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March 25, 2017

Korean Designer Leesle Delivers Fashion-Forward Hanbok to the World

A seamless blend of complexity with simplicity, flatness with volume and curved lines contrasted against straight edges, the hanbok beautifully conveys the Korean desire to be at one with nature and maintain balance in life. Modern takes on the dress have recently become incredibly popular in fashion circles all the world over, while Korean designer Leesle is spearheading the hanbok revival. Read on to learn more and find out how you can get a special discount for your own hanbok.

A Bit of Hanbok History

Worn daily up until about a century ago, the country’s national dress has roots that trace back to as early as the Goguryeo Kingdom (37 BCE- 668 CE), when its fundamental designs were first established. The hanbok has, for the most part, remained unchanged aesthetically since then but in the 19th century, it fell out of fashion when it was replaced by new imports, such as the Western suit and dress.

Eventually, hanbok was reserved for only special occasions, such as weddings and holidays. Until recently, that is. As is usually the case with fashion, old has become new again, and younger generations of Koreans are looking to the past for inspiration in a world that seems to be headed to the future just a bit too quickly.

Traditional Dress for a Modern World

Enter the contemporary hanbok, apparel that marries classic motifs with wearable designs that render traditional patterns and structures in simple materials such as cotton and linen.

These modern reinterpretations of the hanbok have made a splash in the fashion world and have been spotted around the globe, from the Champs Élysées to the catwalks of New York to the pages of some of the biggest magazines in the industry.

Leesle—Leading the Hanbok Revival

Perhaps no specialty designer is more passionate about reviving the hanbok than Leesle Hwang, the founder and CEO of casual hanbok brand Leesle.

It was around a decade ago when she was a freshman in college that Leesle designed a hanbok for a cosplay event. The outfit was a hit with event attendees and sold quickly when she put it up for sale. Realizing that there was a growing interest in hanbok, she founded an online shopping mall. Since then, the humble mall has grown into a wildly popular brand that has a following not only in Korea, but around the world. Still in her 20s, Leesle continues to make a name for herself, and was recently even featured in Vogue.

Easy Shopping, In English

I first found Leesle by chance on Instagram. Her beautiful designs stopped me in my tracks and I knew I had to get my hands on one of her hanboks. What could be a better keepsake of my time in Korea?

I headed straight to Leesle's multilanguage online shop, and immediately recognized that
the brand’s designs add a very young, modern sensibility to South Korea’s national dress. The aesthetics of her dresses, tops, pants and accessories for both men and women maintain the traditional motifs of the classic dress, but also make hanbok more accessible through an interesting play with contemporary patterns and trendy colors.

Making use of zippers and other modern elements, Leesle’s clothes are wearable, not to mention machine washable. Hems are raised and skirts flare less, highlighting the feminine form but also maintaining the conservativ nature of traditional designs.

The layout of the website made it easy to navigate and unlike many Korean online shops, everything - including size dimensions – is in English. The worldwide free shipping (over $99 USD) was also an added bonus.

With spring ahead, I selected the ‘Everside Miinodo Dress’ in Apricot and the Leesle Sharon Jeogori. I was absolutely delighted when my order arrived. The clothes were individually wrapped in plastic and they even took the time to include a card with my name printed in Korean. So cute!

A Day in Hanbok

The materials were soft and of the highest quality. The items also looked exactly as they did in the pictures, and fit me perfectly. In addition to the sheer beauty of the clothes, I also really love that I can either wear them together for the complete hanbok look, or mix and match them with other items in my closet to create a more personalized style.

In fact, that’s just what I did when my friend and I spent an afternoon exploring Seoul one day last month. Pairing the dress with a denim jacket made for a nice casual look, while mixing the jeogori jacket with a basic skirt created a vintage style.

And let me just say... I have never in all my years in Korea received so many compliments from complete strangers. Korean grandmothers, in particular, were eager to ask me about my hanbok and some even requested that I take pictures with them. The young and old alike were really surprised to see such a unique take on their national dress and it was a really special experience to be wearing such a beautiful item that balanced the old with the new, while incorporating Korea’s naturalistic beauty, ideals and art forms.

