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April 18, 2014

What I've Learned From Traveling and Living Abroad: The Short List

April 19th marks the five year anniversary of my big move from Smalltown, USA to the bustling metropolis that is Seoul, South Korea. I've lived out a number of exciting and unique experiences over the past few years that include riding elephants through the jungles of Thailand, working in the slums of India, camping with nomads in the Sahara Desert and teaching English to some of the most adorable children throughout Asia. I've made memories that will undoubtedly last a lifetime.

This adventure has been incredibly fun, but it has also taught me a number of invaluable life lessons: lessons that have opened my mind and my heart; lessons that have changed me; lessons that I'm quite certain I would have never learned in my home country. Conveying all of them (including how to avoid creepy old men, lice remedies and universal charades) would require I write a book, but for time's sake, I've decided to include the more valuable of the lot.

Humanity is more trustworthy than we think.  Though the media tries to make us think otherwise, the world is not a terrible place. Tragic events happen everyday and there are plenty of bad apples scattered across the planet, but in the grand scheme of things, we humans are pretty incredible creatures.

I've found that more often than not, the people of the world are more than willing to reach out and help those in need. Traveling isn't always easy and I feel incredibly blessed to have had more positive human interactions than I can count.

During a trip to Japan, I had a middle-aged couple adopt me as their American daughter for a day at a sumo wrestling competition, eager to teach me the rules of the sport, share their snacks and shower me with gifts. I've gone hiking with a family in Taiwan, was escorted around Bangkok by a group of lively ladyboys and have shared countless meals with complete strangers on multiple continents. The travel gods have watched over me, and I'm certain my journeys would not have been the same without these incredible people so beautifully intertwined in them.

From the nameless faces who have walked me through airports, train stations and bus terminals to ensure that I arrive at the correct destination to the shy but genuine smiles I've received as I've wandered exotic lands, I've felt the undeniable connection that exists between us as humans. Furthermore, I've regained a sense of hope for our world's future in spite of all the darkness that exists in it.

Everyone we meet has something to teach us.  When traveling, one crosses paths with a number of people from different corners of the world, with different lifestyles and mentalities. Some of them only pass through our lives. Some of them stick around for much longer. Either way, whether a result of destiny or coincidence, these strangers, companions and friends are also our teachers, if we are willing to listen to what they have to say.

I once agreed to join a group of acquaintances at a hole-in-the-wall bar in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I began chatting with an expat over a bottle of 333, the local beer. We didn't have much in common, but as our conversation carried on, I recognized that this guy had something to say. I'm embarrassed to admit that I can't recall his name and I probably wouldn't be able to pick him out of a crowd, but I'll never forget what he told me: "It's our job to help others to realize their greatest potentials. Because if we don't do it, who will?"

I only had the pleasure of chatting with this guy for a couple hours, but three years later, I remember those words as clear as day. This is only one of the countless valuable conversations I've had over the past five years.

In addition to keeping our ears open, our eyes are just as important, as there are a number of lessons to be learned that don't require words at all.

Our problems are insignificant compared to those in other parts of the world.  Life's tough. Everyone's got problems. In fact, we would never be happy if we didn't experience disappointment from time to time. Yet, I never realized the extent of how fortunate I was- and am- until I looked poverty, cultural genocide, suppression, war and prejudice square in the eye.

Hearing the stories of North Korean defectors and Tibetan refugees who were forced to escape their home countries to survive. Meeting child prostitutes. Chatting with the "comfort women" of South Korea who were used as sex slaves during the Japanese occupation. Watching beggars starve their children to elicit more sympathy (and money) from passersby. Riding through Mumbai's Dharavi slums on a motorbike at 4am, and witnessing the sight of hundreds of sleeping bodies sprawled across the streets, seeking sanctuary from the Indian summer heat. As heartbreaking as these experiences were, I am fortunate to have witnessed such honest tragedy, as it has put my life and petty problems into perspective.

Although I'll never understand why or how I ended up being born into such fortunate circumstances, I've also come to learn that with greater privilege comes greater responsibility and to waste my fortune on myself would be a waste of life itself.

An open mind is essential for growth.  I never realized how naive I was about the world until I dived into it, inhibition-less and wide-eyed. Having grown up in an ultraconservative homogeneous community, my exposure to the world was limited. I took everything I learned from my parents, my friends, my teachers and even the news at face value, never once questioning their logic's validity and failing entirely to think for myself. It didn't take long after my move for me to realize that everything I had learned my entire life was all relative and that in order to grow, I had to challenge my own thoughts and beliefs.

