Ode to the Kumquat

27 04 2009


Never before had I witnessed such beauty of flesh

T’was not till I reached Seoul on my journey

That I saw you and your friends in that fine bag of mesh

“What a crime!” I exclaimed to the district attorney

who happened to be standing close by my side

poking and prodding the most wondrous of fruit

in that Itaewon market, I wrung my hands and cried,

“why is this delight not imported worldwide?

reflecting with pride, it’s bright orange suit

it’s a sin, it’s a sin, I just can’t abide!”


I purchased that bag and took it on home

Anticipating with joy, the crunch and the juice

I sat down cross legged with a sigh and an om

(Thought surely, this rhyme must be better than Seuss)

Choosing oh so carefully from among your brood

I admired your lustre and took my first bite

Imagine my surprise at the sweet and the sour

A flavour most rich, you began to exude

The glorious kumquat! a fruit of such might

Complex and delicious, this must be your hour!



23 04 2009

Travelling through China, Laos and Thailand, before finally settling in Korea, showed me how much excess there is in North America…and when I look through this new lens, the economic collapse we are in now isn’t too surprising. Much of Asia is still a cash economy. In Asia, if you don’t have the cash in your pocket, you simply don’t buy it. Credit cards are pretty hard to use, and often there is a surcharge if you want to use one. AND if you pay in cash, you are likely to get a discount off the price, so there’s a lot of incentive to use it. Never mind that most places don’t even accept credit cards!

At the same time, people do not seem to be as attached to cash as we are in North America. In China for example, I saw piles of cash left in plain sight on the tops of vendors’ tables in markets and restaurants. Owners, staff and customers alike seemed to take little notice of it. It was just there. That is not to say that there aren’t people in China or Asia who aren’t wholly invested in the chase for cash. They certainly exist! I know from personal experience. The cons I experienced in China were surprising in their audaciousness and ingenuity! By and large though, the majority of those 1.5 billion people didn’t seem to care. As long as they had food on their table and a place to live, they were good. (which is why I’m not too sure about the Chinese economic miracle saving us all – the people are just not consumers like we are in North America, and I think a lot of the demographics talk rests on the assumption that those 1.5 billion people in China will consume like we do. Can marketing really shift a tribal identity that is deeply ingrained through generations and generations of people? I have my doubts.)

And now living in Korea, which is by any definition, a more consumerist society than China, I still see a more sustainable economic model…at least for your average citizen. For one thing, cost of living is markedly lower than in North America. Add to that a lower overall tax rate, and lack of reliance on credit cards, and you’re already in a better situation. In fact, the government of Korea is attempting to stimulate credit card spending by offering residents a tax credit on any credit card spending! How about that? Getting paid to use your credit card! But there’s more than that. There’s little things I’ve noticed that I think make a huge difference.

For example, I’ve noticed that escalators, moving sidewalks and other public conveniences are turned off most of the time. They only seem to be active during rush hour. Seems like a small thing, but imagine how much energy would be saved in North America by following the same policy?

Another difference is in garbage collection. In Seoul, we have to buy special neighbourhood garbage bags, and they are not cheap. One is for wet/food items and one is for regular garbage. There is a recycling program, but no special bag for it. If you don’t use these bags, your garbage doesn’t get picked up, and their use is even written into rental contracts. And though it’s a small thing, I’ve noticed that much less garbage is created because of it. Because you are paying for these bags, you stuff them as much as possible, and reuse or recycle the things you can. I think that most people are more conscientious about the amount of waste they’re creating. Sometimes all that’s required to shift things in the right direction, is this mindfulness and awareness.

Cost of Living

19 04 2009

The View

This is the view from the balcony of our newly rented two bedroom apartment in Seoul. It’s fully furnished and filled with life giving sunlight. We have ensuite laundry, a water cooler and air conditioning. We live a short 2 blocks away from the subway station, and there are a plethora of restaurants, cafes, and grocery stores nearby. We are also 10 minutes away from Namsan Tower, and the beautiful cherry blossom filled park that surrounds it.

