Friday, 25 October 2013

To dream the impossible dream.

I love food: I dream about food, I am constantly looking up recipes in my free time, perfecting ones that I find and inventing my own. Seriously! I spend so much time thinking about food that at certain points in my life, my mother (and family) have asked me to not talk about it with them. Unfortunately for them, they can't prevent me from THINKING about it!

I do a bible study with some friends around once a month. It's a non-denominational Bible study as we are several different sects of Christianity. A recent passage from the Bible was about the early Christian community and how they behaved and what made them different from other people during that time. Two lines in this passage are about food:
They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.  
~Acts 2:42,46
It got me thinking, to the chagrin of my family, no doubt (!). Food is such a central part of our lives and that if we could all come together and enjoy food we'd be a lot more peaceful. Think about it. A big huge table, people from all over the world, food from every country and everyone just sitting there talking, learning and sharing. The temples, palaces, churches, sights are a glimpse of the history of a country. The traditional dress, more often than not, shares the same place. Food, however, traverses time itself. Dishes, recipes and methods of cooking are passed down through the aeons and God forbid someone dislike your favourite national dish!

Kimchi and Scrambled egg and kimchi
Korea is no different when it comes to its national food. Kimchi is beloved everywhere by Koreans. However, I have managed to find two students who never eat the stuff. For most foreigners in Korea, you end up on one side or the other on the scale of love and hate. I, on the other hand, lean more towards a mix that combines like and ambivalence. I do like kimchi but I am really picky about what kinds I like. I love the cucumber one and a lettuce kimchi that I had in the spring. It was fresh and had to be eaten right away. I like some white kimchi and some normal kimchi but it really depends on the amount of red pepper paste. Sometimes, one bite and I am done.  I hate, really, really (can not stress enough) hate radish kimchi of any kind. This is a favourite with a lot of teachers in my schools and the lunch ladies are always devastated when I shake my head and say "아니오". My favourite way of having kimchi though is fried on the grill or as Kimchi Fries (the first time I had them my brother made them for me and I since have tried them at two Mexican restaurants in Seoul and they are fantastic).
Kimchi fries from Julio's. So good, I didn't have time
to take a picture before they were almost gone

So, in terms of my dream, I know that there would be food that lots of people dislike and food that everyone raves over (seriously, unless you are lactose intolerant, how could anyone dislike ice cream?). I know some cultures will feel slighted and others delighted. However, at the end of the day, food is much more than just something you eat. When you share food with others, you share yourself. As a culture, when you share your food, you share a part of your soul, a glimpse into the way your culture functions. If it is a traditional food, it tells a story. Food gives us a chance to see the world through other people's eyes: Ask anyone who experienced kimchi for the first time! What was your reaction? What did your co-teachers ask you about it? Was it too spicy? Too peppery? Sweet? Tangy? Disgusting? Whatever it was at that time, it's a talking point. As you are exposed to more regional varieties of a dish, different options open up to you and you discover even more about another culture and country. Food gives you the chance to learn, to experience, to discover. Savour it. I recently posted a question on Facebook to see what my friends think of kimchi. When the results came in, it really was a mixed bag - a few hates, a few loves, people who had particular favourites but disliked other kinds. What was really interesting was seeing who commented. I expected it to be my friends in Korea but quite a number of people were also old friends from Ireland or America. So, not only is kimchi a talking point in Korea but its influence can be felt across the miles! Imagine this times millions of other foods at a World table?

For my Hallowe'en celebrations, I am asking my friends to bring some food with them. Whether it is something savoury or sweet, Western or Korean, it will be something we can savour, share and appreciate together. A project that I am working on is to arrange an actual World potluck here in Jochiwon. Do I think this is an easy project? Heck, no! Especially in Korea it can be hard to find ingredients for certain dishes. Is it one that I consider worthwhile and full of possibility? Most definitely. If I believe that food can open us up to wonderful experiences then I need to practice what I preach. I can't wait to organise this dinner and rest assured, there will be some Kimchi there!

You might think I'm mad to even consider that food is a passage to peace as more than likely we would still end up waging wars over who has the best cuisine and how much such a country's food sucks! There is truth to this, but I think we are much more likely to be too full to do anything of the sort! Nevertheless, I prefer to believe in this impossible dream and hope that by following "my quest, to follow that star, no matter how hopeless, no matter how far" in welcoming everyone to my table to break bread, I do my part "for [that] heavenly cause" of hoping for peace on earth and goodwill to men. 

