Seoul through new eyes

seoul templeIt’s been an interesting two weeks – some schizophrenic weather happening as the season transitions from spring to summer. There have been a few scorchers and then some crazy rain and wind storms, as if a very drunk God was peeing and farting at the same time. But it has also been fun – hanging out with my girl Carolyn again and seeing Seoul through her eyes – she used to live here and has since been living in South East Asia, South American and India – so she brings an interesting perspective.

We have, in fact, been extolling the virtues of this complex wonderful-awful, beautiful-ugly city. “It really is an amazing city,” Carolyn said as we were walking along a lantern-lined street at dusk. For once, I had to agree. We proceeded to throw out a series of reasons why – the cheap, safe, efficient, convenient public transportation, the abundance of western shops, restaurants, cafes etc, the flourishing salsa scene, the relative safety and affordability, the mountains so close to the city center, the mix of the traditional and modern, all the interesting things off the beaten tourist track, the diverse expat community…we could’ve gone on.

Then, a few days later, we were sitting in a cozy restaurant in the trendy Hongdae district. It was evening, and the sun was slowly dimming. Rain was gently falling from the sky, the lights in the boutique stores shone, there was a Vespa or two parked outside the restaurant. A well-dressed mixed Korean-Western couple ran across the road, sheltering under a large umbrella. Although just minutes away from the throngs near the subway station, it was eerily quiet. It felt almost European, but with that Seoul aesthetic that I know well but struggle to express in words.

And things like this are coming out all the time, telling the world just how cool Seoul is. I don’t believe all the hype, but I know the city hasn’t gotten the recognition it deserves. Let’s hope that changes.



Capoeira: An Expat’s Best friend

cdo chicoteInstructor Zumbi, the leader of the Capoeira group CDO Seoul recently wrote a really great blog post for the group’s website. As an expatriate in Seoul who has survived living in this often harsh and isolating rat race, I agree completely with everything he wrote. I have been an expatriate for a number of years and it is embarrassing to realize so late in the game that being involved in some kind of group activity and belonging to an organization, group, team or community is key to thriving in an environment where you don’t have any family, don’t speak the language, and are not part of the society in the way you were in your home country.

Being part of a group in a foreign country is also a kind of spiritual practice. Due to the transient nature of the expatriate scene, as well as the Capoeira scene (people are often inconsistent with training and because it’s not easy, quite a few give up), there is a constant ebb and flow of giving, receiving and letting go. Over the past few months, I made a lot of new friends in our group. We had students of all ages from different parts of the world training. I went away for two months and come back to find that there’s a new batch of students while some of the more experienced have left back to their home countries, are taking a break, have become pregnant, are moving on to new countries etc. As the saying goes, change is the only constant in life. At least there is a Capoeira family, both close and extended, old and new, to help buffer against the turbulence of life, especially in a foreign country.

This is the post in its entirety in Instructor Zumbi’s eloquent words:

Expats often arrive in Korea and feel isolated within weeks. They feel cut out of mainstream society and opportunities to grow and progress. It doesn’t matter whether the expats are English teachers or business consultants for Samsung with Wharton MBAs. All expats are immediately thrown into a battle against a shrinking social circle and opportunities for genuine bonding.

Having survived six years in Korea, I am acutely aware that I would never have been able to do it without the help of my Capoeira group. Here are five reasons why Capoeira helps expats integrate into Korea.


Capoeira is a community-oriented art. Each Capoeira group has a certain identity that its members embrace. Some Capoeira groups want to build a community of great fighters that regularly challenge each other and fight ferociously to sharpen reaction times or improve their ability to do combat with other martial artists. Other Capoeira groups focus on efficiency of movement. Yet others focus on preserving a cultural heritage that survived centuries of oppression. Irrespective of the focus of an individual Capoeira group, group members rally round each other to ensure that the organisation’s goals are met. That is why Capoeiristas identify with a group and think less about the differences within the group.


