Monday, January 17, 2005

Bulk Madness

I had the funniest experience tonight at typically Korean. I had been dyeing for bagels (we don't get a lot of Western food here) for weeks and we finally went to Costco to get some. I was also going to splurge on some cream cheese, which I haven't had in 6 months. I put the 10 gallons of cream cheese in the cart and headed for the bakery section. To my dismay there was only one bag of bagels left. I picked them up and a sales associate came up to me right away.

"Two fo' one" she said.

I looked at the sign and sure enough it was two bags for 5,400 won. I pointed to the empty table - "No more bagels" I said and pointed to the one bag in my arms.

"Two fo' one" she said.

Okay, something wasn't crossing the language barrier here. I gestured and pointed and used what little Korean I know to propose that I buy the one bag of bagels for half the price.

"No, no. Two fo' one." said the nice lady.

After more debate I finally decided that I was willing to pay full price for the bagels and buy one bag for 5,400 won. That's how bad I wanted these bagels. I was starting to get annoyed.

"Two fo' one" she said, looking at me like I was an idiot. Then she grabbed my bagels and ran away with them! She cradled them like a freakin football and took them into the back! I couldn't believe it! That lady had my bagels.

Why is this typically Korean you might ask. Is it Korean to steal your food? Nope. But it is very Korean to stick to rules long after they stopped making sense. Somebody said those bagels were to be sold for 2-for-1 and that's just the way it must be. Who was she to argue? From a business perspective it's just plain ludicrous. I ended up without the bagels and of course, put back the life time supply of cream cheese that I was about to purchase. Everybody loses.

But decorum and procedure are maintained, and that after all, is the point.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Still Waters

I have discovered the beauty that is the Korean bathhouse. I wish more than anything that I had pictures of the place because it's almost too difficult to describe. But heck, I'll give it a shot.

The bathhouse is a central part of Korean culture. They are all over the country and range from small facilities to large and more inclusive ones like the one that I go to. It's an interesting concept and I have to admit that it took me so me time to work up the courage but I am really glad that I went, because now I am hooked!

There is a big desk or reception area when you enter the bathhouse, where you take off your shoes and put them in a locker. (The actual bathing rooms are divided into men's and women's.) Then you are given a locker key attached to a wrist bad. You walk into the large locker area and sure enough, there are a lot of naked people. And a lot of lockers. There is also a food stand where people are lining up (as much as Koreans ever line up) to buy drinks and meat on a stick. Brian thinks the whole naked and eating thing is disgusting...I think it is oddly liberating.

Anyway, after you have gotten undressed (which, as a white chick with an Asian tattoo and a pierced belly button, isn't the most comfortable experience) and you have finished smiling and bowing to all of the women unabashedly staring at you, you go through a set of double doors into the bathing area.

When you first walk in you are greeted by rows of stand-up and sit-down showers. Koreans usually shower sitting down on little plastic chairs. Even in their homes they shower with a giant plastic bucket, the shower head and a tiny little stool. Everybody washes their hair and cleans their bodies before entering any of the pools. The bathhouse that I go to is really big, so there are probably about 80 different showers...nothing private though. Each shower is about a foot apart so you are surrounded by naked people, scrubbing each and every part of their body.

After you've cleaned yourself you can go into the pools. In my bathhouse there are 5 different pools, each with water at a different temperature. One pool (each pool is a different size, the biggest being about 5 feet deep and the size of a small swimming pool, and the smallest is 4 feet deep and roughly the size of a hot tub) is 45 degrees Celsius, another is 30, another is 25 and another is ice cold. One is set at boiling as far as I can tell. The idea is to go from pool to pool and shock your skin to increase blood flow and "revitalize" your body.

The room is quite big and there are probably about 100-150 people in the pools at a time. There are loads of little kids running around since whole families will come for the day. You can bring your drinks into the pools and relax for as long as you want. It costs $4.00 to get in and you can stay all day if you want. There are also several dry saunas located around the bathing area, again all at different temperatures.

One of the saunas is made entirely of quartz and is really beautiful. There are steam jets in the ceiling and it's really warm and relaxing. Another sauna is made of clay and has a TV playing the most recent Korean soap opera. All the women hang out in there and sleep on little Korean pillows made of wood. (That's right - wooden pillows.) The third sauna is your more typical cedar variety but it has some quartz and some nice mood lighting. It also has a cold ice pool in the middle so you can dip your face in it if you get too hot. And you will.

So that's basically it. It reminded me of the pictures of Roman bathhouses I have seen in textbooks and they were probably pretty similar. It's a really nice idea actually and once you get over the idea of being naked with a bunch of strangers it's really relaxing. My skin has never felt so soft and pampered! There is something a little humbling about being naked in public - it makes you feel vulnerable but connected to the people around you.

Strange but rewarding...just like Korea.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Age is Just a Number

I have already addressed the differences and quirks of the Korean "age" system but it turns out that it's a little more complicated than I thought. They are one year old when they are born. The day of their birth is recognized as their "birthday" but their age doesn't ever change on that day. It changes with the start of the New Year. Traditionally Korea has followed the Lunar calendar, so the New Year starts sometimes in February. But with the westernization of the country, some families have moved over to the Julian calendar so they now age by one year on the first of January...but not all of them. Some of them change their age in February when it becomes the year of the Rooster. So, if you were born on December 30th, you would add a year to your age on the first of January, which would mean that by Western standards you are two days old and by Korean standards you are two years old. Sounds simple enough right?

My kids at school are all suddenly a year older and I can't keep track of how old they are "for real" and they keep asking me how old I am and I don't even know anymore. My Korean vocabulary is expanding but I still keep coming back to the same old word, "mua-li-yo" - I don't know.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Apples and Oranges

What can I say? Japan was fantastic and we loved every minute of our trip. I always feel so torn here - it isn't really fair to compare Korea to its other Asian counterparts but at the same time it's difficult not to. Koreans compare themselves with China and Japan all the time. They'll ask you, suspiciously, "How was China?" It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the appropriate response is "Okay. But the food was greasy and Korea is much nicer." Unfortunately for Koreans, nothing could be further from the truth. China is great and the food is fantastic. Japan is cleaner, more efficient and the food is delicious. Oh, and the people don't push you or spit at your heels when you walk past. And did I mention how much nicer it is? How the buildings have some sort of aesthetic appeal and the streets don't smell like garbage?

"How was Japan?"
"It was okay but Korea is nicer."

Monday, January 03, 2005


I was initially going to blog about every day in Japan but I have decided to concentrate on my photographs instead. There are only so many hours in a day. Since pictures speak a thousand words and I can't possibly write that much in a day, I'll let the pictures tell the story. It's all about delegating the work.