Month: August 2014

How to Barbecue Like All The Cool Kids Do In South Korea

And the not so cool ones, and everyone. Everyone loves Korean Barbecue. It’s a great time to sit around and chat with friends while grilling marinated meat and drinking alcohol. Man’s timeless source of joy.

Gogigui (a.k.a. Korean barbecue) is beloved in Korea (and abroad) for many reasons. My personal favourite is the endless side dishes. Those little white plates you see decorating the table are filled with yummy goodness like kimchi, Korean radish (a.k.a. ‘mu’ in Korean, or what you might know as ‘daikon’ in Japanese), bean sprouts, garlic bulbs, seaweed salad, and many other delicious things, depending on the venue. Although the meat supply is finite, servers will keep bringing you more side dishes ad infinitum. It is impossible to leave hungry.

Korean barbecue is also a fun place to get to know people better. For example, Porum and Yuri (two teachers in training from Danielle’s school) taught us about Korean age differences! In Korea, you are considered ‘1 year old’ when you’re born, and your age progresses on the lunar calendar year, instead of the year you were born. So while in Canada (and most of the world) I’m 24, in Korea I’m actually 25. Happy quarter century!

You’ll also see the Samsungs come out, of course.

Also, if you’re having gogigui in Korea, you’ll probably observe Korean pouring/passing etiquette. At a gathering, the younger person always makes sure the senior person’s glass is perpetually full. Also, it’s customary for the younger person to turn their head while drinking, so the older person can’t “see” them, out of deference and respect. Although it’s usually all done in good fun, and less out of strict social necessity.

Yuri demonstrates a perfect pour. Yuri demonstrates a perfect pour.

Koreans pour with the left hand rested lightly against the right forearm. This is also polite to do when giving and receiving items. Even at the convenience store when the clerk is passing your change, you’ll see this custom observed. You should always pour for everyone else at the table in Kora before yourself. It’s good manners,  and if you remember to start with the oldest person first, you’ll look pro.

I'm not going to say this incredibly flattering picture wasn't the product of too much soju.  I’m not going to say this incredibly flattering picture wasn’t the product of too much soju.

If you’re eating supper in Korea, you’ll probably come across soju at some point. It’s a colourless alcohol traditionally made from rice, with an alcohol content anywhere from 16-45%. It’s traditionally consumed neat, but often times you’ll see Koreans mixing soju with beer to give it an extra kick. You should always accept any soju you’re offered, as it is a sign of friendship. Come to think of it, just accept anything you’re offered. It’s extremely rude not to, kind of like saying, “Oh no, I don’t want to be your friend.” Just eat anything you’re given. Korea is not a haven for picky eaters.

During the entirety of our travels, I found that Koreans are extremely generous and thoughtful with their food. When we were on the ferry to Jeju, a group of ajummas (middle-old-aged-auntie-type women in Korea) was sitting next to me, making the crossing and playing cards. These were complete strangers, yet as soon as they took out their food, they offered me some manju cakes (red bean filled pastries – yummy!) and a yoghurt drink.

In western society, as soon as we’re school-aged we’re taught never to take food from strangers, but that mentality don’t fly in Korea.  There, it’s a sign of friendship, and totally great! Sometimes it can be culturally awkward unless you’re really adventurous.

For example, Rob and I were at a market near our friend’s house in Suncheon, a suntanned old man who looked like a farmer/vendor walked up to us with a spoonful of mysterious greyish-brown, cubed, opaque jelly, with what looked like chill peppers on top. He motioned for us to ‘eat, eat!’. We both ate it, and I remember the look of desperation and panic on Rob’s face very clearly. We were also in the fish-area of the market, leading us to be very skeptical as to what we might have just eaten. My boyfriend, who is an especially picky eater, tried to talk his way out of it, but the farmer was persistent. We imagined it might have been something like fermented stingray (which is a thing, in Korea).

Later on, we were relieved to discover it had been acorn jelly. There was an audible sigh of relief.

