World Connections

Yes, yes, I know – and you do too if you been following me on Twitter or Instagram – I got back from Japan a whole week ago so where be all the Japan posts?!?  All in good time, friends.  I’m not even done writing about Korea from a whole year ago.  Spoiler alert:  I only slightly fail at writing travelogues.

Anyway, a few days ago, I was at a job interview for a position that is heavily focused on writing and communication (EDIT:  I GOT THE JOB).  One question I got was “Why writing?” – aside from the fact that I must be a fairly good writer, being an ex-PhD student and all (not universally true, by the way), why was I choosing to make writing the focal point of my career path now?

I hadn’t thought about that question at all, really.  The duh answer is that I’ve always loved writing and language.  And writing about language.  Naturally, I brought up this blog.  This blog is the perfect marriage of my two greatest passions and being able to do both in one space gives me boundless satisfaction and joy.  I’ve said it over and over again: I don’t think I would’ve ever entertained the idea of blogging had it not been for the other language bloggers I had silently followed before starting my own.

Blogging hasn’t just brought me personal joy, it’s brought me connections to people all over the world.

Real talk:  By Internet stats, I’m not a popular blogger by any means.  My daily page views are practically negligible and I only have a few hundred followers.  That being said, I’m incredibly lucky.  I have come to know many of my followers through my blog and social media and through language learning itself.  The majority of us may not have met in person, but these are still true, meaningful connections.  Last year, I met my wifey Jeannie for the first time in Seoul after years and years of getting to know her online.  This year, I stopped in Nagoya to meet another online friend in person.


I first met Haruna through Theo’s Japanese-American friend, who had met her through a language-exchange site.  We Skyped a few times after that, talked for a bit on Facebook (she introduced me to Sakanaction hehe) and Line and when I mentioned that I was coming to Japan and would love to meet up with her, she agreed!  Haruna commuted something like 2 hours from her hometown to meet Theo and me at Nagoya station where she took us to eat donburi.

We didn’t get to spend a lot of time together, but it was incredibly touching to know that through my language learning endeavors, I had made a friend in Japan – and we were both really excited to see each other!  She may have plans to come to California next year so hopefully we see each other again.

It just feels really awesome that I have friends that I’ve made through language learning and blogging in all these different pockets of the world.  I feel kinda like a global citizen.

I love writing, but in all honesty, I never thought to make it a part of my career.  I’ve been “writing a novel” since seventh grade or so, and it’s always been on the side.  It never felt like I was doing enough.  Now I know exactly what is so satisfying about writing and why I want to make it the center of my career:  I love that my words can reach other people.  And that we can inspire each other as a result!  That’s pretty damn powerful.

9 things that are an actual “thing” in Seoul.

In September 2014, I went on a 10-day vacation to Seoul.  I didn’t find it too difficult to adjust to city life there, actually, and didn’t face any huge cultural hurdles.  But I did notice some quirky trends that I thought I’d share!  Here are nine random things I noticed while out and about in Seoul.

  1. Horizontal stripes.  In the world of men and women’s fashion, the pattern of the season was horizontal stripes.  Stripes of all colors, in fact, but the most popular seemed to be white and navy blue.  WHYYYY.  Pretty much 80% of the twenty-somethings we encountered were wearing horizontal stripes.  Now, I’m a bit on the curvy side so I’ve always avoided horizontal stripes (my hips and derriere really don’t need any more attention drawn to them heh) but Theo LOVES them so… now I own blue-and-white stripey shirts.  Guh.  A very… uh… helpful shopkeeper in Migliore informed me that it was currently in style for young women to wear over-sized striped shirts tucked baggily into a pair of micro shorts.  Guess who’s not going to dress like that ever?

    I succumbed to the stripes.
    I succumbed to the stripes.
  2. Illegal U-turns.  Think this only happens in Korean dramas?  Think again – IT HAPPENED TO US.  We were heading to lunch in Myeongdong and the driver and I were chatting quite happily (he was speaking 사투리 which was kinda scary!) and suddenly he just guns it.  Wrenches the wheel in the middle of a two-way street and does a U-turn to get to the restaurant on the opposite side of the road.   Granted, we took the taxi only twice the entire time we were in Seoul so we have no idea how frequently this happens…. Most of the time it’s not even physically possible because there’s so much traffic!
  3. Coffee, coffee EVERYWHERE.  I can think of absolutely NO logical reason for there to be as many cafes as there are in Seoul.  Is it the population density?  Are there really that many people and that much demand that all cafes manage to be somewhat profitable?  I dunno.  As a consumer, I think it’s great (albeit baffling) because no matter where you are in Seoul, there’s probably a cafe within a few paces from where you’re standing where you can get your caffeine fix.  And it’s nice to be able to go into any cafe to meet up with friends and know that it’s not going to be unbearably loud or crowded.  Most cafes have just the right steady-state of people going and coming for it to be comfortable enough to study in or work from.  And most importantly, there’s almost never a struggle to find a spare power outlet.

