commonly celebrate National Foundation Day with festivals, parades, burning of sandalwood incense, and 잡채 (chapjae). Each year, millions of Seoulites and foreigners flood Youido Park along the Han River to watch a magnificent fireworks display. Each country has it’s own display often with Japan, China, and then Korea as the finale. There is also a ceremony held at Chamseongdan altar at the summit of Mt. Manisan in Dangun’s honor. The altar is rumored to have been built by Dangun himself and is a legendary place of worship favored by ancient Korean kings throughout history.

Although North Korea recognizes 개천절 (Gaecheonjeol), it is not celebrated as a public holiday, but tradition is kept with an annual ceremony at the Mausoleum of Dangun.

Learning Korean

오늘의 표현 (Today’s Expression):

이번 주 금요일은 공휴일인 개천절입니다.
i-beon ju geum-yo-il-eun gong-hyu-il-in gae-cheon-jeol-im-ni-da
This Friday is Gaecheonjeol, a public holiday.

단어 (Vocabulary):

개천 (Gae-cheon) — Opening of Heaven
공휴일 (Gong-hyu-il) — Public Holiday
고조선 (Gojoseon) — first Korean kingdom, Old Joseon
단군 (Dangun) — legendary founder of Gojoseon

Quality Kimchi is Important!

A restaurant is only as good as its kimchi.

The other day, I was out with one of my Korean friends for a nice dinner. When I asked her for recommendations, she pointed out a restaurant that has “the best kimchi on the block.” In my confusion I asked her what else she wanted to eat, because kimchi alone isn’t a meal. She explained to me that she didn’t want to go eat only kimchi, but rather that the restaurant was of good quality.

What is kimchi?

Kimchi is a Korean fermented vegetable condiment/side-dish. There are hundreds of kimchi varieties, but the basic premise is a vegetable food that is salted, blended, and fermented with various ingredientsat ambient temperature. Each kimchi variation has its own unique sweet, sour, salty, zingy, or bright taste.  Kimchi and sauerkraut are very similar, however kimchi is less acidic and takes less time (around 3 days, rather than 20).

Kimchi Varieties

Why does kimchi quality (often) equal restaurant quality?

Kimchi takes a long time to make because you have to deal with a long fermentation process. Good kimchi also requires daily attention to make sure the cabbage or radish is properly submerged. If a restaurant doesn’t pay attention to its kimchi, then what other foods are they not paying attention to? Good food take time.

At first it was quite hard for me to discern the taste quality between different kimchi batches, but after living here for almost two months–and feeling quite disappointed when there is no kimchi to be seen at my meal table—I can easily tell if the restaurant makes their own precious side dish or if they just ship in a batch of frozen, pre-processed kimchi. There is a very distinct flavor and consistency difference between the two as with most foods, so it doesn’t take a refined palette to spot.

Kimchi is often an acquired taste for foreigners, just as spice level is. I am quite used to fermented cabbage with my parents loving sauerkraut (although I’m admittedly not a fan of sauerkraut, especially being around when family are processing it themselves!), so I quite enjoyed it from the start. But if you are not used to this type of pickled vegetables, never fear! All of my international classmates have grown to like it and look for it at every meal within a month. Just like a song, kimchi will grow on you!

So next time you ask for restaurant recommendations, be sure to ask how good the kimchi is!

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Kimchi Recipe

Kimchi is not difficult to make, but it might be hard to find the necessary ingredients depending on where you live. Here you can find an easy recipe to make your own kimchi at home. If you have any tips or tricks to making your own kimchi, let me know in the comments! I’m always looking for good culinary advice!

Learning Korean

오늘의 표현 (Today’s Expression):

김치는 보통  한국 식당에 반찬입니다.
kim-chi-neun bu-tong han-guk sik-dang-e ban-chan-im-ni-da.
Kimchi is usually a side dish at Korean restaurants.

단어 (Vocabulary):

한국 식당 (han-guk sik-dang) — Korean restaurant
음식 (eum-sik) — food
반찬 (ban-chan) — side dish
김치 (kim-chi) — kimchi

보너스 (Bonus)!

Korean Proverb:

김치국부터 마시지 말라
kim-chi-guk-bu-teo ma-si-ji mal-la
Don’t drink the Kimchi soup first

Figurative Meaning:

Don’t get ahead of yourself when planning for the future. Just as you won’t drink all the broth of your kimchi soup before eating the other contents.

