Vegetarian sabotage

Ok so I admit it, being a vegetarian in Korea is definitely not as easy as i thought it would be!  Having been here for almost 2 months, I have eaten noodles roughly about 5 out of the 7 days a week… making a grand total of 45 bowls of noodles.  For those of you who know me, and my slight insanity about fitness, eating right and my love for all things veggie, than you might find this blog a bit of a shock. “what! Sam eating carbs every day of the week!!!”, ya I know, crazy eh! but hey, when in…Korea do as the Koreans??

bowl of noodles

I knew full well that with my dietary restrictions that my travels are slightly less adventurous in the food area then most.  But that being said Pete and I are avid cooks and enjoy cooking just as much as going out to a restaurant. Coming to Korea I assumed that living in an Asian country, the birth place of tofu and soy milk, both staples in almost all vegetarian diets, that there would be new awe inspiring vegetarian options! But it seems as though they have not moved passed those two items.  And on top of that, their selection of soymilk doesn’t have the delicious flavors like chocolate or strawberry…its just plain old soymilk.  Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy a nice glass, but even France, the country that puts ham on EVERYTHING, had countless more varieties, including banana!

So in spirit of not starving, I have dialed down my vegetarianism a tad…as sad as that sounds.  Previously, I would not have eaten anything with an animal by-product in it… For example; gelatin, chicken/beef/fish stock,anything that was cooked with meat, and so on.  But now, with the language barrier and the fact everything is written in Korean on ingredients lists I find this ever so difficult. Simple grocery store visits have turned into day trips where i bring the words “pork”, “beef”, “chicken” and “fish” written out in Korean.  Besides one questionable dumpling, I think I have done an OK job with avoiding meat all together.

Making a spider pinata for Halloween

The only real trouble I have got myself into is with  a devilish 6 year old who takes pleasure in trying to trick me into eating meat. For those of you who do not know, I work one-on-one with the directors son, MuBon, from 10 am until noon.  After which we go out for lunch with his 2 year old brother June-Young and his auntie. This one particular afternoon we were going out for noodles at a restaurant.  They ordered kong gook su (cold noodles), kal gook su (hot noodles) and dumplings. The only time I had eaten dumplings before were when they were kimchi on the first night in Korea.  But here sat in front of me were the most deliciously smelling, soft gooy dumplings that made my mouth water just by looking at them.  Oh how I craved something other then noodles! I asked MuBon, who acted as my translator to his non English auntie, if they had meat in them.  He mumbled a few Korean words to his auntie, looked back at me with a smile and said “she says no”.  So, I pick up my chop sticks, grab one of these enormous dumplings and stuff it into my mouth with excitement. Yummy, you ask? Well not quite. The first bite into the dumpling I chomped down on what was unmistakably pork.  The tough, chewy texture made me slightly gag and look around for a napkin.  There were none to be found. So in spirit of not being rude, I chewed, and chewed, and chewed some more (I forgot how tough meat was!).  Finally I built up the courage to swallow the lump of doughy pork and washed it down with copious amounts of water. MuBon, who watched me eat the entire thing, was quick to ask “did you like it!”.  I replied neutrally, not wanting to offend the cook, saying “there was meat in it MuBon! I don’t eat meat”. He persistently asked again “ya! But did you like it Samantha teacher!? Did you? You like meat! I knew you liked meat! Here have another one!”… and thus began the struggle between a persistent little boy who fails to understand vegetarianism (who actually thought I was a veterinarian at one point) and my wish to maintain a meat free lifestyle.


One week down!