PS this post is obviously inspired by Kimchi and Bible Study but also by Roger Whittaker's "The Impossible dream".

Friday, 18 October 2013

Brown paper packages tied up with strings

Presents. Who doesn't love them? I am a big present person. I love receiving them and sending them. Christmas is one of my favourite times of year not only because it's Christmas but my birthday is at that time of year, too. I love seeing what Santa or my Kris Kindle has given me. Ripping open the paper, or pulling the tissue out of the bag, never fails to delight me! I hate that my Mam keeps telling me that I should have outgrown Santa by now and that from this year we won't get "Santa" gifts anymore! I think with having my nephew this should all be continuing and not fading away!

Last year's haul!
Since coming to Korea, I've gotten a new appreciation for presents - and not just the ones at Christmas or my birthday. My family have been really good about sending me things like Barry's Tea (thanks to my Mam and Aunt), as well as goodies like my favourite chocolates or deodorant. However, my favourite things are the unexpected packages. This time last year, I knew my Mam was sending me deodorant so I was looking out for my package but when it arrived, I was absolutely thrilled to receive Hallowe'en decorations in addition to my deodorant!

This year's haul

On Monday, when I arrived in there was a stack of post on the table in the teachers room. I never look at it because there usually isn't anything for me. However, a few minutes later with a delighted smile on his face, my Principal handed me a white package. I grabbed it, recognised my Mam's handwriting and hugged that package tight! I was so excited that, even though I needed to prepare for my classes, I immediately ripped it open (carefully of course) and took out 4 packets of Hallowe'en decorations! I'd mentioned to my Mam recently that I needed some photos of Hallowe'en to use for a class and could she have my siblings email them to me. I never expected that not only will I have an amazing PowerPoint to show my kids but also a blooming fantastically decked out classroom! I can't wait to have this class at the end of October! 

My cousin
Even better than opening a package is receiving the gift of someone's presence. I was only in Korea a few months, and my Mam had been visiting her family in the US. when she arrived home, she called me to say that she had heard that my cousin, Princess B, was coming to Korea for a month and that she'd stop to see me and another friend of hers who was living and teaching here.  I was so excited, I decorated my house with a few welcome signs and informed anyone and everyone that she was coming! B stayed a week with me and it was amazing as she is such a brilliant, inspiring girl and on top of that, such an easy guest to have. I missed her terribly when she left as in the short time she was with me we got into a routine that felt completely natural: She kept my floor swept and I did the dishes. She really clicked with all my friends and thanks to her, I got to know Swaglu, who has since become such an important part of my life. Her encouragement of my adventures and advice on improving my life, whilst not always followed, is always remembered and kept close to my heart.

This last week, on Friday my brother told me that he was thinking of coming for a visit and on Saturday sent an email saying that he'd be coming next week. I was so thrilled I was dancing around my room, squealing "Joe is coming! Joe is coming!" and popping off text messages to the besties to let them know. I immediately began searching Skyscanner for reasonable flight prices and sending off print-screens to my brother. That evening, I got to talk to him and was a little disappointed to find out that it wouldn't be next week that he'd arrive. Thanks to my reading to quickly, I mistook his meaning to let me know next week when he'd arrive to him arriving next week. However, he hopes he will be here by the end of October/beginning of November for two weeks. I can't wait as I haven't seen him since I left for Korea over a year ago and he was doing mission work in Liberia when I was home in August. I now have another thing to look forward to this month besides Hallowe'en!

My brother and me.
So you might think I'm mad to still want Santa gifts, and you'd be in good company if you do! You might think I'm mad to be this excited that someone is coming to visit me - but having someone who is a piece of home whether they are a brother or a cousin, puts a different dynamic on your view of Korea and allows you to see everything anew through their eyes. It gives you the gift of innocence - similar to the innocent joy a child has at Christmas - as they gaze with unfamiliar eyes on the sights, sounds, smells of this country. I can't wait to experience it with him.

PS I should point out, my family is always good about sending little presents. When I was in college in America they would frequently send letters or packages to me. A huge thank you to anyone who has ever sent me a letter, a small parcel, an email or even just their love - I appreciate it all and it makes life here all the sweeter.

