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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Dear America, a dispatch from abroad

I am a foreigner. And I was with Her. Many of us are – we’re just one of 8 million American expatriate citizens dotted across the globe. We have a strange relationship with America. It is our homeland, where we vote, where we visit family, and, sometimes, even where we vacation.

But my true home is on this small peninsula in the Far East, a place where the streets smell like kimchi and opportunity. Where the alphabet looks like hieroglyphics (at least, in the beginning) and the highrises cast long shadows from the sky.

When I moved here nearly a decade ago, a white face was as rare as wheat bread. Brave children would greet me excitedly with shouts of “Helloooo” and “Wow, foreigner!!!” A wrinkled and weathered old man once softly touched Whit’s arm hair in a bustling train station, just to feel something so foreign, yet present.

A lot has changed in the last decade. Modernization is fast in Korea, but their conservative social mores and fear of foreigners in a very homogenous land is still real.

We now have two children who were born and raised here. They are both completely immersed in the local culture, attending Korean schools and daycares and living in a small university neighborhood where even the baker knows their name (and spoils them rotten).

Most of our neighbors and community members have completely accepted us. They smile at us every time they see us, the “tomato lady” continues her sales pitch and unending words of advice on rearing our children, and my Korean mom friends have welcomed me into their tight-knit circles.

Recently, Finn and his best friend Abby – also a foreigner here – have been heckled by a small group of older kids in the park for being foreigners. “No foreigners allowed to play this game!!!” they shouted.

Whit and I were shocked at the rhetoric, words we always feared for our children who live as foreigners every day in this world. We wanted to jump in, to defend Finn, now 5 and completely fluent in Korean.

“I’m not a foreigner,” Finn shouted back. “I’m Korean. I  live here and I speak Korean, just like you do!”

His Korean buddy quickly interjected. “Yaaaaahhh! They aren’t foreign! They’re Finn and Abby!!”

My heart melted as I heard this 5-year-old girl shout at the older boys, completely barraging them for attacking her friends. My heart melted further as I thought about the last four years, and how this same girl’s mother was the slowest neighbor to accept us into the community.

We never had to interject for our son, who can certainly handle his own situations and with much more grace.

Whit and I are quickly offended any time the word  foreigner is hurled our way. It sounds so dirty, so mean, so exclusive.

But to my dear 5-year old? He was born and raised here. This is his world, and he’s damn sure going to own it.

I later asked him what was going on with the older boys, and he shrugged it off. He couldn’t have been more nonplussed. But I wanted him to understand the labels that people so often use to define a person.

You are not Korean, I told him. You are also not American, I explained.

You, my son, are a citizen of this world. And with that comes a great responsibility to do your best to understand everyone different than you.

Walk in their shoes. Learn their language. See how they live. Respect their Gods. And always keep your mind open.

One day – unfortunately, not today – the world will thank you for it.

Finn playing at the park in Korea today from Nash Photos on Vimeo.

Who Wrote Your History Book?

By Whit Altizer

I’m finally putting my master’s degree to work this year teaching American history to international university students in Korea. I love it. I have Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Mongolian, and even an American student. They are active, engaged and ask interesting questions. This class has made teaching in Korea even more of a joy.

Homework for this group can be a bit of a challenge because, even though my students are exceptionally bright, asking them to read the same amount from the same texts an American college student might read for history class is unrealistic. So, instead I draw from primary sources through data-based questions, and keep the readings from secondary sources to a minimum.

I think I am finding what works best for them. They love looking at the documents I bring to class and analyzing what they mean for the event or person we are discussing. One of the most interesting classes we’ve had so far was looking at documents and photos from the Spanish-American war. They loved looking at the dawning days of modern American imperialism expansion diplomacy.