I've been blessed to have had stereotype after stereotype shattered throughout my travels. In wandering mosques with a giddy group of Muslim teenagers eager to talk about Korean dramas in Malaysia, busting out Bollywood dance moves with a Sikh gentleman in India and cracking jokes with witty Buddhist monks at a temple stay in South Korea, I've realized that religion plays a very small part in who we are as people. Yet, there is valuable insight to be learned from each.

I've found that the poorest of the poor (like the children in the barrios of Mexico willing to share with me their meals when they barely had enough for themselves) are usually far more generous than the wealthy.

Most importantly, I've recognized that just because a culture does something differently, it doesn't make its people inferior or repulsive or backwards. In fact, diversity is what makes our world such a beautiful place to live, wander and discover.

Yet, despite our differences, we are all still human.  Body image issues, heartbreak, regret, pressure to succeed, insecurity, uncertainty about the future, desire to love and be loved in return. We may have different words to express these concepts, but we all experience them in the same way.

We are more than capable of overcoming tribulations independently.  When we challenge ourselves to get out of our comfort zones and to throw out our safety nets, we are able to more easily recognize the vulnerability that exists within ourselves. It can be scary at first- terrifying, even.

I was once hospitalized with an E. coli infection in Agra, a mere 24 hours shy of going into septic shock. I was quite certain that I was going to die there, in that crappy hospital room, smack dab in the armpit of India, thousands of miles away from my family and loved ones. I stuck it out and, after a few days of powerful antibiotics, Hindi soap operas and suspected anti-anxiety pills, I left a new person. Or, a less fearful one at least.

Whether it's being robbed, hospitalized, lost or even unable to read a menu, we encounter situations that require us to respond without the assistance of others, forcing us to make our own decisions, which ultimately increases our confidence and certainty of ourselves and our abilities.

We need a lot less than we think we need.  I grew up in a world submerged in consumerism and excess and was taught that I needed the most fashionable clothes, the latest technology and a beautiful home and car to be happy.

After spending countless nights in homes with minimal electricity, taking showers with a maximum of two buckets of water and not having a car or a TV or a dryer for five years, I can honestly say that those widely-believed ideologies are nothing but bullcrap. I've come to learn that we do not need stuff to have an enriched life; in fact, when we own less, we are slaves to less.

The lack of creature comforts is irritating at times, but after getting accustomed to a simpler lifestyle, we are able to focus on more important things, like our relationships and life experiences. Sometimes, like in my case, it takes traveling to countries that force us to live with less to realize this.

The universe opens up doors (and windows and gates) when we put ourselves out there.  Traveling isn't just about seeing landmarks, flirting with the locals and sampling regional cuisine. (Though, don't get me wrong, those are all added bonuses.) Traveling is about the people we meet, the experiences we encounter and the misfortunes we overcome. It's about the lessons we learn from others, about life and about ourselves. The world is our classroom; travel teaches us more than we could ever expect to learn in the comfort of our homes. We just have to be ready and willing to let it happen.

Words and photos by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching.  Content may not be reproduced unless authorized.

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March 25, 2014

Superhero Spotting: Where and When to See the Avengers in Seoul

If you haven't heard yet, Ironman, Captain America and The Hulk are headed to Seoul, South Korea. Contrary to what you might think, their visit has less to do with battling trigger-happy Kim Jeong-un and more to do with their filming "Avengers: Age of Ultron," the sequel to the 2012 Hollywood blockbuster.  It's rumored that the city will be featured for about fifteen minutes in the film and was chosen for its futuristic architecture and beautiful cityscapes.

Locals were ecstatic upon learning the news that the likes of Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth and Robert Downey Jr. among others will be filmed in the Korean capital.  There has also been much excitement about the inclusion of local starlet Kim Soo-hyun, though her role remains to be unclear.  The excitement has been a catalyst for a number of photoshopped images cropping up on the internet which include the costumed cast dining at Kimbap Cheonguk (Korea's version of fast food), sipping makgeolli and flying over the Cheongyechon.

Though it's doubtful we'll see Black Widow chomping down on tteokbokki in the final cut, a number of the filming locations have been released, along with the dates the scenes will be filmed there. Check out the list below for where and when to spot your favorite Avenger superheroes.

