The Unexpected in South Korea

1. Dunkin’ Donuts: There’s one on just about every block, and while the donuts look like the ones in America, they are not as sweet. The chocolate frosting is closer to semi-sweet than fudge-y. On Christmas Eve, the Dunkin’ Donuts near Chung Dahm was having a promotion – free hat with purchase of a cake (eating cake is how Christmas is observed here – seriously). I couldn’t resist and bought a strawberry cake (a very delicious strawberry cake, I might add) and got a free, pink fuzzy hat. It has a huge, white pom-pom on top and the ear-flaps feature polar bear faces. As it was extremely cold that night, I wore the thing home.

2. Smoking: People can smoke almost anywhere here, though it is somewhat expected that smokers do so outside. This does not mean people don’t smoke inside, however, and it is not at all uncommon for people to light up in restaurants in the booth or table right next to yours. (Cigarettes are very inexpensive – less than $2.00 USD a pack). I have noticed “no-smoking” signs in public restrooms (which are largely ignored), some non-food businesses, the movie theater, academies and the subway.

3. Easy access to alcohol: Seriously, a person can walk into a convenience store, by a bottle of beer, soju (rice wine) or wine, sit outside sit at the tables and chairs that are in front of most convenience stores here, open the bottle and drink it right out in the open. A person can even do this on his/her lunch hour and return to work. I’ve never, ever, never once been carded.  Further, you can by alcohol any day of the week at any time of day. If the store is open, it’s for sale (and if you there to buy something, the store is be open).

4. No business zones: What I mean is, many different types of businesses inhabit the same city block or even the same building. And when I say different, I mean drastically. For example, in the building where I teach,  several floors are occupied by academies, but there is also a restaurant on second floor, a PC room on the ground floor, and a bar (“Modern Zen Bar”) in the basement. There are “barber” poles advertising “massages” on the same street as all the academies (do not go into a place that has a barber pole and expect a haircut – and if you want a ” normal massage,” make sure to go to a place that advertises SPORTS massage). In the building where we received our training, there was a maternity ward on the fourth floor. The clinic down the street from our office-tel is in the same building as a cell-phone store. Conversely, sometimes identical businesses are located right next to each other. Seriously, there may be a “Buy the Way” convenience store next to a “Family Mart” convenience store,  and both will carry nearly the same merchandise.

5. Speaking of business zones, even though prostitution is illegal, it is highly tolerated. In our small neighborhood alone there are a number barber poles, live bars and hostess bars. In Yongsung, just across the street from  the I-park mall, there is a “red-light district” where one can find several blocks of women standing in glass cases, many wearing provocative clothing – though I saw one woman in a bath robe, slipper and curlers in her hair. From the right angle, you can see bedrooms behind the back walls. I hear that in Iteawon, a district populated largely by foreigners, there is a place called “hooker hill.”

6. Chicken. Yes, chicken. The Colonel has nothing on Korea when it comes to fried chicken – or barbecue chicken or roast chicken, or any other kind of chicken you might think of. Favorite chicken places in our neighborhood include “Chicken and Beer,” where they have the crispest, most delicious fried chicken in the world – and several different flavors – at that. My favorite is “teri-que,” which tastes like they found some way to turn teryaki sauce into a batter to dip chicken in and fry. Their golden fried chicken has just the right amount of curry flavoring and their barbecue is sweet and spicy all at once.

Hot Barbecue

Best Chicken in PC

Another favorite is a place called “Hof and barbecue,” (Hof is German for beer) though we call it “hot barbecue” Their barbecue chicken is savory and spicy and is served with a pan-baked macaroni and cheese. Who’d have thought macaroni would taste so yummy with barbecue sauce? Finally, there’s a place down the road called “Half and” we like to go to when we want chicken to go. It’s a little cheaper than our other two favorite places and a little faster too. We think it’s called “Half and” because each order is one-half of a whole chicken. Another interesting thing about the chicken here is that it is cut into many more pieces than in the states. On average in the states, you get 10 pieces out of a whole chicken (two legs, two thighs, two wings, two halves of the breast, the back and bony piece). Here, chicken is cut into maybe 15 or 20 pieces. And while this might seem like the ideal size for finger food, here in Korea, chicken is served with two forks (and a bucket for the bones). While I am getting better at eating chicken with two forks, I almost always wind up using my fingers before I’ve finished my meal. Still, with all that, there is a KFC in our neighborhood too.

7. Another interesting phenomenon about businesses is that they are apt to change overnight. There will be no “going out of business” sales or even any signs posted to suggest that a business might be closing. Rather it is there one day and gone the next – quite literally. There used to be a place called “Western Hot Dog” a few doors down from Chung Dahm. It was a great place to grab a meal on the go, either on your way to work or home. I tried it one Friday. It’s rather amazing how tasty a run-of-the-mill hot-dog tastes when you haven’t had access to one in a while. The following Monday, on our way to work, Gary and I noticed that “Western Hot-Dog” was emptied and some Korean men were putting up a new sign, “Victory Food.” It was open for business by Wednesday that week and has been busy ever since (busier that Western Hot Dog ever was). We were astounded at how quickly the turn-around was, and a little disappointed to lose something we had just discovered. Anytime I notice a new sign on a building, I can never be sure if it is a sign I have simply overlooked or if a new business has moved in.

8. Street Vendors: Most of the street vendors in our neighborhood(s) (Peyongchon and Beomgye) sell a variety of food from the back of their small-sized pick-ups or wheeled carts.  Available cuisine from street vendors include fruit that is in season, myriads of popped corn and rice snacks, pancakes filled with red bean sauce, waffles, fried squid and octopi, fish and rice cakes, ears of roasted corn, ice cream, milk, peanuts and, if you are at the park during the flea market, cotton candy.  Sometimes vendors set up tables near the public school and along the walkways of the residential areas to sell toys, earrings, socks, brand name knock-off clothing and shoes and other miscellaneous non-food items. In addition to these portable food stands, most restaurants on ground level have a walk up window or table where they sell food to go. In our area we can buy mandoo (dumplings) fried potatoes, squid, octopus and sweet potatoes, rice noodle in red chili sauce and waffles.

Tenacious is a word often used to describe Korean people, and this especially true when describing street vendors. Portable vendors get out there and sell their wares no matter the temperature, no matter the time of day. While the recent record snows did seem to force many away, the walk-up windows were still open and ready for business. Now that the snow is beginning to melt, many vendors are returning to their favorite corners and neighborhoods.

9. LG: I recognize L.G. as a manufacturer of electronics such as televisions and cell phones, and I am aware that they are headquartered in Korea. But what I am surprised by is that there are many other kinds of items with the LG label, like furniture. Take my couch as an example. If you look closely, you can see the LG logo imprinted in its simulated leather-like texture.

10. CCTV is everywhere. The only place it’s not is inside our office-tel, but I can’t be 100% certain about that. There is CCTV in the hallways of our office-tel building, CCTV on the path that cuts through the residential area that we take to get to Chung Dahm, there is CCTV in the building where we work, in the hallways of our floor and in our classrooms. At Chung Dahm, CCTV is monitored closely to gauge how teachers are doing. Until recently, instructors were shown their tapes during meetings with head instructors. CCTV tapes are also used in cases where students have misbehaved. Many teachers threaten to show these tapes to parents as a way to get students to behave in the classroom. CCTV is also in the classrooms of public schools, only they are live, and parents can tune in anytime to see how their child is doing in class. Parents can also tune into the CCTV that are present in the play areas around residential areas.

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