How to get around in Korea

Directions in a foreign country can be downright frustrating to say the least. That is until you understand how things are organized. In North America, everything is done by streets and addresses. If I say 123 Main St E, it is simple for those from North America to find Main St and then find 123.

In Korea things are not like that. In order to mail something here, you start in ‘reverse’ order if you will. To quote Wikipedia:

A typical building in South Korea is described by the administrative divisions in which it lies. If the address is written in Korean, the largest division will be written first, followed by the smaller divisions, and finally the building and the recipient. If the recipient is in a multi-unit building, the floor and apartment or suite number may follow.

It’s a logical breakdown from largest to smallest and makes a lot of sense.

Here is it in a table format:

Korean example Format Revised Romanization Translation
135-283 서울특별시
용산구 서초2동 1308-25
하나 아파트 9층 912호
박민호 선생님
Postal code, (special) city
Ward, neighborhood, beonji-ho
Building name, floor, room number
Name of recipient
135-283 Seoul Teukbyeolsi
Yongsan-gu Seocho I-dong 1308-25
Hana Apateu gu-cheung gubaeksibi-ho
Bak Minho Seonsaeng-nim
135-283 Seoul Special City
Yongsan Ward, Seocho Neighborhood #2, 1308-25
Hana Apartments, 9th floor, Apt. 912
Mr. Minho Park

Since addressing looks so confusing, it is very easy to just say “I’m lost” without looking any further. Fortunately I don’t give up easy Smile

Even after you have the address, there is the problem of getting there. That means you need damn good directions. Because you simply can’t just find a street and walk to the address when you are dealing with a ‘block addressing’ format, you absolutely rely on addressing being given to you by the people living/working in the area you are going to. In plain words, if you get into a taxi you ask the driver to take you to ‘the McDonalds in Westdale’. As there is only one McDonalds in Westdale, the driver knows exactly where to take you. This doesn’t work so well for brand new places.

Let me explain. Each building in Korea has a name assigned to it(or group of buildings) and a number for the block it is on. Our building is “Ji Young Village”.  Currently on Google Maps the lot shows a vacant spot as our building is less than a year old. So when I got here and asked him exactly that, he looked confused. When he saw the name of the school on the paper I had, he knew where to go exactly(even if he did purposed go at a rather leisurely pace…..native people will generally take advantage of non-natives as they somehow assume you are stupid. I saw this and mentally chuckled to myself. I still gave him a tip just to make his day and give him another story to tell his friends). It is always a good idea to have a local friend write out your address in Korean, makes like much easier Smile

Block Addressing map
Block Addressing map

Now, to use the subway system is yet another skill you need to master. Again, you need more information than where you start and where you begin, at least until you get the hang of things. So here is my near-foolproof method of using the Seoul Metro Subway.

For each destination you will need the following:

  • What line number you are on
  • What line number your end stop is on
  • What is the last station is in the direction you are going
  • What is the next stop in your direction

That seems like a lot of info but it really makes it easy to get around and vital to your ‘sense of direction’ when here. So here is a simple table layout that would be of great value if you are new and need absolute guidance:

Click to see simple sheet

For example, we wanted to go to Yongsan Electronics Market to get some more memory for my Netbook and see what else is there. We started at Uijeongbu Station. Here is what our table would look like.

Click to see our simple one-stop table

That is a very straight forward get on/get off. It gets to be a lot of fun when you switch lines but as long as you keep it simple as above, you’ll get around just fine.

So lets take a look at our travels last Saturday. We hit 4 places around Seoul so hold onto your hats!

Click here to see spreadsheet

As you can see, if you want an ultimate control and near full-proof method for getting around, it takes a wee bit of planning. Of course, once you are used to the area, this tool is no longer needed. Still, there are people who will rely on something like this for their entire lives.

Also, looking at that some may be thinking that it cost us a fortune on fares. Far from it. I think we spent a grand total of around $5 or $7 for the day.