Photo Credit: SafPics
March 30, 2013: Mapo Bridge (마포대교 야경)

The Mapo Bridge, one of the 25 bridges that stretches across Seoul's Han River, connects Yonggang-dong and Yeouido-dong and is 1,400m long and 25m wide.  The landmark, nicknamed "The Bridge of Life," has become a recent tourist destination of sorts for a rather tragic reason.  Over a hundred people have attempted suicide on this bridge in the past five years and in an effort to combat the problem, the city began posting psychiatrist-created inspirational messages on the bridge's handrails. Said messages, along with photos of happy families and comfort food, are illuminated at night. Unfortunately, the facelift has failed to prevent the suicide rates from rising.

To get there:  Take the Seoul subway to Mapo Station (Line 5). From Exit 1, walk straight.

Photo Credit: Discovering Korea
April 2-4, 2013: Sangam Digital Media City (상암 디지털미디어시티)

Located in Sangam-dong, Digital Media City is an immense innovative digital media entertainment compound. Attractions and facilities include the DMC Promotion Room, DMS (Digital Media Street), DMC Artpia, Digital Pavilion and the Korean Movie Museum.  The complex is still under construction and is expected to be completed in 2015.

To get there: Take the Seoul subway to Digital Media City Station (Line 6). From just outside exit 2, transfer to Bus 7711 or 7730. Get off at the Nuridream Square bus stop or DMC Gallery bus stop (4 bus stops). The venue will be on the left.

Photo Credit: Asiaholic
April 5, 2013: Cheongdam Bridge (청담대교)

Another bridge to be featured in the Avengers sequel is the Cheongdam Bridge which carries a section of Line 7 of the Seoul Subway, and stretches between Cheongdam Station and Ttukseom Resort Station.  Nearby Cheongdam-dong is an upscale neighborhood of boutiques, gourmet restaurants and some of the most expensive real estate in the country.  On the northern end of the bridge is Ttukseom Resort Park, a greenspace of music fountains, a riverside square, a rose garden, playground and a nature learning center.

To get there: Take the Seoul subway to Ttukseom-Resort Station (Seoul Subway Line 7), Exit 2 or 3.

Photo Credit: The Mad Traveler
April 6, 2013: Gangnam Station (강남역)

The trendy neighborhood made famous by Psy will also be featured in the film, specifically Gangnam-daero, the main strip of restaurants, cafes, dance clubs and clothing stores.  This particular location might be your best bet for star spotting, as there are plenty of second and third floor cafes that overlook the district's central street, perfect spots to stake out Hollywood's finest.

To get there:  Take the Seoul subway to Gangnam Station (line 2), Exit 10.

Photo Credit: Yonhap News
April 7-9, 2013: Kaywon School of Art and Design in Uiwang-si, Gyeonggi-do (계원예술대학교)

Kaywon School of Art & Design is a school of arts and design located in Uiwang. The school is known for its creative student body that has received many awards for film and animation production.  Uiwang is quiet, peaceful town surrounded by many mountains and forests, making it a great day trip destination from the Korean capital.

To get there:  Take the Seoul subway to Uiwang Station (line 1), then hail a taxi to the school.

Keep in mind, Marvel fans, that the traffic will be intense and buses and taxis will be rerouted, so consider taking the subway to avoid the chaos.  Also, if you happen to spot any Avengers wandering the streets, feel free to post your pics on Seoul Searching's Facebook page.  Happy superhero spotting, guys!

Words and photos by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching.  Content may not be reproduced unless authorized.

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March 22, 2014

Day Trippin': Pocheon's Herb Island

I had been meaning to make it out to Herb Island for quite some time.  The photographs intrigued me.  The images I came across on the internet portrayed the theme park (which, confusingly, is not an island at all) to be the home of enchanting guesthouses, colorful gardens, charming decor and beautiful mountain scenery, seemingly emulated from the pages of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale.

I finally got around to making the trek out Pocheon, a city located about an hour northwest of Seoul, last autumn.  Immediately upon my arrival to the park, I felt a sense of eeriness come over me.  Perhaps it was the sight of the armed soldiers and military vehicles on the bus ride over- Pocheon is just a few miles from the North Korean border- or the creepy music box-like melodies looping over the loudspeakers or the sheer lack of people.  I refused to turn around after an almost two hour trip, however, and ventured further into the park.

