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!

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.

The Expat Life

By Lindsay Nash

“Life might be difficult for a while, but I would tough it out because living in a foreign country is one of those things that everyone should try at least once. My understanding was that it completed a person, sanding down the rough provincial edges and transforming you into a citizen of the world.”

“What I found appealing in life abroad was the inevitable sense of helplessness it would inspire. Equally exciting would be the work involved in overcoming that helplessness. There would be a goal involved, and I liked having goals.”

–David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day

Finn and I always grab cookies after school at our neighborhood bakery.

Most days, at 12:30, I rush from daily lunch dates with Whit, to Finn’s preschool program to pick him up. I don’t have to go far–we have restaurants every 10 feet here in our neighborhood. And Finn’s school is just next to our high-rise. I rush to the door, ring the doorbell, and grab Finn’s shoes from the cubby just outside the door. He comes out with a big sneaky smile that brags about his day, dons his shoes, and then with his red backpack weighing down his shoulders, turns around and gives a full bow to his teacher.

Finn and one of his teachers at school

We’re out the door in a flash. He tells me what he had for lunch: rice, soup, seaweed. It’s always the same, but every day, I ask him. Sometimes he comes up with something different to tell me. We go to the bakery (again, about 20 steps down the road). Finn gets one cookie shaped like a pig, the other shaped like cow. Only two, I tell him. One. Two, he says, counting on his fingers. He gets to give the money to baker. He holds it out with the traditional Korean two hands, and then bows deeply after she gives him his loot.

Finn has adjusted wonderfully to his new life. He has a new best friend, Abigail (he calls her Dabi-dail, and I’m certain this is why she adores him), and they’re in class together at school. They play together in the afternoons after naps. Dabi-dail’s father is British, and his mother Chinese. Dabi-dail only speaks Mandarin, but seems to understand English. She and Finn are truly the best and closest of any two-year-olds I’ve ever known. It warms my heart.

 

Every Wednesday, we go to a Play Cafe, a wonderful place where moms sit and sip coffee, and toddlers run around to their hearts content. A train circles every hour, which they get to ride in, and there are enough toys to keep them busy for a lifetime. Last week, I took a video of Finn and Dabi-dail jumping on the trampoline there. “DO-YAK! DO-YAK!” they kept chanting to each other. I asked Jade, Dabi-dail’s mom, if it was Mandarin. Never heard it, she said. Later that night, I showed Whit the video. Wait a minute, he says, pulling out our trusty Korean dictionary.

“Doyak: Jump,” it states, plain as day. Finn and Abby are already speaking Korean, and Korean words that we don’t even know.

Whit is busy with his job. He teaches in the afternoons, and is usually home by dinner. He’s getting back into the swing of teaching and this week is already giving mid-terms. Wow, time is flying!

 

My new jogging stroller

 

Nice to see the husband in a tie again

Life as an expat is just as wonderful for me. There is something so special about an expat community, something I truly missed last year back at home. I haven’t been this busy with life and friends since my university days.

Every Tuesday evening I have yoga classes in my neighborhood. My new friend Shauna teaches them, and she’s truly an asset to our expat community. I’m learning to bend, stretch, and challenge myself in new ways, and it gives me an hour and a half of quiet meditation every Tuesday. I feel very lucky to have this quiet time to myself once a week.

I started a book club this month, and Monday night was our first meeting. I wasn’t sure who would show up–I only know a handful of people. But we had nearly 10 women, from all walks of life, to come and decide on our first book. Expats are interesting, like-minded people and conversation was easy and entertaining. I can already tell that these women are going to be some kind of special for me.

I work in the mornings until I pick Finn up from school, and any time I can squeeze in an hour or two in the afternoons and evenings. I am working for BikeToursDirect, a great company based out of Chattanooga, Tenn., that is connecting people to local bike tours all over the world. Just this month, my boss informed us he was going to give us 3 weeks of paid bike tours anywhere in the world every year. All expenses paid. (I’m currently planning a fall trip with a co-worker somewhere in Asia).

 

 

 

Next weekend, we’re moving to a bigger place after spending a couple months in a tiny one-bedroom. We’ve made it work fine, but we are really excited to move into this new place and make it our home. And lucky for us, it’s just in the building next door.

Life is busy and full for us here in Korea. I think it’s hard for some people to imagine us living over here, wondering what we do and how we get by. But it’s a wonderful place, with warm people and fiery food. We do feel challenged on a daily basis, and sometimes it is frustrating when you can’t just ask someone for exactly what you want. But there is something so nice about living in a culture very different from where you came from, and learning to accept it, and then embrace it, and then seeing your own life and world in a very different light.

Beach, bop and blondness in Korea

It’s been a good week for us. Finn survived his first week of Korean preschool. Whit went back to work full-time, and I started working from home for BikeToursDirect as the Asia Tour Specialist (check us out here: http://www.biketoursdirect.com).

In celebration of Finn doing so well at school, we took him to the beach on Saturday. Not just any beach, but the most popular one in Korea, in Busan. Lucky for us, it took just over an hour to get there. And of course, that meant we were riding the TRAIN. Transportation is all the rage these days.

Seeing Korea from the eyes of my blue-eyed, blonde-haired, wheel-loving 2-year-old has changed my own view of the country. It’s a paradise for the senses–from the flashing lights of motorcycles and the belches of buses to the fish tanks leaned up against the outside windows of seafood restaurants down every street. He even mocks the bus drivers when they honk too long (“beeeeeeeeeeep” he repeats, usually while sitting directly behind the short-tempered bus driver.) Finn can’t wait to get outside every day. We think he’s smitten with this birth country of his.

Korea loves him too. We don’t walk 10 steps without someone smiling down at him. “Annyong! Annyong! Ahhh, Epo! Epo! So pretty. Luckily, we live in a diverse area and, while everyone certainly smiles at him, no one points in the distance. They certainly could, the way his bopping little white head sparkles amidst the darker backdrop.

He’s coming out of his shell these days, which is fun to see. We got on the bus the other night after dinner with friends in Daegu, and he unabashedly sang the entire way home to a very quiet bus. “The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round.”

Tonight, we had dinner in a galbi restaurant–one of our new favorites in the neighborhood. Finn has recently learned the joys of meat (Korea can do that to the most wayward of vegetarians). But as the pork was still cooking on our table, sizzling and popping in front of us, he demanded the rice we ordered as a side.

“Rice, Mommy, rice! Rice. Rice. Rice. I want. I want. Rice!” Whit and I were busy in conversation, ignoring his pleas since there was nothing to do but wait on the rice. “Mommy! BOP!” And there it was, the first time he went from English to Korean in a blink of an eye.

What a treat for us. And lucky for him, his bop was delivered soon after (I think he yelled it loud enough for the waitress to hear.)

Waiting for the train to Busan