Translating Korean and Culture Shock

Culture shock can happen in many different ways. From the way people talk, the way people look or simply the weather you experience. Can you imagine yourself in such a foreign environment where you are a serious minority? For me, culture shock being in Korea has been the lack of diversity. Canada is such a melting pot of every other nation around the world, it is a real eye opener to see such homogeneous numbers of people. Add in constantly hearing another language and seeing different characters on every sign, it could be quite overwhelming to the vast majority of people who do such things as travel/move to another country.

Things we take for granted are completely reversed here. Let’s take people and walking. In Canada, the pedestrian has the right of way no matter what the scenario. Even should a person cross against a light, it would still be tough fight for any motorist trying to escape blame for not being vigilant enough to see the person they just hit. In Korea it is just the opposite. You cross the street in front of traffic at your own peril. Drivers will honk at you for your apparent lack of judgment. In many ways they have a good point. Cars weight 1800lbs+ while you might only be less than a 1/10th of that. You wouldn’t walk out in front of a charging elephant so why would you do so in front of a vehicles that weigh upwards of 1 TON or more? Simply a different way of thinking, neither right nor wrong, just different. Although, I think that having the onus on the driver is a much more mature way of responsibility.

Food. I have slightly touched on this subject previously but some more details are necessary. It’s quite easy for anyone to walk to the local grocery stores (that are popping up like Tim Hortons in Hamilton) and pick up some bananas. You can buy them by any size of bunch. You can even break up the bunch and buy only 3 or 4 if you will. You can also just grab some of the loose ones that others have broken off. Here this is not the case. They are sold in set sizes of bunches despite the selling methods (i.e. so much per weight). Here is the bunch we bought recently:

This cost $2.50
This cost $2.50

On top of being a rather large bunch for just two people, they are also ripe. I have yet to see green/unripened bananas in any store. One can also only eat so many bananas over any given time period.

The other day we bought a blender. I wanted to make sure it was glass as I’m working my best to use less plastic and more things where the material breaks down significantly less. The local “LotteMart” (kinda like a WalMart) had a range and the one we got was discounted because it was the last one and there was no box for it. We didn’t mind getting a 40,000KRW for 28,000KRW Smile

This blender was simple. It only had 3 buttons. I figured that it was one speed, one momentary and a stop. That is exactly what it was. More on that in a bit. The purpose for the blender was so I could resume my morning fruit smoothies that have been a great health benefit for me. The blender does an adequate job. It would be nicer to have a higher speed to finely chew up the apple skins, still nothing to give up on.

In order to function better I’ve also been thinking and searching for a method to translate Korean into English. Many would think, at first thought, that it would be easy but not so. There are all kinds of online translators but there is a severe limitation. Those online translators are excellent for translating English into 50+ other languages but no so much for the other way around. It takes a lot more work as how many of you have Korean characters on your keyboard? How would figure out to input a Korean(Hangul) character in order to get some sort of English equivalent?

So after some hard thinking I realized that Windows has the ability to switch languages fairly easily. Happens all the time in Canada with French characters seemingly popping up (notably on laptops) because some user hit a key-combination and now the / key makes an e with an accent. Ok, so adding in the Hangul keyboard is easily done thought the Languages settings on the control panel but now what? How do I know which character is which? I don’t but making a chart is easy Smile. I opened up a spreadsheet and in one column I put all the English characters and switched languages and the second column I used the same keys but saw the corresponding Hangul character that is assigned to that key.

It is worth noting that the Hangul character assigned to any key does NOT relate to the English equivalent at all. Meaning if I press the letter “a” and then switch to the Hangul character set and press the same key I get a Korean character. This Korean character is NOT the ‘a’ in their language. It is simply the character assigned to that key. The English-speaking world maybe used to the QWERTY keyboard but not a single other language uses any/all of those characters, thus no keyboard equivalent.