I walked through a dying garden and past an legless Pinocchio and dilapidated mushroom house, certain some mythical creature was going to jump out and attack me at any moment.

Figuring a bite to eat would settle my nerves, I ducked into the Herb Galbi Restaurant, one of the park's eateries that features fresh ingredients grown on Herb Island.  The restaurant, blanketed in silk flowers and Tiffany lamps, attempted to mimic a classic European restaurant.  Yet, despite its efforts, which also included waitresses donned in beer wench dresses, felt unnatural and awkward.  Still, the ddukbaegi bulgogi (beef stew) was good and the banchan (side dishes) were fantastic, particularly the pickled chili peppers.  Other items on the menu included herb bibimbap, herb galbi (ribs) and herb salads.  All meals are served with a calming cup of herbal tea.  So calming, in fact, that I was ready to explore more of the park after lunch.

I let my senses guide me to an impressive European style building which functions as a hotel and luxury spa. It was off-limits to non-guests like myself but the lobby was pretty, complete with Romanesque statues and a colorful ceiling fresco.  The herbal products used in the spa services are also apparently grown on the "island." There were a number of gingerbread-like guesthouses and a fancy Mediterranean-themed wedding hall nearby.

Although I was visiting during the off-season, I was told that there are many entertaining performances at the "Venice" district in the warmer months.  The area's gondola is also popular with children.  Attached to the circular waterway are a number of towers to be explored, including a witch's lair and makeup room, both of which exist solely for photo ops.  The workshops attached to the towers, however, were more interesting.  Here, locals make a number of products using herbs, and visitors can also try their hand at crafting some of the goods.

The highlight of the park, in my opinion, is the greenhouse, which boasts a plethora of plants, herbs, flowers and trees.  The bright colors, sweet aroma of the flowers and the sound of rushing water from the fountains made it the most relaxing and enchanting destination of Herb Island.  Although not all the plants were in bloom, I imagine the greenhouse is especially impressive in the spring.  Keep an eye out for a strange looking creature buzzing about the flowers.  I can only describe it as a flying shrimp with wings so fast they can't even be seen. The Koreans seemed to be just as mystified as I was with this little thing... still not quite sure what it was exactly.

Just as I was beginning to develop a fondness for the place, I found a door that led behind the greenhouse into Santa Land, hands down the strangest part of Herb Island.  Hundreds of neglected Santa statues stood in different poses along a barren path.  A few of them appeared to have had too much soju, as their clothes had fallen off and menacing smiles stretched across their faces.

After the Santa encounter, I decided it was time to head back to Seoul, but not before sampling the bread at the Herb Bakery and perusing the park's gift shops, which were surprisingly nice and not overly expensive.

I'm still a bit confused as to what Herb Island actually is.  The concept is inconsistent, the park itself is in need of some major renovations and the general vibe is a bit creepy.  Still, the air is fresh and the flowers pretty. For those that have exhausted their day trip options (Heyri Art Village, Nami Island, Incheon) and are looking for an interesting (or creepy) experience, Herb Island is worth checking out.  Especially when visited after the nearby Sansawon Alcohol Museum, which offers unlimited free samples of traditional booze. Or before a soak at the Sinbuk Oncheon, where you can use all those herbal products from the park for one of the best baths of your life.  Whichever itinerary you chose, have fun and enjoy the warm weather! Winter's over!

More Information

Hours: Weekdays: 10:00am-6:00pm; Saturdays: 10:00am-8:00pm; Sundays and Holidays: 10:00am-9:00pm

Admission:  8,000 won

Websitehttp://www.herbisland.co.kr (Korean only)

Address: 35, Cheongsin-ro 947beon-gil, Sinbuk-myeon, Pocheon-si, Gyeonggi-do 경기도 포천시 신북면 청신로947번길 35

Get There:  Take the Seoul subway to Soyosan Station (last stop on line 1). From the station (there's only one exit), walk to the opposite side of the road and wait for Bus 57. Get off the bus at Samjeong-ri.  You will a sign "Herb Island 300m". From there, follow the sign, walking straight for about five minutes, passing Samjeong Elementary School. You will find the entrance at the bottom of a hill on your left.

Tip:  Bus 57 runs from the station to Herb Island (and back) once an hour.  Be sure to check the time table at the bus station.

