Alright so this weekend I was able to indulge in a beloved hobby of mine. if you're thinking underwater basket weaving......You are way off base. I had a long weekend so I decided to go shopping in Seoul. Specifically I spent most of my money in Gangnam. If that name sounds familiar to you let me refresh your memory.
This guy increased America's Korean vocabulary by two words. Gangnam is a section of Seoul. (Like how New York City is divided into Brooklyn, Manhattan, etc.... same idea) Gangnam is notorious for being hideously expensive so I wanted to test a particular skill set of mine. Thrifting.
I have many fond memories of long hours trawling through hole in the wall shops looking for something cute and unique for a fraction of the price. I was trained by the best and consider myself to be a veteran thrift shopper. So when I was informed of Gangnams' reputation I took that as a personal challenge. One google search later I was armed with a list of potential stores and was ready to start my adventure.
Before I go in depth in my experience of fleecing Gangnam let me give you a few pointers to enhance your own thrifting experience. (many people I've spoken to seem bewildered by my abilities, it's not that hard.)
1. The nose knows. The first thing to do when you walk into a store is take a breath. Thrift stores often have a unique aroma but don't panic. There are two things I look for when I'm judging the smell of a store. If it smells like moth balls and old lady perfume don't worry; that's something that is easily over come with fabric softener or even just plain old laundry detergent. If it smells like cigarette smoke and cat pee....Leave. No amount of washing can salvage those garments. I don't care if there is a brand new, tags still on Louie Vuitton bag in the window. Don't do it.
2. Show up early. A lot of stores have weird schedules and most close early on the weekends. So to maximize your shopping time, look up the opening and closing times of the stores you're interested in and plan to hit the early closing ones first. Another good point is when you arrive early you have a better chance of finding the good stuff since it hasn't been picked over yet.
3. Carry cash. In my experience a lot of these stores are family owned or are a part of a larger charity and are manged by retirees. The technology for card readers hasn't bled over into all the stores and if it has it's slow as all get out. Carrying cash also gives you the benefit of sticking to your budget and haggling leverage. People are more likely to give you a discount if they see you armed with a fistful of ones. (if only so they don't have to count as much.)
4. Employ the two handed browsing technique. this is something you have to practice to perfect but I've found it to be the most effective way to go through the racks quickly. When looking at clothing, send your non dominant hand ahead of your eyes. Stick your fingers between the hangers and if you feel something you like, pull it out for your other hand to grab. then you can decide you like the way it looks. This method eliminates the need to check every single hanger. My philosophy is that you should never wear something if you don't like the feel of it.
Now, without further ado: My Mapo Gangnam style. In the past when I've gone thrift shopping I had the luxury of my own vehicle. That was not the case this time so I had to make some allowances. Basically I had to exhibit some impulse control because everything I bought had to fit in my book bag and I had to be willing to drag it around Seoul with me. with this in mind I armed myself with 90,000 won (roughly $84.00) and took to the subway.
My first store was one stop away from Gangnam station in Yangchae. Called the Beautiful store it was one in a chain. Beautiful store is similar to Goodwill in the United States. They accept gently used clothing and provide job opportunities and support for needy individuals. This store opened at 10:30 am. I arrived a few minutes before it opened and found people already standing at the door. I stuck out like a sore thumb with this crowd (not because I'm American, come on people) because I was a) young b) not at work. Let me tell you something I've noticed about old folk around the globe. They're all the same. I was taught to respect my elders and I try my dead level best to treat them in a loving and revering manner..............................................................................................................................................................................................................................................But the moment I take a walking stick to the ribs it's all over. Don't let them fool you. They might look frail and sweet but those conniving grandmas will absolutely cut you off in line at the counter. So don't feel bad about shoving past them when they refuse to choose one side of the aisle or the other. I digress. This store had a lot of different things and I bought the most at this one. It was organized by article and color so if you're looking for something specific quickly this would be the place to go. Besides clothes they also had household items like flatware and other dust collecting chotzkies. I walked out of there with three blouses and a book (second Harry Potter in Korean if you're curious.) grand total spent=14,500 won. ($13.50)
My next two stops was actually the same store just two different locations. Vin Prime. These two stores are located inside Yanchae station and Gangnam station. (website gives you directions. It's in Korean but it's not difficult to figure out if you can read. http://www.vinprime.com/main_frame.htm ) Vin prime is different because it's a vintage store that specializes in imports form Japan and Europe. As a result some of the articles smelled like formaldehyde but it wasn't too terrible. If you like frothy, lacy or colorful prints this is the store for you. Things were a little more pricey but the quality and name brands make the extra few dollars worth it. I saw some lovely Burberry coats and blazers. I bought four more blouses at these two stores and my total came out to be 40,500 won.($40.00)
The final store that I went to was not in Gangnam but in Mapo which is a little north of Gangnam. This store is the highlight of my trip. For starters, the store I was initially hunting for no longer exists. I was looking for this eccentric vintage store and in it's place I found a quaint accessory boutique. Secondly I walked past this place three times because I was having doubts about google maps and it didn't have what I consider to be the usual storefront. At first I thought I was invading someones house. Good thing societal etiquette didn't stop me from wandering further in.