Capoeira was practiced by people that were denied the rights of regular citizens. Consequently, Capoeiristas go out of their way to be inclusive as they know how terrible it is to be excluded from society. Consequently, members are actively working on breaking down cultural and language barriers. For example, in our Capoeira group, expats are encouraged to learn Korean to help bond with the Korean members of the group and vice-versa. Taking the time to study another language and open your mind to another culture that is very foreign to yours is challenging. Yet, since all members of the group are burdened with over coming language and cultural issues, it immediately becomes something everyone forms strong bonds over.


Capoeira values diversity of thought and behaviour. Capoeira is a form of bodily expression where the individual becomes an artist, and the roda where he or she plays Capoeira becomes the canvas. Capoeiristas are addicted to expressions of beauty, skill, and especially creativity. They love nothing more than seeing something new unfold in the theatre of the roda. Consequently, Capoeira values the individual and what they bring to the community, irrespective of background.


Capoeiristas take time out of their busy schedules to bond with each other. They actively seek out any occasion to be with each other. This often gives Capoeira a cultish feel. However, once you try Capoeira you’ll begin to notice that members of the community simply like spending time with each other and joyfully organise events, tours, birthday parties, and other social occasions to be able to connect more deeply.


Capoeira gives feedback right away. The minute you step up to add value to the group, the minute you get recognition. Capoeira groups rapidly embrace people from all walks of life that want to improve the group in some aspect. There are many ways to contribute. You can help by planning events or opening your home for a potluck. Even training every class or putting all your energy / passion into making your movement perfect for rodas will never go unnoticed. Almost any action with the purpose of making the group a better Capoeira community is celebrated.

Hello Winter My Old Friend


The view from my window this morning

And so it is. The stunning oranges, reds, browns and yellows of the crisp autumn have given way (or more likely, been pushed aside – this is Korea after all) to the dull greys of the North East Asian winter, also known as Hell. Now that the sun has gone AWOL and there have been a few half-assed snowstorms, it’s time to hibernate.

I find myself contracting. I become anti-social (even more so than usual) in the cold weather. I don’t want to leave the house. I stop exercising and lose motivation to do anything except lie in bed eating Dorito’s and mindlessly surf the Interwebs. Or read memoirs about people giving up their corporate careers to train as chefs and open restaurants. These books are an escape into la dolce vita where a large part of the protagonist’s daily quota of mental energy is spent thinking about what kind of cheese to eat next. As far as work goes, I can’t wait for each day to be over so I can run home and jump into a steaming hot shower and stay there until my skin is pink like a pig’s (and the lack of exercise is making me chubby like one too).

And when I’m not occupied with the winter blues and/or cheese, I’m thinking about one of my former students in Cambodia who sent me a message the other day telling me how heartbroken she is because her secret boyfriend is getting married to another woman. I’ve also been vicariously experiencing Afghanistan through Marianne Elliott’s great memoir about her time as a UN peacekeeper in that country. More than the political aspect is the internal journey she takes into yoga, meditation and self-compassion and her descriptions are often so acute that I feel like she has been inside my head. Also, I can’t imagine how she endured such harsh conditions, both in her internal and external worlds. Inspirational? Littl’ bit.

In other news, my cousin sent me a Christmas stocking full of chocolate things that can only be bought in New Zealand. It arrived on the day I decided to give up sugar. And now I have to delay my plans for another week as I must dutifully consume all of it. It would be disrespectful not to. Can copious amounts of Chocolate Fish take make the sun come back? Let’s find out.



Familiar Faces, Worn Out Places

On a day-to-day basis, my life in Seoul is really quite boring. I work. I go grocery shopping. I go to capoeira class. I spend time commuting on subways and buses. I do lunch with friends or co-workers occasionally. Sometimes I go salsa dancing for a little bit but usually go home early because I’m old. I spend too much time reading and thinking and trying to figure the world out from the safe confines of my tiny little apartment.

But sometimes fun and interesting things happen, which I guess is one of the advantages of living in a huge city far from home. Like this past weekend. I was able to meet up with some old friends I hadn’t seen for five years. They are living in Tokyo and somehow the stars aligned so that we were all in Seoul. We had all traveled together on Peace Boat, which is a unique and interesting bonding experience to share with other people, and although we don’t stay in touch much, we’ll always have that special connection.