Interestingly, Korean government has caught flak this month because of their decision to take on the task of writing history books for the public schools in the nation. The current conservative government under President Park Geun Hye has found the current choices (about 8 in total from private publishers) to be too left-leaning. Their goal is to make one government issued textbook that is “balanced.” Is that even possible?

historytextbooksTo further complicate the story, Park’s father was Korea’s longest serving president. Her father, Park Chung Hee, took control in 1961 by military coup and turned Korea from one of the poorest counties in the world to one of the biggest financial powers. Growth that is fondly referred to as “the Miracle on the Han.” Truly a miracle for a country the size of Korea that was left in absolute despair after World War II.

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The elder Park remains a complicated figure in Korean history. While on the one hand he improved the lives and filled the stomachs of most Koreans, he didn’t exactly do so in the most democratic of ways. Koreans speak of him with tones of both admiration and fear.

Hence, a source of contention is about one of the current textbooks is that the term “dictator” is used 28 times when referring to the South Korean government during military rule(the bulk of which was under Park) to only 2 times when talking about the North Korean government in the same period.

So how will the new government textbook speak of Park Chung Hee? Will it admit that his legacy is complicated? Can the Korean public trust a panel of historians overseen by Park’s daughter to write a fair and balanced book on Korean history? We’ll see.

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“Our music, art and literature have been the lush plants that our flaws as a country have fertilized.”

This got me thinking about how we learn history, how much stock we put into what we read and how I teach my international students about my country. I think what many critics of history books forget is that thoughtful individuals learn and teach from these books. As teachers we may be charged with molding the minds of our students, but we are also charged with teaching them to think and question the sources from which they learn.

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City of Seoul Korea (above 1945 and 2015)

I remember reading a book from the 1950s on Robert E. Lee that read almost like a love letter to his legacy. In its own way this book served as a learning tool. Could a white author in the 1950s feel a little too nostalgic about what Lee stood for? Perhaps. These are the kind of sources worth cross-referencing. A reminder that every source you read should be thought about in the context in which it was written. When was it written? Who published it?

Korean history teachers, I hope, have taught from the current left-leaning textbooks with the understanding that they are biased. I also hope that whatever gets issued by the government also gets taught with a similar understanding. While good history books do exist, (and maybe Park’s will be a good one) there is inevitably going to be some personal bias in them and it is up to the reader to sniff it out. It is also up to the teacher to offer some balance to those biases. There are multiple ways to discuss a historical event and in those discussions some learning takes place.

So while I was a little stunned by Park’s decision to create one government-issued textbook, something that hasn’t been done since her father was in power, it has reminded me that history class is as much about teaching students to think for themselves as it is learning facts from a book. That one must understand who the source is and the flaws that it inevitably possesses. Knowing that nothing (or nobody) is perfect might help us grapple with our own country’s history a little more thoughtfully.

I find myself both proud and frustrated by American history when I teach it. It’s complicated and I kind of love that about it. What we are supposed to do with our history it is to learn from it and be better people. Hiding our flaws might make us repeat them. Additionally, I think our flaws have made us a more interesting country. Our music, art and literature have been the lush plants that our flaws as a country have fertilized. That’s something worth remembering. And in my opinion that is why we should embrace these flaws, write about them, learn from them and never forget they are there.

A Taste of Korean Hospitality

By Whit Altizer

Biking through the Korean countryside always makes me fall more fiercely in love with this country. The masses of people, the identical apartment blocks, and the breakneck pace of the city often feels inescapable. But take a step just outside the clamor of the city and you’re hit hard with a different side of Korea. Outside the cities the faces get friendlier, the rice fields get greener and the pace of the people is similar to the slow meander of the streams and rivers that traverse the peninsula.

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It was about that pace I was pedaling my bike and two sleeping children up a steep hill when a bongo truck came puttering up behind me. It was Chuseok in Korea and we were on a family and friends bike trip to Andong. It was our last day and we were all hot and tired and feeling mildly defeated about the slow climbs in the last 30 km of our ride.

A farmer got out of the old blue truck and reached into the bed for something. Then she turned toward us with an armful of red apples. Smiling at my sleeping children, she tucked them into the trailer with my kids and disappeared over the hill like a mirage.

