Say Kimchi! Gimjang, a Korean winter tradition

When I think of winter, I think of snow blanketing the ground (or dreams of snow blanketing the ground). I think of decorating the Christmas tree, hanging wreaths around the house and on the front door, traipsing around the house with strands of garland and lights.

But here in Korea, as often is the case, it’s a very different story, and one that my children are learning every year as the days shorten and the air turns crispy.

Here, it’s Gimjang, or kimchi-making, season. It’s time to pack up and send the aprons and the hats and special ingredients to school so all the kids can work together to make kimchi.

Gimjang is an ages old tradition of preparing copious amounts of kimchi (Korea’s mainstay side dish) before the cold of winter hits. Before the invention of refrigeration, the fresh produce required to make kimchi would be harder to get.

Koreans, always the collective community, would certainly not partake in this activity alone, so traditionally, they would come together and make enough of the spicy side dish to last the whole winter. For everyone. Just imagine the buckets and buckets of kimchi!

These days, refrigerators are as common as coffee shops in Korea (read: very). Most Koreans even have a second refrigerator specifically for kimchi!) But traditions die hard on this peninsula, so Gimjang is still a regular practice every year, planned as soon as those beautiful and smelly yellow gingkos hit the ground.

I love that Finn and Poppy are learning these traditions from a different culture. And, don’t’ worry, there’s still a Christmas tree and enough garland and lights in their lives to wrap around our 17-story high-rise apartment twice.

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Poppy was scared of the kimchi at first, her teacher told me. But, once she got used to mixing the spicy and stinky cabbage with her hands, she got excited about and yelled “kimchi! kimchi!”

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Finn at his first taekwondo class

The inevitable pull of Taekwondo

Finn started his first taekwondo class last week. He was nervous about it, but once his best friend Abby signed up, he was ready to go. Especially since that meant a really cool white uniform and a class with bigger kids who doted on him the entire time.

Finn at his first taekwondo class

6 fun facts about Taekwondo:

  1. Taekwondo is the national sport of South Korea.
  2. Taekwondo became An Olympic Sport in 2000.
  3. There are six colors of belts in the sport: white, yellow, green, blue, red, and black.
  4. The Taekwondo uniform is called a dobok.
  5. A taekwondo gym or studio is called a dojang.
  6. Taekwondo is also used by the South Korean military as part of its training.

Learn more!

Yeosu

By Whit Altizer

Yeosu has long been a favorite destination for us, but it had been years since we last traveled there. In the old days we would hop on a train from Seogwangju Station down the street from our house and ride to Yeosu (about 50 minutes longer than by bus, but worth it). We’d take a trip out to Hwangilam, go out to the 2012 World Expo site and walk around Odongdo and just hang out in this cool, coastal town.

The southern coast of Korea is striking in Yeosu.

When we arrived this year we came into a town we hardly recognized. With the World Expo having come and gone the area around the old train station and Odongdo has become a much bigger destination. We hit up some old favorites, but with a car and a kid we also tried out some new spots. As usual, we had a great time in Yeosu.

What we did:

Hwangilam This is one of my favorite places in all of Korea. This temple sits high on the side of a mountain and looks out onto the blue sea. It’s gorgeous and had an amazing cool breeze on the August day we visited. It’s a nice hike (though very steep) and so peaceful up top. Continue up the mountain for some more views and exercise. Buses from town are frequent and easy. There are also plenty of eating options around the temple. I could easily burn a whole day there.

Hwangilam has to be the most peaceful place in Yeosu.

Aqua Planet-  I’m a fan of aquariums and this one worked for me. There are two beluga whales here and lots of other marine life that I could spend hours staring at. Our 3 year old got a kick out of the whales, the sharks and the otters, but didn’t have the attention span to sit for hours. For a family of 3 the website quotes 71,000 won, but we paid a little less during the week. We even took in the 4D Imax theater.

