The Korean tube

There are three main genres on Korean television: incredibly strange variety shows, unbearably cheesy soap operas and home shopping. They all suck.

There are four English movie channels but they don't always show good flicks - usually just Hollywood blockbusters like Troy and Spiderman. As film junkies and sporadic TV addicts, this puts us in a tough spot. Thus, we must look for other ways to fill the void in our lives. Did I mention we have a very fast internet connection? I've been able to download a movie in 45 minutes. If you know anything about computers you're probably saying that's impossible. Well it is, if you're not in South Korea.

We've watched about a dozen movies since we've been here, including Running With Scissors (ctrl+alt+lame) and Notes on a Scandal (shift+thumbs). I've decided to give Six Feet Under a go, starting with the first season. TV dramas usually don't keep my interest but I don't have a lot going on during nap time. Which brings me to my next point.

I've always had disdain for soap operas and the filth they fill our heads with, but I can finally understand why they're so bloody popular. Spending most of a day inside, especially during nap time, can drive you to resort to anything for entertainment. I'm trying to stay busy with pursuing different writing endeavors, but 1 - 3 pm on a weekday can be excruciating. Enter Marlena and John, or any other overly tanned daytime TV couple, and you've got sweet emotional satisfaction. Luckily for me, Koreans aren't interested in Days of our Lives, or any other English speaking daytime smut, which means the temptation isn't there.

Here's a sample of the wackiness.

Happy Birthday Cate Rowan

Our gorgeous girl is a year old today. Her gentle spirit has filled our lives with unimaginable joy. In love and adoration we look forward to many more.




Today we made our long-awaited first family trip to downtown Daegu. It was, in a word, stimulating.

Transport was smooth. A three minute cab ride to Yongsan Station and a 20 minute ride on the subway, with one transfer, took us to Jungangno Station and the heart of downtown.

We first hit up Kyobo Books and bought some reading material (at a fairly decent price considering English books are all imported) and then made our way to the main shopping district. There were probably 10 million people shopping in a six block radius. At least. Maybe more.

Carmen had a successful afternoon. She has the prototypical Asian figure, and every piece of clothing in any store we visited fit her perfectly. I, on the other hand, had a more difficult go of things. I found several shops I liked, but the t-shirts fit like some kind of leotard, and I basically looked like Renton from Trainspotting. We found that in the private, specialty shops there's only one size of every piece of clothing, so if it doesn't fit you're out of luck. But I still got a Mitch Albom book and Keith Richards scarf.

Visually, downtown was everything we'd pictured of an Asian metropolis. Bright lights, huge signs, endless crowds and raw meat. Add deafening hip-hop beats coming from every store and you've got six hours of culture that will last a lifetime. Too much culture at one time can be overwhelming though, so we played it safe and had burgers for lunch.

I sort of wish I was shopping today with Brad Pitt, because he would have garnered less attention than Cate. If we stopped for three seconds, hoards of people would crowd around and gawk, point, touch and take photos. Not an exaggeration. Really. It's hard enough steering a stroller through a tiny clothing store, but when everyone in the store stands in your way taking pictures and trying to hold your baby, it's basically impossible. No-one shops when we enter a shop, they just swarm around our oblivious one year-old daughter. She is a phenomenon. Example: "May I take a picture of your baby. She is just so beautiful, I just can't resist it."

Don't believe me? Here's just a few of her fans:

The pinnacle of my day, a visit to the Adidas Concept Store, was spoiled by Cate stealing all the attention . . . and service of the employees:



I wrote earlier about how nice people are in Daegu. Here's another example.

Last night I walked over to Pizza Etang to buy us dinner. The guy who served us last time was there again, and he gave me a menu and I ordered the same thing as before. This time, it was 1,500 won (about $1.50) cheaper than last time, but I didn't think much of it.

As I was waiting he came over to me and said, "Two weeks ago, you came with wife?."
Me: "Yeah, I came with my wife and our baby."
Him: "I made mistake. I charge you too much last time."
Me: "Oh, well that's okay. Not a big deal."

