Time defies me. I simply can’t accept that my first six and a half weeks in Busan have passed. I feel like I’ve been robbed….of time. In six weeks, however, I’ve learned quite a bit of the Korean culture, which I will now share with you.
Scissors for food:
This is the most GENIUS idea, and I cannot fathom why the rest of the world hasn’t
jumped on this bandwagon. Koreans use scissors to….wait for it….cut their meat! Actually, all food may be cut using scissors, but given the quantity of Korean barbeque demanded and consumed, it is mostly used for meat. Who needs knives? Surely not me! I have SCISSORS, which are entirely more useful than a messy knife. When I get back home, all my knives are going straight into the garbage and will be replaced by a brand new pair of shiny, extremely effective scissors.
Korea is the Mecca of convenience stores. I know I’ve been known to exaggerate a smidge here and there, but I promise you, when I say there is a convenience store on every block (at a minimum), I’m not embellishing. You forgot to pick up some water on your way home? Not to worry, there will be at least 15 convenience stores in the 5 block radius to your home. This is a world of Seven Eleven’s, GS 25’s and Family Marts. And it’s fantastic.
Crossing the street:
This may as well be titled “Voluntary death by moving vehicles.” In Korea, human beings DO NOT have the right of way when crossing the street. I’m fairly convinced that crosswalks are merely there for pretty flashing lights. And if you’re not intently watching
oncoming traffic as the green ok-for-people-to-walk-sign is flashing, there’s a very, very strong likelihood that you WILL get run over.
Elevator and Subway doors:
Unlike our American counterparts, Korean elevator and subway doors DO NOT re-open upon sticking your arm into the jaws of life. Rather, your arm may very well be taken off while trying to maintain a door open. We learned this the hard way.
Different cultures have long maintained different ideas of beauty. Many Koreans,
especially those of the older generations, don’t find tan skin to be particularly attractive. Ironically, I was raised with this same mentality and it was engrained in my mind since I was a kid. My mom never forgot to remind me that I was getting ‘too tan’ during summers spent soaking up every last minute at the beach. She insisted that, in Cuban culture, the pale skin is beautiful because it meant that you were from a social status that didn’t require you to physically labor outside in the hot sun. However, living in Miami and being quite the beach lover, my skin has since become permanently brown. I also come from a world where golden tans of the islands are the coveted skin tone. Consequently, I suffer from the same cultural stigma in Korea that my Cuban counterparts recognize. I’ve been called “Indo,” yelled at by an old man in the subway (for no reason at all) and virtually ignored when I’m surrounded by my fairer-skinned colleagues. I joke about it and take it in stride. And with winter quickly approaching and my beach days numbered, my skin
may just revert back to a color I haven’t seen in….well, a color I don’t ever remember being. I may even score a foreigner warm welcome from time to time with my new pale skin.
Staring at Foreigners:
Fact: If you are a foreigner here, people WILL stare at you. You will be approached by monks. Strangers will grab your arm and start chatting with you, ask you where you’re from, attempt a full conversation in Korean and offer you things. Parents will shove their children in your face and force their highly embarrassed offspring to speak to you in English. Clearly I am not speaking from personal experience (see “Brown Skin” bit above), however I have lived these experiences vicariously through my light-eyed, fair-skinned friends in public places. They’ve gained quasi celebrity status and it is a most interesting phenomenon to watch.
One word: Amazing. I had hoped to drop a few lbs upon arriving in Korea. Alas, my weight will inevitably be going in the opposite direction as Korean food is absolutely delectable. Among my favorites:
- Gogi mandu – Steamed meat dumplings. I am fortunate enough to live 2 blocks from a GIANT mandu distributor, which is frequented quite often for a record low bargain price of approximately $1.50 per giant mandu.
- Bulgogi – Better known worldwide as Korean barbeque. This is quite the experience. A personal little stove to heat your marinated meats (which are, of course, cut using SCISSORS – simply genius), with garlic and a whirlwind of side dishes, including kimchee and radish. I am slightly embarrassed to say that I haven’t jumped on the kimchee bandwagon and am not a fan of the spiced cabbage, but the radishes really are quite delicious. The mouth-watering meat is wrapped in an equally tasty lettuce wrap. Picture PF Chang’s lettuce wraps, only with better meat and oh, so much healthier.
- Pajeon – Korean pancakes. This little piece of heaven is comprised of eggs, flour, rice flour, green onions and other vegetables. This gem is perfect as an appetizer to be shared among friends, or as a nice little meal for one person. In the end, you walk away like you’ve eaten the healthiest pancake you could’ve had. I’ve seen it paired with makgeolli, rice wine. This makgeolli is hit or miss. I don’t mind it, but other cohorts seem to really dislike the taste.
- Pizza Maru – I know, I know. NOT traditional Korean food. But this fine establishment must be mentioned because of their originality in using green tea dough for an absolutely scrumptious and cheap pizza. I actually feel sorry for Westerners who go in search of good pizza and aren’t lucky enough to have a pizza Maru around the corner from their house.
In addition to the phenomenal food I’ve encountered here, I’ve also experienced some pretty amazing things in just a few short weeks: from surfing Gwangalli beach during Marine Week with free surfboard rentals, to navigating through Nampo-dong markets and eventually finding the world’s greatest coffee/cupcake shop, to witnessing one of the most beautiful and original firework displays literally across the street from my house, to hiking up to Seokbulsa (a fake hike, since we actually took a cable car and hiked down for most of the way) and seeing a breathtaking temple actually built into the mountain, to feeling more at home at a local Busan bar called Sharky’s than I ever did in Miami….Busan has far exceeded my expectations. You know that feeling when you can actually feel that you’ve made the right decision? Right about now, that’s where I’m at. The right people, the right time, the right place.