Back to our barbecue – Beautiful Porum was our pro meat searer. She said that because she’s the youngest in her family she’s used to doing the barbecuing for everyone else. She was awesome. Never once did my chopsticks reach for a piece of meat and come up empty handed.

Those long metal pipes over each table are vents that take up the smoke form the charcoal grills.  Those long metal pipes over each table are vents that take up the smoke form the charcoal grills.

The place we went for barbecue was packed (see above), and it was the third place we had tried that night. If I remember correctly, it was a weeknight and we’re in a university neighbourhood, so just about everyone and the students had come out of the woodwork for barbecue. Price-wise it’s pretty affordable, and a good investment for your money since the food is so fresh and relatively healthy. Since bbq places are so ubiquitous, you’re usually looking at anywhere between $15-$30 per person.

Remember: it’s impossible to leave hungry, and the service you get for your money is exquisite. Even at the $15 places, we were still treated to endless refills of veggies and water, and could sit, relax and grill for as long as we wanted. I should mention too, that the traditional way to eat at these barbecues it to grab some grilled meat, some sauce (made from ground sesame and this vinegar-based chili sauce) and whatever veggies you like, then roll it all up in a lettuce leaf and shove it in your mouth, like the best little flavour-packed leafy taco ever.

One more tip for Korean restaurants: never tip! (haha, punny).

Tipping in Korea is considered an insult (although I think most Koreans understand that foreigners have this quirk, and will excuse you for it), and it will never be an option to select on the paper bill or debit card machine, so don’t even bother looking for it. Just thank your host, and enjoy not having to calculate an extra 15% on top of your bill (I feel like as a Canadian, I found this particularly hard not to do).

Some other BBQ Places we tried: The restaurant next door to Gordo and Danielle’s apartment building (as seen above), which has amazing duck  bbq. We called it “The Duck Place”. They do a great bibimbap as well. I should mention – once you’re all done eating your barbecue, and there are just a few pieces of meat left, it’s common for the waitress to come by and ask if you want to bibimbap it all. Then they’ll take your leftover veggies and meat, add some rice and mix it all together to make bibimbap. I reiterate: you can never leave hungry.

Another place we tried. Black Pork BBQ on Jeju Island (seen above). They’re famous for black pork belly there. Down the street from our hostel was an area called ‘Black Pork Alley’, which featured about ten or more different black pork bbq restaurants, ranging from low to high in price. The pigs are tiny and adorable. Also delicious.

Bonus time! The Korean habit of always pouring for others first, or always offering to share your food is connected to this really nice Korean concept called  jeong (정), which doesn’t translate exactly in English, but kind of encompasses love, empathy, kindness, sharing, attachment, compassion, all a general feel-good-be-nice-to-others-ness. Seoulistic.com does a really good short video explaining it that you can check out here.

Things I Am Bad At

It’s always good once in awhile to sit down with yourself and acknowledge the things in your life that need improvement.

This isn’t pessimism. In fact, to look at your faults and consider how they may be improved is a pretty optimistic behaviour.

Two things I struggle with:

1) Saving Money

That is to say, I’m great at spending it. Especially if I can argue it’s for educational or career purposes.  I’m great at justifying the noble ambition as worth the cost. I’m capable of throwing it on my credit card and dealing with it later.

Hint: This is a really bad habit.

This might work if you’re a CEO swimming in more money than Scrooge McDuck, but if you’re a graduate in your early 20s with not a lot of extra cash (see: me), then this is not such a great strategy.

The goal is to always pay down my credit card down to zero dollars at the end of each month, and I don’t. The exception is my AMEX (which I don’t use very much), which I pay down because their interest rates strike the fear of god into me.

Yes, education is important.

Yes, sometimes it sucks to be middle class.

You can appreciate all the opportunities that middle class DOES afford you, and at the same time that doesn’t make it any easier to watch your cohorts with more money take advantage of opportunities that you can’t afford to.

The only way to survive (short of winning the lottery) is to suck it up and be responsible with your cashflow.