PPS - this post was inspired by the song "My favourite things" from Sound of Music.

PPPS - the first 5 people to comment on this post will get a small Korean gift from me.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

A moment like this

Today, I taught 1st and 3rd grade in the afternoon. First grade is all about phonics, whilst my third graders are learning the phrases "Can you....? Yes, I can. No, I can't.".  In order, to demonstrate this topic we are using winter related vocabulary such as build a snowman, ski, ice-skate, make a snow angel.

Today, after revising the above vocabulary, I introduced the concept of  "Let's ________" and decide to use an image of a snowball fight. This lead to us having two imaginary and impromptu snowball fights - we even had teams and several students had ducked underneath the desks whilst others were lifting armfuls of snow to dump on each other! Imagine what we will be like when we have an actual snowball fight!

So you might think I'm mad but it's moments like this that make me realise that some people wait a lifetime for a job that makes them happy and here I am still trying to grasp how I became so lucky. I can only wish other people as much hilarity in their job as I have in mine.

PS The title of this post was inspired by Kelly Clarkson and Leona Lewis' song A moment like this. 

Monday, 14 October 2013

What are [convenience stores] made of...sugar and spice and all things nice!

I've a sweet tooth...and a savoury tooth...and a tooth that encompasses everything in-between.
Korea has been both wonderful, for opening me up to new tastes and sensations, and terrible, as it's been detrimental to my health on so many occasions!

Consequently, please find my top 10 convenience store snacks that I will miss when I leave and have to try and AVOID when I am here!

10. Any convenience store hot drink: plain coffee, caramel macchiatos and chocolate cappuccinos, hazelnut tea, blueberry hot chocolate, honey water and honey ginger goodness. Whether you get it in a bottle, can or get a cup to go, these are a necessary item during winter! How else can one stave off the cold whilst waiting for the bus????

9. Georgia Coffee - My friend, Dan-J, introduced this to me my very first week of work in Korea. For someone who never really drank that much coffee before coming to Korea, this was something I quickly got hooked on! Man, are they good on a hot summer's day!

8.Saltines - yep, just saltines but they are such an easy food to have in your desk drawer for those days when no matter what you eat you are still starving! Or if you have a tummy ache.

7. Milkis - this drink is like American Cream Soda - and although I have many traumatic memories associated with Cream Soda (Lough Derg, anyone???), I still love the taste!

6. Minatures - These are little squares of chocolate - plain, blueberry, strawberry, coffee flavoured - that are just delicious bites of goodness!

5. Potato Stick crisps - Oh, wow! These are wonderful - I was here many moons before I was introduced to these.. I don't know how to describe but they are really good!

4. Hot Pepper crisps - They actually aren't hot at all! They have a sweet  pepper taste and, despite the sweetness, are one of my favourite crisps to eat here! I ate these for the first time when at a Braai last year. Yummy!

3. Ice-cream -any kind really! They have ice-cream like Cornettos or Icebergers to ones filled with sweet red bean or some that are like melons on a stick!

2.  Aloe water/juice. This delicious drink is a firm favourite at group dinners and is so refreshing you won't feel like you need a glass of water! My brother introduced it to me my first night in Korea and I have loved it ever since. If you don't like "bits" you may not like this drink!

1. The triangle gimbap - the "I didn't have time for breakfast gimbap" or "Aaagh, I won't be eating until 8pm and I'm already starving gimbap". This delicious food is my absolute favourite convenicence store snack to eat here. Sometimes, I buy two and eat them on my way home. I am picky: I only like the 참치 (tuna) kind. So what is it? Well, gimbap is very similar to sushi in that it is rice, wrapped in seaweed, stuffed with some filling. Typical gimbap has egg, crab, ham(spam), cucumber, sesame leaf, carrot and pickled radish. You can add other filings such as bulgogi, kimchi or tuna. Triangle, chamchi 참치, gimbap is simpler. It is just a triangle of rice, stuffed with tuna mayonnaise and wrapped in seaweed. They expire quickly (max 2 days), so you always have to check the date. They are so delicious and are my deserved number 1! Just follow the instructions to open and eat!

PS This post was inspired by the poem "What are little boys made of?"

Friday, 11 October 2013

Masquerade! Every face a different shade!