Ok, so now I have my conversion chart. I can now begin my translations Smile

The first thing I tackled was the heating control for our apartment. Although we were told which button does what, it would be infinitely more useful to know what the labels actually say. That and it’s good practice Smile

Doing my best to match up characters, I got the labels and they matched up quite well. Although I got English words for the Korean characters, sometimes translations are not literal and more of an idea. For example, you will see ‘out’ in the picture below. I didn’t quite understand that until Bharati said it was for when you leave the place to set the temperature. Normally we just turn it on and off as the place stays warm for quite some time and we still don’t know how to play with the temperature setting.

Temperature Control for our apartment
Temperature Control for our apartment

And I think I’ve gotten the understanding how to allow the heat to self-regulate. Still, the apartment is well insulated and it will take many hours before a noticeable change in temp is felt. I have this egg-shaped clock/alarm/thermometer that works well in letting us know the ambient temperature.

I have this cell phone with a dictionary built into it. It’s useful enough to get my point across. When I first met Minhye (a friend of Bharati’s friend) she spoke some English ok enough but there was tons of concepts that didn’t translate. The little cell helped get my ideas across and it was cool to be able to ‘converse’ enough to understand each other.

I’m still looking for someone to exchange language learning with. I really want to be fluent enough to carry on a decent conversation by this time next year.

We are looking forward to a trip to Bharati’s old town when she was here last, to see the Buddhist temple out there. We donated some money last time and got our names put on small brass Buddha statues that went on a shelf. Hoping to find them again Smile

Thanksgiving in Korea

When you are in another country, your own Country’s holidays gets a bit blurry.  Every other foreigner here is from a different country.  So we all simply adapt and there is also a chance you get to partake in a tradition that is not part of your own country.  Not only are you already experiencing the culture of Korea but you also get to experience that of other countries depending on where your friends are from.

On the 27th of November a Thanksgiving party was organized at Liz’s place (thanks again Liz!!).  It was a kind of ‘from 3pm onwards open door’ type of party.  The bulk of people arrived early and some left, others came later.  The food was ordered from a place called Dragon Hill (I liked it before we even tasted the food).  Let’s see if I can recall what we got:

  • 1.5 Turkeys
  • Ham
  • Mashed Potatoes
  • Salad

Now the list is short but the amount of food was huge!  We were told that it would feed up to 17 people, if I recall correctly.  From the pics below, you’ll see exactly how big the turkey’s were!

We had more than enough food, everyone took something home.  Music was playing nicely from Liz’s laptop in another room (she has a HUGE apartment!  We are sooo jealous) and people moved around from sitting on couch, floor and kitchen.

As you’ll also see, we had a number of Korean friends there, some whom have never experienced Thanksgiving, including turkey.  Everyone enjoyed the food and the massive pumpkin pie one of the girls bought form Costco(Yes, Costco is here).

There was one other guy who was Korea, so we were quite happy to be surrounded by all these beautiful women :)

We also talked about doing a ‘Dessert Safari’…..looking forward to that!

Teaching English in Korea

There are many times where most teachers simply want to scream, click their heels together and be back in their respective countries. They become frustrated by the lack of consistency, the seeming-lack of courtesy, the lack of language comprehension and the lack of consideration given to ESL teachers. Now that paints a pretty bleak picture but it is merely one side of the coin. The experience, the culture, the beauty and the sense of accomplishment that a teacher does eventually achieve plays a major balancing act and usually is the winner when it comes to deciding if you like it here or not.

Bharati’s school put on a performance of various English skits. Most were modified fables and stories to suit the number of students in each class. Her school is in the outskirts of her town. It really should be classified as ‘rural’ as the immediate area is surrounded by ‘low end businesses’, to put it politely. Small farms, what looks like scrap yards and a convenience store. Overall it looks like a part that has yet to be taken over by the urban sprawl. Maybe I’ll get pictures of it some other time.