I’d like to not be as tempted by shiny stuff that belongs on the hedonic treadmill.

It’s really hard.

As a coping mechanism, I’ve found it helpful to remind myself daily that the quality of content I produce is 99% to do with me, and 1% to do with my tools.

I also remind myself that the happiness and satisfaction I get out of work is 99.99% to do with the quality, effort and thought that I put into it, and has almost nothing to do with my tools.

There’s also that Edison quote:

“Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration. Accordingly, a ‘genius’ is often merely a talented person who has done all of his or her homework.” – Thomas Edison

It’s true that working with premium tools can make your job easier/less time-consuming/less frustrating/more refined, but most of the time if you stick with the tools you have, and are patient, you can produce content that is just as good (if not better) as if you were using the latest and greatest whatever.

Too often, we mistake technology for progress. Sometimes the new, shiny ‘tools’ we’re told we need to excel in our field are just distractions.

And why are those distractions there? Because capitalism. It’s not a bad system, but it’s a beast that needs to be fed.

Two examples of photographers who succeeded without fancy gear are Kevin Russ (for his iPhone photography), and Miss Aniela, (started out on Flickr with a point and shoot camera).

Both are now very successful within their niches.

So you know what? Maybe you don’t need to go to Cuba to write that first-person narrative fiction. Maybe you just need to go visit the library, and do some hardcore Googling.

2) Too Much Planning & Not Enough Doing

I love coming up with ideas.  What will it be like?  What will I feel like?  How will this impact x, y, z?  Oh my god, how cool would this be?

The onus is the followup.

Great idea. Are you going to actually make it happen?

A lot of the time I need to shake myself out of my head and remember that I need to go out and do things in the real world, where the impact of my actions can effect people.

Maybe I’m thinking about: a photoshoot, practicing a new music piece, a blog post, a story idea, an investigative piece, an act of kindness, exercise, whatever.

If left unfulfilled, all the great ideas you have will effect no one. If left unfulfilled, the ideas in your head are like a shiny mobile spinning above a crib. They may keep you entertained, but they’re essentially useless.

The great part is: going out and doing something usually makes you feel way better than just keeping your ideas to yourself.

TL;DR: Ideas are cheap. Action is measurable. People can only judge you by what you do. Go do stuff.

I wrestle with these problems all the time.

Sometimes I win and go do awesome stuff. Sometimes I loose and feel like a gigantic failure.

The more conscious I am of these habits, the more often I find myself able to head them off at the pass before they can negatively affect me.

The more often I can do that, the more often I find myself winning.

And here’s the trick:

The hardest part is to be able to tell yourself, “I have a problem with X, Y, Z” WITHOUT feeling guilty about it.

That damn guilt.

I tell you: It’ll get in the way of success more than your problems themselves.

Guilt destroys focus.

Two people are climbing up the same mountain: One is wracked with guilt that they have to climb the mountain in the first place; the other has their eye fixed on the summit.

Who you do think is going to do a better job?

It’s refreshing to be honest with yourself, and there’s no denying the mountain.

Get rid of fault and blame and “Why does it have to be like this?” and you’ll be that much quicker to reach the summit.

One way to figure out your issues is to examine their motivations:

Why am I doing this?  Is this is a crutch for something else in my life? Is this just a bd habit?  Do I like being a person who does this?

If you can’t or don’t take control of your habits (good and bad), they can interfere with your goals without you even realizing it.

Problems can change too.

The things I’m dealing with now may not be the same as what I’m dealing with in five years.

Life is a slow game of whack-a-mole.

As you gain control over one aspect, another crisis will pop up. That’s life being a complex system.

The good news: If you practice (and it does require a conscious effort) then the longer you play, the better you get.

The big thing is don’t keep score with yourself as you go through life.

You always hear ‘don’t keep score’ as good relationship advice. You have to foster your relationship with yourself the same way you’d foster it with another person.

Surround yourself with good people.

Talk to people about your problems.

Take time for self-reflection.