Seoul Searching Reader Discount

I know what you’re thinking—“How can I get one of these beautiful designs for myself!?” Well, you are in luck, hanbok lover! In celebration of their global site launch, Leesle is offering Seoul Searching readers a 10% discount on their total purchase! 

Simply head over to the Leesle online shop and when viewing your shopping cart, enter the coupon code seoulsearching and click "Apply Coupon" before proceeding to checkout. The offer ends April 30, so be sure to take advantage of the discount while you can!

Special thanks to my dear friend Danielle Potgieter for taking these lovely photos and to Bonum 1957 for letting us use their gorgeous hanok as a shooting location.

Disclaimer: Although Leesle provided the items mentioned above free of charge in return for a post, the opinions are, of course, my own.

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March 9, 2017

A "Zen"-Course Lunch at Barugongyang Buddhist Temple Food Restaurant in Insadong

Barugongyang offers up authentic Buddhist temple cuisine using only fresh, local ingredients. Read on for my personal review of the restaurant's peaceful atmosphere and thoughtful course meals.

It's only been fairly recently that we've learned how eating greener and cleaner rather than focusing on calorie and fat counts can positively affect the health of our bodies and minds. With trends like CSAs and slow food movements becoming all the rage in the nutrition world, we're taking a step forward toward healthier lives.

However, the Buddhist monks of Korea have been slightly ahead of this trend. And by slightly I mean by hundreds of years.

Strictly vegetarian, Korean Buddhist temple cuisine uses only natural flavoring agents such as kelp, mushroom, wild sesame seeds and raw soy bean powder to assist in maintaining nutritional balance while at the same time delivering a simple, clean taste. Moreover, the food lacks the ingredients usually found in Korean cuisine such as onion, garlic and chili powder. I mean, can you imagine Korean food without this holy trinity of ingredients?!?!

Temple food also utilizes medicinal plants from local forests and mountains and focuses on using every part of the ingredient, so there is no waste. This includes using the water used to wash vegetables and rice as a base for soups, and incorporating even the seemingly inedible parts of the ingredients into the dish. This "complete consumption" concept is also followed in temple complexes, where monks only take as much as they can eat during meal times.

Situated on the fifth floor of the Temple Stay headquarters, just across the street from Seoul's iconic Jogyesa Temple, is Barugongyang (which is also known as Baru, as well as Balwoo). Adorned with minimalist furnishings in natural color schemes and encapsulated by floor-to-ceiling windows which illuminate the space with plenty of light, the restaurant exudes a relaxing atmosphere. Separated into two dining areas -- Western-style tables and traditional floor seating -- the restaurant expertly balances the old and new.

On the menu is a variety of pre-fixed seasonal course meals that start at ₩27,000, each offering up an eclectic sampling of dishes commonly found in formal monastic meals.

My friend and I began our 10-course lunch with a small bowl of smooth pumpkin juk (porridge) garnished with chewy rice cakes and red beans, which, with the delicate lotus tea, warmed us up immediately. A black sesame salad of slightly bitter but incredibly fresh mixed greens followed, which paired well with the burdock sweet rice pancakes, beautifully embellished with flower-shaped jujube garnishing.

At this point in our meal, the restaurant got a bit noisy. As it turns out, Barugongyang is a popular spot with the local chatty ajummas. Still, our little corner of the partitioned off floor seating section gave us a lot of privacy.

Wooden plates of soft bites of tofu, pumpkin dumplings and vegetables topped with teeny rice cakes followed. These dishes were notably bland on the first bite but transformed into something wonderful when dipped into the restaurant's magical soy sauce which, because it was so thick, didn't really resemble soy sauce at all.

The highlight of the meal was the mushroom "tangsuyuk", a delectable combination of deep-fried shiitake mushrooms smothered with a sweet though slightly overpowering apple sauce and tossed with apple, lotus root, carrot slices and pumpkin seeds. Saucy crunchy deep fried goodness.

The tteok guk (rice cake soup), though usually a favorite of mine, could have been omitted as the portions of the following dishes were quite large. A big bowl of flavorful Kum-su homemade bean paste soup, made with slices of mushroom, tofu and seasonal vegetables, and the earthy lotus-wrapped sticky rice with ginkgo nuts could have been a meal by itself. These two dishes specifically were the most flavorful of the meal and I wondered how the chefs were able to create the powerful tastes without garlic and onion.