In order to get to her school, Bharati normally takes this little ‘school bus’ (meaning something slightly bigger than a mini-van where 40 kids + her gets squeezed into). There is a public bus that runs ‘close’. Close meaning dropped off then a 20min walk. So with me going to see the performance we had to take the city bus. Short enough trip (45mins including the walk) but there was this cool little stream that ran beside the road we walked along.

It was neat to see some ducks but they were severely skittish.

What I really love about this country is the scenery. The landscape has real character, unlike southwestern Ontario. And the Hamilton ‘mountain’ is a real joke compared to something like this:

Nothing does wonder for the soul like a good scenery.

We arrived at the school and I got the customary tour and introductions to many people who understand I was Bharati’s “남편” (pronounced nom-peyong) husband. All the little girls kept saying I was ‘handsome’. The teachers were very polite and the principal smiled a lot (I don’t think he knows anything beyond hello and some other rudimentary English but I am sure he’s learning more each year).

Bharati has a very nice classroom, spacious and quite a number of computers for the kids.

Bharati’s room also includes the Library.

And here we have Bharati at her desk:

I’ve done the rest in an album slideshow, lest this post grow to 18 pages long :)

All-in-all, the kids did an amazing job. They were funny and many of them spoke incredibly clear. Bharati was also given to judge them with a sheet. The Korean culture is very big on academics (another point in the Korean favour as Canada doesn’t seem to care at all in comparison) and it was interesting to see one of the parent check out Bharati’s sheet and the scores she was giving each grade level. We got an invite for dinner from one parent, I am looking forward to that but also concerned that they will miss my strict ‘meatarian’ diet.

Korea and War

Since this is the topic on everyone’s mind back home let me enlighten you on how it all feels this side of the world.

Everyone is pointing to North Korea as the ones who ‘shot first’ with the whole Bombardment of Yeonpyeong.  Maybe the did, maybe they didn’t.  I wasn’t there, I can’t say who’s in the right or wrong.  What I do know is that South Korea planned some ‘air exercises’ of this island (that’s been in debate for ages) and if I were to take a guess, I think that North Korea did fire first but only after South Korea ‘pushed the limits’ of their nerves by being in that area as well as giving North Korea reasons to push back from the corner they’ve put themselves into.

As for the general populace, life goes on.  I’ve not spoken with any locals but the general consensus among the English teachers is that this is really nothing new.  Maybe more ‘fire exchange’ than in the past but there has always been skirmishes over this island.  Unless there is a drastic change in level of activity, it’s just one more notch in history of  ongoing Korean War. (You did know that it never ended right?)

North Korea’s only ally (China) is even staying somewhat neutral.  They have neither approved nor condemned the incident but at most said ‘the two should work harder at coming to peace’.

I’ve signed up with Canadian Government branch for registered Canadians abroad.  They keep track of such things and email updates on events like this.  Their last email said that neither country has raised any ‘alert levels’, a pointed indication that this is nothing more than two children fighting over one toy for the sake of pride now more than anything else.

I’m still here

Nami Island Trip

Our adventure continues with some video and pics from our excursion to Nami Island.

First the train.

The first, and obvious, is the cartoonish character. The whole culture over here seems child-like in advertising. Soft and/or bright colours and a lot of cartoonish characters. It’s kinda like re-living 50’s advertising in such a modern setting.

The next thing you’ll notice are the two vertical black marks on the door. I couldn’t get a picture of the front of the train but it seems that either there are a lot of paint layers and they are cracking, and by layers I mean the type of layers you’d find when looking at a 50+ year-old house that has 20 layers of paint on it and peeling. The front of the train looked worse. The train itself was very comfortable and quiet. So it’s not like the trains are falling apart, far from it. The seats even reclined and you had curtains and coat hooks with tons of leg room. So traveling anywhere of significant distance is pleasant. They even have a lady with a food cart that goes around selling snacks and drinks. Really smart people here.

Taking a break from walking around Nami Island.

Art/Music Museum
Art/Music Museum

More pictures around the island.

Calm lake around island
Calm lake around island
Water Fountain
Water Fountain

Interesting wood work.
Interesting wood work.