If your problems have gotten to a point where you don’t feel you can control them anymore, then seek help. Either from family and friends, or from health professionals.

Mess up. Win. Lose. Fail miserably. Kill it.

Enjoy it all, and make sure you’re not a victim of your habits. Make your habits work for you.  Their undertow will drag you down the river of life, so grab the paddle and start steering instead.

ps. I’m also really bad for ripping my fingernails. This is possibly my ultimate battle. And, after reading this my boyfriend would like to point out that my greatest flaw is actually my loud chewing. Point taken.

Hwaeomsa Temple: Spirituality, Chanting at 3am, Wild Tea Gardens and my Near-Appearance in National Geographic

Hwaeomsa Temple – One of the jewels of Korean Buddhism. Literally, it’s name means, “Flower Garland Temple”. It is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful temples in all of Korea.

It’s located on Mt. Jiri (or Jiri-san – Korea’s first designated national park!) in Gurye County in Jeollanam-do province. Fortunately, that is also reasonably close to where we were staying at Danielle and Gordo’s place in Suncheon. First we took a bus from Suncheon to the city of Gurye (where we hung out in the bus station) for around 9,000₩, and them from there (because we were running a bit late) we took a taxi to the temple base for 9,000₩. There’s also a shuttle that runs every 30 minutes or so  that would’ve cost us more like 4,000₩.

We arranged a temple stay at Hwaeomsa, and were looking forward to the authentic experience of getting up to chant with the monks at 3am and eat breakfast at 5am; to do some community work, and breathe deeply the refreshing air of the mountains. Ahhhhh.

I have to say that at first I felt myself buck a bit at staying the night.  This is because it was still only March, and I had done a temple stay once in Japan around this time of year and sleeping on the cold temple floor had been a test of fortitude in itself. I was pleasantly surprised to find out (as I should have known) that the Koreans have done this supremely right – they are the masters of in-floor heating. And so, the humble room that we shared with two Korean girls felt like an exotic palace. I sprawled on that heated floor on my thin and threadbare monk mat, and got what was probably one of the best sleeps of my life. This despite the fact that we were awoken at 3am to proceed to the dharma drum.

Most Korean temples have a dharma drum. It typically hangs in a two storey pagoda that makes it easier for people to watch. Here’s a great shot of it, taken by Simon Bond, an amazing photographer whom we met at Hwaeomsa Temple, while he was there shooting for this July’s edition of National Geographic Traveller India (he’s also a local from Suncheon, as fate would have it). This would be the edition of Nat Geo that I ‘almost’ made it into. Below the cover (shot by Simon), you’ll see a photo of one of the spreads inside the feature. In the upper right hand corner, you’ll be able to see a white ginger-beard guy sitting in a tea ceremony. That’s Gordo! To his left was Simon, and then to his left was myself. So I’m about a foot and a half away from being published in National Geographic. That’s as close as I’ve come to that life goal (so far).

This is the dharma drum at Hwaeomsa!

Getting up so early in the twilight really made the whole temple grounds seem surreal. There was no one awake except for us, and the temple grounds seemed vast. It would have been a great time to shoot a kung fu movie.

I didn’t bring my mobile phone or camera with me to take pictures because I didn’t want to disturb the atmosphere. I was proved a fool about fifteen minutes later when some other temple-stayers started taking out their cameras to take snaps of the monks as they drummed away. *sigh*. Nothing is sacred anymore. Some people were even using flash. Flash! At 3am! With monks! Come on!

To be honest though, anyone who comes to a modern buddhist temple expecting to go back in time 300 years will be in for a sore surprise when they see monks playing around on their Samsung smartphones and logging into Facebook while driving their cars around the monastery and checking the time on their (surprisingly fashionable) watches. This wasn’t true for every monk we met, but during a tea ceremony we had earlier that night, as we talked with the monk presiding over the ceremony, and our new friend Simon who’d spent a lot of time around the hermitages, we learned that this was more common than not in the modern age of monkery.