As we stepped out of the airport we were greeted with signs “Welcome to Korea Samantha an Peter!”. Yay we made it!!  Our recruiter who was waiting for us was this tiny little 5 foot nothing Korean lady, sporting the most amazing 3 inch leopard heels. I was in love with Korea already! Pete and I towered over her, and almost everyone else in our passing. People were not joking when they told us to bring a lot of our own clothes because Canadians are on average a “bit“ bigger then Koreans. I only hoped they had those shoes in my size!! We were quickly whisked off to the train station to embark on the final leg of our journey, a simple 2 hour train ride to Ulsan.  We were handed the train ticket and seeing it entirely in Korean i started to panic a little, not having much energy the only word that crossed my mind was “ummmmm“. Luckily the train had english announcements so getting off at the right stop wasn’t as terrifying as we thought it would be.

So after about 30 hours in transit with zero sleep, laying down and closing our eyes was the only thing on our mind. But sleep we did not. We woke up at about 4 am, very disoriented and confused. Was it 4 pm or 4am? Why was it so dark? What day is it even!?   I tossed back and forth for awhile hopping that I would fall back asleep, but alas I was defeated by the 13 hour time difference and my body insisting that is was 3 pm and that I had drastically over slept. So began our first day in South Korea.

That night we went out to dinner with our directors, David and Antonio, David’s family, and the current western teacher, Alex. Being our first official Korean meal i was very excited to see what there was in terms of vegetarian options (soon you will realize the meaning behind the name of my blog). We went to a traditional Korean noodle house where you take your shoes off at the door and sit on little mats.  Everyone had a good laugh at Pete. Easily the biggest guy in all of Ulsan, trying to sit comfortable at these little tables was near impossible for him.  We were fed kimchi (for those of you who do not know what kimchi is, it is the most widely eaten Korean side dish.  It is spicy pickled cabbage that is left to ferment for days to even years!… it can get pretty smelly), kal-gook-soo (probably not spelled right but that is how you pronounce it) which is thick noodles in a hot milky sauce with dried seaweed on top, and kimchi dumplings (pretty self explanatory; dumplings filled with kimchi, veggies and some other grains). We ate and drank bowls of Makgeolli (a sweet Korean alcohol that is made from rice) until we could not possibly fit another grain of rice in our bellies. Everything was very delicious and I was very grateful to have had such an amazing first day in Korea!

On Monday, day two of Korea, we met our directors for lunch at this one restaurant right next to the school i was to teach at.  The shop owner spoke perfect English and was overjoyed when we told him we were from the Toronto area. He knew a lot about Toronto and Canada in general, seeing as though his daughter is currently studying nursing in Toronto.  He was very friendly and no problem making me a vegetarian version of Gimbap (literal translation is seaweed rice, but it is more like a Korean version of sushi filled with pickeled radishes, long mushrooms, tofu, and egg). Little did i know at the time,  this item soon became one of the only non-noodle dishes i regularly ate. Our directors went over our itinerary for the week, Tuesday pictures for our alien cards, Wednesday we had to go in for a examination to make sure we were healthy,  and every day class at 1:30. Sounds easy enough! Except by “everyday “class at 1:30, they meant today too….

So at 1:30 precisely my new name became `Samantha teacher` and my English vocabulary from grade 2 began to resurface.  For most of my day i work one-on-one with the director`s son, MuBon and then teach 4 or 5 classes on top of that.  The classes ranged from 7 to 14 year old, with varying degrees of English skill. I found my brain instinctively wanting to switch to French because whenever i had to speak in basic foreign language  before it was always french. But seeing as though they barley spoke English, French was not going to help me in this situation.  The beginner classes sat there extremely quiet and listened to me talk.  “Wow! what good behaved kids“ i thought… it soon dawned on me they had absolutely no clue what i was saying. For the rest of the day i racked my brain trying to find the most simple English words to use, and even then they sometimes didn`t quite understand. Thank goodness for Google, my artistic ability, and electronic pocket dictionaries every Korean kid seems to have.   MuBon on the other hand is exceptionally good at English, having had a Western teacher work closely with him from a very young age. He is 5 in Canadian years and 6 in Korean but his English vocabulary, reading skills and knowledge far passes any 5 year old i have ever met.  He spent most of the first day showing me all the books he has made and all his art projects and he talked about everything with such enthusiasm it inspired me to teach him more. Why can`t all the kids be like this! The day quickly ended and the rest of the week went similarly with Wednesday only being the change in routine.