Words and photos by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching.  Content may not be reproduced unless authorized.
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March 19, 2014

Behind the Scenes of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines iFly TV: Secrets of Seoul

In January, I had the pleasure of hosting a film crew from KLM Royal Dutch Airlines' iFly Magazine as they filmed a travel documentary on Seoul. When they first contacted me, they requested that I compile a number of destinations that I felt best represented various aspects of the city including great views, interesting local hangouts and landmarks that showcase the contrasts between old and new.

After much deliberation, I came up with a list of places that I felt captured the very best of my Seoul... a Seoul that may or may not be the same city that other expats and locals here experience.  But it was the one I wanted people to see.

I found myself worrying about this project for a good month, especially in the days leading up to the filming. Although I was excited about introducing my second home to the world, I was also terrified that I would disappoint those living here if I failed to deliver.

It was obvious- especially after looking at some of the other travel videos KLM has produced- that the directors hoped to capture the best destinations of the city.  They were impressed with the sights, and the food (and the makgeolli) but after they began filming here, however, they quickly realized that the Korean people are truly what makes the country so special.

In the end, the focus of the video remained solely on the people of Seoul: couples donned in matching outfits; the generous gentlemen who shared their dinner with me; the elderly lady offering a mix of compliments and advice ("That's not your style.") in a hat shop in Samcheongdong; the boisterous but friendly vendors in the traditional markets.

Of course, I'm incredibly awkward in front of the camera, and as none of it was scripted, stumbled over my words and was quite repetitive.  Still, I couldn't have been happier with the final result; it ended up being a beautiful portrayal of the people and the city that have become such an important part of my life over the past five years. The cinematography was gorgeous and there was a natural but emotional flow from one scene to the next.

Check it out and be sure to share it with your friends!  Also, be sure to read on below for details on the filming locations so you can personally experience my favorite destinations in the city.

iFly TV: Little Secrets of Seoul Filming Locations

Gwanghwamun Square:  Wander Seoul's downtown plaza that features a statue of King Sejong as well as impressive perspectives of Gwanghwamun Gate and Gyeongbokgung Palace.

Haneul Park:  Although there are no shots of the park in the video, the crew filmed shots of World Cup Stadium as well as the Han River from this location.  Spend an afternoon here for a breath of fresh air.  Just be prepared to climb a lot of stairs.

Han River Cruise:  The crew got some incredible night shots of Seoul's skyline on the Han River Cruise.  It was a bit chilly but this is a must-do activity in warmer weather!

Seoul Tower:  Get amazing views of the city, pick up quality souvenirs at the cute gift shops, explore nearby hiking trails and take in Korea's unique couple culture.  Take the cable car up to the tower for an even better experience!

Samcheongdong:  Wander this quaint neighborhood that combines traditional architecture with trendy boutiques, cafes and restaurants.

Luielle:  Browse the custom made hats at this famous Samcheongdong institution.

Yeon's Travelers Cafe:  Try the yuja cha (citron tea) in this cozy tea house full of nooks and crannies in Samcheongdong.

Bukchon Hanok Village:  You could easily spend an entire day getting lost in the back alleys and peeking into the courtyards of this mostly residential neighborhood made up of beautifully preserved hanoks, traditional homes.  Don't miss the museums that preserve traditional Korean crafts as well as the small but impressive art galleries.

Tongin Market:  Pick up a lunchbox for the low price of 5,000 won (about $5 USD) and sample a number of Korean eats and treats in this traditional market located conveniently to some of the city's most popular tourist destinations.  Don't miss the tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes)!

Sinchon Seo-seo Galbi:  For the best galbi (marinated ribs) in the city, head to Seo-seo Galbi in Sinchon. This no-frills hangout is extremely popular with locals, so be sure to get there early.  There are no chairs and there's usually a long line, but the meal is well worth the inconvenience.

Hongdae:  Seoul's youth district is known for being one of the hottest nightlife spots in the city, but it's just as fun during the day.  Check out the neighborhood's street art, themed cafes, and visit the Free Market held on Saturdays to browse handmade wares of local artists and design students.

Luxury Su Noraebang:  When in Korea, do as the Koreans do! In other words, head to one of Hongdae's best karaoke rooms after a few rounds of beer and soju, the local firewater, and see if you can score a perfect 100% on your favorite song.

What other locations did you recognize in the video?  Which ones should have been included?  Leave your favorites in the comments below.