See all 185 pics here.

On the train home.

On the train ride home, saw a cool shot of a sunset.

And finally, at the subway station grabbed this shot with the moon.

What I have learned in one week in Korea


Living in another country will certainly open your eyes and spirit to different ways of thinking and believing. The majority of people live in a bubble of their own realities and simply refuse to look beyond that bubble for fear it might not be the same. Well of course it’s not, otherwise we’d all be in the same bubble.

bubblesGoing with the bubble analogy, there are various levels of bubbles. There is the world bubble, the country bubble, the regional bubble, the city bubble and then the personal bubble. Have you ever watched a soapy/bubbly water mixture? You’ve seen all the bubbles there, they get along just fine. When one bubble bursts, it is usually and calmly absorbed to make the next bubble bigger. That is what I see happening to our world. The problem is that so many people are afraid of becoming the next big bubble that it paralyzes them. They fear what they don’t know. If I were to meet an alien from another planet and he asks me to summarize human reactions, that’s the sentence I would use. “Humans fear what they don’t know.”

There are tons of friends who are surprised and maybe even a bit jealous, of the fact that I simply up and moved to another country. Many could not comprehend such a concept. Yet there it is, right in front of them. Someone they know just popped and joined a bigger bubble. It doesn’t make me any better or any less than they are, it is simply a shift in perspective in the world.

Getting back to Korea specifically, there are many things here that would confuse a lot of people from the West. Maybe so to the point of lashing out because they simply cannot understand the reasoning. I’ll admit, I have tons still to learn but it will be fun.

Let’s talk about the people in general. I have found that the Korean people in the service sectors (specifically retail and restaurants) are seriously polite. Even when they are telling you that you’re wrong, they are polite. A simple smile, a benign gesture and you feel like you can’t disobey because they seem to earnest and polite. It’s like saying no to a kiss from Grandma.

Respect. The Korean people have a huge amount of respect for ‘older’ people. On the subway it is a common occurrence to see someone get out of their seat to allow an ‘older’ person to have it. Being here you cannot help but appreciate such ideals. I find myself almost wanting to have such a chance. I did once and the gentleman, who by no means was incapable of standing for long periods of time, politely refused. It was after some insistence that he took the seat with gratitude and I felt good that I was able to show respect for not only an elder but also a Korean. The society even goes so far as to have seat reserved for older generations. So if you are in a subway in Korea, don’t sit on the red-coloured seats or I hear you will actually get yelled at or at least a stern Korean lecture. I suspect that regardless of your nationality, you’ll understand that you are not supposed to sit in those seats.

Transportation. It is simply amazing how well things work here. Their public transportation could teach North America a whole new perspective. They have so many buses. For example, the bus stop by our place has 6 different busses that stop there. I think the longest wait time is something like 6 minutes for any given bus. The buses are shorter than the ones back home and every single one of them is either diesel or Natural Gas, as well as being standard transmissions.

Snapshot_20101119Everyone uses a bus card. It’s a kind of pre-pay card with an RFID chip in it. You simply hold the card (or wallet if it`s in it) to a scanner, it beeps, shows you your balance, and you take a seat. When you leave, you must leave by the rear entrance (99% of the time, I think rush hours is the only exception) and you scan the car again. Costs are based on distance travelled and your balance is shown once again. This system works pretty damn well it seems. Pay-for-use makes a lot of sense. The fare itself isn’t expensive either. I went from our town (Uijeongbu) into downtown Seoul and back for a whopping $2.00. That is about 2hrs+ travelling time round trip between taking a bus to the subway station, the subway to downtown and the reverse back.