Meri and Yuko

Meri and Yuko

My friends Meri and Yuko had been in Korea for a couple of weeks working at a peace summer program as they are still heavily involved in that world. We met for lunch one day which turned into four hours of sitting in the same restaurant catching up on all the people we know in common. It was so interesting to hear about everyone’s trajectories and how they had becoming more of themselves – like everything changes, but nothing changes. It’s true: ‘the future has an ancient heart.’

We then met up with a friend of theirs, a Korean documentary film maker who took us out to dinner in the backstreets of central Seoul frequented by locals who come for the cheap, traditional food and alcohol served in ramshackle dwellings that were haphazardly put together in the 70’s.

I thought I knew the city well, considering I had done a lot of work for the city’s tourism department and even had some work published by Lonely Planet. But the film maker, who luckily spoke English, took us down one street in the Jongno area surrounded by love motels and informed us of how it had become a popular area for gay men. And indeed, there were gay men everywhere, sitting outside drinking and eating, having a merry time. I was surprised because Korea is an extremely conservative and in many ways, backwards country, perhaps like the United States in the 1950’s, with a large stigma and taboo attached to homosexuality. I knew there was a bit of a scene in the foreigners’ ghetto with clubs, bathhouses and transvestites, and also in one of the popular university areas for women. It was cool to see that these men were not hiding but were out having a good time, and everyone was just letting them be.

We also stopped by a protest that was happening in the central city. My very politically aware NGO friends wanted to see how it had been organized as they are often organizing such events in Tokyo. It’s funny – things in Korea are so often badly organised, but they seem to have the protesting down. Of course, being the only blond white girl there, I stood out and soon enough, a lit candle had been thrust into my hand and a newspaper reporter with his camera and notebook was all up in my grill asking what I thought about the issue (the current president had been given leaked intelligence). I was deliberately vague. Freedom of speech is not what it is in the west and being seen at a protest, even though I was just there looking, is apparently a violation of my visa.

The next night, my friends went drinking in the artsy, student area of the city. We tried to co-ordiante so that we could meet up with our other friend from Tokyo, Sam, who was DJing at a club in the foreigners’ ghetto. Alas, our telecommunication devices let us down and I ended up going to see him alone. I hardly ever go out to bars and clubs. The music is always too loud and crap, they’re smokey, and let’s face it, full of young people. When I traveled with Sam years before, he used to tease me about being homebody wallflower, so I made a point of going out. I intended to only stay for a little bit to catch up with him, maybe dance a little then be home in bed before I turned into a pumpkin.

b1stranglingThe club was huge and glamorous and full of scantily-clad Korean girls. Sam and his friend, who was the headline act, had a little red velvet VIP booth where I joined them. I hardly ever drink, but they also had a $400 bottle of vodka. So I drank. When I was in my early 20’s, about 7,000 years ago, my part-time job when I was a student was working in a bar/club. I did it for several years. So a bunch of memories came flooding back. It was like getting on a bike again after many years of driving a car. Ahhh, I remember how this works! Still, I couldn’t fake being cool and right away, I let Sam’s friend, the famous hipster DJ, know that even though he’d been flown in from another country and was, judging by the hundreds of people lining up outside, very well known, I had absolutely no idea who he was. He laughed and then we talked for a while about his crazy life – he doesn’t actually live anywhere for more than four days at a time, usually in Tokyo or New York and his whole life is being flown around the world to play in clubs. Actually, it sounds like hell to me but he was enjoying livin’ la vida loca. Maybe a bit too much.