It's called Pomelo and while it wasn't what I was looking for, I'm glad I found it. The owner sells a beautiful array of jewelry. Rings necklaces, earrings you name it. The atmosphere of the place was charming as well. It was a stroke of luck that I found it though because at the end of the month they will be moving to a different location. I've followed the store on Instagram at Pomelo_seoul so if you want to get a closer look at her wares take a gander there. I'll definitely be looking forward to visiting the new location. Two pairs of silver earrings cost 28,000 won. ($27.00) I wouldn't place this under the thrift store category but it was worth the trip and I consider it money well spent.
Four stores, seven blouses, two pairs of earrings and one book later equals====83,000 won. ($78.00) Not a bad day at all.
On Facebook the other day I realized that it has been exactly one year since I was accepted by EPIK. (Not one year actually living in Korea, but just having the job.) This reminded me of the all the hours I spent trawling through the internet reading other peoples blogs; doing my best to prepare myself for life in another country. On the whole I believe that I was adequately prepared and confident in my knowledge. However there will never be enough blogs in the world to fully relate all the quirks of a country. So I decided that it was my turn to compile a list of things that I didn't expect when I came here. This list is not in any particular order or rank it's just literally my stream of consciousness as I was thinking about it. So without further ado:
I know that this has appeared in many other blogs but reading about it can never truly prepare you for that spine crawling wave of revulsion that goes through you when you hear that lougie hacking throat clearing hock that brings horrifying flashbacks of tobacco spit cups and sunflower seeds. I absolutely hate it. I consider myself to be a tough girl who adapts well to her surroundings but I cannot get past the spitting. Unfortunately it's freaking EVERYWHERE. (Mostly I've noticed it's the older generation but young people are not exempt.) My first week here I was looking for the bus stop so walked inside a convenience store to ask. This little old lady was lounging in the resting area. When she got up to walk past me she spat (10/10 for size and consistency) directly on the floor inside the store.
I'll be the first to admit that I have some personal hang ups about people spitting (if you haven't noticed already) So if you're reading this thinking about moving to Korea don't worry this isn't a deal breaker. Just be prepared.
I'll admit this was one of those "huh... how bout that" moments for me when I felt exactly like the ignorant American tourist. Universal truths that I had taken to for granted were now being questioned. Lemonade is not the same everywhere. In fact the United States appears to stand alone on it's definition of lemonade. In Korea (and everywhere apparently) Lemonade is a carbonated beverage. The best way I've found to describe it is to think of Hawaiian punch with fizziness. It tastes exactly like that. Also "ade" is just a description of this particular type of drink. Lemonade, grapefruitade, citronade, strawberryade, are variations I've come across in cafes. All brightly colored barrel drinks flavor with bubbles.