We were picked up bright and early on Wednesday to go to the hospital and have our healthy check done.  I hadn`t really thought too much about it, how much could they really check? I would soon regret asking that question. After they took our height and weight, did an eye test, took 2 vials of blood, 4 tubed of pee, a chest x-ray, a hearing test (where apon i acted out ear surgery to explain my hearing problem to the non-English audiologist), a dental check up, an EKG test, and a final screening with a doctor…. they were satisfied, and i was terrified.  How could you do all those tests and not find something wrong!? On top of all this, the cost of doing these tests was not covered in our contract so we had to shell out 100 000 won each (about 100 Canadian)  of our already very small budget to pay for everything.  Although, to think about it, paying $100 isn`t a lot of money for all those tests, I feel like if you were in the US with no coverage you would pay close to 10x that price just for a urine test.  But i feel as though they were 20 000 won away from putting us under anesthetic and doing exploratory surgery.

Overall our first full week in Korea was rather busy.  But there is no better way to adapt then to be thrown knee deep into the culture and all it has to offer! Over the week we began to pick up many Korean customs which i will gladly share with you (who knows maybe you`ll find your way to Korea one of these days)!

1. You always take your shoes off before entering a Korean house.  Our apartment actually has a shoe room that you first enter as you step into the door. Easily the worst smelling room, but having a ceiling high closet with endless shelves to put my shoes has easily made me the happiest girl in the world! My only regret is not bringing more shoes….

2. You never pour your own drink. There is a Korean saying that if you pour your own drink you will not get married for 5 years. Even if you are already married, it is still customary for someone else to pour your drink.  This is a blessing and a curse all at the same time, because if your drink is empty it will ALWAYS be filled up, regardless if you want it to be.  I find you drink a lot more when you cup is constantly full, and especially when makgeolli is so sweet and delicious!

3. You always do things with two hands.  You pour a drink with two hands, you receive a drink with two hands, you give out paper with two hands, you get change from the grocery store with two hands, you receive and give almost everything with two hands. Even if you are reaching and can only reach with one hand, you place your other hand on your elbow or your shoulder. My left hand has never worked so hard in its life!

4. Bowing is a huge part of the Korean (and i think Asian) culture.  I first read that is was rude for western people to bow to Korean people but soon realized that this wasn`t exactly the case.  When someone wants to say hello, or goodbye or even thank you with respect there is always a bow.  It can be a full bend at the hips bow, or an informal bow of the head.  I find myself bowing many times a day when parents walk in and out of the school.

5.  Drinking! My favorite Korean custom! Drinking is a huge part of the culture.  To share a drink with your boss (and by “a drink“ i really mean 4 or 5) is a sign of a happy work relationship.  We learnt this on the first day of being in Ulsan, at first i was very abrehensive about drinking makgeolli in-front of David, but watching Alex (the other western teacher) and him fully enjoy many bowls i caught on quickly.  Pete now even has a open invitation to do out drinking beer with David after school.

That pretty much sums up my adventures and experiences of my first week living and working in South Korea.  As the weeks go on I feel more and more at home in Ulsan, and i cannot wait to see what else this country has to offer! One week down sooo many more to go!

How it all began

As some of you already know, I am spending the next 365 days working and living in Ulsan, South Korea!  Traveling is probably my biggest passion in life. Having been to over 17 countries, I think I have some experience under my belt, but never have I spent a full year abroad.  I will take you through some of my ups and my downs of living in an Asian country for a year and hopefully for some of my friends and family this provides them with a window into my worldly travels!