Dessert was a bowl of sweet-and-salty slices of dried goodies: sweet potatoes, lotus root, oranges and seaweed. We washed it down with a cup of the most unique shikhye (traditional sweet rice beverage) I've ever had, a perfect ending to a delicious and nutritious meal.

On the way out, we found out that there is additional temple food restaurant on the second floor of the same building. Offering juk for breakfast and a lunch buffet for only ₩8,000, Barugongyang Kong is a good option for those on a budget wanting to get a taste of temple cuisine.

Be sure to also check out the Information Center on the first floor for more info on temple stays throughout Korea. You might even be asked to join in for a cup of tea with Jogyesa's monks!

Also, if you'd like to learn more about Korea's temple food, I highly recommend you watch the first episode of season three of Chef's Table. The beautifully produced episode follows Jeong Kwan, a 60-year-old Zen Buddhist nun who prepares vegetarian meals for her community at Baekyangsa Temple. It is arguably the best episode to date on the popular Netflix show and her story will no doubt inspire you.

More Information: Barugongyang

Address: 56, Ujeongguk-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul 서울특별시 종로구 우정국로 56 (견지동,5층)

Phone: 02-733-2081 (Some English is spoken.)

Hours: Lunch 11:40AM-1:20PM (first seating), and 1:30PM-3PM (second seating). Dinner (only seating) 6PM-8:50PM. *Reservations are highly recommended.

Website: Click Here

How to Get There: From Anguk Station (Seoul Subway Line 3), walk straight from Exit 6 for 2 minutes. After passing the giant paintbrush statue, take a left. Walk straight for 3 minutes. The Temple Stay Information Center will be on your left.

*Disclaimer: Although the meal mentioned in this post was provided free of cost by Barugongyang, 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 20, 2017

How to Enjoy Spring in South Korea

Korea's winters are long and harsh, so spring is always welcomed with great excitement and celebrated with fervor. It's by far one of the country's most beautiful seasons, but it doesn't last long. So, if you are around, here are a few things you should see and do to enjoy it in all its glory.

See the Cherry Blossoms

Perhaps no other symbol is as representative of Korean spring than the cherry blossom. And while they might not stick around for an extended amount of time, they are most definitely a sight to behold and seeing them should be at the top of your travel itinerary.

Expect to see them around April 6, 2017 here in Seoul. (For a list of expected blooming dates around the country, click here.) One of the more popular places to take in the beautiful blossoming of the beotkkot is Yeouido Park, where canopies of pink hang over crowds of camera-toting love birds. For less crowded cherry blossom sightseeing, head over to the tranquil Seokchon Lake in Jamsil, Seoul's University Quarter or Seoul Grand Park.

Yours truly among the cherry blossoms on Yeouido.

Picnic in one of Seoul's parks

While you're at it, why not pack a picnic? Picnicking is a favorite pastime of Koreans and when they do it, they do it big. Think all-day drinking sessions, complete with kimbap and chimaek. Don't forget to check off these 6 items when packing for your outdoor escapades.

Go to a Festival

While winter has its fair share of festivals, spring offers pleasant weather that actually makes the festivals enjoyable. Many of these celebratory events focus on flowers, but there are also a number that glorify regional cuisine and cultural traditions.

Not to be missed are the Lotus Lantern Festival, which showcases thousands of colorful lanterns and traditional performances. It's celebrated nationwide, but the most spectacular celebrations are held in Seoul's Insadong neighborhood and Busan's Samgwangsa Temple. The Boseong Green Tea Festival, held on a gorgeous tea plantation in the southern part of the country, is another not-to-be-missed event. Both of these festivals are held in May. For a complete list of spring festivals, visit the KTO website.

The verdant rolling hills of Boseong's green tea plantations are a wonderful spot to spend a spring afternoon, especially during the annual Green Tea Festival.