3) How forward people are
This is kind of a strange one. If you're waiting for constructive criticism from your coworker about how to be better at your job; you're gonna be waiting a long time. That's information that you have to actively seek out and you have to do it when no one else is in the office because no one want's to be seen bullying the waygook. On the other hand they will waste absolutely no time informing you of your appearance. I have deep set eyes so dark circles look 10x worse on me. If I miss even an iota of sleep I can tell because my coworkers will hand me a cup of tea and tell me to sit down because "you look so tired." Winters are rough on me since I basically spend 6 months impersonating the Michelin man. Warmer weather finally appears and as soon as I transitioned to my spring wardrobe my co teacher told me that I looked so much healthier :) This isn't just limited to acquaintances or women either. People on the street have stopped me to a) tell me I'm beautiful or b) ask about my health. (My favorite encounter so far was the lady monk who patted my face as she walked past and told me I was pretty.)
Also, while living in the United States I have had people, whistle, catcall, stalk me through aisles, and hang out of car windows; but I have never been stopped on the street and asked out for coffee or drinks; Which has happened to me here. (and while I appreciate the civility in which I have been approached I'm still not going to follow because that's murder waiting to happen)
4) Everything has a mascot. EVERYTHING.
Maybe people in America would have a better opinion of the police if they had a cute little mascot representing them. I don't know if it helps or hurts, but Korea's police force is associated with these adorable little figure heads.
It's not just them though. As far as I can tell every major and not so major city, organization, and event has some sort of character in charge of public relations. They are masters of marketing and product placement. You see these little guys?
They're currently adorning Coca Cola cans. There are statues all around that you can take pictures with. What are they? Kakao is a messaging app that also has maps, taxis, and bus apps affiliated with it. (extremely useful btw. If you're living in Korea and you don't have it you must live under a rock.) Mascots' here have an almost religious like following. Again this is something that I thought I understood but I didn't grasp the full reality until I arrived.
5) How foodcentric everyone is
In an eating contest a Korean child would wipe the floor with me every time. Their eating capacity is truly astounding. I'm a major advocate of having three square meals a day but I can guarantee that my idea of meals is not the same as theirs. My two pieces of toast with Nutella would not be considered breakfast. It's not a meal until the rice, soup and kimchi has arrived.
Eating in Korea is a very social activity. It is my goal to one day bring a friend to my favorite honey chicken place so the lady who owns it will stop judging me for only taking one toothpick. If I walk into a fast food place they automatically assume its to go because only losers eat by themselves in public. Since coming here I've attended three different staff dinners. These dinners only reinforce my theory that all Koreans have two stomachs. Dinner and dessert. Without fail at these dinners we stop at a restaurant first, then a coffee shop to digest and eat cake. It's just so much food.
Another major difference which I think stands out the most is eating on the go. It almost never happens here. I have not seen a single drive thru. (they must exist somewhere though) It's considered rude to walk down the street and eat. It's a very common sight here to see kids on their bikes crowded around a convenience store eating their snacks before moving on. Basically eating equals relaxing.
How many of you remember the last time you walked into a restaurant and the host asked you smoking or non? It's been about twenty years right? You can imagine my shock the first time I went to a cafe that had a designated smoking room. Not area, room. Smoking indoors (albeit in designated areas) in public areas is allowed. Smoking, especially for men is a common past time. There doesn't appear to be any etiquette as to where it's appropriate to smoke either. People will stand on the side walks, outside of doorways, entrances to alleys; where ever they happen to be. This stood out to me because I'm used to seeing people who smoke stand apart from others, hiding behind buildings and what not. I have noticed that it's not as popular for women to smoke and those who do generally try to hide.
Taxi drivers worldwide are notorious for crazy driving so this didn't surprise me too terribly. (I don't wear a seat belt in taxis' though because that is not the accident I wan to survive.) No what causes me to send a prayer to the Lord anytime I'm near a motorized vehicle is the lack of regard for traffic lights. Red is just a suggestion. I've been on too many buses that blaze on through red lights. The first time I saw a cop directing traffic I was confused. the light was working so why were they standing in the intersection? I get it now. If there is not someone to literally force people to stop, they won't. (I have also seen no evidence of traffic cameras so that could contribute to this delinquency as well.)
Another thing that simultaneously entertains and frustrates me is crosswalks. If you miss that light be prepared to stand there for 5 minutes. Unless you're willing to jaywalk. Which is illegal (like everywhere else) and; so I'm told, highly frowned upon. I live out in the country so jaywalking isn't a big deal but it's a different story in the bigger cities.