Automotive. There seems to be this odd `pecking order` when it comes to traffic. By that I mean who actually follows the exact rules of the road. Taxis can turn from any lane through any colour of light. That confused me for the longest time but it seems that if you are a paying customer, you get right of way regardless. Buses are next. For the most part they obey the majority of lights but the `yellow`is in no way a deterrent to making a turn to get to the next stop. Mopeds are this kind of snaky little transportation that goes anywhere and everywhere. They generally don`t try to take on big traffic but in smaller roads they will slip between cars and use sidewalks to turn if it suits them. That would be because the vast majority of them are deliveries of some sort, typically food. Cars would be next. They generally respect all signs and lights. Note I said generally. Signals tend to be optional and parking is `where ever it can fit`. Pedestrians seems to be at the bottom of this totem pole as I almost got run over from behind me while on a sidewalk! It was by this stupid little Daewoo Damus.


This thing is smaller than a VW Microbus, if you can believe it. It`s can fit almost anywhere and the one that almost ran me over was delivering newspapers/flyers in these holders on street posts. I was waiting to cross the street when I heard this noise behind me and I saw this van come up right where I was standing! He apologized, deposited the papers into the holder and continued off the sidewalk and onto the road.

Well, that is a brief summary for now. There is still lots to write about but I’ll save that for another post Smile

Getting to Korea By The Numbers

Thought I’d give everyone the quick overview summary of my travel to get here:

10,000 flying miles
4 Airports
4 Calendar Days
3 Actual travelling days
3 Countries
2 Hotels
1 ruined suitcase being exchanged under ‘lifetime warranty’ :)

And that is just the beginning of my adventures! ;)

Kraft Dinner in Korea

There are some many things people take for granted.  Shelter, transportation and food.  With food, if you need something to prepare a meal you simply go to the store and buy it.  So what happens when you are in a completely foreign country and have yet to learn anything more than ‘hello/goodbye’?

After my hot dog experience with Kraft Dinner, I decided that using the extra hot dogs in spaghetti would be a bad idea I immediately thought of ground beef.  Great, so I’ve decided what to get… how do I get it?

A lot of English words are made more difficult by the Koreans adding a vowel at the end of a word that ends with a consonant.  For example ‘finish’ becomes ‘finishee’.  It is slightly less odd when a word like ‘village’ gets turned into ‘villagee’, which at least makes more sense by trying to pronounce a letter that is there but subdued when vocalized in English.  So I toyed with the idea of trying to make ground beef sound foreign by walking over to the store and asked for ‘grounduh beefuh’ but I just couldn’t bring myself to sound that dumb.

Being the geek that I am, I went to the tools I knew best….the Internet.  Specifically I used Babelfish.  Some of you might wonder why I didn’t use Google Translate, being a bit of a Google Fan.  Well, Babelfish has a bit of a geek history so there is a fondness for using something related to HHGTTG.

So I simply typed in ‘ground beef’ and choose to translate it to Korean and I’ll simply write it out to bring with me.  In case you haven’t seen the Korean written language (called Hangul), it’s related to Chinese/Japanese.  A lot of lines and slashes and circles arranged in some sort of order.  I was kinda hoping it wasn’t an overly complicated bunch of lines that I would be able to easily copy and bring with me.  Turns out I was right.


So, armed with this, I headed over to the store.  First I decided to just look for it.  Ground beef is pretty easy to find.  I found nothing.  Ok, time to whip out the note.  I held it up to one lady and said ‘ground beef?’, opting for standard English.  She said ‘yeh’ (which is yes….oddly, so is ‘neh’…I think it’s kinda like yes and yeah….) and then she proceeded to look for it.  She couldn’t find it and directed me to another lady behind the meat counter.  She said she had it (well, in Korean but I got the meaning) and finished with her current customer.

Well, what she did was get some beef out from the big freezer behind her and cut off some pieces.  She was going to grind it right there.  I asked her to do a bit bigger/more beef.  She ground it up and handed me the bag.

I brought it to the cashier, paid the 8130KRW (about $8) for 328grams (I think??  Not sure if I’m reading the package right).  Probably the most expensive beef I ever bought but at least I can say I did it all on my own and now can make some food with better meat for dinner for us tonight.