Friday, December 24, 2010

A Foreigner Thanksgiving

Okay, so I’m a little behind the times. But I still thought it would be nice to share with you all how we celebrated the November Thanksgiving holiday. 
Far away from our blood-related families, we celebrated instead with our wonderful friend/coworker family. The six of us decided it would be much better to order in our dinner instead of make it, given the difficulty of finding ingredients like cranberries and turkeys. Not to mention the lack of ovens in our apartments. 
We ordered our dinner from the Seamen’s Club, originally founded to support Busan’s military personnel. It included turkey, stuffing, green bean casserole (sans french friend onion crispies), gravy, rolls, salad with dressing, cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes. We all added to that with macaroni and cheese, flatbreads with hummus, vegetarian mushroom gravy, and lots of wine. 
At dinner time, Bryan masterfully carved the turkey with entirely inadequate knives and led us in grace. Meanwhile, Shane chatted with the radio station reporter there to record the ‘average day’ in his life for a short documentary feature. We piled our plates, raised our glasses, and shared what we were most thankful for this year: family, support and friendship with others, opportunity to learn and grow, and safety and health. 
After the Sara Lee apple pie was finished off and the last wine drunk, everyone trickled home, bellies full and leftovers divvied. I picked the turkey carcass. This was a big change from last year, when I was vegetarian. 

Sunday, December 19, 2010

High Entertainment, Low Cost- Korean Pro Basketball

Ten teams make up the Korean Basketball League (KBL). Even the names are entertaining:
Wonju Dongbu Promy
Ulsan Mobis Phoebus
Seoul Samsung Thunders
Seoul SK Knights
Changwon LG Sakers
Daegu Orions
Incheon ET-Land Elephants
Jeonju KCC Egis
Anyang Korea Ginseng Corporation KGC
and our hometeam:
Busan KT Sonicboom
The two American players on Sonicboom make it feel even more like they’re our home team. See if you can spot them:

This early on in the season, the stadium wasn’t too full. This little boy had a great time, despite the one point loss. His favorite cheer was “K. T. Son- Ic- Boom. OLE!” Make sure to throw your hands up in the air on “Ole.”

The game itself was a tight one. According the Shane, the level of play isn’t quite world class. For perspective, there has only ever been one Korean to play in the NBA, and he is 7 foot, 3 inches tall. Nevertheless, their skills are developing. NBA Hall of Fame coach and player Lenny Wilkins is a big supporter of basketball in Korea. 
Also notable entertainment at Sonicboom games are the mascots:

The gray one seems to be some sort of wireless internet signal. KT is a cell phone company. The bird, therefore, must be what a Sonicboom looks like. 
At halftime, the staff brought a very embarrassed looking young woman to the middle of the floor, gave her flowers, and started showing a slideshow of her and her boyfriend, who a few moments later popped out of the costume and proposed to her. We think she said yes. 
Finally, we have the dance team, swinging their hair, scintillating the crowd:

We only paid for the cheap seats, at 8,000 won each (about $7.00). Those luxury courtside recliners run about 29,000 won per game. 
Finally, what’s a game without some snacks? Stadiums here don’t feature overpriced food. You have the option to bring your own in, or just hop over to the convenience store inside the stadium for a cheap can of beer or bag of chips. 

Korean basketball is a game of unspectaculars. But the three point shots and the de-fence cheers are the same. It feels sort of like home, even if there are no nachos. 

Food Court Love

Earlier this year, when Shane and I speculated life in Korea, we never imagined what a food haven it would be. Cheap street food on every corner, Korean traditional restaurants, foreign food eateries, and cafes by the dozen leave us with more food choices than we can possibly attempt to try. Yet another of the options is a food court, found in most larger grocery or department stores. After a long day of hiking left us no desire to wash our own dishes, we stopped into this food court at Home Plus:

Korean food courts aren't like the average mall food court in America; you won't find Auntie Anne's, Taco Bell Express, or Orange Julius. What you will find is an inexpensive, quick, adequately tasty meal, with tons of choices ranging from Korean favorites to pizza and hamburgers. 

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Hiking Geumgang Park to the South Gate

Two steps off the cable car that brought us halfway up the mountain in Geumgang park in Busan, we realize this sprawling city is even more sprawling than previously suspected. Looking down, we see tiny buildings and bridges and metro tracks. Looking around ourselves, it's hard to remember we're in the middle of the city at all. 

Multitudinous paths meander off in opposite directions from the upper loading dock. Ahead, high schoolers sit on boulders, killing their digestive systems with ramyeon and Mountain Dew. Old men sit at plastic tables, their drink of choice makgeolli-- a traditional rice wine. A steeply descending trail lined with battered and faded lanterns guides hikers to one of the many temples tucked in the park. 