Bike Along the Han

Seoul is often portrayed as a city of concrete and neon, so many are surprised to learn that there is a vast array of green spaces strewn across the Korean capital. My favorite place to soak up some sun is the Han River and the parks that border it. In addition to featuring riverside cafes, basketball courts and fishing spots, the Han River also has its fair share of bicycle rental shops.

To rent a bike, all you need is a photo ID. Prices are extremely reasonable (around 3,000 won per hour) and the river is equipped with safe and well-marked bike lanes. For more info and a list of routes, click here.

Wander a Cafe Street

It's no secret that Korea is known for its cafes. So much so that there's practically one on every block. There are even themed cafes, as well as entire streets dedicated to the caffeinated beverage that boast patios or terraces that open in spring.

You don't need to look hard to locate said streets, and many, like Garosu-gil or Samcheongdong-gil are already quite famous. To get off the beaten path, make your way to Jukjeon Cafe Street in Bundang, or Seoraemaeul Cafe Street near Express Bus Terminal, both of which exude a sophisticated European atmosphere.

Visit a Palace

Few places capture the essence of Seoul in spring as well as the palaces of the capital city. Not only are the flowers of the royal gardens in full bloom, but there are often outdoor concerts and performances held on palace grounds, allowing visitors to truly experience pungnyu.

Pung (wind) and yu (flowing) refer to the enjoyment of tasteful activities that combine the elements of nature, life and art. It also symbolizes being close to nature, knowing music, being well learned in arts and being composed yet merry, free from worldly cares.

Changdeokgung is known for its secret garden but my personal favorite of the five palaces is Changgyeonggung. With fewer people, a large pond and a number of picnicking spots, it's got plenty of pungnyu.

Walk the Cheonggyechon

Although not as impressive as the expansive Han River, the Cheonggyechon is a picturesque stream located smack dab in the middle of the city. Often decorated with artwork in the spring, it also functions as an outdoor cultural space. Grab a lemonade or a bottle of makgeolli from a nearby convenience store and dip your feet in the water to enjoy a nice break from touring nearby Insadong or shopping in Myeongdong.

Go Camping

Take advantage of the short-lived gorgeous weather and reserve a spot at one of Seoul's many camping spots. Like picnicking, camping is a favorite outdoor activity of Koreans which involves barbecue, drinking and lots of laughs with friends and family. For a luxurious (though pricey) experience, take a day trip outside of Seoul to Raventree Camp Grounds in Gapyeong.

Happy spring, y'all!

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

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February 10, 2017

How To Celebrate Valentine's Day Like a Korean

No one does lovey-dovey coupley stuff better than Koreans. This is evidenced by their tendency to snuggle in public, book lovers' seats in movie theaters and celebrate a number of made-up holidays dedicated to coupledom. While each holiday has its own concept and is celebrated on the 14th of each month, there's no doubt that the biggest of these is Valentine's Day.

Although the Western-inspired celebration of romance didn't become popular in Korea until the mid-1900s, it has since become one of the most anticipated holidays in the country, at least for those with a significant other. Valentine's Day, unlike in the West, is a day reserved for women to celebrate the special men in their lives while the men reciprocate in March. Despite this, it's not unusual for Korean men to do something nice for their girlfriends on V-Day.

So, how exactly do Koreans celebrate Valentine's Day, you ask? And, how can you celebrate Valentine's Day like a Korean? Check out Seoul Searching's suggestions to Koreanize your special day of romance this year.

Make Personalized Chocolates

Valentine's Day is synonymous with chocolate, and this is just as true in Korea as it in the West.  Giving chocolate to your sweetie is pretty much obligatory and because of this, it's hard to walk down the street without running into sales displays of all sorts of chocolates and chocolate-inspired desserts. Even convenience stores pre-package Valentine's Day goodies for those on the go. But, to most, this is a cop out.

Koreans that are truly dedicated to their significant others wouldn't dream of handing over any chocolates that weren't homemade.  Girls across the country are pros at tempering and molding layers of chocolate into cute little designs with personal messages iced right onto the tops. Some overly dedicated ladies take chocolate making to the next level by creating the chocolates to look like their boyfriends. This can be seen in dramas like "Boys Before Flowers." Cute? Of course. But I'm not so sure how I'd feel about eating my own face.