Aqua Planet is not a bad place to escape the heat and stare at fish.

Beaches-  This was something we had surprisingly never done before, but with our car quick beach stops were convenient and easy. We stopped at Bangjukpo Beach (방죽포해변) on the way to Hwangilam and Manseongni Black Sand Beach (만성리검은모래해변) on the way out of town. These beaches don’t hold a candle to the well-groomed Haeundae or the desolate beaches of the Korean islands, but for a small mainland beach, they are fine.

The beaches in Yeosu are worth a stop. The further out you go the more impressive they get.

Check out this site for some other ideas and more details on these places. Yeosu is worth checking out.

Bigeumdo

By Whit Altizer
We’ve been going to Bigeumdo for a while now and never seem to tire of it. Surprisingly, for us, it has rarely been an easy trip there or back, but once you get to the island it all feels worth the effort. To be clear, it isn’t a place where you go for a beach scene or parties(unless you throw your own) or to meet foreigners. It’s an island that you go to for island seclusion or to peer into regular farm life on a Korean island or to see amazing sunsets.
The Heart-shape beach is a wonderful place to spend the evening.
We easily spend two days here of doing almost nothing but hanging out on the beach or taking drives around the island. It’s worth bringing a bike or a book or a group of friends to keep yourself entertained here. I can’t sit still on the beach so I’ve spent hours playing soccer with friends, going for runs or taking bike rides around the island. All of those things are perfect on Bigeumdo.
Biking on the island was a treat. Few cars, decent roads and fun climbs along the coast.

There is almost no current and tiny waves. Perfect water for our little swimmer.

So if you are looking to escape the crowds of Haeundae Beach or just the craziness of your town; take a trip to Bigeumdo this fall. You’ll be hanging with the local farmers and feel like you have your own private beach.

Quick Tips:

Getting There: Getting there should be easy, but we’ve always made it hard on ourselves. There is a cheap(less than 10,000 won) 7AM, 1PM and 3:00 ferry(2 hrs) that we always take to max out our time on the island. The next cheap one isn’t until 1. If you are flexible and don’t mind spending money(about 15-20,000 won) there is a 7:50AM, 8:10, 1 and 4 PM ferry that gets you there in half the time(50 mins) of the cheap one.

 

Timetable for the fast and more expensive ferry.

Taxis are usually waiting at the ferry terminal and there is also an infrequent bus. If you are looking for the big beach with windmills ask to go to 원평해수욕장 (Wonpyeong Beach). If you want the heartshape beach ask for 하누넘해수욕장 (Hanuneom Beach). Both are lovely.

Places to stay: We’ve camped and stayed in a minbak on Wonpyeong Beach and both have been great experiences. If you have a tent, take it. For us with small child and July weather the pension was more convenient.  Check out this link for more places. I also found a

바닷가펜션(Beach Pension) 261.0001/017.631.1258 in high season it costs about 100,000 a night and has a kitchen. Do yourself a favor and order some of the owners kimchi jjigae. Amazing.

 

These days you can rent a platform for your tent, otherwise find a dry place and camp.

 

Though I’ve never stayed here, this looked like a fun, traditional place to stay Just 100 meters from a secluded beach.


Things to do: Hire a taxi to drive you around, bring your bike, drink, lounge, play, be. We’ve done them all and they’ve been worth it. The people on Biguemdo are lovely.

Sunset on Bigeumdo is one of life’s great joys. So peaceful and beautiful.