We choose yet another path off to the right. Fifteen minutes of walking delivers us to a modern looking temple.  We see buddhas carved into the rocks behind the building, staring serenely at nothing and everything. Huge kimchi pots flank side patio. A man removes his shoes and goes inside. Shane can see a prayer session and an altar. Amidst these traditional elements, an air conditioner, a satellite dish, and a Range Rover remind us that few things remained untouched by modernity. 

We return to the main platform area, and start up the trail toward the South Gate. Sometimes, we feel like we've lost the right way to get there, but then we see families on the trail and are reassured. We pass tiny kitchens serving hot food at plastic tent covered tables. I stop at the worst smelling outhouse I have ever experienced and try to balance over the squatter style toilet. This is easily the worst moment of the day. 

We hike further past a rambunctious group of men playing volley-sock, a game that combines volleyball and soccer on what looks like a small tennis court. More restaurants, even this high up. We're baffled as to how they bring in their inventory each day. A few more feet up our question is partially answered as we pass a couple of cabbage gardens, still thriving this late into November this high up the mountain. 

Finally, we arrive at the South Gate of Geumjeong Sanseong Fortress, built to help protect the city in 1703. All that effort went into such a beautiful structure for not a lot of payoff-- a sign tells us that the fortress fell into disuse because it was too large to maintain. Besides that, by the time the Fortress was finished, the Japanese and Mongol invasions had ended (until the 20th century anyway). The roof of the gate is painted beautifully in vibrant greens, reds, and pale yellows. The walls run seventeen kilometers around, so the East, West, and North gates will wait for another day. We begin our descent, this time taking the paved path. When the path starts to incline, we sit and rest for a few minutes, enjoying the fall solitude before returning to the squeeze of the city.                        

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Drinkin' German, Rockin' Bulgarian, Livin' Korean

Onstage a Bulgarian band rocks out a mix of American, Korean, and Eastern European jams. Friends tell me they play here 364 nights a year. I can't read the group’s name, but I’m already a big fan.

A chilly November Saturday night, and Shane and I are at the HurShimChung Brauhaus, underneath the elegant Hotel Nong Shim. We join friends at a table at the far end of the ginormous beer hall. Most of the group are cast members from the Busan Night Live show a few weeks back. They've already ordered a growler and German-esque sausage plate. A couple hundred rowdy Koreans populate the rest of the room. It’s nice to see this side of the Korean personality, so far removed from the stoic faces on the subway. 

We sit and we drink. The beer is strong and refreshing. Servers dressed in dirndls and lederhosen hurry by. We order Pilsner and Hefewiezen and another sausage and sauerkraut plate. We talk politics, we talk comedy, we talk books, and we laugh loudly and often. 

As the night wears on, the beer starts working, and we start singing. We sing "It's a Beautiful Life," many renditions of the Korean birthday song, and, begrudgingly, "YMCA". I even recognize a poppy version of "Arirang," an old Korean folk song my kindergarten kiddos love to sing. Fathers dance with daughters, women dance with sisters. After we've spent enough money, we stumble our separate ways just in time to catch the last train home. Bauhaus HurShimChung is an out of country experience in our own little city. 

Monday, December 06, 2010

Convenience Store Raid Series: Let's Get Crunky

When foodies talk Korean cuisine, traditional dishes like kimchi, bibimbap, tteokbokki, and gimbap are mentioned. Deservedly so, as these Korean dishes are highly underrated and all too unknown in the western diet. 
We’re pushing all that aside and taking the low brow approach in a series we’re calling Convenience Store Raid. We’re after the cheap plastic bottled drinks and foil wrapped foods from the mini-marts plunked every hundred yards down the street. 
First installment: the Crunky Bar, made by (you guessed it) corporate behemoth Lotte. After the Crunky kept catching our eyes on every shelf, Shane and I decided it would be fun to buy every Crunky variety in the store.

The Crunky is like a much better version of the Nestle Crunch Bar. Crunky features the same puffed rice scattered in milk chocolate that the Crunch Bar has, but Crunky’s puffed rice has a toasted taste that makes Crunky a divine choice for milk chocolate lovers. Our resounding favorite variety was Premium Crunky, a tiramisu flavored, less crispy style. Actually, all the other types of the candy bar-- Standard Crunky, Individually Wrapped Crunky, Cube Crunky, and Fancy Wrapped Crunky-- tasted exactly the same. Brilliant marketing to sell the same product in a bunch of different shapes. 
Oh Crunky. We’ll be back for you.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Taking the Cable Car

Sometimes it's hard to work up enough zeal to spend a precious weekend afternoon physically working your body. From time to time, you just want to take the easy way out, lean back, and savor the view. Still, at other times, a good, long workout is in order.