    Hongdae, Seoul. How many cafes  can you spot?
    Hongdae, Seoul. How many cafes can you spot?
  4. Couple-sized desserts.  Oh woe is the soul who is single in Seoul.  I have never been in a place that so thoroughly makes me aware of my relationship status – and I’m not even single!  One thing Theo and I realized was that the general cost of desserts/smoothies/sweets/etc. were much pricier than we thought they’d be.  That’s because 8 out of 10 times, ‘one’ dessert item is sufficient to feed two.  (Actually this doesn’t apply to just desserts – even entrees at some places are proportioned so as to satisfy you and one other special someone).

    Yummy bingsu in Insadong.
    Yummy bingsu in Insadong.
  5. 셀카봉/Selfie sticks.  Improve your selfie-taking experience by using one of these contraptions.  So they’re not strictly Korean  but, let’s be real, I don’t think any other country has gotten the art of taking selfies down like South Korea.  Literally every stall in Namdaemun, every gift shop, and any other random place you can think of sold these things.  (If you’re thinking of getting one in Korea, you may find this post useful.)  We… didn’t bother getting one.  I think we only took 3-4 selcas the entire time we were in Korea.  At Coex Aquarium, we even asked another couple to take a photo of us together.  Gasp!!  One thing that surprised us was the lack of instant cameras.  Theo bought a Fujifim Instax before our trip and – for whatever stereotypical reason – we both thought they’d be really popular in Korea?  Not so much.  The couple who took our photo at Coex Aquarium were delighted when offered them a photo.

    Theo and me at Coex Aquarium!
  6. Keypad locks.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that our Airbnb apartment didn’t have a front door key – it used a keypad lock.  (Speaking of which, isn’t it a Korean drama cliche that an ex-boyfriend/girlfriend can break into the other’s apartment by using his/her birth date as the keypad combination?)  Having JUST had the experience of locking myself out of my apartment, I really wish I had a keypad lock to my own place.  The one thing we didn’t know is that after the four-digit code, you press (*) to unlock from the outside.  That tripped us up when we first got to the place, but Theo (who’s way more in-tune with electronics than I’ll ever be) eventually figured it out.
  7. Parasols.  Best way to keep cool on a muggy, sunny Seoul day?  Parasols!  I saw tons of people (mostly 아줌마s) carrying around beautiful paper parasols to ward off the midday sun.  If, like us, you decide to trek around Bukchon in the middle of the afternoon in late summer, I highly recommend getting a parasol.  When I went to school in Texas, I used to unabashedly carry around an umbrella in the summer.  I regret not buying my own pretty parasol in Seoul.
  8. 명품.  This is such an interesting word – it’s a catch-all term for brand-name, luxury goods.  And people are really into luxury goods in Seoul.  One thing that surprised me was the absolute craze people have for duty free goods.  Go to the top floor of Lotte Department store, for example, and you can have your pick of duty free brand-name handbags, jewelry, sunglasses, shoes, and a bunch of other expensive things.  Speaking of department stores, we spent a lot of time exploring all the major ones in Seoul – Lotte, Coex, Galleria, Shinsegae…. And for people who can’t afford new items (ahem – me), if you walk around Gangnam and Apgujeong, you can find tons of stores selling used high-fashion goods (that are still ridiculously expensive).

    Buy all the things!
    Buy all the things!
  9. Complicated garbage.  Gah taking out the trash is SO DIFFICULT in Korea.  Recycling isn’t just about sorting into compostables, paper, and glass.  In the apartment we were staying in, we had to sort out glass bottles, cans, papers, food waste, plastic bags, cardboard and other stuff into separate bins.  Needless to say, I was the one who had the responsibility of taking out the trash because I was the one who could read Korean.  When I asked the security guard where the garbage area was, he pointed me in the right direction, and then eyed me as I sorted the trash out appropriately.  I didn’t get yelled at so I’m assuming I did it right.  Heh.  Want to know why trash is so complicated in Korea?  Check out this excellent post on Seoulistic.

Well, that about covers the 9 main things that really stood out to me while I was in Korea.  I’m sure I missed plenty of other trends!

Gosh.  Writing this post really makes me miss Seoul.

Pre-Korea Checklist

Planning a trip to South Korea in 2015?  Then you may find this post useful!