8) It's ok to sleep at work, just be there.
Feeling under the weather? don't think you can perform at work because of illness? Drag your disease ridden body to work anyways, you can sleep in the office. If you're not dying or not headed to the hospital you need to come to work. This doesn't sound as extreme as you would think. Koreans go to the hospital for anything because it's dirt cheap. Whereas I have a mental block against going to the hospital because I refuse to sell my organs to the healthcare system. (it's an American thing) I have a difficult time explaining this to my Korean cohorts. When I had the stomach flu I didn't go to work but I didn't go to the hospital either. I didn't think I needed to. I knew what was wrong with me and how to correct the problem. Dragging my pukey self to the hospital just to have someone tell me what I already know is not appealing to me. Unfortunately that seems to be the name of the game here. So the moral of the story is this: You're not allowed to be miserable at home. If you're not miserable at the hospital be miserable at work. It's ok, they'll let you sleep it off. (one of my schools has a special nap room especially for this.) Just where a mask so everyone knows.
Viola! My list of 8 things I didn't expect. Did any of these surprise you? Are you thinking well duh you should have known about that! Feel free to tell me about it in the comments :)
****Disclaimer***** None of the images in this post are mine. I pulled them off of google. I own nothing.
Two Foreigners Found After Being Lost In Mountains!! Click Here For The Miraculous Story Of How They Survived!!
The morning started innocently enough. A shower, breakfast, Facebook; but then I received a message.
Little did we know that this simple query would cause a significant amount of distress and no small amount of discomfort for us.
For those of you who don't know hiking is the national past time for Korea's retired population. This is important to keep in mind because this played a key role in some of our more questionable decisions on this trip.
Now when we first set off on this adventure I had not planned on extremes. I was wearing sneakers, a jacket, and my purse. If this was an RPG I didn't even have a stick. My traveling buddy Oyuki was a little better off than I was with her hiking boots, pb&j and bottle of water. I believe we were both just planning to go so far and then stop for lunch as a reward for a job well done. Yea that didn't happen.
To begin with we had to actually walk to the starting point of our hike. this resulted in a roughly half hour stroll through the town to the base of the mountain. A pretty idyllic scene. Cherry blossoms blooming, children playing, couples strolling arm in arm.......................................... And a small army of Sunday hikers. This group of middle aged to elderly people put us to shame with preparation. They had matching weatherproofed pants and blazers in a rainbow of colors, duel walking sticks, back packs, walkie talkies, extra sunscreen and wide brimmed hats. In the RPG these guys are the guild that walks past with weapons and armor +999. they were in it to win it and headed in the same direction we were.
This was when we made our first poor decision. Whoever said take the road less traveled should be held accountable for all the morons who follow their advice literally. We had arrived at a crossroad. On the left was a wide paved well established road that the army was cheerfully ascending. On the left was a shady dirt path that wound around to the far side of the mountain. No prize for guessing which path we took.
At first we thought this wasn't so bad. It was a little narrow but the beginning of the path was marked with this lovely scene.
In hindsight this may have been a part of someones garden that we walked past. Moving right along we continued down this little dirt path that leads us into the mountains. At this point we're congratulating ourselves on being so clever because we found a secluded trail. hahahaha look at us go we're practically natives. (We were wrong btw. people showed up behind us later.) Along the trail we were following was a pile of stacked stones. This isn't unusual; in fact this area is known for its pillars of stones. (long story short a long time ago a hermit moved into a cave on the mountain and built a giant pillar out of rocks and it's still standing today. Tetris king) There was a smaller trail leading up and away from the main path that we were on. So we did what any sensible adventurer does. We followed it to see where it leads. Now my theory was that the end of the trail would lead to where the monks live or maybe some kind of altar. (again not unusual for this area.) There was an altar.....and there were people......They were not monks. We had stumbled straight into a shanty town; and immediately tumbled straight back out. Please don't judge us too harshly. As outsiders and foreigners to boot, waltzing into a homeless community is a bad idea. We had nothing to offer and it was an invasion of privacy. It was a sobering glimpse into that side of society though.