He picked up the menu and pointed at what he charged me last time. "No, my mistake. I'm very sorry. I pay you."
Me: "No, I understand what you're saying. You don't have to pay me. It's just a little bit."
I appreciated his honesty about having made a mistake and really wanted him to know that I wasn't bothered by it. This awkward exchange went on for a couple of minutes until he realized I wasn't going to take the 1,500 won from his pocket.

Him: "Your wife - gorgeous."
Me: "Oh wow. Thanks. Yes she is."
Him: "And your baby. Beautiful."
Me: "Yeah, Koreans like her blue eyes."
Him: "Oh yes, blue eyes. Gorgeous. And you too."
Me: "Whoa. Okay. Thank you." His honesty came into question at this point.

I also went downtown last night for the first time. I needed to make a trial run so that when we take Cate on the weekend, we don't get lost. It was the best time I've had since we've been here, even though I didn't actually do anything. On a Wednesday night the streets were packed and every store was open, with music pumping. I wish I had pictures to show what I'm describing but my camera died as soon as I got to the subway.


I'm a Freak

There are some things that grab the attention of the locals here in Daegu. One is foreigners. Another is a foreign baby, especially a baby with light hair and blue eyes. Another is a man looking after a baby in public. Put all those strange, unusual things together and you have me and Cate - the most bizarre act to ever hit this huge city.

Everywhere we go, everyone stares. Men, women, children. Young, old. Everyone notices. We can't hide. Ladies gawk , school girls giggle and even old men can't help but talk gibberish to Cate. Korean gibberish.

To be honest, I do appreciate the attention. I'd never experience anything like this in Lethbridge, but being in a market and seeing a woman with rubber gloves on, who's been selling bloody fish and squid all day, just doesn't make me want to say, "Hey, you with the bloody, slimy hands; would you like to hold my first born daughter?" No. I'd rather say, "Oh, your hands have blood and slime on them. I actually don't want you holding or touching my clean one year-old."

But these are things that come with being an oddity in a foreign place where everything is different. I'm learning to deal with it, and Cate is surprisingly patient with the whole thing. And having waitresses take her to the kitchen in restaurants while Carmen and I eat is actually quite convenient, as much as it is creepy. I should mention though, that Koreans are generally very good with babies. While the attention can be annoying, it's often balanced out by the general concern for Cate's well-being shown by everyone we meet here. It helps us to realize that coming here with Cate was the right decision. Part of the reason we came was to give her a unique experience and so far, that's exactly what it's been.


'A nice little Saturday'

Trip to Home Plus today. Absolutely maddening. Thousands upon thousands of people casually strolling their carts about, not looking in front, behind or to the side of them to see if they're in anyone's way, but naturally they were all in ours.

We went to the food court to eat and, because we couldn't make out what any of the establishments were selling, we went to Popeye's for some 'chicken and biscuits'. Perfectly enough there were three birthday parties happening with each set of boisterous kids trying to be louder than the other. What made it even better was the staff were inexplicably encouraging the noise by teaching the children some sort of chant where they had to scream at the top of their lungs. This mixed with everyone touching Cate's face and rubbing her hair put her in a great mood.

I've developed a cold and Cate seems to be getting it too. So far Carmen's in the clear, but from what we hear, most foreigners encounter this in their first few weeks in Korea. Luckily we loaded up on Tylenol Cold and Flu before we came, and we've been eating Vitamin C like candy. A nice evening in watching movies sounds like the best medicine though.


No Need to Worry

One thing we weren't prepared for when we moved to Daegu is how safe it is. When we were first shown to our apartment, I was a bit unsure about the area as it's set back in sort of a series of alley-ways and it's not well-lit at night. When I asked Sun if our area was safe, she was confused and didn't really answer. We quickly realized that crime is not much of an issue around here and that the racket of young kids playing nearby is more of a cause for concern.