For this space, we pay 750,000 krw per month, which, with the current exchange rate, amounts to $685 per month. We pay an additional $90 per month for heat and gas, and have filtered water delivered to our home for an additional $10 per month.

As foreigners, we are taxed 3-5% income tax on the money we earn. I believe locals pay between 8 and 35%. There is no extra tax on goods and services (except for luxury goods, like designer handbags), tips are not expected at bars and restaurants, and most purchases are made using cash. A ride on the local bus starts at 70 cents, and the subway is $1, but increases based on the distance you travel. Still, this rarely goes higher than $2 (and that’s for a loooong ride). A cab fare begins at $1.80, and the metre doesn’t tick up very quickly. A 60+ minute ride from Incheon airport (not in Seoul), costs approximately $50.

Freshly baked French baguettes cost $1.10. Two crispy croissants, and a blueberry and chocolate danish sets us back $4. Needless to say, we’ve been eating a lot of pastries! 2.3 litres of creamy milk costs $3, a container of strawberries between $2 and $3. 

There are things that are more expensive here. Coffee for example is astronomical. It feels like Starbucks glory days’ of old, with $5 lattes around every corner. Imported foreign goods are also pricier. A large bag of much craved salt and vinegar Lays costs $5. A small carton of cream costs $5, and non processed cheese is definitely more expensive. (Never mind trying to find any feta!) A Bikram yoga class costs between $20 – $25. But that’s about it.

The cost of living is significantly cheaper here. I spend about $500 per month on living expenses. In Toronto, I used to spend $360 on condo fees ALONE. When I think about how much I used to spend on basic cost of living expenses, I am not surprised by the level of debt I carried. Talk about over-leveraged! It was simply not sustainable, and I’m very fortunate to have sold my condo at a profit before the market crashed.  

Continued next post…

The Basics

16 04 2009

I’ve been in Seoul for about 6 weeks now. Moving here, renting an apartment, setting up a bank account, and finding work has been the easy part. It’s dealing with the necessities of life that are most trying. Probably self-created, but it’s the basics that cause the most turmoil. For instance, I have spent far too much time pursuing the following activities:

  1. Pressing buttons on the washing machine in the hopes that some combination of them will result in a clean and freshly scented load of clothes.
  2. Staring at the rice cooker. The damn thing looks like a spaceship, and I fear that rice will come exploding out of it, or worse!
  3. Trying to buy a fork.
  4. Getting a gift certificate from a courier company delivered to my house, by a courier who couldn’t speak English, and a me that had the wrong house address written down, resulting in multiple back and forth phone calls and text messages with his semi-english speaking daughter. Still took a FULL WEEK to make this happen.
  5. Standing in the aisles of grocery stores, attempting to decipher ingredients and decide if the products are full of MSG or not.
  6. More standing in the grocery store, evaluating unrecognizable salad greenery for consumption. Sesame leaves anyone?
  7. Attempting to access the voicemail on the cellphone. After 2 days of beeping, we finally had to go back to Jenny’s Cellular (and tanning salon!) to get a lesson.
  8. Searching out non-processed cheese, and eating too much Pizza School in order to fulfill my monthly melted cheese quota.
  9. Figuring out the “ondol”(under-floor) heating/hot water system, which sounds great in theory – I mean, heated floors all the time – but in practice, a little confusing.
  10. Practicing zen and calm when countless Korean people crash into me on the street, and don’t apologize OR vice versa, when I apologize and they ignore me. (I’m told this practice is somehow rooted in Confucianism).
  11. Watching reruns of CSI and CSI: Miami, because this is the only thing playing on one of three English television channels we have here. 

I could go on and on, but I like the number 11, so I’ll stop here. Back into the land of Korean appliances I go….

A Zoo-full of Kids

12 04 2009

The kindergarten class that Furry Bear is teaching has 2 kids named Lion and 1 named Tiger. Friend Greg’s class has a girl named Tinkerbell. Who needs pets, when you have a classroom full of Korean kids?!

