Friday, December 25, 2020

Happy Holidays from South Korea!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all from South Korea! Normally we would be traveling this time of year, but we stayed put because of the pandemic.

The lockdown is pretty serious in Seoul right now with rising COVID-19 cases, so we spent our time either inside or walking outside around the city in places where we could stay distant from other people. The air quality has also been up and down lately, so ironically even without the pandemic everyone here would've still been in masks.

On Christmas Eve, we walked along part of the historic fortress walls of Seoul. In preserved parts of the wall, you could see the different styles of stones laid, which improved in efficiency and durability over the centuries. We also got to see a traditional gate, rebuilt by experts and painted with beautiful motifs on the ceiling inside. It was so cool!

In that same area, we dropped by Dongdaemun, known for its markets. There were fabric shops, cafes, street vendors, and a bunch of stores of all kinds (mostly closed). There were seasonal decorations around, as Christmas is a widely celebrated holiday here for both the religious and secular. I even spotted a nativity Christmas scene.

After that, I decided we should try and find some hodugwaja (호두과자), a Korean walnut pastry my friends kept raving about but I hadn't seen yet. It's a delicious, doughy morsel filled with sweet red bean paste (don't knock it 'til you try it) and walnuts. Thankfully, the Kakao Maps app (a Korean alternative to Google Maps) came to the rescue and helped us find a dedicated hodugwaja place where I bought two lovely wrapped boxes for us and to share.

On Christmas Day, we ventured out for a long walk in the park along the Han River. We went out in the late afternoon and enjoyed stunning views of the river. I bet it's even more beautiful in the spring and autumn when the trees and flowers are in bloom. Along the walking path, we also saw multiple sets of free outdoor exercise equipment that mostly older people were using. Some of these Korean senior citizens are so fit! Two gentleman who looked well into their 70s sped past us on our walk, and we saw others jogging and biking.

We got to enjoy the sunset as we walked back, and it got dark just in time for us to take some photos with a few light displays, including the one in the first photo of this post. (I wonder how many couples have proposed there?) I'm not sure if the lights are seasonal or permanent, but I'm glad we were able to enjoy them on our walk.

It wouldn't be a true adventure without a little failure, right? That's what I'm telling myself regarding my mixup at a food truck. Thinking I saw a yakitori food truck, I dragged Marwan over. I explained to him it was definitely skewered meat and he would definitely like it. I confidently brandished my Korean skills and ordered 12 pieces, thrilled to grab a bite after our long, cold walk. When the vendor scooped 12 balls into a tray, I figured I just had my Japanese food mixed up but I was pretty sure by definition yakitori had to be chicken. So I thanked the vendor, took the food, and led Marwan happily to a bench so we could sit and eat. We each popped one in our mouths only to look at each other in dismay. Confused, I explained I had been so sure what yakitori was, and then Marwan points out it was actually a takoyaki food truck! I promised chicken skewers, and I got us octopus balls! And the sprinkling of stuff on top I thought was fried onion in the dim light was shaved fish pieces. I might give takoyaki a try some other time, but let me tell you it does not hit the spot when you're expecting chicken! We gave the whole order away to our friends, thank goodness, who are bigger fans than we are.

It wasn't all outdoor adventuring, though. Inside, we watched the Lindsey Stirling Home for the Holidays Christmas special. If you want just a small taste of the awesomeness of her program, you can check out this video where she plays violin and dances all while hanging by her hair. We also watched a wonderful Christmas movie on Netflix called Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, a great celebration of Black talent and the best steampunk aesthetic I've probably ever seen in film. We also watched the Asia North Christmas devotional broadcast of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which featured music and messages from Japan, Mongolia, South Korea, and more. You can watch the whole thing here.

Christmas looked and felt different this year, but I was glad to be able to spend it in person with M, on video chat with family, and here in this new city. And if you're reading this, I hope your season is merry and bright (or at least safe and peaceful)!

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Our Hanbok Glamour Photoshoot

We shared a special, once-in-a-lifetime experience this weekend: we did a hanbok photoshoot at a palace in Seoul! This was definitely high on my Seoul bucket list. I'd scoped out our photographer's Instagram in advance and booked as soon as I saw he was available on Airbnb Experiences. His name is Chan and he was awesome! He has great English and knows just how to take a stunning photo, as you'll see throughout this post!

Hanbok is traditional Korean dress. It comes in all sorts of varieties: royal to everyday, traditional to modern, and every color combo you can imagine. I haven't worn hanbok since I was one year old for a special Korean ceremony we have called dol! M and I decided to go all out and picked royal-inspired robes. We thought the burgundy color suited the weather - it is winter, after all.

Speaking of which, it's starting to get really cold in South Korea. I'm shocked at how quickly I adjusted. Just the other day, I caught myself saying, "It's not that bad - only 20s!" (Fahrenheit, of course.) Thankfully, we lucked out for our photo session. It wasn't too cold, the sun was shining, and the air quality cleared up just in time. We realized even more how serendipitous it was the next morning when we woke up to the first snow of the year.

So anyway, we met up at a hanbok rental shop with hundreds of outfits for men and women. I thought we'd have to get undressed, but to my surprise and delight the hanbok could just go on over our clothes. They're not particularly form fitting, so you can't tell there's a whole 'nother outfit on underneath. If you go, though, I would recommend wearing long sleeves you can roll up and nothing with a prominent collar. Also, make sure you wear good shoes - even in the long dresses you can see them in a number of photos. For our winter booking, I was very happy to have a sweater and sweater leggings underneath my outfit. It made for a much more comfortable and enjoyable few hours outside.

