Interlude: The Best of Korea

We’ve been stuck in this hotel room in Agra for 24 hours, and are likely to spend another 48 here before we’re through. We’re currently on the last leg of the Indian Adventure, which has proved to be a transformative, confusing, and disappointing experience rolled into one. I have not been able to keep up this blog in the meantime, with the exception of an occasional photo posted via email. Internet, the touchy power grid, and lack of time have all contributed to my lapse, but the biggest factor is apathy.

Yes. I’m apathetic about India. I need temporal and spacial distance in order to get it clear and form what I actually need to write about this experience, both of which will come in about one week. I can’t bring myself to write abut it now, and the result wouldn’t do India justice.

In the meantime, let’s talk about Korea! My former home has been enjoying a lot of media attention ever since we moved away, and North Korea is blustering about and acting the village idiot of Asia as usual. Let’s not forget that during the time I lived in South Korea, the North launched two missiles and did a nuclear test. Life continues as usual there, and the recent focus is most likely unwarranted.

In a year of living in South Korea, I was able to find the best and worst the country has to offer. I hope you’ll notice that none of them have much to do with North Korea and its proximity. If anything. The longer I spend away from Korea, the more this list I made in the last few hours before we left rings true, and the more homesick I feel for a place I never expected to.

The Five Best Parts of Korea

#1 The Food

Galbi. Kimchi. Green tea everything. Red bean paste fish cookies on the street. Kimchi jiggae with rice. Even cow stomach on the grill is on offer in Korea, and it’s a miracle I didn’t get fatter while I lived in Suwon. The traditional food? 맛이 있어요!  So delicious! I never understood why some foreingers who live in the country decide to ward off Korean food altogether and subsist solely on Domino’s overpriced pizzas and ramen. I had some residual stomach issues from living in South America, and within a month of eating almost exclusively Korean they were cured.

If you absolutely insist on Western food, Itaewon and the surrounding neighborhoods can give you all you desire. It’s worth the trek for buffalo chicken and microbrew at Craftworks, chorizo and real Mexican food, or kebab.

#2 A Templestay

Easily the best planned trip I did in Korea. For only 50,000 KRW ($44) you get lodging, all food, instruction, a uniform on loan, and a truly unique experience. You can read more about my weekend at Geumsunsa in my blogs on the subject, and there are also photos of the temple and actitivites.

Be forewarned: a templestay in Korea invloves 108 all-the-way-to-the-floor bows. Don’t be scared if you aren’t in good shape. During ours, several of the Koreans began crying and I nearly fell out the door of the Buddha Hall twice. You can opt out if you want/need to, but it’s the central templestay experience and beautifully purifying.

#3 Ajummas

These. Old. Women. Kick. Ass. Mostly, they kick my ass up mountains, laughing at my misfortune as I huff and puff up the trail. They are the product of very hard lives, growing up during the Korean War and enduring all of the hardships thereafter as well as the traditionally shitty status of women in Korea (see #4 on the list of worst things). They come through the furnace tempered, strong, and insistant. They put up with nothing, make their own decisions, and are independent.

These women sometimes rub Koreans and Waygooks alike the wrong way, mostly because they will push their way to the front of a line or expect capitulation based on their age. If you cross an ajumma,, be prepared for a serious (and public) tongue lashing.

The most infamous ajumma I met in my travels in Korea lives in Jeondongjin, on the East Coast. She is in her 70s, lives less than ten miles from where the Korean War began, runs a Minbak(pension), and drank us all under the table at 8AM. She would not take no for an answer, and we swallowed our hangovers as she poured us soju still slushy from the fridge. She instructed us the best way to eat Samgyupsal (grilled pork belly). She insisted on showing us how to wash our feet properly. She yanked on our friend’s nipple ring. She speaks no English, but her house was the best place I can remember staying in throughout traveling in Korea.

I love ajummas!

#4 Health Care

My view may be skewed by the fact that in my country, health care is an expensive privilege and not a right. Korea has so many doctors, they don’t know what to do with them all. The competition appears to have driven costs down, making a visit to the doctor an efficient and cheap experience. I regularly became ill in Korea but even though I visited several doctors, a few specialists, and the ER during my year there, I estimate my total medical costs (with insurance) at less than $500. In the USA, I’d be talking thousands.

#5 Coupledom-Friendly

There may be no better place to go on dates than Korea. There are sights, cafes by the million, beautiful views in Seoul, and everything is relatively cheap! A whole segment of Korean culture is devoted to dating and coupledom, which is taken to extremes generally not seen in the West. Be prepared for thousands of same-same dressed couples milling about looking miserable, matched to the shoes.

If you are looking for a partner or dates, Korea is a good place to be as well. The online dating community is lively, and many young professionals looking for love increase your chances of finding that special someone. The only bummer is that PDA is frowned upon, but that is easily bypassed with a visit to a DVD bang or a private singing room.

The Five Worst Parts About Korea (North Korea free!) are up next!

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