Thursday, 12 May 2011

Etiquette and Dried Squid

For the last few days, I have been pondering two topics that are vitally important for any tourist, traveller or indeed pilgrim: manners and food.

Let's start with manners - it should go without saying that the first thing which should be packed into your suitcase (metaphorically speaking) is a sense of tolerance, or at the very least, the ability to take a breath and count to ten before reacting to a situation.
If asked to differentiate between a tourist and a traveller, most people would probably say timespan. 'Tourists' head away for weekend and fortnight breaks while 'Traverller' has long term connotations.
For me, however, the difference between the two has always been that of attitude rather than duration. I don't want to wax too philosophically about this, so I will try and be brief!
It seems to me that the Tourist goes somewhere to relax and collect photos, sights and souvenirs as if they were on a scavenger hunt. This is probably coming off as derogatory, but it is not I assure you, I have been a tourist myself in the past and will again in the future - in fact my best tourist experiences were in my own capital city!

In my book - which has often been wildly different to everyone else's - the Traveller goes in search, not of souvenirs, but of insight. What makes a culture tick? How are we different? How are we the same?

This coming Saturday I will have been in South Korea for a sum total of eight weeks and in that time I have found tolerance and simple manners to be invaluable allies for a smooth transition.

Now, don't let the word 'smooth' fool you. I'm not some sort of Zen Travel Master who can move effortlessly and seamlessly around the world! It's been eight weeks and I still haven't crossed the threshold of a Post Office (that's a story for another day) and on Saturday I travel down to Jirisan for some hiking and that will involve....gulp.....getting from Ulsan to Daejeon on several types of public transport all by myself!

Where was I? Oh yes, manners! Mail and trains aside, those are phantoms of my own brain. When it comes to actual relations with actual Koreans, I'm playing a blinder!
This is because as a seasoned and dedicated Traveller, I pay attention to the details.
I am painfully and incredibly slowly learning Korean.
My pronunciation is probably excerable, but they are so delighted that I am making the effort, that even while they are laughing at me, I can see how pleased they are.
I hand my money to the till assistant in my right hand, while gripping my right forearm with my left hand. ( I don't know why they do this, but I do not need to know, a simple case of 'When in Rome....')
I bow slightly when greeting people, older, in authority, or simply because they have bowed first!

And segueing gracefully into my second topic, the biggest area for displaying your manners or lack thereof is at the dinner table.

I remember when I was about nine or ten, my Uncle Jim explaining to me that one should always accept food gracefully, and even if you think it is hideous, don't let your face reveal it. Be polite, and swallow! I have no earthly recollection why we were having such a conversation, but Uncle Jim had been to deepest, darkest Africa and therefore was the authority on eating strange food politely! That lesson stuck in my head and I have to say it's reaping dividends here in Korea.

At our Hagwon (private school) a cooked lunch is provided for the staff everyday by a very skilled Cook. For the first six weeks I was eating meals of which I recognised about 20% of the food. I plunged in gamely and soon had the Cook, via a translator, complimenting me on my chopstick skills and asking if the food in Ireland was like this, because I was eating so well!
Slowly I am starting to recognise the food, and lovable, beady-eyed Cook is quick to notice what I like and serve it up again! Sometimes though, knowing what the food is, only makes it stranger, so far I have eaten:
  • three kinds of seaweed
  • a salad leaf which in Europe is considered a roadside weed
  • tree shoots - boiled - I kid you not!
  • mountain bracken - surprisingly tasty
  • cubes of acorn jelly - tricky blighters to pick up with chopsticks!
  • a curry that no Indian on the planet would recognise
  • sweet potato noodles
Today at lunchtime, I hit the jackpot. Sticking to my policy of eating and then asking, I dived into one of the seafood side dishes. Twelve hours later my mouth drools at the mere thought of it! It was delicious! I asked what it was - dried squid in thanhchan sauce (the sauce used in Bibimbap - Korean stir fried rice dish).
I love squid, but if I had been told before eating, the word 'dried' would have conjured up images of chewing leather, and I would have left it after me.