Donned in hanbok, we took a short walk to Gyeongbokgung, a palace nearby. Admission is free if you're wearing a hanbok, so we saw a few others visiting in hanbok and taking photos. There were a mix of locals and visitors, but the whole palace grounds were nearly empty. Chan explained that usually the place is packed on weekends, but the combination of the cold and the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in South Korea meant more people were staying inside. One of the reasons I booked this experience, actually, is because it's one of the few low-risk things we can still do. We socially distanced outside and only took off our masks for photos. We put them back on when walking from site to site in the palace. It was a safe and memorable time.

There were so few people that we didn't have to wait at all to get a clear shot with no people in the background. So the whole thing only took a couple of hours and we were on our way. One thing I'll recommend to people who want to book this experience is to bring cash for the hanbok rental. They normally take card, but their business has been hit pretty hard by the pandemic and at least our shop requested cash to avoid the credit card fee.

The next day, Chan sent us a link to download over 170 high-quality photos from our session! We got to pick our 20 favorites for a little extra editing, and he turned those around in record time. I was amazed at his top-notch service. Everything from the quality of the photos, his helpful direction as to what poses to do to look good, to our great conversation throughout made the experience stellar. I would recommend it to anyone living or traveling to Korea in a heartbeat. Definitely check out the package for yourself here, and stay safe!

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Our First Two Real Weeks in Seoul

We enjoyed our first two weeks in Seoul out of quarantine! Many have asked us how our daily life in South Korea is different from in the United States. We're both grateful to be working, but in our free time we've tried to experience our new home as much as possible. Right now, we're enjoying the sights as much as we can outside. Just the other day we walked past this art that reads in Korean, "People make books and books make people." Isn't that awesome? Of course, we're living in an unprecdented pandemic, so things are different than they would otherwise be. For example, Korea is famous for its saunas and karaoke rooms--two places I'd otherwise love to visit but are too dangerous right now. I hope to be able to go sometime before we move again!

Speaking of the pandemic, South Korea's response is serious. The government has mandated extensive contact tracing that includes downloading an app when you enter the country, reporting your symptoms and whereabouts, and signing over your personal information every time you go to a public place like a restaurant. That way, if someone tests positive for COVID-19, they can actually retrace that person's footsteps for the past few weeks and notify and test everyone who overlapped with them in time and location. I've never seen anything like it!

Koreans are also excellent mask-wearers. They have experience with other respiratory diseases (specifically both MERS and SARS) in the past, and they often wear masks when the air quality isn't great at certain times of year. Everyone from the elderly to very young children seems to have no problem wearing masks here. And there's a government requirement to wear masks outside in public places. (If you don't, you could end up paying a ~$90 fine.) So this was obviously a massive difference from what we saw in the United States. In a lot of ways, it's really beautiful and touching to see so many people come together here and around the world to do their part to fight this terrible disease. (Also, how cute is that little bird wearing a mask and washing its hands? Found in Itaewon.)

Seoul is a very cosmopolitan and global city, and that's especially apparent in the food. This means you can find unique twists on American chains, like the Burger King Guinness Whopper above, and top-notch international cuisine like the amazing kanafeh (a Palestinian dessert) we enjoyed at an Arabic restaurant pictured below.

It's getting significantly colder here (20s and 30s Fahrenheit), but people tell me it gets way colder than this later in the winter. I'm honestly terrified of the cold. Here's how much I hate the cold: my boss asked our team to let him know of our leave plans through February, so I Googled "warmest temperature Korea winter" and learned that the warmest part of South Korea at that time, Jeju Island, is still only about 40 degrees Fahrenheit! If the pandemic wasn't happening, you can bet I'd be on a plane to Thailand or Bali or somewhere tropical. But this year we're staying put, so I'll just try to stay as cozy and bundled up as possible instead.

We get around Seoul on public transportation (which is super fast, convenient, and inexpensive). Pictured above is M on the KTX, South Korea's famous high-speed train. We also explored a few neighborhoods: Itaewon (featured in the hit kdrama "Itaewon Class" on Netflix) and Mapo. We also saw (masked, distanced) some of my Korean family, most of whom I've never met! That was really special. Thankfully, my mediocre Korean was just enough for us to be able to communciate and have a great time. It's so nice to move somewhere and have family waiting for us for once.

We had a few really unusual experiences already. We ran into an impromptu outdoor battle of the bands in Mapo (pictured above). We also caught a crew filming a scene from a kdrama when we went out to dinner once. We were up on the second floor and I took a few surreptitious photos from the window (below). When we got back down to street level, staff yelled at us to put away our phones and not take any photos or video. I didn't recognize the actors whose faces I saw, but I hope to see them on Netflix later!

As a major Blackpink fan, I was hoping to see their fan paraphernalia sold everywhere (specifically the signature fan light hammer), but apparently it's pretty much sold out worldwide. I guess I'm not the only Blink around here. At least I get to see them in ads, like for this set of hair dye:

We're so happy to be in South Korea and we're thankful for this opportunity. Life in Seoul is relatively comfortable and safe. My body may be freezing half the time, but my heart is warm. :)