On the weekend of October 5th and 6th, I went to Andong, which is in the Gyeonsangbuk-do province of South Korea, for its annual Mask Festival (bucket list item). I love masks and I have a dream that someday in my house, I will have a red-painted hall lined with masks I've collected on my adventures.

I had to get up early - my train was at 8.25 from Osong Train Station which is about 10 - 15 minutes away, in a different town. Although my body was extremely reluctant to be up that early, I am really glad I took the train when I did as it gave me lots of time to enjoy Andong and appreciate the journey I took to get there.
On arriving in the train station, my train was slightly delayed, so I headed down to the platform to wait. I noticed that there were quite a few people in hiking gear but thought nothing of it. I was taking the train only as far as Jecheon (which was my connecting point to Yeongwol when my brother was still living there). The carriage I was in was full of Koreans all in hiking gear. I took my seat all the while taking in the lurid colours of my carriage - I've never been on such green seats in my life and the doors to each car had stain glass in them! I opened my ereader and started on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,  when next thing some Korean guy was standing beside me and handing me a lunch bag with water, a banana, a gimbap roll and a biscuit. I thanked him and kept reading. A few minutes later a lady came looked at me curiously, sat down beside me and after making some statements in Korean, grabbed my backpack and hand and propelled me towards the front of the carriage: The food was in exchange for giving up my seat so all the hikers could sit together!  Despite this initial awkwardness, the rest of this leg of the journey went smoothly: I was even able to charge my phone battery!

In Jecheon, I transferred to the train bound for Andong. I luckily had a window seat as the scenes on my way there were spectaular. Beautiful hills and mountains of greens, small hamlet villages and rivers of bright blue lay before my wondering eyes. I kept gasping in delight and I am sure the poor man beside me thought I was the most annoying companion to have on that journey! I took some snaps hoping to capture some of the beauty of what I was seeing. Unfortunately, snaps from a moving train do not give justice to nature's majesty!

After finding my hostel, I was starving and decide to wander towards the festival site and look out for some food. However, it was much closer than I anticipated and before I knew it, I was wandering under tents filled with everything from donughnuts to shwarma and shoes to mobile phone covers. Escaping this fascinating display, I found myself at the festival grounds and proceeded to wander around the booths where you could decorate your own paper mask, build a 3-D puzzle, do archery or pottery. There were several stages with performances on them, including one that was a competition stage. At first, I thought this was the main stage and I was a little creeped out by young girls dressed like candidates for Miss America dancing like belly dancers and making moves that I would be too embarrassed to make even by myself in the privacy of my own home!

After wandering the booths for a while and making purchases left, right and centre, I parked myself at one of the mask shops and proceeded decorate this mask.  The paint that you use is little tiny dots of colour that you smoosh in your hand. Luckily, the paint doesn't actually stain your hands at all, and if someone of it stays, just take the smooshed bit and dab at your hand until it re-attaches to it. This sounds weird but it's true! The end result makes is really interesting and leaves a kind of roughness to the mask. I had great fun blenidng colours and deciding how I wanted the mask to look. I had chosen a butterfly shaped mask but you could choose more traditional shapes, if you wanted.
Eventually, I found the main stage and 7,000 won later* had a ticket to see Hamsesang, a story about a tiger and a family. I'm not quite sure what it all meant but it was funny and beautiful. It seemed like a mix of Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood.
The following day, I went back to the festival to see some international performances by China, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. These were stunning. The costumes were a mixture of simple and elaborate, the dances were both masked and unmasked and each told a different lyrical tale. My favourite performances were the Malaysian ones, and of their performances, the Peacock dance was the one that I liked the most: the fluidity of their movements really reminded me of those majestic birds. 
Peacock Dance
So you might think I'm mad to have had this experience by myself and without anyone else. Sometimes, it was awkward to be by yourself, especially when I sat down to make a mask - I was the only person at my own table! However, with no one to accompany me, I lost myself in the beauty of the dance, the masks and the festival itself. I had so much fun and I spent as much time as I wanted at each activity. While I would definitely have loved to have shared this experience with my friends, being by myself gave me a chance to dwell in the experience and that is something I am glad I got to do. 

Water feature in Andong downtown area.

*I believe the cost for an entire day's worth of performances is 7,000 won. I didn't find the main stage until around 3.30 and only decided to attend one performance at 5pm. The next day, I only had time for one performance.