Kids are everywhere - all the time. Young children, four or five years old, are often seen walking down the busy street alone as there's no real worry of something bad happening. In fact, Koreans are generally quite active in promoting the well-being of kids, rather than concerned about crime against them . Yesterday, as I was walking to Carmen's school, two young boys were shouting at their friends across an intersection and just before they took a step onto the street, an old, grey man, who was a complete stranger, ushered them back onto the sidewalk and gave them a polite lesson on watching for traffic. On a recent late-nite walk to the store, I came across a young (probably four years old) boy who was insistent on practicing his English with me on his way home from Tae Kwon Do. This is like a haven for kids. They're safe and they're everywhere.

And just to give you an idea of the density of the population, Carmen's school has a population of about 600. That population is made up of kids from just five local apartment buildings. I find that astonishing, as there's a countless number of these massive buildings in our area.


Broadband . . . A Beautiful Thing

And . . . exhale. We're finally connected to the world. We had the internet, phone and cable hooked up today, so we're live and streaming. Smokin' fast connection and six dollar cable with four English movie channels and soccer on 24/7. Love it.

These guys call themselves Kimchi F.C. I have to meet them again tomorrow. Same time, same place.
There's the wise English teacher, with Cate, in front of a mass of students on their way home.


'Take me that way'

On Saturday we set out on our first big shopping trip. We planned to meet with Alan and Jen Friesen, a couple from Regina who are living here with their two kids. We’d met them through Dave’s ESL CafĂ© and it turns out Alan and I played soccer together when were seven years old in Lethbridge. If that doesn’t blow your mind, give your head a shake.

So Carmen, Cate and I hopped in a taxi and had a short ride to E-Mart – it cost 1800 won, or less than two dollars. We did our shopping; picked up more groceries and some necessary domestic items and packed up for the short, easy cab ride back home. But, you see, people speak Korean here and we don’t, so nothing is easy. I opened the cab door and said to the driver, ‘Yong San Dong’, which is the area we live in (there’s no street names in Korea), followed by ‘Gi Ha Do’, which means ‘under the bridge’. The bridge is close to our villa and it’s an easy reference point for the driver to take us to. The problem was the Korean driver didn’t understand any of the Korean words I was saying. Alan, who’s been living here since August and knows a bit more of the language, tried to communicate with the driver and they eventually seemed to come to an understanding, so we got in. Big mistake.

She (yes, the first female taxi driver I’ve ever seen) headed towards our area but when she got to the main street, she turned the wrong way and brought us to a completely different neighborhood. Speaking broken or slow English doesn’t seem to help when a person doesn’t know any English, and my directional pointing from the back seat was also apparently in English, because it wasn’t steering her in the right direction. She stopped to talk to three young, well-dressed gentlemen and ask for help. After discussing and arguing for about five minutes about where these stupid white people in the back seat wanted to go, one of them came up to our window and politely asked, ‘Where would you like to go?’. Say what? ‘You speak English’, we asked. We gave him our area and he sent the right direction. 5500 won later we finally got home, and I was scolded by the driver about giving proper directions next time. I think.


Rost in Transration

My sincere apologies for only posting now. We haven’t had internet access besides the ‘PC Bang’ across the street, so my chances have been limited. Excuse the extremely long post.

I started this blog as a way to share our experiences with people we know, and anyone interested in reading it. So I think it’s important that I be completely honest about what’s happening.

The last few days have been the most difficult I’ve ever had. As I said before, we were feeling the stresses of culture shock and being so far away from home when we were in Seoul, but we were dealing with it. When we arrived in Daegu, we were excited. Carmen met with the vice-principal of her school, as well as some other important old men and her co-teacher, Sun. After the meeting, Sun brought us to our apartment. What we were expecting, and told to expect, was a clean, furnished, warm home. What we saw was an empty, dirty, cold place. There were two small twin beds, and nothing else. No table, no chairs, no couch, no dishes and no cooking utensils. These are all things that are to be provided when a foreign teacher arrives. Panic started to set in. Check that. Panic instantly overwhelmed us. We had nothing – and no way to contact anyone. For Carmen and me this would seem manageable, but we have an 11 month old daughter to worry about. Sun realized we were worried and confused and offered to take us to Home Plus, which is like a five-story Wal-Mart. We were also told that we couldn’t get phone or internet until we received our Alien Registration Card (ARC), a process they said could take two weeks. Also, pay phones are basically non-existent here so that’s not an option. So we were in Daegu with an empty apartment, no way to make food, a baby that had slept a total of about 15 hours in three days and absolutely no way to contact anyone. On top of all this, every time we get in a vehicle, Cate throws up from car-sickness; something that’s never happened before.

