Category Archives: Korea

Korea by the Numbers

In the U.S., numbers make me crazy. In Korea, well, they just don’t make sense.

Take my apartment building…101. The building to my right, 113. To the left, 104. Don’t try to look for a pattern or make sense of this; addresses weren’t assigned based on location. The buildings are labeled in the order in which they were constructed. So if you don’t feel like getting lost in the second biggest city in the world, make a Korean friend. They’re your only hope, as mapquest and google maps do not exist here.

Once you reach your destination, if you decide to take the elevator, the buttons on the door will read: 1, 2, 3, F, 5, and so on. The number four in Korean reads exactly the same as the word death, so it’s not present in elevators. Many Asians have actually developed such a strong aversion to the number that the ailment has a name: Tetraphobia.

Oh, and, by the way, I live on floor F.

Something else I’ve learned: the kids I teach are really six years old, not seven as I was told. No, the school’s director didn’t lie to me; the moment a person is born in Korea they’re considered to be one year old.

That means I’m 28 here.

Better yet, when January hits, I’ll be 29. Koreans don’t wait for your birthday to slap another year onto your age.

I knew there was a reason I hated numbers.

You Want me to Pee Where?


Going to the bathroom in Korea is like receiving a box of Russel Stover chocolates—you never know what you’re gonna get.

Day two in Korea, still jetlagged, I had a 9:30am health check appointment at the hospital. A vision test, hearing test, lung X-ray and four vials of blood later, it was time to pee in a cup.

After being pricked and poked in front of what seemed like half of Seoul, a little urine sample sounded relatively painless.

I was wrong. My first public peeing experience—in a hospital mind you—ended up being in a ceramic hole in the ground.

What way do I face? Do I take my pants off? And if so, where do I put them? How am I going to pee in this damn cup with my skinny jeans around my ankles?

So many questions and so little time. My new boss was waiting for me outside the bathroom. So I planted my feet around the hole in the ground, shimmied my way-too-tight pants down to my knees and peed.

And not a drop of misplaced urine.

After the hospital I was off to see the school for the first time. And somehow, by the time we reached the building, I had to pee again. No ceramic holes, just miniature western-style toilets built for 5-year-olds and a few pairs of shower shoes placed at the entrance. I’m still not sure what they want me to do with these.

A few more facts about the bathrooms in Korea: There is no liquid hand soap. That’s right, these people wear masks everywhere they go and don’t allow outside shoes even at a gym, but they’ll happily share a piece of bar soap at their local watering hole. Sometimes you’ll even see it attached to a metal stick protruding from the bathroom wall.

Toilet paper, if there is any, is usually available outside of the stall. I’ve learned to carry tissue paper with me just in case. I’ve also learned that no matter what the bathroom may be like, sometimes you just gotta go.

Food, Glorious Food

Andrew Zimmern taught me that Korea is a soup culture, that its people eat squid while it’s still squirming. Anthony Bourdain gave me a taste of Korea’s street food and an introduction to soju. A 200-some-odd-page book told me all I needed to know about the different types of kimchi.

I had a laundry list of food items I wanted to try the minute I landed in Seoul. But twenty-three hours of traveling will make you do crazy things—my first meal ended up being a cheese pizza and a bottle of Coca Cola Classic.

Day two consisted of processed fish squares, fermented bean and cabbage soup, kimchi, Korean BBQ and a whole lotta white rice. Since then I’ve eaten jelly fish, seafood pancakes, octopus jerky, mandu, spicy rice balls, peppers so hot I couldn’t speak for 20 minutes, shaved ice topped with red beans and condensed milk, and more spicy cabbage and noodles than you can imagine.

Did I mention I’ve been here less than three weeks?

Other than the first night, and a few necessary MacDonald’s runs, eating in Seoul has been, in a word, interesting. I never know what the school lunch will bring, nor do I know what half the items are until already ingested, but it’s all part of the fun.

I’m just trying to figure out how these Korean women stay so damn skinny.