Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Like a swimming pool...but not.

This was how my friends first described jimjilbang to me when they suggested going when I was in Korea two years ago. 

I have often been asked by Korean friends and foreign friends alike, "What is the most embarrassing experience you've had in Korea?" and 'When was the moment when you really began to embrace / 'get' Korean culture?". 

The answer to both of these is always my jimjilbang story. 

Two years ago, I was in Seoul, it was my second trip to Korea except this time I was doing it alone - the first time I'd stayed with friends and had everything done for me. This time I was completely "혼자" or "alone!" 

A lot of people blog factually about jimjilbang. How it works exactly, the tradition of it, the history of it, its role in Korean culture and society but to be completely honest, when my friend first suggested going, I had no clue what she was on about. 

My Korean level was pretty appalling at that time..."Jimjilbang?" ...even the word sounded strange.

"It's like a swimming pool but not", she said "but you can sleep there too". 

"So, I should bring a swim suit?" I asked. 

"Yes, they have a swimming pool too...and bring whatever you need for a sleepover..except pyjamas...they give you those", she said. 

Utterly confused but somewhat desperately trying to embrace Korean culture as much as a culturally disorientated 17 year old could, I swallowed any essence of doubt and agreed to go. 

I mean it can't be that wear a swimming costume...right? 





We arrived in the dragon hill spa jimjilbang (it's a very big, fancy jimjilbang in Yongsan, Seoul) as a group of 4. Myself and three of my Korean friends - (2 of whom were ethnically Korean, raised overseas). 

So, we walked into the changing room and I was hit by the sight of nakedness. Everyone. All ages. All shapes and sizes. Naked. My rather prude "When-we-go-swimming-we-get-changed-in-cubicle" eyes didn't know wear to look and my brain didn't even know how to process. 

At this point, alarms bells should have started ringing. 

So we went to our lockers to get changed and I got straight into my swimsuit. I looked up to see my friends, utterly starkers, looking at me weirdly. 

"What?" Hurry up, I want to see what all the fuss is about!", I said. 

Awkward silence ensued. 

"Why are you wearing a bathing suit?" they asked me.

"What do you mean 'Why am I wearing a bathing suit?"?" I asked... "Surely the question is why aren't you wearing yours!" 

Then came the laughing. 

"No, Anna, in jimjilbang you don't wear a bathing suit. You only need that for one we actually go to the swimming pool because that section is mixed. This is the don't wear anything here" they said. 

I felt the colour drain from my face - which is pretty impressive because I'm rather pale already.


In front of other people? 


No. No. No. No. NO! 

My friends got pretty tired of my resistance pretty quickly and after about 5-10 minutes of me saying " clothes?!" they got rather frustrated and presented me with an ultimatum : get my swimsuit off and go or sit here on my own for the next 90 minutes or so and wait for them. 

The prospect of sitting all on my own in the changing room, surrounded by naked ajummas was almost worse than the prospect of getting my own kit off ... but 90 minutes? 

It had to be done. 

Swimsuit off. 

I looked up. 

No one was laughing. Or pointing. A few people were staring but I already mentioned I'm pretty pale so that was kind of to be expected. This wasn't half as bad as expected. 

We had been given a towel to use. I held it up expecting that at least I could hide until we got to the bath and I could do the really cool "cover-yourself-with-the-towel-until-the-last-second" thing.... 

However, what qualifies as a towel in Korea would probably not be considered much more than a flannel or a face towel anywhere else in the world. This was going to be fun. 

I spent a few minutes pondering what exactly I was meant to do with this towel. It wasn't really big enough to cover anything... it definitely couldn't cover "both areas". It was question of one or the other...but that would just look weird. 

Oh stuff it. I threw it over my shoulder. Adopted the fake confidence I keep reserved for moments like this and walked boldly across the changing room...not really knowing where I was going. 

We went downstairs to the bath area and it's custom that everyone has a shower before using the bath. While this can be done standing up, there's a large area where you can sit down so we went over there and had a shower. 

That's when she started to scrub my back. 

I spun round in horror. "What are you doing?" I asked my friend. I was already naked, the prospect of being scrubbed by someone else...well...! 

"I'm scrubbing your back! she said. 

"....Why?" I replied. 

"Because we're friends and you can't reach it. I'm just helping" she said. 

"But I'm naked!!" I spluttered. 

"Yes, I can see that" she replied coolly. 


"Oh... ok then" I said, turning round as she continued to scrub me. She finished and then looked at me .."My turn!" she said, grinning. 

I swallowed my 'I-am-English-we-don't-do-this' mindset and started scrubbing. 

After about 15 minutes of walking around in my birthday suit, I was utterly at home in the jimjilbang. 

Even the ajumma complimenting me on the size of my chest couldn't throw me off.

(I simply replied with "감사합니다~" (formal - thank you) much to the amusement of my friends, who found the whole situation utterly hilarious. 

Monday, 16 July 2012

Vegetarian in Korea~

I've been a vegetarian for quite a while...nearly 5 years now. While I do have off days where miraculously, chicken ends up on my plate or I just happen to swallow the odd shrimp, on the whole, I'm a no-meat-no-fish person for 95% of the year. 

In this time, to the amazement of those around me, my waistline and I have survived and returned perfectly intact from four trips to Korea. 