Go on, give it a try. Melting chocolate, molds, icing, sprinkles and all the other tools necessary for creating personalized chocolates can be found at stationary shops like Artbox throughout the country as well as Bangsan Baking Market near Dongdaemun.

 Guem Jan-di presents Gu Jun-pyo with homemade chocolates made in his likeness on "Boys Before Flowers," a popular K-drama.

A couple designs dolls at Mustoy. (Photo: Foreigner/Joy)
Make Something Together

Korean couples love making things together and there are a variety of places that thrive on the business of lovestruck youngsters.

Mustoy is an adorable cafe in Hongdae where customers can purchase small ceramic dolls and decorate them with permanent markers. It's common for couples to each design their own then present the finished product to each other as a gift. There are a number of designs on display to provide some inspiration for those of us that lack creativity. Don't forgot to add bashful lashes and puckered lips to complete your token of love.

Speaking of, nothing says "forever" like a plastic mold of your lover's lips, which is why Alchemist's Studio (연금술사의 작업실) in Insadong is a great place to make some unique memories with your special someone. Yes, you read that correctly. Visit this obscure, tiny shop in the Ssamziegil shopping complex and the kind owner will create a plastic mold of your pout in your color of choice in a matter of ten minutes. You can even turn your lips into a cell phone charm or a key chain so that your beau or gal can have a part of you on hand at all times. Saddest Update Ever: As of October 2013, this business is closed.


 A girl has her lips molded into a cell phone charm at the Ssamziegil shopping complex in Insadong. (Photo: Heejin An)

Declare Your Love to the World

You're not officially a couple in Korea until you declare it to the world. Fortunately enough, there are many locations that make this declaration both convenient and romantic.

The most famous of these locales is on Namsan Mountain, where you and your partner can literally lock your messages to the base of N'Seoul Tower. However, considering it's still winter in Korea, this is a rather uncomfortable option.

Instead, head up to the rooftop of Ssamziegil--preferably why you're waiting for your lip mold to dry--and purchase two love tags, embrace your inner poet and write a message to or about your loved one while he or she does the same. Then, you can add it to the thousands already hanging on the rooftop's walls. Sure, it may not be the top of the city, but it's the top of Insadong. That's good enough, right?

If you prefer to stay indoors, head to one of the Miss Lee Cafe (별다방 미스리) locations in Hyehwa, Insadong or Myeongdong where you can write your messages over a hot cup of traditional tea. The interiors of these cafes are covered with love notes, sketches, confessions and lots of X hearts X inscriptions. There are also free refills, for all you lovebirds on a budget.

Messages of love adorn the interior of Miss Lee Cafe in Myeongdong.

Wear Matching Outfits

Of course, no couple holiday in Korea would be complete without matching outfits, or "couple look," as this style is often referred to.

Although couple fashion is more often seen in warmer months in the form of t-shirts and baseball caps, there are still plenty of winter options for those wanting to make their romantic union known to all those they cross paths with. For one, couple sneakers are a hot commodity these days, as are jackets. If you feel that your relationship isn't quite ready for matching shoes (i.e. you have commitment issues) then you can settle for matching gloves or lingerie.

Most lingerie stores like Yes! and DAB have underwear for both men and women in matching patterns. Guys, be warned, though, as most of the patterns involve pastels and/or some sort of animal print. So, if your lady friend gifts you sparkly zebra print boxer briefs, suck it up, smile and thank her, maybe even with a little dance while wearing said briefs. You'll have a full month to recuperate from your loss of masculinity before White Day rolls around.

However you celebrate and whoever you celebrate with (even if you're single), may your day be a special one filled with love and happiness. Happy Valentine's Day from Seoul Searching!

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

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February 6, 2017

Learning Korean: Which Program is Right for You?

Considering that fact that Korean is often regarded as one of the most difficult languages for native English speakers to learn, those that move to Korea might be intimidated to begin the arduous and often frustrating journey of learning the local language.

But, there can be many benefits to learning Korean. Getting a grasp on the basics makes expat life far more comfortable, as it allows one to better understand the culture and become more integrated with society. Then there are the added bonuses of more job opportunities and bragging rights. Because, let's face it... how many non-Koreans can actually say that they speak Korean?