Mid-Autumn Festival

MidAutumn Festival - China9/8/2014. It is the Mid-Autumn Festival for this year. It is the second most important festival in Chinese culture (the first one is the Chinese Spring Festival). In Chinese culture, people pray to the Sun for a plentiful harvest and people pray to the Moon in appreciation for the harvest. So, you can say the Mid-Autumn Festival is Chinese thanksgiving. Koreans also celebrate it as 추석 (Chuseok), but I’ll let Dani write more about that later.

What do people do for Mid-Autumn Festival? Families gather together on this day and have a party while watching the Moon. Many people eat moon-cake during this party and different cities have their own way to celebrate this festival.

MidAutumn Festival - China 2The moon is important in Chinese culture as the Chinese calendar is based on the changing of the moon. Every Chinese month is a period from the new moon to the full moon and then back to the new moon again. As such, every Chinese month has 30 days and every 15th day in the month is the day that has the full moon. Normally, the Mid-Autumn Festival has the biggest and brightest moon in the whole year. Chinese people associate “reunion and happiness” with the full moon, and associate “separation and loneliness” with the incomplete moon. When a Chinese person sees a full moon, they miss their family and friends more.

Moon-cake is the special food for Mid-Autumn Festival. It is said that since the Tang Dynasty(618~907 A.D.), the moon-cake was similar to the one that you can find today. Here is the history behind the moon-cake:

MooncakeDuring 1271~1368 A.D. China was controlled by Mongolia. During that period, Chinese people were treated as animals. Chinese people didn’t have names, only a number was used to identify themselves from others. For example, the first emperor after this period is Zhu YuanZhang, but this name was given by himself, because he was called 88 when his parents were living. He could only choose his own name after all of his family members had been killed. When Double Eight was leading his army to fight with Mongolia, he had to capture a city, NanJing, which is protected by a tall and strong wall. Double Eight asked his men to cook a lot of moon-cakes and put notes in them, which said, “We are coming to attack after 10 days.” They sold the moon-cakes in that city on Mid-Autumn Festival because only Chinese people eat moon-cake and celebrate the festival. Therefore, when his army came after 10 days, they found the city was already controlled by the citizens. If you go to the city, NanJing, you still can see the broken walls that were broken during the second World War.

5 Tips for Cultural Traveling

Recently, it has been a trend to travel to countries to gain a taste of the culture. Whether vacationing for a couple of weeks or studying abroad for a few months, you want to make the most of everything that you can. These trips are usually once in a lifetime, so I have compiled a list of the five best pointers I follow whenever I travel. These can be applied both within the United States and in almost every country around the world (but I would recommend reading up on normal customs and etiquette of the destination before you depart).

CQ 5Tips 21. Talk the talk. Make an effort to talk to people, other than just ordering your drink. Especially if you have a grasp on the native language. Even if you aren’t fluent, the attempt above else will please them and break the ice. Chances are they are eager to share their ways and hear about yours in return. As an added bonus, you’ll gain brownie points and get better service than other fellow foreigners.

CQ 5Tips 1

2. Avoid touristy spots. I don’t mean just the tourist traps, but also the big tourist spots. Find that little beach or port city a couple miles down the coast from the main tourist attraction and you’ll be thanking yourself. Every time that I have done this, I have been glad. Right down the road is always a less busy and traveled area, which means less traffic and less mess. Usually that so-called “neglected” spot is more beautiful and much cleaner and still jammed packed of historical significance.

CQ 5Tips3. Bargain it. Particularly in areas that are well known shopping centers for travelers, the vendors build in wiggle room for bargaining. Almost all the shops are priced high, both as a gimmick for the naïve traveler and leeway for the more savvy.

CQ 5Tips 44. Don’t ignore the children. The best part about children is that they don’t care about language and cultural barriers. They simply want to play and enjoy friendship with the “white-girl-from-out-of-town.” You’ll learn much more about daily life and get a chance to piece together more of the culture. On top of that, you’ll capture the hearts of the parents and community members when the see you are safe to trust.

CQ 5Tips 35. Help out. If you can, do something to help out the local area where you are staying. Simple things like asking who to buy X service for to spending an hour picking up litter around town goes a long way to show that you are not there to be destructive. Plus, they might see you doing something that they never payed much thought to and join in. Lead by example.

I have experienced the benefits of these tips first hand, both on my most recent trip to Ecuador and before. You’ll not be disappointed and return with a fulfilling dose of the culture. Now get out there and travel on!