Whenever I tell people either in Korea or Korean people outside of Korea that I have lived in Korea for months at a time as a vegetarian, their mouths practically hit the floor. 
"What do you eat?" they ask. "How do you live?" they cry.  

Actually, it's pretty easy. So, for any vegetarians on their way to Korea, here are my five favourite dishes - it's a helping hand to get you started! 

1. 비빔냉면 / 비빔국수  
(bi-bim-naeng-myeon / bi-bim-guk-su) 
Spicy Rating : 3.5-4 / 5 (depends on where you go!)

비빔냉면/국수 are my favourite summer dishes - served cold in a large bowl, the only difference between the two is the type of noodles used. The noodles are served in a spicy-chili based sauce (that can also taste a little sweet~!). It is normally served with julienned cucumber, half a hard-boiled egg and occasionally sliced Korean pear or strips of 금 (dried seaweed). Sometimes, it can be served with a piece of meat - ask the waiter to be sure (see language guide below!) 

2. 콩국수 
Spicy Rating : 0 / 5 

This dish is quite a bland one but is fantastic for really hot days when you don't have much of an appetite or if your stomach needs a little respite from all the strong Korean flavors. The soup is made from soybeans so this dish is also incredibly nutritious so don't forget to drink it all- it tastes best if you add a little salt! 

3. 비빔밥 
Spicy Rating : Up to you / 5 


The traditional food of Korea. If it's your first trip to Korea, you will probably find this dish frequently placed in front of you. A favourite with Koreans and foreigners alike, 비빔밥 offers something for everyone. It's completely flexible ingredient combination means there is something for everyone. The spiciness of this dish depends on how much 고추장 (go-chu-jang, spicy red chili paste) you choose to add. Don't forget to mix it really well - the more you mix it, the better it is! 

4. 된장찌개 
Spicy Rating : 3.5 / 5

된 장찌개 

This is one of my favourite warm-up-the-soul dishes! Served in a boiling hot stone bowl (don't touch it!), 된장찌개 offers a nutritious alternative to some of the meatier stews. Most vegetarian options use a seaweed / vegetable base for the broth before adding lots of vegetables, tofu and of course, 된장 (soy bean paste). This is sometimes made with a beef base (especially in cheaper restaurants) so if you are particular, be sure to ask.   

5. 김치전 / 파전 
(Kim-chi-jeon / pa-jeon) 
Spicy Rating : 3 / 5 

김치전 I know a lot of people don't classify this as a meal but more as 안주 (An-ju - snacks that accompany alcohol) but I love 전 (Korean pancake) so I had to include it here. It is pretty hard to find in restaurants as it is considered more of a snack but you can find it in nearly every bar. When I'm home, tired and about to curl up in front of my laptop to watch a Korean drama, this is my go-to food! 

So, some language tips... 

1. I'm vegetarian. 
Na-neun chae-shik-ju-i-ja-ae-yo. 
나는 채식주의자에요. 

2. I don't eat meat and fish. 
Na-neun ko-gi ha-go saeng-sun an mog-eo-yo. 
나는 고기하고 생선 안 먹어요. 

3. Is there meat? Is there fish? 
Ko-gi iss-eo-yo? saeng-sun iss-eo-yo? 
고기 있어요? 생선 있어요? 

4. I'm sorry but I can't eat it. 
chae-song-ha-ji-man na-neun ee-geo mok-do an dwae-yo. 
죄송하지만 나는 이거 먹도 안돼요. 

Any questions, let me know! 

Thursday, 12 July 2012

For the laughs....

I apologise for neglecting my blogs somewhat recently, I was only in Korea for a month so I really wanted to make the most of my time (e.g not stuck inside, sat in front of a computer!)

As a result of living more and blogging less, now I finally do have time to blog, I have quite a few funny stories to tell.^^

So, from all this "living" I have been doing, my Korean has become fairly good ~with my friends I speak mostly in Korean~ and consequently, my Chinese level has sadly dropped a bit....

I figured the smartest way to reinforce both languages simultaneously and to start linking the two ( to make swapping in and out of them easier ) would be a buy a chinese language learning book...that is written in Korean. Not only is it much cheaper than the English language books stocked in the bookshop, I feel like I'm killing two birds with one stone.

So, I popped down to Bandy and Luni's at Coex and got myself one!

Call me naive and a little foolish but I hadn't anticipated the reaction this would cause. In my head, I had only got as far as :

Using learn Chinese = better Korean and better Chinese.

In fact, what it resulted in was tube carriages full of very confused-looking Koreans. Hehe.

I would sit on the tube, studying my Korean-Chinese book and initially, I didn't quite notice it.

However, the staring quickly became very apparent. It wasn't the normal "oh, it's a foreigner...seen that before" kind of stare, it was the supremely more entertaining double take of " oh, it's a foreigner...who's reading a book in Korean...on how to learn Chinese...Huh?!".

It's safe to say, their expressions were much more interesting than my book...and I never got that much studying done.

I did, however, make quite a few new friends, Chinese people and Korean people. So the book was good for that at least ^^

(The best one was the old Chinese guy who started chatting to me in Chinese causing everyone to look. We talked a while when my phone rang. I answered in Korean...and when I looked up, everyone was listening in!)