Returning to the original trail we began our hike in earnest. On the scale of difficulty I give it a solid 6. Not the worst I've ever experienced (i.e 3rd falls at the Wilds for those who know) but it wasn't a walk through the park either. We were either going up, or mostly up. Pretty much looked like this the whole way.
A hand rail was graciously provided where trees were not available to be your life support. We continue on like this until we reached what is a designated stopping point.(It was about 11:30 at this point.) How did we know it was a stopping point? I'm so glad you asked dear reader. We obtained this knowledge because their was a sign. Not that we could see said sign because through the army of hikers. ( a different army mind you. Not the same group we tried to avoid earlier) These people decided that this was a good place to unpack their picnics. You remember those backpacks I mentioned earlier? An invaluable tool that holds important hiking tools such as water, first aid kits and flares? That's not what these guys had. Nope. Our esteem-able hiking compatriots had lugged soju up this mountain. and beer. Coffee for those who drove. A full course Korean lunch. (I didn't see a single bloody bag of trail mix) Oyuki and I were sitting to the side with half a PB&J and carton of soy milk watching these people toast to their halfway point. I think Korea's approach to hiking is that if you become progressively buzzed as you go you won't feel the sore muscles. They might be onto something.
Now at this point neither of us really knew where we were. We weren't too worried though because we were surrounded by so many people. We couldn't possibly be lost. (lies) Our options were left or right. We went left because that was on a downward track and the sign said a fortress was that way. Sounds cool right? We wouldn't know. We never found it. Somehow; I'm still not sure how, we ended up parallel to a temple that sits on the very top of a mountain. It was around then that this picture was taken.
This was not the same picnic that we had left behind nearly hour ago. This was a different group. Same deal though. Soju, beer, a ton of snacks. The difference with this group was how excited they were to see us. They wasted no time in inviting us over to share their snacks. This was extremely kind of them but I also now know what it feels like to be an exotic animal at a petting zoo. (everyone wants to feed the Llamas.) The price for their hospitality was simple; They wanted pictures. Someone somewhere now has at least a dozen pictures of the blond waygook. You know those pictures celebrities take with their fans? I posed for a few of those with some men. It was weird. (but they fed me sooo...) They also gave us some parting gifts. We walked away from that encounter one snickers bar, two granola bars, a loaf of bread and a bottle of water richer. (+5 charisma!)
At this point we had been hiking for a few hours with no end in sight. We were desperately trying to find a way off the mountain. Cue next questionable decision. At one point we had acquired a picture of a map but realizing that we had no way of knowing where we were in relation with the map that was useless. But we did find a trail that went down the mountain which was our end goal. If you thought trail was a generous description you would be right. The only thing that told us that this might be on a map somewhere were the posts placed every half mile or so that had 119 on it. Although neither of us really wanted to admit it we were both starting to panic just a tad. Some of the things that were said during this time period.
"You know, I always wondered how people got lost in the mountains but now I'm starting to see how. They followed sketchy looking goat trails convinced that people do actually come this way."
"We're at that stage where we're laughing because we're trying not to panic hahaha"
" HaHaHa, I'm laughing because it's true but it's making me feel worse!!"
"WHERE THE #$%#^ ARE WE?!?!"
That pretty much summed up the entire situation. Despite our fears though we were in fact on an actual path. We almost made the disastrous mistake of leaving the trail when we thought it ended but we stayed the course and were soon rewarded with this most welcome sight.
CIVILIZATION!! Even better once we drew up even with the buildings I realized that I knew exactly where we were. Bonus points: We were able to catch a taxi home. We left my place at 10:00ish. We came home around 3:00. After consulting Kakao maps (which is like google maps.....We had GPS navigation and never once consulted it. We're not the brightest...) I estimated that we hiked roughly 7 kilometers. (a little over 4 miles for us Americans) 7 kilometers in 5 hours. We won't be qualifying for the Boston Marathon anytime soon but I'm still a little proud of our accomplishments. (especially since it didn't end in shin splints for me.) Thus concludes my harrowing tale of misadventure and yet another case of spontaneity yielding bizarre encounters.
Hey readers, if you enjoyed this story or if I made you laugh at any point, do me a favor and share this. Spread the joy :) I would like to see if I can get a hundred visits. Thanks, you're a pal ;)