About 10 miles down the bike path, hot and exhausted, our caravan of parents and children pulled over in the shade for a quick break from the unrelenting sun. My friend and his daughter had seen the same farmer and also had about a half-dozen of these beautiful apples. We pulled out the apples and moaned with delight at their sweet, crisp taste.

Sharing food with strangers is very Korean. My son is learning this at his Korean school and I hope it is one thing that becomes second-nature to him. When you go somewhere with food, bring enough for others. It’s such a small gesture, but so lovely when made toward you.

So there I stood huddled in the shade, feeling incredibly grateful for the farmer that took 30 seconds out of her day to give us a small, but delicious taste of Korean hospitality. I doubt I’ll ever taste an apple that good again.

The Billionaire Without a Face

By Whit Altizer

It is not like our blog to comment on individuals outside of Korean pop culture, but I have been unable to avert my eyes from the story of Yoo Byung-un. The more I dig the crazier it becomes. Here is a brief look with lots of links where you can learn more.

The billionaire, religious leader and all-around sketch-ball was allegedly found dead in an apricot orchard near his vacation home in the southern city of Suncheon on June 12th. But many aren’t buying that the body is Yoo. Even in death, Yoo remains as mysterious and controversial as ever.

Yoo is known as “the billionaire without a face” in Korea

Yoo had been on the run since shortly after the sinking of the Sewol ferry ship that was en route to Jeju Island this past April that killed nearly everyone on-board. It was a screw-up of epic proportions that included a ship exceeding weight capacity and a captain abandoning ship while instructing all passengers to stay put. A high school near Seoul lost nearly all of its juniors in the sinking of the ship. Yoo was once the primary owner of the company that ran the Sewol ship, but authorities suspected he still called the shots. 

The aftermath has been one horrific event after another. It started when the vice principal of the high school hung himself from a tree near rescue headquarters, then last week a rescue helicopter went down in the middle a major city killing everyone on-board after leaving the sunken boat site and most recently the discovery of, what is believed to be, Yoo’s body.

The months after the Sewol tragedy have been unreal, but even the prologue of the story is something out of gothic fiction. Yoo’s dark story begins in 1962 when he and his father-in-law started the Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea,  also known as the Salvation Sect or Gunwonpa (구원파). They’ve been classified as a cult because of their disregard for the repentance of sins. They believe that once you are saved, then all sins, past and future, are automatically washed away. 

In 1987, Yoo made headlines when linked to the 
Odaeyang mass suicide. This was a splinter religious group from Yoo’s denomination. The “benevolent mother” of this group, Park Soon Ja, started a “company” that fronted for her religious organization called Odaeyang. She came under investigation for swindling her followers out of $8.7 million and wrecklessly borrowing money. So instead of facing the heat, she and 32 of her followers were found dead by strangulation and poison with no signs of resistance. A story unto itself.

Mr. Yoo was suspected of being involved somehow but was never charged. In 1991, the case was reopened after they found a money trail from
Odaeyang and some of it’s members to Yoo’s company, Semo Corp. He was then arrested in 1992 and convicted of ” habitual fraud under the mask of religion” mainly because he had colluded with one of his employees to collect nearly $1.15 million in donations from church members. He served four years in prison for fraud.   

Yoo’s Wanted poster offering nearly 500,000USD for him.

So smash-cut to 2014. Yoo’s out of prison, living a relatively reclusive life taking pictures by the millions from his window and posting them under his pseudonym AHAE. Sewol goes down in April and the investigation uncovered massive corruption in the boat’s parent company. Not so surprisingly, authorities claim to have found the long tenticles of Yoo attached to his former company Chonghaejin Marine, the company that owned the Sewol ship. Just days after the Sewol went down, Yoo’s people sent out a press release expressing their sadness and reminding people he had not shares in the company and had focused all of his energy into his photography. Even still, when authorities called him in for questioning, he never showed up By the end of May, they began searching for him hoping to indict him on charges of breach of trust, tax evasion and embezzlement

On June 12th, police stormed his church to search for clues, and they were met by a human barricade of Yoo’s church members. The government offered a reward of nearly $500,000 for Yoo but no one was forthcoming with information. Then finally, this week a body found the very day the church was raided, came back as a DNA match for Yoo. Case closed?