Some of you may think that this story began when Pete and I stepped on to the plane to Korea, but it began far before that. It was January 1st, 2011, wait no the 2nd… clearly the 1st we were in no state to make life altering plans. I, being the plan maker of this duo, asked repeatedly “what are your new years resolutions!” and after Pete answering “I don’t make plans” a few too many times I guess it clued in that I wasn’t going to give up any time soon.  So we made plans! Our first was to be nicer to each other, our second was not to say the “f” word (and for you potty mouths out there I don’t mean the word you are thinking of! F as in fat… we were forbidden to say “fat”)… that one lasted until dinner that night, where I proclaimed how “fat” I felt. And our last and final one was to be on three continents by the end of 2011. Me, being an avid traveler, got out my European traveling books and started mapping out dates and times and countries and so on and so forth… as Pete rolled his eyes, what had he gotten himself into?

So as the story begins, Pete and I recently graduated from University of Waterloo after which we spent a few months living in France as Pete lived out his dream of playing football overseas. Or, as I like to think about it, actually got to call him self a “professional football player”.  Isn’t that the dream of most athletes? His season was short-lived, but the friends and the experiences had will live on for years to come. We (and I say “we” because clearly, without me by his side he wouldn’t have had such a fantastic cheering section, even if I’d never watched a full football game ever before in my life) ended up making enough money to spend the last month overseas traveling around Europe. We each got to pick a country we were dying to going to.  Having always wanted to go to Greece and not making it there my first time backpacking Europe in 2006, the choice was clear.  Pete’s choice was opening week in Ibiza.  Having only 2 days to pack up our “closet” in Nancy , we quickly made plans, booked numerous train tickets, hotels, flights and ferries and managed to come out with a whopping 20 euro a day budget. We met up with my good friend Alex in the south of France, and then carried on our journey to Pisa, Rome, Athens, Santorini, Carcassonne, Barcelona, Ibiza and making our way back to Paris for one last baguette picnic under the Eiffel tower.  Two thoughts crossed my mind at this point.  The first being “don’t make me leave!!!!!” and the second being “two continents downs and one to go”.

Having jobs already lined up in Korea, the summer months flew by very quickly.  We spent the time not only with friends and family but also acquiring the “necessities” we were told to bring.  Twenty sticks of deodorant,  four pounds of TVP, spices, bed sheets, three costco size boxes of Tampons and a whole punch of Canadian paraphernalia….. we were set.

The only thing that stood between us and completing our final part to our new years resolution was a 20 hour plane ride.

Sounds simple, eh?

We made it to the airport with more than enough time to hang out, collect ourselves and say goodbye to my mom.  But, fate had a slightly different plan for us.  While checking in, two of our bags were sent into the wrong baggage system. If you are connecting in the states you’re required to take your bags through American customs and then have them checked.  Pete was rushed off past security to see if they could locate them.  Normally this only takes 10 min, but today, of all days, the entire computer system was down.  Not sure whether Pete was coming back out or not, I said my goodbyes alone, scared, and slightly unsure.  What was i doing?  Having dropped me off at that exact same airport numerous times before, my mom just smiled at me and I knew everything was going to be OK.  So I whipped away my tears, and wheeled past security.

The plane ride to California went without a hiccup.  We arrived later than scheduled, with about 40 min to make our connecting flight, which was of course on the other side of the airport. So the flight attendants made an announcement to let the people with the close connections get off first.  The people in front of us had 15 min to catch their plane to Hawaii. Slightly jealous, I found myself secretly hoping they would miss it.  Pete and I were one of the last ones to make it to the gate, but not without hearing our names paged a few times.  We were quickly rushed past and greeted by flight attendants fitted in traditional Singapore dresses.  As i sat down and scanned the menu card that was handed to me; beef, fish, Indian…. SINGAPORE SLING! This was going to be a good flight.

Twelve hours, five movies, and four Singapore slings later we made it to Seoul, South Korea. New years resolution completed with 4  months to spare!

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