The Comfort of Safety in Korea

Night Street Light

Night Street Light (Photo credit: Sheffield Tiger)

I remember several years back, when I was living in the US, walking home one night after university.  I was only walking from the bus stop, which was less than a 10 minute walk.  It was later, maybe 10 or 11pm.  I came to a darker street of the walk and one of the street lamps was out, making it darker.  I stopped, hating the idea of walking down the dark street at night, alone.  I just imagined being one of those news stories you read where the girl gets attacked and everyone asks ‘why was she walking alone at night on a dark street?!’  I looked up at the street lamp and just wished for it to come back on.  Much to my surprise, it did.  It didn’t light the street up very much, but I suppose it was more of a symbol of safety for me.  So I proceeded, walking quickly as I usually did after dark and keeping my eyes alert for any suspicious noises or people.  I made it safely, thankfully, but that night reminds me of the fear that I always felt having to walk alone at night.

I don’t know if others in the US feel this fear as well.  I know that those with OCD like me tend to be on the more paranoid side to begin with.  Some people say the US isn’t as bad as I think it is for crime, but how can I help but think that way when night after night the news stories involve random people being attacked on streets, in parks, in their own homes.  Assaults, robberies, shootings and stabbings of guilty and innocent people alike.  There are also hundreds of stories of people snapping and going on killing sprees.  The fact that ‘going postal‘ is now a well-known phrase in American English vocabulary is an indication of how often this type of thing happens.  Everywhere I went I never felt truly safe.  I hated that feeling.  I live an average life.  I am a good person.  I shouldn’t need to feel like I’m walking on egg shells everywhere I go.   It was stressful.  My body and mind felt tense.  I love to walk at night, but as a woman living alone, I didn’t always have the luxury of someone to go with me, so I felt trapped in my own home when I’d rather be out enjoying the moon and the cool air.

Then, I moved to Korea.

I heard it was safe before I got here, but you never really believe it until you experience it.  It’s funny, you can always tell who the recently arrived Americans are because they are the ones clutching to their bags and wary of those around them.  I was one of them.  Now, two years later, I am noticing the effects that the lack of crime here has on me.

Just the other night I was walking home from dinner, my friends headed in another direction, so I was off to walk home by myself down a few dark, seedy looking streets.  I wasn’t sure exactly which streets to take so there was a chance I’d get lost.  It was about 11pm or so and there weren’t many people around.  I got to a dark part of the street and it reminded me of the night I described above where I felt so much fear.  I kept walking (still alert, but relaxed) and took the time to reflect on what it feels like now to feel the comfort of safety.  My body is so much less tense now.  I am relaxed and can actually enjoy a nightly walk without having to walk fast and hope I don’t run into any unsavory characters.  I passed groups of men and plenty of drunks, none of whom bothered me.  As a woman, I cannot tell you how liberating that feels.

It’s not just walking alone at night.  It’s not just the fears that women normally fear.  This comfort of safety can also be felt in other areas too, such as being able to leave your iPhone or bag on a table, walk away and know it will still be there when you get back.  You can break out every fancy electronic device you own on the subway and not fear getting mugged.

I’m not sure of the exact reason that it’s so much safer here.  Some say it’s the idea of family vs. individual because doing a wrong here affects the family name and the respect of your whole family.  Others say it’s the presence of CCTV and knowing you could easily be caught.  Or perhaps it’s simply the lack of guns and drugs roaming the streets.  And for those in America who blame violent video games for their children’s violent behavior, I say, think again, because Korean children play the same video games with much more intensity than the American children do and I do not see the same types of juvenile crimes here.  My students may be able to draw AK47s with frightening accuracy, but they don’t intend to use them to harm their friends or classmates.

I know that crime still happens here.  I’m not ignorant of that.  I still maintain the level of alertness and ‘street smarts’ I learned throughout my childhood, as should everyone to be on the safe side, but the possibility of experiencing crime first hand is much lower than what I am used to.  So when people ask me why I don’t wish to move back to the US, I tell them the lack of paranoia and stress is worth the small sacrifices I make by living outside of my home country, outside of my supposed ‘comfort zone.’


Evolution of the Penguin

English: I took this photo on Gourdin Island i...

Image via Wikipedia

I get it now. It only took me 31.5 years, but I get it. I finally understand why penguins walk the way they do. Their walk is imitated worldwide. It is famous. And in the “AHA!” moment on my walk home this evening I have figured out why.

Here it is:

The only way to walk on ice is to waddle, feet turned out, weight on the heels.

Were you looking for something more scientific? Not from this gal…my strengths are languages and words, not science and math.

I suppose I should add that I came to this revelation because Korea has horrible sidewalks for a winter-laden country and they are near impossible to really sweep free from snow and therefore are VERY slippery. So I am forced to walk like a penguin from side to side to help me stay upright and keep a good safe grip on my iphone.

I give my thanks to the penguins for teaching me their tricks so that I may walk home, not skate.

I knew there was a reason I loved penguins. I should go watch Happy Feet now…

Dear Korea

(this is my attempt to stay balanced in life by discussing the good and bad evenly via imaginary letters tp various entities.)