Granted, I’m not huge on planning when it comes to trips.  I make sure I’ll be able to manage all the basics – transportation, accommodation, and communication – and then everything else is pretty spontaneous.  I’ve had more than one person say that I’m an incredibly easy person to travel with.  (Anyone want to plan a trip with me in the future?  I really want to go to Singapore!)

Anyway, here are the things we planned and prepared before our trip to Seoul in September 2014.

1.  Tickets.   Obviously this comes first.  Our direct flight from San Francisco International Airport to Incheon Airport on Korean Air Economy Class was $800 round-trip, including tax.  Tickets range from $700-$1000+ with direct flights being around $880-1,000.  We booked 3 months in advance using Priceline and managed to get probably the cheapest direct flight tickets of the season by some insane stroke of good luck!  Be warned, booking earlier doesn’t always mean cheaper tickets.  Our friends actually paid about $100 more and they booked several weeks before us… so keep a sharp eye on those prices!

2.  Accommodations.  You could do hotels, hostels, guesthouses, or hanoks but for us, Airbnb was a lifesaver.  For just $80/night, I stayed in beautiful two-floor officetel near 광화문광장.  It included full amenities: full kitchen, washer/dryer, large, flat-screen TV, DVD player, a full-size bed, leather couch, and couple twin mattresses for larger families.  The best part though?  The apartment came with a FREE portable wifi device!!  The location was fantastic as well.  We were walking distance from two subway stations, the palaces, Kyobo Bookstore, and a number of other locations.  Check out our host Uni’s Airbnb listing by clicking on the image below:

3.  Communication.  Are you going to be making phone calls in Korea?  If so, local or long-distance?  Will you be needing data or wifi?  Although many visitors do, I actually never bothered renting a phone because I have the greatest service provider ever.  With T-mobile’s Simple Choice plan, I got unlimited data and text in Korea for no additional charge.  That’s right – NO roaming fees!!  In fact, as soon as I deplaned in Incheon Airport, I got a text message welcoming me to Korea and informing me of just that.  With this plan, I also made exactly two 1 minute-long phone calls at a rate of $0.20/min (one was to make a hair appointment and the other was to check if a place was open on Chuseok).  With unlimited data and text and no roaming fees, we didn’t feel the need to rent a separate phone for phone calls.  Now, in spite of my awesome service plan, we ended up using my phone more as a wifi device.  Since our officetel came with a portable wifi, I just ended up carrying that – along with a rechargeable battery pack – in my purse and voila.  Perfect to look up directions, public transit info, and places of interest on the go.

4.  Transportation.  How are you going to get from the airport to where you’re staying?  How about around the city?  This was something I made sure I knew about before getting on the plane because I didn’t want to be caught unawares once I landed in the airport.

  • From Incheon Airport.  I judged that we’d be tired, hungry, and disoriented after a 12 hour flight so I wanted to make sure we’d get to our officetel safely without too much effort on our part.  We opted to take an International Taxi which worked out great.  Admittedly, it is pricier than other transportation options (we paid a flat-rate of 65,000W), but it made us feel comfortable and secure on our first night in Korea.  The driver spoke English (giving me some time to ease into the language!) and I didn’t have to keep the regular taxi service’s complicated fare system in my head.
  • Getting Around Seoul.  First thing’s first: T-money is amazing!  As soon as we had settled into our apartment, we headed to the nearest 7-11 and bought T-money cards for 2,500W each and charged them with 20,000W.  Not only can these cards be used to pay subway, bus, and taxi fares, using them actually gives you a discount over using cash.  You can add cash value at any T-money kiosk and pretty much any convenience store too.  We didn’t venture on the public buses, but the the subway system is incredibly convenient and SUPER CHEAP.  Even the city taxis (which we only used two or three times) were much cheaper than what we’re used to paying in San Francisco.  If you’re scared of the subway system, don’t be!  The Subway Korea app was a true lifesaver.
  • To Incheon Airport.  By the time we were ready to head back to the airport, we had scoped out enough of our locale to discover an airport limousine bus stop, a mere 10-minute walk from our officetel.  It’s 15,000W to take the airport limousine bus, so we just made sure to fill up our T-money cards (yup, this bus accepts T-money too!) up to that amount to make the one-way journey.  Super convenient, comfortable, and much cheaper than a taxi.

Once I had these four things – tickets, accommodation, communication, and transportation – down, I really didn’t plan any more aspects of my trip.  I used one excellent guidebook (possible review coming up soon) to help me roughly figure out where I’d be going each day, but aside from that, I just enjoyed myself with as much spontaneity as I could.  I wouldn’t have had it any other way. :)