Korea’s Low Birth Rate

The birth rate in Korea is incredibly low. According to the CIA World Factbook, South Korea ranks 219th out of 224 sovereign countries with a staggering 8.33 births per 1000 people. Niger ranks first with 46.84, the US 147th with 13.66 and Monoco last with 6.79 per 1000 people. 
Source the Korea Herald.
I hadn’t thought much about the repercussions of low birth rates, but it can create a shaky foundation for some parts of the economy. For example, universities, like mine, are scrambling on how to deal with a much smaller pool of students in the next 5-10 years. Many smaller universities are expected to shut down or suffer from a sharp decline in the number of students. 
One cause for the low birth rate seems to be that Korean society continues to put traditional pressure on their women to be mothers and wives first. But Korean women today are beginning to think beyond Confucian ideals and think differently about their future. Being married and having children in Korea’s traditional family structure makes a future in the work force near impossible. 
Not only has the birth rate declined, but, according to a government survey, less than half of Korean women between 9 and 24 feel that they need to get married. And why would they? In today’s world, what is attractive about being denied at least the option of working outside of the house? Or what looks interesting about being subservient to your husband and his family?

One thing is clear, there should be more Korean women in the workplace. They have been among the best doctors, professors and government workers I’ve encountered. They are smart, kind and work hard. You can even see it in the old women who are permanently hunched over from a lifetime of work in the rice fields. This country was built and continues to thrive on the hard work and intelligence of its women.

To help with the birthrate, the Korean government gives expecting mothers 500,000 won to help cover any hospital bills. This is indeed a nice gesture. But if the country really wants to increase its birthrate and stay proficient in the workplace, they need to find a way to change their idea of motherhood. Throwing money at the problem isn’t going to work. Korea is a country caught dead in the middle between tradition and change and for the sake of its population it needs to continue to evolve with its 21st century woman. 

Taj Mahal in Korea {Daegu}

Taj Mahal in Korea is a new Indian restaurant in Daegu near the Shinmae metro stop. We’ve been twice now and have enjoyed both of our visits. For a family, we can get out of there with a half order of tandoori chicken, 2 curries, 3 orders of naan and 2 alcoholic drinks for just around 45,000 won. That’s a big meal for a hungry family. It’s more expensive than a Korean meal, but also a nice and welcome change from rice and kimchi.

Chicken Curry and Paleek Paneer.

If you like Indian food, I’d certainly give it a try. With an Indian chef and an owner eager to please (all non-alcoholic drinks are complimentary this month) you’d be crazy not to try it soon. We’ll be going back from time to time because of its proximity to us and because it’s quick, delicious and a nice experience with a kid. They immediately brought naan and a lassi for our normally fidgety 3 year old. He was fed and hooked right away and we got to enjoy our meal without having to chase or tend to our hungry kid.

They know how to cater to the kids.

How to get there
From Shinmae metro stop take exit 5. Walk to the end of the block. Taj Mahal is on the second floor above Dunkin Donuts. If you are driving from Daegu, it will be on your right hand side on the same block as Siji Square.

You can find Taj Majal at the blue 도착 (arrival) flag above Dunkin Donuts.

Check out the menu below.

Pregnancy in Korea

Taegyo and toe sweat: This mother’s guide to learning Korean

As you may or may not know, we are now expecting baby No. 2 in our family–due to arrive in October.

Pregnancy in Korea as a foreigner is nothing new to me–in fact, as an American expat, I know more about prenatal, birthing, and postnatal health in Korea than I do in America. And, despite any bumps in the road with the first experience, I wouldn’t want to have my second child anywhere else but here, once again.

One thing I really love about Korea is their care for pregnant women. For these precious ten months, women are encouraged to turn their bodies into watchful, caring, healthy vessels for these coming additions.

And just as important as the mother’s health is the baby’s health. As I’ve written about before in the past, the Korean practice of “taegyo” is a common exercise.

Taegyo (태교) is a very interesting concept. It basically translates to “prenatal culture,” or the education of your baby while in the womb.

I did this plenty when Finn was in the womb. Reading books, trying to avoid violent or crude TV shows, etc.

This go around, I’m taking my first Korean language class since the one I took when I was pregnant with Finn four years ago. This time, though, it’s an intensive course offered by the local university. Three hours every night, Monday through Friday.

Finn is basically at an utter loss at what I could possibly be doing in this so-called class (“Do you go to gym school, too, and play with balls?”