Dear Korea,

1. Garlic bread should not be sweet. Neither should pizza sauce. Ever.

2. Wallpaper is not the answer to every interior design question.

3. Your valiant, albeit overly categorized, effort at a recycling system is thwarted on a daily basis by every snack maker who individually packs their snacks, creating more waste…and by Lotteria take out.

4. You embraced Swiffers, now embrace Mr. Clean. Your floors will thank you for it.

1. Thank you on behalf of us women for providing such well dressed young men. We appreciate the eye candy.

2. Thank you for providing what my own government was incapable of – inexpensive medical and dental care.

3. 호두 rocks!!

A Moment of Solitude

In a city of 12 million people, it can be a wee bit difficult to find a place of quiet, a place to truly be alone (outside of your own apartment that is). The sidewalks are lined with an obstacle course of people walking in every which direction. The subway walkways look like a herd of antelope in a canyon, all rushing to the next destination. Coffee shops, which in the US are known for being places to study or relax, are rarely quiet, even at 2 in the morning. Even the hiking paths are crowded with the ajummas and ajosshis of the Korean world, equipped with walking sticks and visors, beating you to the top. Needless to say, a place of tranquilite is a rarity indeed.

However, the other day, I applauded the creativity of one of Seoul’s citizens. In a semi-crowded morning train this young man reached behind me to hit the button that opened the two sets of doors that led to the next train. He stepped inside the first door and stopped. My first thought was ‘he’s going to get stuck in there.’ I watched him with confusion and curiosity, arching my eyebrows and tilting my head, much akin to the way my former whippet would. He waited. The doors closed. He turned sideways. And promptly sat down. I almost laughed out loud. I looked away, but continued to chuckle at him for having such a brilliant idea. The 3 older women I was standing in front of caught a glimpse of him and stared, shock bringing their hands to the mouths.

In a country where not standing out is the norm, having a young Korean man take a stand against the lack of solitude was refreshing at best. I found myself blocking the button as if I could prevent anyone from trying to use that doorway while he enjoyed his moment of silence. I also resisted the urge to knock on the door and give him two thumbs up as a sign of my support. Instead I left him in silence, just him, a backpack and an MP3 player.

He was my hero for the day.

Big Meal For ONE Please

The first thing I always ask people when talking about visiting or living abroad is “What are some of the small cultural differences you saw?”  The big cultural differences I usually already know, you know, general Wiki’d knowledge.  So it’s the small things that fascinate me, the cultural trinkets of daily life.  So from time to time I will entertain you with a peek at some of the cultural trinkets I keep tucked up on my Korea shelf.

Today’s tidbit is of a culinary nature.  Today I ordered omurice, one of my favorite inexpensive Korean dishes consisting of rice, egg, ketchup and in this case some sort of gravy (costs less than $4 US).  It comes with a small side of salad, kimchi and other sides per the usual.  Looks like this:


I got it to go.  When I opened the bag in my apartment there were two sets of chopsticks…as if I am not expected to eat such a large portion all by myself.  I appreciate the foresight, but I don’t think they realize how it comes across psychologically.

Some of you might think it was just a simple mix-up, but trust me, this extra silverware/plasticware/woodenware thing is a norm here.  The other day, no lie, I got 2 straws with my Lotteria soda. ???  I remember the first time I noticed this habit.  I was feeling ultra emotional that day, somewhere back in culture shock phase #2 (the irritable phase) and went to Caffe Bene with one of my girls.  I got one of those belgian waffles with the scoop of gelato on top (yes we are still in Korea) to indulge and the waffle is only slightly larger than my palm, so definitely a small dessert size for my American tendencies.  (See below note the size in comparison to the size of a normal coffee mug)

Caffe Bene Gelato and Waffle

I was already thinking I should’ve ordered a side of extra gelato to compensate.  When I went to the counter, vibrating coaster in hand, I was given a prettily arranged plate with TWO forks.  Seriously.  Do I LOOK like I can’t handle this dish alone?  Have you seen these hips??  Curvy is my best asset and I’m not going to stay all curvy if you expect me to share this tea-party-portioned dessert with my girl over there.

I’m not a big fan of sharing food to begin with, let alone desserts.  Ever see that episode with Joey and the sharing food?  JOEY DOESN’T SHARE FOOD!  If not, see below…

I’m a big big (did I mention big?) fan of Friends so expect more clips as they relate to my life…anywho, that’s me, the non-sharer.  Here, there are some foods that must be shared and they are some of my favorite foods here like Korean BBQ and Shabu Shabu, so I share there, but when there are individual menu items involved, they are meant for the individual.

I must also point out that it is a good thing that I’m not one of those girls who is sensitive about my weight because it is hard enough living in a country where pants don’t come in your size, but to then have the 40kg teenager behind the coffee counter hand you two spoons for a small dessert basically insinuating that you’d be a pig to eat it alone…it could be very detrimental to the emotional health of many a young, less secure women I know.