Committing oneself to studying is the first and often most difficult step to learning Korean.

So what about after that?

For those of us who grew up in a country where there is little to no priority on learning a second language, it can be difficult to decide which study methods and programs are best to memorize vocabulary words, comprehend unfamiliar sentence structures and perfect one's pronunciation. And because everyone learns differently, it usually requires a bit of trial and error to figure out which approach is best for you.

Although I am still very much a beginner, I have attempted a number of techniques and attended a variety of classes to find what works for me. Below are a few of the ways I've personally attempted to learn Korean, including the pros and cons of each.


Self-study might be the most obvious choice for learning Korean, especially for those living outside Korea or for those with a busy schedule, as the student is able to create his or her own study schedule and move at his or her own pace.

Fortunately for students that are learning Korean on their own, there are a number of resources that are extremely beneficial in improving one's language ability.

A good language book is essential in establishing a curriculum for oneself and there are plenty to chose from. Many language schools use the Sogang Korean language book series. It's well-organized, easy to understand and practical. The Korean Made Easy series is also good for beginners.

But, let's be honest. Sometimes learning from a book can just get... well, boring. So, when you need to break up the monotony, there's the internet.

TalkToMeInKorean.com is a fantastic language site that uses short audio and video clips to teach conversational phrases, vocab and grammar in a way that is sure to keep your attention. Professor Oh and Friends (aka SweetAndTastyTV.com) is another fun site where you can learn Korean through hilarious language instruction videos produced by a Korean speaker who plays various characters.

But while these sites are helpful, they are limited in their capabilities and don't necessarily provide a systematic way to learn. 90 Day Korean, on the other hand, uses accountability measures to ensure learners stay on track.

Additionally, the simplified, customizable system, which was developed by a mixed team of native and non-native speakers, ensures that learners stay interested all the while getting a solid language foundation in the fastest amount of time possible. (90 days, to be exact. Yep... that fast!)

Also, it's free to start. 90 Day Korean will e-mail you a free four-part series of Korean lessons that will teach you how to read Korean and say some simple sentences in about two hours (!!!) via e-mail. If you like the method, you can sign up for the paid course, which is an affordable $27 USD/month.

Finally, let your smartphone be your teacher.  Download Memrise to enhance your Korean vocabulary and Dongsa, a great app to use when you can't quite remember all those irregular verb conjugations (which, for me, is most of the time).

Language Exchange

Participating in a language exchange with a native Korean speaker can be a great way to get some free one-on-one speaking practice.

These meetings, which usually involve two or more people, are held in cafes or restaurants and involve an allotted amount of time for each party to practice his or her target language in exchange for helping the other party. There are a number of websites and message boards online such as HanLingo.com and weekly meetups like Language Exchange Cafe that function as platforms to match language exchange partners.

Although language exchanges are quite common in Korea, many people often use them as an excuse to meet potential girlfriends/boyfriends/hook up buddies. This is all fine and dandy if that's what you're looking for, but if you are legitimately interested in meeting someone to help you improve your language ability, consider arranging an exchange with someone of the same sex, or be sure to make your intentions clear from the beginning.

Language exchanges can also be tricky, as most Koreans are far more advanced in English than English speakers are in Korean. Therefore, these meetings often tend to involve a lot more English than Korean. Set specific time frames for speaking either language from the start and attempt to make meeting a weekly habit to get the most out of this type of studying.

University Language Program

For those with a more flexible schedule (i.e. the funemployed), enrolling in a university language program is one of the best ways to pick up Korean in a short amount of time.

I took a semester at Sogang University here in Seoul with the intent of completing the first half of the six levels. The university, which is reputed as one of the best for learning how to speak Korean, gave me a great foundation for learning the language. For four hours a day, five times a week, I was attending writing, speaking and reading classes and was completely immersed in Korean.

Because it was an intensive program, however, it was very difficult for me to keep up. I studied tirelessly to learn new vocabulary words, grammar points and phrases. So much so that I was dreaming about studying Korean at night and often woke myself up mumbling the day's vocab. I kid you not.