Graphic from the Dong-a Ilbo describing the contents on Yoo.

So here are the facts surrounding the corpse. A farmer found the body 2.5 kms from Yoo’s compound. The corpse was wearing an expensive Italian jacket and next to it was a copy of Yoo’s memoir(an eerie and bizarre detail), some alcohol, shark liver oil and a magnifying glass. Police concluded (and seemingly never seriously considered anything else) that this was a homeless man’s body. Working under this conclusion they did not impress upon the lab they sent the corpse to that this could possibly be Yoo. It took the lab 40 days to conclude that it might be Yoo! What?!?! Suncheon’s police chief admitted that the investigation of the corpse “wasn’t perfect” an understatement beyond words. The police chief was fired for not using his brain.

Once Yoo became a fugitive he apparently hid under his staircase in Suncheon with roughly $1 million in suitcases. A detail, that in my mind, puts him in the same category as a comic book villain. Then for some reason he left his house, walked 2.5 km with his memoir, and laid down in a field and died. By the time police found him his body was 80% decomposed.
What will happen next in this sad and baffling story is beyond my imagination, but there is bound to be something else both shocking and tragic. I have a feeling we haven’t heard the last from Yoo, or that we have felt the last repercussions of the Sewol tragedy.

An amazing piece done by the New York TImes on Saturday. Click here

Falling in Love with Korean Food Again

By Whit Altizer

It’d be hard to say that I had completely fallen out of love with Korean food, but ever since we moved back, it hasn’t tasted the same. Our first home in Jeollanamdo (southwestern province) is famous for its food and from what I understand the cuisine from our new home in Gyeongbuk (southeastern province) is infamous. I’d have to agree. One of the first plates of kimchi I got at a restaurant here was frozen. An absolute abomination to a centuries old food.

Fresh food and packed with flavor seemed to be unique to Jeolla province. This is kimchi stew with side dishes.

But the other day between my summer classes here at Yeungnam University,  I went to a restaurant behind the main administration building that caused me to fall back in love with Korean cuisine. For 5,000 won, I ordered a  (된장 찌개) dwenjang jjigae served with bibimbap (a surprise addition to me) served with delectable side dishes. I felt like I was having a lunch straight out of Jeollanamdo.  I went back the next day after a swim and split kimchi jjigae (김치찌개) with my wife.  Again, they nailed it.

The menu is standard Korean fare.
The sides are fresh, the stews full of goodness and the kimchi is fishy. It’s everything I’ve come to expect in Korean food. It’s among the best lunch experience I’ve had yet in Gyeongsan.
The outside looks awful, but the food more than makes up for the aesthetics.

If you find yourself at Yeungnam University check out 우리들 식당. It’s to the left and behind the main building down a hidden path. It’s worth the visit. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but the chef more than makes up for the aesthetics. She takes great care of each dish. It shows in the taste and the presentation. Her food has made me get excited again about a food I’d come to take for granted.

 
Don’t make a special trip here, but if you are in the area for lunch, definitely give it a go!

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. 

Swimming in Korea: The Ultimate Test

How Korean are you?

Perhaps the best way to find out is to go for a lap swim at your local swimming pool. It separates the locals from the waygooks.

Imagine traffic in Seoul and scale it down to a swimming lane. You might get cut off, bumped or have the person in front of you come to a dead stop. For a North American used to empty swimming lanes it can be incredibly frustrating (not a quality I’m proud of). For Koreans, it’s all in a day’s swim. Koreans tend to have an uncanny ability to not be bothered by crowds. Because life can be one big crowd for them, they have dealt with it by perfecting their tunnel vision. It is a trait that I have come to both despise and admire.