Something the monks did have going for them was their fleecy hats (as you can see the fellow in the photo wearing). It is COLD at 3am in the mountains. I had a superlight polar shell on under my monk robes, as well as my old orange hat (thank god I finally gave in an threw it away later on the trip – it was getting really ragged) and was still freezing in my extremities. The dharma drum seems to be sort of a “call to mass”, as during the drumming, more monks kept emerging from their dormitories and heading up to the main temple where we would go to to chant, and had chanted earlier that evening before the tea ceremony and bed.

Chanting is hard work.

Specifically, the sitting. In Japanese they call it ‘seiza’ 正座 (literally, “proper sitting”). I don’t know what they call it in Korean, or if they call it anything, but it makes your legs go to sleep like crazy. And just when you think you’re starting to adjust to it, the monks finish a line of prayer and you have to stand up and do a bunch of deep bows (but not quite enough to get the circulation back in your legs) before sitting down and squishing your legs again. I feel like the sound of my knees cracking as we rose the 20th time may have temporarily drowned out the sound of about 40 monks. Rob’s technique involved try to roll back on his legs, and then use that momentum to spring up at the required moment (Rob: “That was some Bruce Lee shit!”)

After morning chants, we had the option of going with a couple monks to make a chain of Buddhist prayer beads, which I was mildly tempted to do, until I heard that you had to do one knee-cracking bow for each bead you put on the chain. No thanks, back to bed for a couple hours.

We woke again around 5:30am for breakfast. Monk breakfast here is largely fermented veggies and rice porridge. I found it surprisingly tasty though. Koreans know how to use spices and seasoning. That was something I would put in my body again.

Applying deodorant with great poise in our dormitory. Applying deodorant with great poise in our dormitory.

After breakfast, we all gathered together some rakes and other tools for some weeding and sweeping around the temple grounds. This is a common thing in Japan too – whenever you stay or visit somewhere, you take some time to do some cleaning work for your hosts. Either that, or every place I’ve visited like this in Japan and Korea has developed a really humble and clever way of getting foreigners to pay their dues. Just kidding – it’s not just foreigners who do the work. Everybody pitches in.  It’s always a fun time and you meet some people while doing a little bit of exercise. I always get a kick out of it because you’d never see North Americans paying to do yardwork back home. The temple stay was 40,000 per person for one day/night (all food included).

One thing the monks really stress is to finish everything on your plate, and not leave anything behind to be wasted. So at supper the night before, I was a bit leery, as I have a tendency for my eyes to be bigger than my belly. Luckily, I played it cautious and had a personal moment of “Victory!” as I finished my plate (very quietly, so as not to disturb monk meal time). As I finished, I looked up and met Danielle’s eyes. She gave me a panicked look – she had taken too much food. Oh no! What to do? We weren’t supposed to talk – each of us had an adorable laminated monk placemat with the values of buddhism, and a ‘suggestion’ that no one should say anything during mealtime. The four of us foreigners exchange a flurry of eye signals and eyebrow wiggles, Rob and I expressing to Danielle that we could not take her plate, as we were both full already. A few more expressions between her and Gordo, and the extra food in question was bravely (as he was already stuffed) and subtlely dispatched by him after a swift exchange of bowls and a sideways glance.

Being a monk is hard.

We met a great array of people during our temple stay. Rob and Gordo’s roommate “Linus”, and a bunch of other families and young people who had come for the experience.

After we had done our part to clean up the yard with weeding and sweeping, we broke from our monkery and exchanged our robes for normal clothes, as Simon had offered to take us deeper (and upper) into the mountain to see the Manjusri of Yeongiam Hermitage. It’s a statue of the Bodhisattva of Great Wisdom that measures 13m high.

This isn't it.