Despite my efforts, I found that it didn't take long for me to forget everything that I had worked so hard to learn because the pace was faster than what I could handle. I often wondered if I was wasting my hard-earned cash (about $1,300/semester) because of this.

In the end, I decided that I personally needed to learn at a slower pace, but I can confidently say that attending Sogang was the perfect way to kick-start my learning. For those that are more experienced in studying foreign languages and have a lot of time on their hands, this would be the program to consider.

Korean Hagwon

When the university program didn't quite work out how I intended to, I registered for classes at Omija Korean, a language hagwon (private academy) located in Itaewon. Although I cut my daily class time from four hours down to two in doing so, I was glad that I made the change. I was able to learn at a slower pace, and as a result, had more time to process the information. I found that I was quickly learning naturally, rather than by rote memorization.

Omija Korean has small class sizes (around five students or less per class) which allows for more speaking practice. The teachers also put a great deal of effort into teaching at the students' levels, but at the same time make the classes interesting and fun. We learned to converse in a natural way, which isn't always the case in textbooks or university classes. The curriculum is structured but not so much so that the teacher doesn't leave room for issues or conversation topics that are brought up by the students.

I don't have much experience with Korean hagwons, and I'm certain that they're all different, but I found that the flexible schedule, more lenient curriculum and laid back atmosphere of Omija Korean worked for me. It also didn't hurt that it was located within a close proximity to my home, but for those living outside of Seoul, or even Korea, Omija also offers Skype lessons.

When considering enrolling at a hagwon, it is important to do your research. Stick with reputable institutions like YBM or ask around for advice on expat message boards.

Free Classes

Fortunately for foreign residents in Seoul, there are a number of organizations that offer free Korean classes that are structured similarly to hagwons.

In addition to attending Omija, I also took classes twice a week at the Itaewon Global Village Center, a branch of the Seoul Global Center. I learned a lot and my teacher was a doll, but the pace is very slow considering the class is only three hours a week. The class size is usually large, as well, which limits speaking practice. However, for those with a hectic schedule or who are on a budget, this is a great way to get exposed to the language and is a good supplement to self-study.

Again, everyone learns a foreign language differently and finding the right study method (or combination of methods) takes time. But don't get frustrated when you hit a roadblock or feel like giving up.

Be realistic with your learning goals, always keep in mind what motivates you to study and don't forget to reward yourself when you've tried your hardest. With some a lot of patience and some trial and error, you'll be well on your way to mastering the Korean language. 행운을 빌어요!! (Good luck!)

Which methods do you use to learn Korean?  What helps your learning process? What hinders it? Leave your thoughts in the comments box below.

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

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January 24, 2017

Why Every Expat Needs a VPN

So you've got your new apartment all set up. You were finally able to find fitted sheets (for an exorbitant price, no doubt), you've connected adapters and transformers as needed and you even managed to put up a few pictures of family and friends back at home to make your new living space just a tad more comfortable. Yes, it's time to relax and unwind.

Soon you realize your cable is limited to Korean variety shows with the occasional decade-old made-for-TV American movie you're fairly certain no one you know has ever heard of. "No problem," you say, "That's what the Internet is for."

Think again.

Hulu and TV networks like ABC and ESPN disappoint with apologetic messages notifying you that their programs cannot be watched outside the States.

"Okay... so I'll just listen to music," you decide.

Not so fast. Pandora and Songza shut you down before you can even decide on your preferred playlist.

Your breathing becomes heavier and your heartbeat steadily increases. You find the strength to stand up and barely fall to the floor as your knees give out. You manage to make it to your co-worker's place across the hall. He sees the fear in your eyes and needs no words to understand your worries. He sympathetically places a hand on your shoulder and assures you that things will be fine. Soon enough, he mentions three letters that will forever change how you know entertainment as an expat living in Korea forever: V-P-N.

Photo: Gizmodo.com

In simple terms, a VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is a discrete network of computers connected over the Internet. Individuals can use a VPN to gain access to network resources when they're not physically on the same network (i.e. not in the same country) or for securing and encrypting their communications when using a lesser trusted public network.

When properly connected, an American-based VPN makes it appear as though your computer or electronic device (smartphones, tablets, etc.) is connecting to a network such as Spotify from inside the United States.