On this particular Saturday Shane and I did both. Between walking to Geumgang Park and hiking even further up from the cable car's unloading dock located 1300 meters up Mount Geumjeong, we got in four hours of hiking. But we skipped the most grueling length of the mountain by riding the cable car.

After entering Geumgang, we paid our ₩ 6,000 each, waited in line with a lovely Korean family who informed us their toddler was terrified of Shane, and hopped in the car.

While my white knuckles strangled the car's handlebars, Shane snapped away with the camera. The view was phenomenal. 

We meandered around the top of the mountain for a few blissful hours before heading down the cable car at sunset.


Busan glowed.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Soft Beach, Crunchy Beach: Dadaepo Beach

In a remote Busan neighborhood called Saha-gu sprawls a remote beach called Dadaepo. Dadaepo is notable because it's got what most places here lack: the elusive and sacred sense of space. Openness. Room to breathe deeply.

Blockish high-rises tower behind the beach, but ahead is only calmly lapping seawater. Well, that and a rusty crane bewilderingly sitting on a cement platform fifty yards off the coast.

Quiet waves arrange wettish sand into neat curving ridges. Old men cast lines while young men race remote controlled cars along the shore. The beach isn't popular in November and for a few moments, Shane and I forget we're in a city of 3.5 million.

We head toward the wooden walkway built into the side a hill. On the other side of the balcony the sand turns to crunchy seashell. We scuttle on the rocks for awhile and allow the wind to blow our hair. I'm instantly in love with the tiny red rowboat anchored close to shore. 

Don’t Miss: Picking through sea glass on the shell-covered southern end. Because sometimes it's just nice to gather sea glass.

Getting There: Take Bus Number 2, 11, 338, 96 or 98 to the Dadaepo stop and walk 5 minutes to the beach. Or, take the Busan subway line one all the way to the Sinpyeong stop and hop in a taxi for a short cruise.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Fall Colors Reach Busan

Fall's changing leaves are in full throttle here in Busan. 
Crimson, gold, and rusty leaves litter the sidewalks 
and run up the mountainsides. 

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Teacher Showcase

Today our Hagwon (private English academy) held an open house for families of prospective students. The parents toured the facility, peeked into classes, and listened to presentations. 

The teachers' required participation was minimal. Nice, since we were all tied up with a little invention called "phone teaching" wherein each teacher calls students at home and attempts a conversation. For the open house, our one role was to line up at exactly 11:25, walk into the auditorium in said line, bow, smile, laugh politely, and walk back out, still in line. 

And that's how you have a teacher showcase. 

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Pepero Day: Fake Holiday, Real Tasty

November 11th. Back in the U.S., citizens are thanking a Veteran. Thank you!

Here in Korea, we’re celebrating a holiday of a different sort: Pepero Day. 

Pepero are very thin, long cookies dipped in chocolate or another tasty candy coating. You might know them as the Japanese confection Pocky Sticks. I now know them as the calories overloading my desk drawer waiting for a stressful day at the office. 

Every year on November 11, couples and children exchange packages of Pepero, manufactured by the company Lotte. In Korea, Lotte is the company that owns, well, everything, from the Busan Lotte Giants baseball team to large apartment complexes, get-everything-you-could-possibly-need-in-one-place department stores, soda brands, amusement parks, and insurance companies. 

The mythical beginnings of Pepero day date back to the 1990’s, and it’s origins remain controversial today. Some say (Wikipedia says) it was none other than Busan middle school girls that exchanged Pepero first, as a well wish to others that they could become long and slender like the cookies. Others (my students) say that it is a marketing ploy by Lotte to sell more product. November 11, 11/11, looks like four Pepero sticks. Clever, isn’t it?

Contrived as it is, the small celebration today was a nice relief for the kids. And all the teachers, who thanks to the generosity of our students’ mothers, now each have a drawer full of chocolate.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Hanguk Halloween: The Party Part

Fresh leaves cut from bushes. Check. Ray gun. Check. Two or three pre-party soju cocktails. Done.
Around 10:30 p.m. on October 30th, a beer fairy, Baccus, Leela, and a love triangle jumped in cabs and headed for Kyungsung University. We didn’t know how many people would be reveling, but this is Busan, and there’s a great expat presence here. 

And here's the rest of the story:
At Old '55, I hung with the fabulous Lady Gaga.              

While Shane chatted up Audrey Hepburn.

Back on street level, I ran into my animated friend Marge.

Kyungsung’s streets were packed.

So these guys made a ton of money peddlin’ drinks on the street.

We bought a few. Several times. 

Then Shane met this guy...from guess where...Watertown (next to Jefferson, Shane’s hometown). We made a bunch of new friends that night.

And these guys were there too.

... later, there may have been kebabs.