I spoke with Sam for a while too, even though it was impossibly loud. We were never close, but we are both from New Zealand and share other things in common so there was enough to have a friendship. I was always a little bit in awe of him. Not because he’s tall, good looking, and very stylish (all the girls that know him refer to him as ‘Hot Sam’), but because he exudes kind of natural confidence and self-assuredness. He’s a natural leader and everything he does, he does with passion, enthusiasm and a positive attitude. It’s funny where people’s lives take them. He had done the same government teaching program I had done in Japan (in the same area although our paths never crossed), then Peace Boat. Afterwards, he went back to NZ and worked at Amnesty International. Then he went back on Peace Boat. Then became a staff member and for several years traveled the world promoting human rights. When he turned 30, he said he needed to make some money and was offered a job at a major fashion business as an international representative. So now he travels the world doing fashion stuff. It seems like such a switch. Indeed a nice life he has created – with a beautiful and doting girlfriend in Tokyo, a ‘real’ job and a passion for music that both take him around the world. He works long hours and has his music stuff happening on the weekend. I asked him when he gets time to sleep. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” he replied.

And so my night unfolds. Some drinking, some dancing, some talking and then at 3am I start to feel like I just really want to go home and sleep. Some very drunk, brazen and ‘up for anything’ Korean girls have invaded our booth and although both men are standoffish and not the kind of guys to take advantage of what is on offer, these girls desperately want to get their groupie on. I see this so often here and it really irks me. It is time to go home. Of course, the taxi driver gouges me by doubling the fare because he knows I have no other way of getting home. While I am glad  that in the spirit of carpe diem, I made the effort to go out, but every time I do, I’m reminded of why I don’t like to. Still, I was happy to see some familiar faces and reconnect with people from a past life.


Out and About in Seoul

Trying his luck on the Han River

Trying his luck on the Han River

Today the weather was beautiful – sunny, 25 degrees with a slight breeze. Korea is known for its extreme weather: it’s kinda like the (freezing) winter is 5 months and 2 weeks long, the (boiling) summer is the same, while autumn and spring get a measly 2 weeks each. So, when a lovely day comes along, I’m usually itching to get outside, like today. Since there was nothing that I needed to attend to urgently, I decided to head down to the Han River, which snakes its way through the middle of the city, separating it into north and south.

I headed on the subway and then walked along the concreted waterfront to the place where I could hire a bike. Although it’s a bit inconvenient, it’s a great service for someone like me who loves to ride but doesn’t want to own a bike for fear it wouldn’t get much use (riding on the roads is tantamount to suicide and I just don’t have the time or inclination to be out and about on a regular basis).

Typically, the woman who is renting out the bikes looks at me as if I am some kind of sea monster who emerged from the river. She is trying to remain composed in the face of a foreigner. Luckily, my baby Korean gets me what I need. And then, vamos! I have an hour to ride along the paths that go for miles along both the west and east side of the river. I take the east route and look over to the north side Seoul, where Seoul Tower, the highest point in the city, stands proudly atop Mt. Namsan in the center of the city.

The north side of the city is home to the biggest shopping areas and was the traditional center back when kings and queens lived in the palaces that are empty tourist attractions today. It’s home to the oldest universities and the grandest houses, built with old money.

The south side, where I live, is newer and is home to the now infamous Gangnam. As Psy sings, it’s a district where the nouveau-riche live, full of plastic surgery clinics, clothing boutiques and where a single mango can set you back $70. Personally, I find the area to be bland, full of drone Barbie doll lookalikes and pretentious-looking shops, bars and cafes. Compared to the ritzy areas of other major metropolises, such as Paris, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and New York, it’s nothing special.

Still, as I peddled freely along the river, I couldn’t help but admire the effort that has been made to make the area more beautiful and user-friendly, with outdoor exercise equipment, small gardens and shaded grassy knolls for young lovers or families to spend time together. There was the odd person or couple trying their luck with a fishing line (note to self, don’t ever eat fish that comes out of there). Some futuristic, ostentatious event centres have cropped up, and float at the water’s edge.

The one cliche that is always thrown around about Seoul, both by the media, locals, expats and tourists, is that it’s dynamic. This is absolutely true. There is always dynamism, creativity and innovation happening in every corner of the city. Unfortunately, this also usually means to rip down and rebuild. However, in the case of the Han River, I think it’s more a case of making the most of what the city’s got.