A Tsunami of Resumes

10 04 2009

When you are in Asia or another non-English speaking country, you are often confronted with an entertaining mix of languages. In China, it’s Chinglish, in Korea, it’s Konglish. Yesterday, we were treated to a SUSHI BUFTET. Is that a bunch of sushi buffets born at the same time? Or maybe a musical sushi group? Ahi tuna on bass guitar, smoked salmon maki roll on drums, and wasabi mayo on vocals!!

Following is the Konglish response to a job posting for a video game editor. Receiving this response was totally worth the time invested in the application. This guy is so clearly in the right occupation. So much drama!

Dear Applicant,

I appreciate the great interest you extended to the ad and am deeply impresssed by your superb qualifications. I didn’t aware there were so many great native English speakers in Korea.

Thanks to such great interest, I have been literally swamped with hundreds of mails, and resumes, up to the point where the application surge paralyzes my  ordinary work schedule and leaves me no choice but to find a “rescue plan.”

As a desperate attempt not to be washed away by the surge and yet give an equal and fair care for each application, I decided to take the following measures:

1. First Screening – Mark the applicants largely based on four criteria: Editing experience, Familiarity with MMORPG, Full-time possibility, and Localization capability

2. Second Screening – Give a sample editing test.

3. Final Screening – Interview

According to this principle, I reviewed your application documents and decided to give you a sample editing test (see attached file), which you may submit with two days by this Friday, April 10, if you can work full-time for this project.

For fair judgment, every applicant is given the same sample, so that my panel of judges can put everyone on the same scale.

Sample revision must be submitted no later than 6 pm this Friday. In case of force majeure, give me an appropriate explanation and then I might see what I can do about it.

I hope to see the best result for both of us.

Oh those DAMN surging resumes. I hope he’s not overtaken.

Korean Vocabulary Lessons

6 04 2009

“Your pronunciation is excellent,” Doris Spicy Fox said, peering out at me from under the brim of her large, floppy straw hat.

We were at a weekend craft market in Hongdae. Doris was at a booth selling handmade ties. She’d just explained to us that she had 2 names – a Korean name and a native American name – despite being 100% Korean. I’m sure you can guess which one this was.

Friend Jane and I were in the process of phonetically sounding out the winning word on a scratch and win card I’d been handed on the street. “What does this say? G?? JJ?? Joooo….C? Soooo. Jui-Soo!!” we had proclaimed excitedly. And it was this that had prompted the Spicy Fox to give us her praise.

What I’d actually won, was a free juice. The Korean word for juice, believe it or not, is, actually juisoo. There is no Korean translation as far as I know, like there are for other words, like rice or dummy, which translate respectively to sal and babo. Korean is a funny language. It is phonetic and has consonants and vowels, so theoretically, you should be able to end a word with a consonant, or a double consonant. In practice however, you can’t, because the language is structured consonant/vowel/consonant/vowel/consonant vowel etc…etc… Thus, you have juisoo for juice, and Soo-Taroo-bucksoo for Starbucks. Pretty funny…especially when you sound out the Korean letters on the easily recognizable Starbucks branded storefront, before running in for a latte.

Even funnier was Doris Spicy Fox’s assessment of my perfect Korean pronunciation of an English word, which to her, was a Korean word. And even funnier still, was Doris’ amazement when I told her I was Korean. I mean, I look Korean, at least I think so, but this is the second time a Korean person has been unable to recognize me as such, due to the fact that I speak perfect English.

The last time, was in multicultural Toronto, of all places. I was mystery shopping a telecom store that was geared towards international students, and the staff happened to be Korean. From Korea. And while I could understand what they were saying in Korean, they could not really speak English. Asking them to demonstrate the video calling feature of a cellphone prompted a call to the manager, where I distinctively heard the staff member refer to me as a “hi-yun sa-dam,” which translates to “white person.” When I told him I could understand him, and was in fact, a member of his own tribe, he looked at me in amazement and said, “jin-ja??” which means “really?”

“Jin-ja,” I said, reassuring him, and myself.