Words and photos by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching.  Content may not be reproduced unless authorized.

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March 2, 2014

Home's Cooking: A Crash Course in Chinese Cuisine

Hong Kong is for lovers. Food lovers, that is. So much so that on my most recent visit, I found myself gorging on local treats up to four times a day. Gluttonous? Sure. But, with the city's infinite number of street food vendors, bustling dim sum bruncheries, afternoon tea times and bakeries on just about every corner (oh, the bakeries!) it's almost impossible not to be constantly stuffing your face.

The fact is that there are few better ways to explore a country's culture than through its cuisine and this couldn't be truer in Hong Kong. So, in an effort to delve deeper into the culture and to pick up a few tips on how to bring local flavors back to Korea with me, I decided to enroll in a cooking class at Home's Cooking for the ultimate market-to-table experience.

I met Joyce, the bubbly instructor of Home's Cooking, and my fellow classmates for the day early Wednesday morning at Shau Kei Wan Station on Hong Kong island. After a brief introduction, Joyce led us to the Kam Wa Street Market, one of Hong Kong's colorful wet markets, where our culinary experience would begin.

Upon entering the market, I immediately became giddy. It seems that no matter how many traditional markets I visit during my travels, I never get bored. There's something about the hustle and bustle, the vendors' urgency to sell, the vibrancy of exotic produce and the multi-sensory experience that revolves solely around the basic necessity of food that gets my blood pumping like nothing else.

As we walked from stall to stall collecting the ingredients that we needed for the day, the vendors greeted Joyce and the other smiling regulars that passed by, seemingly in a hurry and going nowhere at the same time. Pork carcasses hung from ceilings and unidentifiable Chinese herbs and remedies sat in jars stacked neatly on pharmacy shelves. Elderly women negotiated in melodious Cantonese for the best price on still-squirming seafood. Men poured buckets of water over the floors covered in blood and guts, a necessary practice that classifies these markets as wet.

I told Joyce about the unfortunate circumstance regarding Korea's dying traditional markets. She noted that the situation in Hong Kong is similar; younger generations now opt to do their grocery shopping at supermarkets. However, she also added that she felt confident about the survival of the city's wet markets, as the products are imported from mainland China and the nearby New Territories, ensuring better value and freshness, qualities highly valued by the city's residents.

After loading up on everything that we needed (and picking up a few hot-out-the-oven egg tarts), we headed to Joyce's home to begin the cooking class.

We wasted no time in preparing the ingredients we would be using to cook the afternoon's dishes: spring rolls, sweet dumplings with chocolate and golden shrimp- large prawns smothered in a sinfully rich salty egg yolk sauce. Joyce let us in on some tips and tricks to more efficiently clean shrimp, peel ginger (with a spoon- who woulda thought?) and julienne carrots, skills I know will come in handy in the future.

My classmates and I were each given an opportunity to contribute to the preparation as well as the cooking. After each dish was completed, we sampled our creations in the comfort of her living room, thoughtfully decorated with her young daughter's drawings, photographs of family travels and cute figurines.

After the class, Joyce wished us well and recommended a few nearby sites worth checking out. Later on, she sent us photos from the class as well as the recipes from the dishes we made for the day. Now, back in Korea, I'm gaining the courage to try cooking up these dishes on my own. I'm sure they won't taste as good without Joyce's guidance, but surely the flavors will be enough to elicit memories of this fun experience in Hong Kong.

More Information

Home's Cooking holds cooking classes Monday-Friday at 9:00AM and 2:00PM.  Menus vary depending on the day. (The class mentioned in this post was the Wednesday morning course.) The course fee is $600 HKD ($77 USD) and includes three dishes, course materials, recipes and the market tour. For more information on Home's Cooking or to make a reservation, visit their website.

*Although this post is sponsored by Home's Cooking, the opinions are, of course, my own.

Words and photos by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching.  Content may not be reproduced unless authorized.

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February 11, 2014

"Bitter, Sweet, Seoul": Korea's Capital City Through the Eyes of the World

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the premier of "Bitter, Sweet, Seoul," the Korean capital's first ever global crowd-sourcing film project.

I arrived at the premier at Seoul Cinema not knowing what to expect of the film. I was aware of the "Seoul, Our Movie" campaign, as it was heavily promoted throughout last year, but I was skeptical of the final product.

