I signed up for seven weeks on the Korean peninsula in the middle of winter. I didn’t know how to say hello, I didn’t know Kimchi was the national food, I didn’t really know Taekwondo was the national sport and I certainly did not know cold.
I must begin this section by warning vegetarians of it and recommending them that they skip to the next section. I am a fan of seafood – which doesn’t make me special, I think most people tend to appreciate it. Korea sits on a peninsula and has historically had a strong connection with the ocean – this is promising for an enthusiast of eating sea-going animals. Inland Canberra doesn’t wholly service my marine meat desires, so I was especially looking forward to Korea helping me end the ‘dry spell’. I can stand by claiming that in my seven weeks in Korea, I have eaten something from the ocean at least once a day. While this may seem a dramatic figure, the number of marine casualties are brought down by the fact that a bunch of those days were just seaweed. In that sense, perhaps I am not that much of an aquatic villain.
Seaweed is big in Korea and comes in every form possible. Mostly, it is given as a side-dish next to the main in dried or tiny soup form. If I were to go vegetarian, seaweed would end up my choice for primary food.
I came to Korea expecting seafood: Fish, squid, octopus, cuttlefish, prawns, oysters, etc. What I did not expect coming to Korea was that it would be served to me still moving. In many of the food-heavy districts of Seoul (Hongdae, Itaewon, Sinchon, …), restaurants have their aquariums outside the front door to arouse the interest of passers-by. These aquariums showcase all the potential offerings of what you may eat inside. Scouting around, I settled on one such venue to try out some fresh seafood. Neither the text-only menu nor the kind woman waiting on my table had a shred of English to give me (fair enough), so I pointed at the ‘special meal’ at the top of the menu and nodded my head politely and enthusiastically enough.
Ten minutes later, a plate of lettuce arrives with octopus tentacles and sesame. Normal! The tentacles however, were still thrashing about – in rather a determined rage. I had ordered Sannakji (산낙지). The little octopus tentacles moved so fast and with so much vigour that some were even escaping the plate. I heard of this dish years back, remembering that one must chew properly and have a drink ready to not choke. In other words, the suction cups on the live tentacles are a serious choking hazard. Indeed, a significant one if you swallow without chewing. Infamously they are known to have caused casualties in Korea, bravely keeping up assault in an ongoing war between octopi and Korean consumers.
In the end, frankly I recommend it and had to fight with myself not to order a second serving. Both the novelty of the experience and the taste experience scored quite highly (it tastes very strongly of octopus).
I signed up for PRIMO at Yonsei not doing my homework and missing a crucial piece of information. Supplementing my main subjects (Strategic Management and Korean Economics), I had to choose secondary subjects for each to gain credits.
The available options were a/. Korean Language or b/. Taekwondo. This was a shock when I enrolled but I came around to it – it would enrich my Korean experience in any case. I took the first subject with Korean Language, an ordinary enough class where I learnt the basics to get around Korea. For the second, I changed it up and chose Taekwondo.
One hour per day of Taekwondo to stretch the muscles and release energy – this was all well and good. I didn’t know I had to learn how to shout as well (I shout better now, try me). Most of all, I did not know how to move. It is a bizarre statement to make, but it is true. Master Kim would show a ‘fighting’ technique and have us mirror his form. I did my best, but my muscles had simply not ever been used in such ways. It was like a fast game of twister, and I have never played twister. In the end and after much pain, I was promoted to a Yellow Belt. However, I have strong suspicions it was out of pity – I really did try my best. Nevertheless, I can probably beat you in a fight now.
At some points, mainly mid-January, a cold snap would come through. Korean cold snaps involve winds sourced from Siberia. In the middle of winter, this means I would be going to get breakfast and dinner in minus 20 degrees Celsius.
The temperature itself is severe but isn’t fatal. However, put on as many layers as you like, if there is wind as well then you haven’t got a chance. Duck-downs, heavy coats, thermals and “weather-proof” jackets don’t stop the wind from slicing straight through the whole lot like a knife.
Maybe I am just being an Australian and a wuss, but my memory recalls well the shock I had after spending an immense amount of money on outerwear and still feeling naked outside every time a breeze reared. Another fun one was taking a shower, towelling off, walking outside to class, and finding your hair was all frozen in place. The water from the shower freezes into ice and all your hair becomes a block. This phenomenon is easy to miss though because at the same time, your eyes would be sending tears streaming down your face as a protective mechanism from the wind. Seriously, I wasn’t crying…