We made it through the evening after buying a few things at Home-Plus, and after Sun let us use her home phone to call our families. We woke up the next morning thinking we’d made the biggest mistake of our lives, and also angry at the situation we’d been put in. How could Carmen’s recruiting agency let this happen, and how could her school think it was okay? The school had made no plans to help us settle in, but in a normal situation, the school prepares everything for you including setting up lines of communication (phone, internet etc.), as it would be impossible for us to do anything as we don’t speak the language and don’t know how to find the things we need. On Wednesday Sun took us to get ARCs and we met with Carmen’s principal and some of the staff. We came home for lunch and talked about whether or not we should stay. We were prepared for culture shock and being homesick. We weren’t prepared for complete abandonment, which is what our situation felt like. Carmen went back to school and I, with Cate, found a PC Bang and called my parents on Skype. We talked about what was happening and I was able to start to think clearly and rationally. We had spoken with the recruiting agent in Daegu and he said they were doing everything they could to make the situation better. He would arrange for furniture to be brought and would help us arrange for a phone. On my way home from the PC Bang I just thought about positive things, and looked around at how fascinating our neighborhood is. I stopped at the corner market and tried to speak a little Korean with the cashier, bought a can of Coke and some Shin-Raman and strolled Cate home. I was feeling alright. Carmen felt the same way when she got home from work. We talked through our problems and began to just live in the moment and realize things would eventually fall into place.

On Friday Carmen’s vice-principal bought us some furniture, and now we’re just waiting for a couch. We met a Canadian couple in our building and they’ve let us use their phone and are showing us around the area – where to eat, where to shop and all that. Carmen really likes her job so far, and on Monday will be teaching the Korean teachers some Beatles tunes (story to follow). All in all we’re at about an 80/20 ratio of positive to negative feelings. Posts will be shorter from now on. I promise. View all our photos at Flickr, just follow the link in the right sidebar.

- David


Where do I start?

What on earth are we doing here?

This is amazing, we love it.

Those are the two thoughts that have been racing through our heads for the last 24 hours. As I try to navigate the internet in the Korean language, I feel good about our decision to come to this place. We're currently staying with friends in Seoul but we'll be leaving for Daegu in the morning. We look forward to finally settling into our apartment and getting some rest. The trip here from Calgary was perfectly smooth. And by that I mean it was dreadfully awful. The entire thing couldn't have been much worse. That experience doesn't help much as we try to adjust to major culture shock.

I don't have much time right now to give details, but we hope to have the internet as soon as we get to Daegu. If not, it'll be soon after.

This place is definitely very cool. While the adjustment is stressful, the new experiences are great. I'll update as soon as possible, but I have to go deal with this jet-lag thing. Until then . . .



One More Sleep

Counting down the hours. That's basically what we're doing now. Tomorrow evening we fly from Calgary to San Francisco, where we'll stay the night, and then it's off to Seoul on a short 13 hour flight. With a 17 hour time difference between California and Korea, we'll arrive in Seoul at 6:15 pm on Monday and stay there for the night.

Navigating our way through the third largest city in the world seems daunting to say the least but, fortunately, Carmen knows a couple from Saskatoon who has been living in Seoul for two years. They'll pick us up at the airport and we'll spend the night at their apartment.

On Tuesday morning we catch the bus (the high-speed train won't allow all our luggage) to Daegu where we'll be picked up and taken to Carmen's school. She'll meet her principal and co-workers and then we'll be taken to our apartment. We don't know anything about it right now, other than it's furnished and it has two bedrooms . . . and it's free.

Excited? Yes. Terrified? Yes. Prepared? I bloody hope so. I'll post again from San Francisco and let you know if we've changed our minds.


Note: Feel free to play the track at the top right of the page when you visit. Music is always a good thing and the selected track, which changes often, will always reflect the deepest feelings of this big, soft heart.