Jihye Chang

April 2011

For the first visitors to Korea

The concert choir of the school that I work at is going to Korea for their international tour this summer. Since I am from Korea and spent more than half of my life there (and I go back every year), I was asked to answer some questions from the students. I would like to share my answers to whoever is planning to go to Korea!

Currency… get some before or there? – Korean currency is “won”. As of April 2011, $1 equals to about 1090 won. Change money while you are there, either at the airport or in the city. In my opinion Korean Exchange Bank has the best rate and service. Woori bank is also nice. If you are in Itaewon, you may be able to bargain as well!

Clothing? What is normal? What should we pack? – Weather in Korea is much like weather in America, say NYC. Summer is hot and winter is cold! May is not the hottest month, but the summer weather has been gradually getting warmer and more humid during the past few years.

What clothing shouldn’t we wear? – shorts? – Yes, Korean people do wear shorts during summertime. But it’d be wise not to wear shorts or flip-flops when visiting Buddhist temples or any other religious place. May is not a very hot month, so you may want to bring some cardigans and other spring cover-ups.

Converters for electrical devices? – Korea uses the 220 (same as European countries) with round ends. So you do need to bring a converter.

What are our options for internet access? – Many hotels and coffee shops in the city will have free Wi-Fi. Incheon airport has many free Wi-Fi spots. South Korea is one of the most wired places in the world, so you won’t have any problems!

What is the food like? – Korean traditional food is based on rice+@ pattern. Unless you are at a BBQ place, you will usually get a dish and a few (or many) side dishes consist of various cooked vegetables and kimchi (pickled cabbage or radish). Sometimes noodle can replace rice. Some dishes are hot – usually colored red! Some dishes are very mild.

What food should we experience – ie your favorites – You should try Bibim-bap, which is a rice dish with various cooked vegetables and fried egg on top/ mixed with some hot pepper paste and sesame oil. If you are a meat-lover, try “Galbi” (grilled marinated beef ribs) or “Bulgogi”. “Ttokgalbi” is also good (it’s like a round hamburger patty with sweet and savory soy sauce marinade.) “Haemul-pa-jeon” is very popular and yummy savory pancake with green onion and various seafood. “Nok-du-jeon” is another savory pancake made with mungbean flour and various toppings. One of my favorite dishes is “Naeng-Myun” (cold buckwheat noodle with cold soup/ or spicy paste and some spicy fermented fish), which can be strange at first but becomes quickly addictive!

If you are an adventurous eater, try “Kimchi zigae” (Kimchi soup usually made with fatty pork) or “Kimchi-bokum-bap” (Fried rice made with chopped kimchi and other vegetables and meats). If you are ever in a Chinese restaurant in Korea, try “Tangu-yuk” (Sweet and sour pork) and “Jajang-myun” (stir fried noodle with black bean sauce). Koreanized Chinese food is fantastic and addictive!

If you get tired of eating Korean foods, you can easily find bakeries, hamburger and sandwich shops. (There are McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, Papa Johns, Smoothie King, and other American franchise restaurants in Seoul.) Among the Korean franchise bakeries, Paris Baguette and Twosome Place are good choices. There are so many great food places in Seoul, so just explore and have fun!

One of the best places to see and eat a lot of different cuisines is the basement of any department stores. (Hyundai and Lotte are two big department chains in Korea.) The whole floor is packed with bakeries, smoothie-shop, ice cream shop, coffee store, fried food shop, dumpling shop, and many many other restaurants and grocery stores. If you have time, go visit the Lotte department store in Myung-dong area. It’s fabulous! Top floors of department stores present more sit-down, formal (and more expensive) restaurants, but the basement is more fun.

What shopping items are a great value for Americans? – Clothes, shoes and accessories. Koreans make such amazing quality clothes and jewelry at such amazing prices! Many street shops in Myung-Dong area and other shopping centers (Dongdaemun market, for example) exhibit a huge array of fashion items ranging from cute pajamas to high-end looking bags. Also you can find many attractive stationary items as well as traditionally made paper items and potteries. Korean traditional brass-ware spoons and chopsticks would make good souvenir.

Phrases to know? – Hello – [Annyung-ha-se-yo]/ Thank you – [Kamsa-Hamnida] or [Komap-sumnida]/  Excuse me – [Shille-hamnida]

What are the people like? – Younger generation is more outgoing and Westernized. Usually Korean people are very friendly and willing to help foreigners. You may notice that Korean women are very well-dressed, even on a college campus and commuting trains!

How are Americans viewed? – I don’t think there is any conformed ideas about Americans, although many people may think that “Americans” = white Caucasians.

How to conduct ourselves – ie rude loud Americans? – Just do whatever seems polite to you. Public smoking or loud conversations are rude, for example. Korean people are physically a bit conservative, so personal space is important. A lot of people are now used to the idea of hugging friends, but not someone they just met. Also you should get used to the formal bow – a lot of people say hello and goodbye that way.

Character: personal grace, dignity, respect for elders – Koreans are proud people. 🙂 Also they respect elders, although sometimes you see some conflict between old people demanding unconditional respect/ younger people who want to claim their own rights.  For example – young people would usually stand up if they see an old person standing in front of them. But sometimes old people tell younger people to stand up just because they are older and they want to sit down.

What is a brief history of S. Korea that might help us understand the Korean people – Well, this is not a question that I can answer shortly or easily. However you need to know about the Korean War n the middle of the 20th century and Japanese occupation during the early part of the 20th century. East Sea is a very sensitive issue (Japanese people keep pushing the political agenda to say that is a “Sea of Japan”).

Itinerary details, short paragraphs about each city? – Seoul is the capital city of South Korea. Very dynamic, always changing, amazingly crowded, and incredibly modernized place. Kyungjoo is a very historic place as it was the capital city of Shilla dynasty (3 Countries – Shilla – Coryo – Chosun – and Republic of Korea). There are beautiful temples, towers and tombs in Kyungjoo. Daegu is a very hot and dry place. You may notice different dialect in that area, which is very different from what people in Seoul use.

Do-s/ don’t-s – Don’t lift your bowl (soup or rice) when you are eating.  This is considered OK in Japan and China, but not in Korea. Also don’t blow your nose at the table.

What to expect at homestays? Gifts? Monestary? – Get used to the idea of taking your shoes off when entering someone’s home. Even if there is carpet in the living room, Koreans take their shoes off and keep everything clean. For gifts, Vitamins and Omega-3 are very appreciated. Also things from popular brand names such as Polo and Burberry. (The prices for these brands are 2-3 times higher in Korea.) A lot of people drink coffee, so good coffee beans from famous American roasters (Counter Culture, Intelligentsia, Peet’s, etc.) would be nice as well.

What should we hope to gain from this tour? – Experiencing a country that you have never been before would be a very valuable thing for any young student. Also the standard for classical music performance is really high in Korea as well as the quality of performance venues throughout the country.

What books should we read to help us prepare? – I think the following two websites would do just fine:

http://english.visitkorea.or.kr

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Korea

ENJOY your visit to Korea! 🙂