The next mysterious turn of our journey would take us to another hermitage with a wild tea field. Simon knew there was this English-speaking monk up there. This is where we met Sven. Sven is a character – a dermatologist turned hermit from Hamburg, Germany who was born in the same suburb that I lived in when I lived in Germany (Bramfeld! Just how small is this world?) Sven’s day job now that he’s quit dermatology to become a monk is to look after the tea plants at this hermitage (Rob: “He was a sassy monk.”). Sven explained to us that to prepare the leaves for tea, they knead them and turn them over while drying them for seven hours straight. I asked him if you could buy the tea, but it turns out that a lot of the temples around there don’t sell their tea – just use it in ceremonies or trade it as gifts with other temples (like some secret, tea-based economy).

Sven is the fellow on the right, wearing the cheeky grin. Sven is the fellow on the right, wearing the cheeky grin.

Sven offered to take us up to see another shrine that had been decorated for a festival the night before, and this is where our story takes a turn for the vague/weird. After showing us the nice little pavillion they had set up, he suddenly took off into the forest saying something about a vanished silver plate. Okay? Sure, my sassy monk friend. So we took off into the bamboo after him.

Somewhere between there and halfway down the mountain, we learned that the plate he was so ardently searching for had been dropped by another monk at the celebration the night before, and had rolled down the mountain. Ah, okay, so this is what we were looking for. Despite the five of us beating around in the bamboo bush while making our way down the mountain (through absolutely nothing that resembled a trail), we saw no glint nor hint of this silver plate. Spontaneously, once we had gone further down the mountain than would be worth it to venture up again, Sven seemed to lose interest in finding the plate, “Ah well, one of the monks probably got it last night.” But hey! We had come to a mountain stream and Sven took us out onto the boulders in the middle of it, to drink and splash around in the cold pools. The water here was incredible. It looked liked liquid crystal.

“You should jump in!”

After some splashing and chatting, we realized that we were only maybe a twenty minute walk from the temple entrance. We had emerged from the forest side of the river, but across the stream saw a path that we had traversed the other day.

Then, as quickly as he’d come, Sven jumped across to the other side of the river, bid us goodbye with his cheeky grin, bowed and disappeared back up into the mountains.

I’m still not entirely sure he was human, and not some German-Korean cultural mishmash of a trickster character. Anyway, we were gladder for having met him.

We headed back down the mountain and I enjoyed exchanging some Doctor Who trivia and opinions with Simon (a Brit! And a Doctor Who fan as well!).

The trip to Hwaeomas was an amazing time. Heading back to the main gates we were feeling pleased, tired and healthy. The best.

We then caught a taxi from the base of the temple and headed back into Gurye on our way home.

Sleepyface. We were all content but tired from our days of mountain climbing and monkish lifestyle. Sleepyface. We were all content but tired from our days of mountain climbing and monkish lifestyle.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you that the Gurye bus station on the way home was the scene of one of my most embarrassing traveller moments to date.

Nay, it was not a traveller moment. It was a tourist moment.

I left my cell phone in the back of the taxi cab we took down from the temple.

I have never done this before.

This really threw me (I blame the large pockets in my polar shell, which is had fallen out of, and the fact that we squeezed four people into a taxi cab, so we were sitting pretty awkwardly, which likely caused it to fall out. But really, I blame myself. Always check yo’self when leaving a taxi!).

Luckily, I have really cool, smart, resourceful friends. With a combination of Gordo’s mishmash Korean language skills and the kindness of a waiting taxi driver, we managed to determine which cab company the taxi we had taken belonged to.

The taxi driver at the terminal then put out an APB on my cellphone via the Korean taxi radio lines.

There were some long, skeptical minutes of waiting, but then we heard back! The driver who had taken us was on the other side of town and would bring my phone back (as long as we paid for his return trip… thanks buddy).

But still, huzzah! I was so relieved. I turned into a mushy hothead for a bit when I realized my phone was gone, because normally I’m so good with having my shit together when I travel (Rob: “Your shit’s never together”).

But I guess that just goes to show you never know what little crisis you may need to deal with while travelling – and it’s always best to keep a calm head no matter what the situation.

This has been a pretty big post, and is venturing closer to the tl;dr ledge. In fact, it may already be over. Thanks for sticking around and reading!