You see, Seoul, and Korea in general, have taken a lot of heat for their tourism marketing campaigns for as long as I can remember. Many, including myself, have criticized the fact that the city's past efforts have been overly sugar-coated and not representative of Seoul's true essence. In the past, campaigns have focused primarily on promoting the city's landmarks, shopping districts, healthy food and K-pop idols rather than illustrating what makes the city so vibrant and alive. Stories that reflect negatively on the country- war, poverty, suicide, scandal- are often swept under the rug and are ignored as if they are nothing but speculation.

That is, until now.

"Bitter, Sweet, Seoul," is made up of 141 video clips (selected from over 11,000) submitted by Korean nationals, international residents and tourists. Although there were a few suggested themes for the clips, these were open to the participants' interpretation and as such, submissions varied greatly. However, despite the lack of a consistent plot, the film flowed beautifully, a result of the limitless creativity and vision of world renowned directors Park Chan-wook ("Oldboy," "Stoker," "Thirst," "JSA") and Park Chan-kyong ("Sindoan," "Way of Power," "I Want to be Born Again in Anyang"), known collectively as PARKing CHANce.

The movie's clips were dynamic as Seoul itself- some were of professional quality, others seemed to have been made by cell phones and point-and-shoots. Some were artistic and symbolic, others were mundane and obvious. I found myself laughing at some scenes, like the one of a woman talking about her "ugly as hell" yappy dog, and in tears while watching others, such as the scene of elderly, impoverished women collecting recyclable products on the street.

The movie showcased a number of images of Seoul, set to a soundtrack of both traditional and contemporary music clips. Archival shots from the war contrasted with today's riots and protests. Street cars of the mid-twentieth century intertwined with images of high speed trains. Various shots of different religions, music, dance, history, traditions and people fit together so naturally that it's a wonder how PARKing CHANce ever managed such a feat.

The directors agreed that the task was not an easy one. "Usually, we write scenarios, but this was a different case. We couldn't write a script because there were so many different clips," Park Chan-wook noted. Despite this, both directors consider the film's outcome satisfactory because of the quality content of the submissions.

Perhaps the most impressive shots in the film were of those of average people living in Seoul: a woman opening a cafe, a student taking his college entrance exam, a North American couple preparing to have a baby, a blind woman on her way home. I was surprised to recognize a few familiar faces as well: the makgeolli man in Hongdae, the gentleman who sells Halloween masks in Itaewon and the devoted missionary who parades around Myeongdong, chanting "Jesus Loves You" in multiple languages. After all, it's the faces of Seoul more so than the destinations that have made the city so special to me and I was happy to see them included in this project. Park Chan-kyong reiterated my sentiments, noting, "This is not a landmark video. The people are the main characters and their lifestyles are the plot."

Joining PARKing CHANce at the press conference was Park Won-soon, the mayor of Seoul. When questioned by a journalist if the film was in fact a good marketing tool for the city of Seoul, as it includes a number of "gloomy" and "dark" scenes, he so wonderfully replied, "Showing only a good image is not a good promotion." He added that the city does in fact have a tragic history, but that very history has shaped Seoul into what it is today and potentially what it will be in the future.

In a way this is the very concept of "Bitter, Sweet, Seoul." The vagueness of the film's scenes leave the audience wondering What comes next? Does the woman's cafe become successful? Does the student get into school? What will become of Korea's capital city? These questions remain unanswered, but for good reason. "Nobody knows the future," Park Chan-wook explains, "Pleasure can follow pain." The mosaic of "Bitter, Sweet, Seoul" flawlessly illustrates both the pains and pleasures of the city's past and present and allows for a thoughtful interpretation of what is to come.

Check out "Bitter, Sweet, Seoul" below and leave your thoughts about the film in the comments below.

Special thanks to Korea.net and the Seoul Metropolitan City Government for giving me the opportunity to attend the premier of "Bitter, Sweet, Seoul."
Words by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized.
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February 5, 2014

The Scoop on Poop in South Korea

I sip my latte and stifle a chuckle as I take in my surroundings at Ddo-Ong Cafe in the Ssamzigil shopping complex in Insadong.  Colorful mini plungers hang delicately from a tree in the corner, old fashioned squat toilets are placed tastefully throughout the shop and two girls take selfies with a stuffed doll with a dingleberry hanging out of its rear end.  "Gwiyeoweo!" they squeal.  "Cute!"  My right eyebrow raises in confusion, despite the fact that I'm very much accustomed to this opinion that is shared by so many Koreans.