Photo credit The Malay Mail Online.

Sometime late into my Gwangju years, I came up for air after swimming into a walking ajumma and came unhinged. I slapped the water, made a noise through my throat verbalizing my disgust and stormed out of the pool. All the kimchi, makkeoli and Korean vocabulary in the world could not prepare my body or mind for lap swimming in Korea. I must have looked like a complete ass. I swore off swimming in Korea. If I couldn’t be civil on their turf, I felt it was best to avoid the situation altogether.

But on Friday I had to swim. I went to a lap pool in Gyeongsan, Korea and I was met with a familiar scene. Crowded lanes, ajummas swimming slowly, group stretching and close calls. This time I tried to take the lead from all of those around me. I continued to swim completely oblivious to the madness and disorganization. I put on my tunnel vision goggles and did what I could, and let that which I could not control float on past me. It wasn’t the greatest swim session I’d ever had, but it sure felt good to not give a shit.

**If you made it this far here’s a tip. 12 noon is magic hour. Koreans split for lunch and the pool empties out. Yesterday, I was in a lane with 2 others. Just perfect!**

**We’ve written a lot about lap swimming in Korea. One about mandatory stretching, one about swimming types and the need for an aquatic director and one about a pleasant swim session with a Korean friend.**

Lee Min Ho: Still Hot

Since we returned to regular blogging, I’ve been checking in with our stats. Our all-time most hit blog? The one about Lee Min Ho. Not only is it the most hit, it’s the most hit 10 times over from the second most hit blog: Pregnancy in Korea.

Sad truth: Lee Min Ho has brought more people to our blog than our thoughts on Korean life. 

I have to admit, I thought he was a one hit wonder. But he is still getting it done.

He’s starred in 4 dramas since his big hit, Boys Over Flowers, released an album, has been the face of nearly every product in Korea, has a wax figure at Madame Tussauds in Shanghai and is currently working on his first lead role in the movie Gangnam Blues. And the offers just keep rolling in.

Back in 2008 and 2009, we couldn’t help but watch Boys Over Flowers and Personal Preference every week with rapt attention. My wife later admitted to me that she crushed on Lee Min Ho, proving to me that no woman is safe from his sex appeal. She even demanded I get a pair of capris after he wore a pair on Boys Over Flowers.

I took to the internet this week to catch up with our old buddy/crush. Here were some of my favorite articles I found on him mostly for their bizarre nature. If you want more substance there is no shortage of information on this Korean heartthrob.

Fans Of Lee Min Ho And Kim Soo Hyun Argue About Their Idols – Fans argued about who is taller and has a smaller face. Lovely.

Not even close. Lee Min Ho is virtually a giant at 187 cms.

What Lee Min Ho Regrets About Kissing Park Shin Hye – This one is all about kissing his co-star who was unaware that it would be a passionate kiss and not the standard lip touch seen in most Korean dramas.

Lee Min Ho illegally stalked by extreme fans in China– China loves Lee Min Ho. Tsingtao reportedly spent nearly 1 million USD to bring him over. The video is worth watching to at least see the Chinese reporter’s microphone if not for seeing Min Ho’s gangster swagger.

It seems to me that Lee Min Ho is disappearing no time soon. Thankfully, though, his style is evolving, and I don’t have to go around calling my “capris,” “man-pris” anymore.

Road fatalities in Korea

By Whit Altizer

The Korea Herald runs some pretty fantastic graphic news photos. This one not so fantastic.

Getting on the roads in Korea as a cyclist, pedestrian or driver is a bit of a leap of faith as people seem to be always pressed for time, and not taking into account they are essentially driving a ground missile. 
To be fair, I never felt too safe on American roads either, especially as a cyclist (e.g. beer can thrown out of a moving truck at me). Now I see why, as America is just one fatality per 1 million people behind South Korea. 
The takeaway? Get off your phone. Slow down. Your life would be ruined by adding to this statistic and only mildly affected by being late to whatever you are rushing to.