Not only did I get to meet my new favourite dish, I quite unwittingly earned the obvious and loud approval of everyone at the table. They are used to, and approve of, me trying everything, but that I should so clearly and unmistakably like this seemed to warrant an undue amount of congratulation.
To be honest, I thought they were overdoing it a bit!
My co-teacher Lucy explained that Ulsan, being a coastal city, is naturally big on all kinds of seafood but that all the previous foreign teachers didn't like the squid.
Aaaaahhhh, so it was the rarity value provoking the outpouring of approbation!

Lucy complimented me, saying "Oh, you have a very Asian taste!" I was able to tell her that I had eaten squid quite a bit in Europe, that it is popular in Spain, France and Italy, just that I had never had it dried.

So there you have it peeps, with manners and an iron stomach you will never fail to win friends and influence people!

Ciao for now!

Monday, 2 May 2011

That's Entertainment!

Yesterday (Sunday) I dipped my toe into the world of Korean entertainment by checking out both DVD Bangs and Korean TV Dramas. I girded my loins and boldly went where no Kildimo girl has gone before!

I started out easy by simply googling 'Korean drama english subtitles' and not really knowing what to expect. In hindsight I should have realised there would be quite a market for just such a commodity with all the Korean Americans at least some of whom might have spotty Korean language skills.
Lucky for me!
So I did indeed find plenty of sites and have now happily embarked upon steady diet of Korean tv. It's not without it's hiccups, slow loading times and episodes in 6 parts - but an old 'Project Free TV' vet like me can navigate such obstacles no problemo!

If you're insatiably curious, check them out for yourself at

With that under my belt I set my face towards my next goal: the DVD Bang.

'Bang' is Korean for 'room' and a walk down any large street will be show you 'PC Bangs' - Internet Cafe's without the Cafe, 'Norae Bangs' - Karoke Bars, 'Jimjil Bangs' - Saunas and 'Manhwa Bangs' - think Comic Reading Rooms. Manhwa is to Korea what Manga is to Japan.

Last weekend I had watched parts of a Korean romcom that intrigued me enough to describe it in the staffroom at lunchtime. I barely had five words out of my mouth when I was deafened by a chorus of ..."Meenyo nun gehro woh!" (200lb Beauty) and various quotes thereof. So I was determined to watch it in a DVD Bang this weekend.

So on Sunday evening, with my semi-glad rags on, I was all set to head out the door when I doubled back and powered up the laptop. I wanted to do a quick recce of what to expect in the way of prices, etiquette and whatnot. Boy, did I get more than I bargained for!

First off, all the blogs came down pretty heavy (no pun intended) on my movie of choice and then it turns out that as the vast majority of Koreans live at home with their parents until they themselves are married, the DVD Bang has in itself, become a rather tasteless pun. (Let's just leave it at that shall we?!)
So much so that it is rare for two people of the same sex to visit and if you go by yourself you're considered sad and weird. Well! That gave me pause, ........enough that I seriously considered not going.
For all of five minutes. Then I thought, "I want to see this movie, and I like the idea of my own personal home cinema, so screw it, I'll just play the crazy foreigner card!"

Apart from anything else, on Friday when I had quietly asked one of my co-teachers to write the name of the movie for me, it sparked a four way discussion on how to spell it phonetically in English, so there was no way I was slinking into school on Monday morning without having seen the movie!

Thusly filled with righteous pig-headedness I headed down into Mugeodong my nearest DVD Bang. I think you will agree it has an oddly impressive entrance.....

Anyhoo, I rocked up to Darby and Joan at the reception desk, gave them a nice "Anyong ha seo!" (Formal Hello), handed over my written movie title with a polite "Butag ham nida" (Please).
Two minutes later I was in my private theatre with the opening credits rolling, all for the princely sum of 6,000 Won ( about €4.50).

Of course, once I saw the room I could see how it could be used for more, ahem, private recreation....I mean there's even tissues and a towel for crying out loud. The sofa WAS seriously comfy though.

Despite the online idiots knocking the film, I thoroughly enjoyed it and would watch it again, the room was comfortable and the whole evening cost less than a pint of Guinness in Dublin. I reckon I'll become a regular!

So the moral of this post is....."Feck the begrudgers and never underestimate the power of the 'Crazy Foreigner Card'"
I know I won't!

Peace out!