This cafe, while unique, is not the only tribute to fecal matter in South Korea.  Downstairs, vendors sell ddongbang, poop shaped pastries stuffed with red bean paste and nuts to never-ending lines of tourists and locals.  Nearby, toy stores display Kong Suni, a popular doll that "farts" and comes with a toilet, complete with flushable smiling dung.  In other parts of the country are mosaic poo sculptures, a toilet museum and even playgrounds devoted to Dongchimme, a poop-adorned character who enjoys sticking his fingers in others' bums (the Korean equivalent of a wet willy.)

Kong Suni, a popular doll among Korean girls, flatulates and defecates in the most adorable way possible.

So the question remains- when, and more importantly why did poop become such a beloved icon here in South Korea?

Some believe dung's idolization- particularly the image of the swirly mound type- stems from illustrations that were made famous circa the 1970s.

I, on the other hand, believe the roots of poo-poo's popularity run much deeper and its notability reflects its importance in Korean history.

For one, golden-hued droppings have always been representative of wealth and good fortune.  An old Korean superstition states that one will be prosperous if he or she dreams of poo; these days, it's not uncommon for the superstitious types to load up on lottery tickets after having such dreams.

A swirl of golden poo is a popular good luck charm in East Asian countries. (Photo)

Feces also played an important role in traditional medicine.  Animal and human excrement was used to concoct various remedies for ailments such as infections and broken bones.  Many believed that the droppings of children, when fermented with rice to make ddongsul ("poo liquor"), were an infallible cure. Surprisingly, there are still a few practitioners throughout the country who continue to make this medicine, but the majority of younger Koreans are either unfamiliar with the concoction or are repulsed by the idea of it.

An illustration from a Korean children’s book shows a young boy defecating to make medicine for his ill grandmother. (Photo)

Park Wan-suh, a renowned Korean author, confirms my theory in her autobiography Who Ate Up All the Shinga?, in which she recollects stories about growing up in the Korean countryside during the Japanese occupation.  In one chapter, Park focuses on her childhood memories of trips to outhouses with her friends. She notes, "The most important thing was to deposit plentiful, well-formed turds in the outhouse. We knew there was nothing shameful in shit, because it went back to the earth, helping cucumbers and pumpkins grow in abundance and making watermelons and melons sweet. We got not only to savor the instinctive pleasure of excretion, but to feel pride in producing something valuable."

Park clearly implies that poop wasn't just the end result of a bodily function. It was fertilizer for food, a commodity that wasn't necessarily guaranteed during those tougher times in a country with very limited natural resources.

Kindergarten students imitate defecating statues at the Toilet Culture Park in Suwon. (Photo: The Sydney Morning Herald)

Doggy Poo, an immensely popular children's book and film, reiterates the importance of dung, but with a more meaningful plot.

After being brought into the world by a wandering puppy, Doggy Poo encounters a number of animals and objects, only to soon realize what he really is- a stinky pile of crap.  As the year passes, he contemplates his identity and purpose in life and at one point, even offers himself up as a meal for a group of passing chicks, only to be rejected by Mama Hen because he wasn't good enough.  In the end, he realizes his potential as he helps a beautiful flower grow.

Doggy Poo contemplates his self-worth and the meaning of life in the popular children's film of the same name.

I watched the award-winning animated film in its entirety and have to say I was impressed with its inspirational themes: the cycle of life, realizing one's role in the universe and the connection of all beings to the earth. Yes, I realize I'm interpreting the symbolic themes of a claymation film about dog poop, but perhaps some of these are very valid reasons why the image of poop is so celebrated in contemporary Korean culture. And, though it pains me to say it, little Doggy Poo is cute. Heartbreakingly cute, in fact.  Okay, there will be no more judgement of poo-lovers from my side anymore.

Whatever your opinion of poop may be, there's no doubt that it has played an important role in Korean history and has developed into a beloved icon in today's culture.

Please note that this post is meant to be a personal cultural observation, NOT an academic analysis, as I am not an expert on feces or its role in Korean culture.  If you happen to be an authority on the subject and disagree with my opinions, please feel free to leave a rebuttal.  (No pun intended.)

Do you have any superstitions or folk tales about poo in your country?  Leave them in the comments below.

Words by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized.
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