PS The title of this post was inspired by The Phantom of the Opera song Masquerade.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

A time for thanks, a time for rest

Chuseok is the Korean name for their Thanksgiving Harvest holiday. Chuseok, usually, is sometime in September but changes yearly due to the Lunar Calendar. In fact, last year it spilled into October. Tombs are visited, special food is had and time is spent with your family. One of the many activities that take place at Chuseok is the Ganggangsullae dance.

In May, the Public School teachers in Sejong went to Jindo Island on a culture trip with our co-teachers and the Office of Education. Whilst there, we ate like Koreans all day (3 Korean meals in the day) and visited several sights including the place where the sea parts (just as in the story of the parting of the Red Sea). The highlight for me was dancing the Ganggangsullae. This is a dance where everyone holds hands and form a circle that winds in and out. From a distance it looks as if more people are dancing than there actually is. This dance was actually used to make invaders think that there were more Koreans fighting than was actually true. It was a lot of fun and you chanted Ganggangsullae all the while.

Last year, instead of participating in any traditional Chuseok activities, I  went to Geoje-do. Geoje-do is an island near Busan in the Southern part of South Korea. I'd a wonderful few days there with my friends - 1 couple and two single guys. Whilst the two single guys partied plenty, the rest of us did a little more sightseeing such as walking along the harbour near where we were staying and taking a tour boat out to Oedo Island. Every evening we spent time hanging out and drinking soju or going to Noraebang. It was so nice to just relax and spend time with wonderful friends.
Photo courtesy of Aletia.
Photo courtesy of my friend, Aletia. 
This year was a little different. I headed North to Seoul with two of the newbies and a friend of theirs. Originally, we were meant to go to Sokcho but we (me) left it a little late to get anything booked. This holiday I didn't participate in any traditional Chuseok games but I believe I participated in what appears to be a traditional Chuseok family day out - Lotte World! LotteWorld is the Korean version of Disneyland and from what I saw (I've never been to Disney), heard and read - its design, layout and, indeed, logo is very reminiscent of that park. It was packed with families that included the very young and the very old. People patiently waited over two hours for rides and, as the day progressed, the crowds intensified. Food was corn-dogs on sticks and ice cream filled choux.

The park is split in two - an outdoors area and an indoor area which includes an Aeronauts Balloon Ride that I was dying to try out. However, on the two occasions I went up to do so the wait was OVER 2 hours. Not happening! I did one ride by myself which was a cheesy kids ride called Fantasy Dream. It was slow with nothing scary. It reminded me a little bit of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the one with Gene Wilder) when they are on the boat ride. I could have sworn, as we meandered our way down, that I'd seen an Oompa Loompa waving merrily at me and cautioning me to be wiser than I am now. The highlight of this day out was definitely the Comet Express which was an underground ride that we were cautioned was quite tame (all the better for me!). However, it turned, twisted and jumped us along through space. It was quite fun and one of the girls took a video, which I am pretty sure is just me screaming the whole time. The other ride that I went on that was a lot more exciting than the Fantasy Dream was the Atlantis ride. I couldn't open my eyes for fear of seeing us fly over the edge. I also couldn't open my mouth as I was pretty sure my stomach would fall out. Whilst I never want to go on this ride again, I'm glad that I did because I can officially say that I am NOT a scary rollercoaster person.

The rest of Chuseok was spent wandering around various parts of Seoul like Insadong (think Templebar in Dublin or the Old Market in Omaha), Hongdae, City Hall and Itaewon. We even got to spend a little time at the beach but as the water was pretty mank, we soon left. As it was Chuseok, and as I'd originally planned to holiday by myself, I took some time out a few of the evenings just to read. Whilst the girls explored Itaewon, I sat myself down in Ediya with a Chai latte and delved into the world of Jeffrey Deaver. On Saturday, the art exhibition I wanted to attend was too busy so instead I read The Piano Turner and wondered if I would ever be brave enough to explore areas of the world so cut-off from everything that I know.

So you might think I'm mad to have not spent Chuseok playing traditional games and eating traditional foods. However, I thoroughly enjoyed each trip and the company that I had. At the end of the day, Chuseok is spent in the company of family. My family aren't here - but the family of EPIK teachers is and that's who I spent my time with.

PS - this post is inspired by two very different and wonderful Chuseoks.
PPS - Thank you to all those who I spent Chuseok with last year and this!