I love it. It’s three hours where my brain dusts its cobwebs from the corners and hangs new words and rules like colorful flags and decorative pendants. The neurocircuitry of my brain is re-wiring, and it makes my body happy (just like exercise, food and general happiness). BTW, read this cool article on what happens in your brain when you’re learning, or practicing, something new.

I know all this learning and re-wiring is making baby happy too. It’s funny how we adults can get in a life rut, where we don’t challenge ourselves to be uncomfortable enough to actually learn something new. I’m just as guilty of it as you. But for these three hours a day, Monday through Friday, my toes sometimes sweat as I mumble my way through a response to my teacher about what I like to do in my free time, in Korean.

And I know this toe sweat is more than a result from the current stickiness of changma (장마), or rainy season. It’s pure, unadulterated, uncomfortable learning.


If you’re interested in learning some Korean, we highly recommend Talk to Me in Korean, a great online curriculum with free podcasts, videos and learning materials. And, of course, you should definitely check your local university or international center for actual Korean classes.

Wordless Wednesday: Korea splash park

It isn’t hard to keep your child entertained in Korea. Most neighborhoods have a great park for their kids.

Korea’s cities aren’t all concrete and high-rises. Most cities take the initiative to provide their overworked citizens with a place to relax and play. Korean adults are still learning to relax, but their children sure know how to get rowdy. Here our child plays at a nearby splash park, and he’s clearly loving it.

Hansando—>Gujora Beach, Gojae Island

If you live near or around Busan then you probably don’t need an introduction to Gujora Beach on Gojae Island. But for us, who spent most of our beach time in Korea on the islands off Mokpo in the west, Gojae Island is a new discovery. We took our son on a day trip there last summer and vowed to make the trip again this year. It was by accident that we ended up there last weekend. 
Our original plan was to take a ferry out to Hansando from Tongyeong (which we did) and camp (which we didn’t), but found that our hearts weren’t into camping in restricted areas and playing on pebble beaches (even though our son was keen!) So after a quick drive around the island looking for a nice camping area, we caught the last ferry back and drove to Gujora Beach on Gojae just an hour away. 
Just to be fair to Hansando, it was a beautiful island. The ferry ride was quick (30 mins) and cheap (10,000 won round trip, 26,000 round trip for the car). Eventually, I’d love to take a bike back and cycle around. Most of the land is part of Hallyeo Haesang National Park where you are asked kindly not to camp, but there were plenty of nice looking minbaks and pensions and the roads were virtually empty. We wanted our weekend, however, to be all about beach time and swimming and Hansando didn’t really fit that vision, especially with our 3 year old in tow.

We arrived at Gujora just at sunset and we quickly got to cooking dinner. Our son ran around the beach like a kid who had been trapped in a car seat and my wife and I sighed with pleasure. The beach looked beautiful at this time of night and the samgyeopsal smelled heavenly. For us, this was exactly where we needed to be. 

Quick notes: 
  • Gujora’s water is perfect for swimming and ideal for a toddler. Our son had a blast running around the sand and dipping his toes in the water. There is almost no current.
  • From Tongyeong there was no toll to Gojae, but if you are coming from the Busan area you will have to pay 10,000won to take the Busan-Geojae Fixed link (http://www.gklink.com/). They charge you both ways. From Daegu the trip down can cost up to 35,000 both ways just in tolls.
  • Gujora gets hot and there isn’t much shade. We could have benefitted from a nice tarp or day tent that most well-prepared Korean families had that day.
  • The beach is just a few hundred meters from a little village. There you can find places to stay and some great restaurants that serve delicious spicy fish soup. A great place to cool down and eat lunch. 
  • Gujora beach gets crowded in the day with Koreans and foreigners. It was a nice place to camp, but if you camp close to the parking areas you might hear lots of people coming and going. Though far away, Gujora always seems to be hopping with people.