I realize it is just a cultural difference and they do it out of kindness because they are used to people sharing things here (you should see some of the fruit ice cream thingys that come in like fish bowls with 4 spoons!),

Fish bowl sized shareable dessert

but word to the wise dear kind servers, westerners I know are used to asking for a second fork or set of chopsticks if they really need it.  Thanks though!  🙂

Oh and before I go, I wanted to fill you in on Korea Tip #127, when finished eating your take out in your apartment, store the container in the freezer until you are ready to take your trash out.  Any remnants of kimchi will wreak havoc on your apartment’s normal fragrance for days.  Trust me, your date will thank me for it.

30 Day Challenge #1

The word Han-geul in Han-geul. Hangeul is read...

Image via Wikipedia

I am sure I mentioned this before, but I am a self-diagnosed, severe….procrastinator.  I have so many things I want to do in life, but if given too much time to get them done, they never get done.  When I was in high school I got my best grades after I started working not one, but two jobs.  My dad joked that if I got a third one, I’d get straight A’s.  He was probably right.  Right now I have the luxury of time on my hands and am therefore not getting much accomplished, so I’m going to try to change that starting today.  I, of course, have tried setting goals for myself before and failed miserably.  However, I’m hoping that if I post my goal on here in a public forum, the idea of having to tell you I failed 30 days from now is much scarier than simply admitting the failure to myself, alone in my apartment.  So if I fail, feel free to laugh, point and mock me.

Any of you who watch TED will recognize the following video:

It is a very popular video on TED because it’s short, sweet and relatable.  Most people I know want to accomplish something from learning a language, playing guitar, getting into yoga, cooking…the list is endless.  I normally don’t jump on these inspirational bandwagons because of, well, the aforementioned failure rate and my ability to stay focused on one interest for more than like 3 days.  But alas, I am desperate.

So, what is my challenge you ask?  I am going to learn at least one new lesson a day from the Talk to Me in Korean (TTMIK) website.  As I mentioned in a previous post, I love languages and am currently attempting to learn Korean.  This seems like an obvious To Do since I live in Korea, but most foreigners here don’t bother to learn it, so I am part of a minority I assure you.  You can get around without it here, but I love languages (I should start collecting nickles…err 50won…for every time I say that) so I want to learn it while I’m immersed in it.  I wanted to go to an academy to learn it seriously, but I can’t afford one since one of the main reasons I’m here is to pay off student loans.   The cheapest academy for 2 classes a week is like $175-ish/month.  I’ve been trying to self study for a year, but haven’t been doing so well staying on track.  I’ve got lots of pretty Korean books on my shelf though!  They have free classes on Saturdays at the Seoul Global Center, but I don’t think once a week is enough time to keep my focus; however, now that I’m actually living in Seoul, I may go just to meet other learners and buy another pretty textbook.  😉

If you are in Korea and haven’t heard of TTMIK yet, it’s worth checking out.  It is much more than just a podcast.  They have 6 levels of lessons that include audio lessons and follow along PDF, plus a ‘workbook’ every 10 lessons so you can practice what you learn.  On top of that, they are very interactive.  They encourage and respond to questions and comments.  They always post interesting things on their Facebook site too like translation challenges and cultural lessons.  I’ve never seen a language website so well-rounded, so helpful and so…FREE.  They are amazing.

I have studied some of their lessons already, but I would get overzealous in one day and try to do like 10 of them and end up not retaining anything.  So I will try for one a day and see how much I can learn from just a website.  I think those who live in other countries might struggle with learning from only a website, but since I live here and interact everyday with Koreans, it should be easier for me to incorporate the lessons and practice speaking.  As of right now, I read Korean and know the basics like numbers, where things are, how to order food and buy things and how to ask if a store has something you need.  You’d be surprised how far that little bit gets me.

So without further ado, the challenge commences.  I may post about what I’m learning from time to time, but probably not everyday.  Cross your fingers and wish me luck!

P.S.  I’ve named this post Challenge #1 because I also would like to make myself read/study Italian for one hour a day too, but I don’t want to take on too many goals at one time like I normally do, so we’ll save that for another day o’ motivation.  🙂

Gluten-Free Diet for Psoriasis Sufferers


Image by adaenn via Flickr

So I found this blog about psoriasis today (here) that says there is new evidence that a gluten-free diet is beneficial to those who suffer from psoriasis.  Oh how I wish this evidence was found before I moved to Korea.  Not to say that it’s impossible to eat a specialized diet in Korea, but I daresay it would be quite difficult for me to attempt.  Let’s just say I know vegetarians who have trouble eating here.

First, Korea isn’t like America where getting food ‘your way’ is the norm.  You get what’s on the menu especially if you don’t speak the language well.  🙂  Usually we waygooks just point to what we want.  Second, since I have limited Korean language ability right now, reading nutrition labels is taxing, to say the least.

So other than avoiding wheat and rye breads at Paris Baguette, I suppose gluten-free will have to wait until my next country (which will probably be a Spanish speaking country) where I understand the language and make this type of lifestyle change.  If I could lessen my gluten intake it may help, so if any of you have any suggestions on particular foods to stay away from (until I can do my own research), feel free to chime in.  In the meantime, still searching for other treatments…

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