This ingenious system allows die-hard fans to watch the World Cup live as it happens without having to deal with a crummy, subtitle-less local network. They can also listen to location-restricted internet radio and check out their favorite television programs (Game of Thrones, anyone?) as they air instead of waiting for translations or rebroadcasts.

And for those that are interested in watching Korean movies and dramas, they can gain access to sites like Netflix that provide an extensive selection of translated Korean programs.

There are a number of VPN services to choose from, but I recently began using PrivateInternetAccess.com after becoming an affiliate with them.

I was surprised by the simplicity of the setup process using their easy-to-follow tutorials and wondered why I hadn't signed up years earlier, before I became clueless as to what's going on in American pop culture.

In addition to using a VPN to watch shows and listen to music on both my computer and smartphone, I can also rest easy knowing that my internet connection is secure, which is necessary since I pay my bills and do my banking online. So safe, in fact, that a slew of some of the biggest companies in the world (Forbes, Yahoo and AT&T to name a few) use PrivateInternetAccess as their go-to VPN.

And the very best thing about PrivateInternetAccess.com's VPN service? The price!! To get to access all your favorite movie streaming sites and ensure a secure internet connection only costs $6.95 per month or $39.95 for an entire year.

So what are you waiting for? Sign up for a VPN today and you'll be thanking me when winter (aka movie-watching season) rolls in.

Happy binge watching!

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

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January 23, 2017

10 Ways to Stay Warm During Winter in Korea

Let me just make one thing clear. I am not a fan of Korean winters. Sure, the snow can be beautiful and the holiday decorations do make me all fuzzy on the inside but on any given day from December to March, the last place you'll find me is outside. Coincidentally, many Koreans share my sentiments and as a result, the country boasts an abundance of places to enjoy the great indoors.

So, without further ado, here are the top ten ways to stay warm during winter in Korea...

10.  Find Hot Deals at Seoul's Mega Malls:  From Dongdaemun's 24 hour clothing markets to Cheongdamdong's luxury boutiques, there's no doubt that Korea's capital city is a haven for shoppers.

Over the past few years, the construction of mega malls like IFC Seoul, D-Cube City and the newly-opened Lotte World Mall has further substantiated this fact. These shopping complexes, which are usually attached to subway stations, boast the hottest names in fashion from all corners of the globe.  But the best part about them is that shoppers can enjoy a number of entertainment, dining, and nightlife facilities all day without ever even walking outside. Now that's cool.

9.  Enjoy a Hot Cup of Cha:  Although Koreans tend to drink more coffee these days, cha (or, tea) was once the preferred beverage of the country. They may not be as common, but tea houses still exist and one of the best neighborhoods to enjoy a cup is Insadong.

Hidden in the back alleys of this favorite tourist destination are cozy, obscure cafes (like Shin Old Tea House) that serve traditional Korean teas, many of which have medicinal properties. Yujacha (citron tea) is packed with vitamins and soothes sore throats, making it a personal favorite of mine during the winter.

8.  Get a Hot Bod:  Between hibernating and holiday snacking, it's easy to put on the pounds during winter. Beat the belly bulge and get enrolled in one of the many fitness classes offered throughout Seoul. Whether you're a yoga novice or a master of mixed martial arts, there's a program for just about everyone. Plus, when the sun decides to come out again in spring, you can hit the beaches of Busan feeling confident and, well, hot.

7.  Get Toasty (or Toasted):  Sometimes winter weather calls for certain beverages that may not necessarily be native to Korea. A hotty toddy, Irish coffee or mulled wine might be just enough to warm you up on even the coldest days. While many of the Itaewon institutions each feature their own take on these cocktails, the guys at Southside Parlor near Noksapyeong Station seem to be creating the most buzz with their eclectic winter menu. Chai Bourbon Toddies? Yes, please.

6.  Crank up the Heat in the Kitchen:  Just because the temperatures plummet to well below zero does not mean that it's okay to eat Shin Ramen on a daily basis during the colder months in Korea. Pick up a few tricks you can you use in the kitchen by enrolling in a cooking class. Learn how to make tasty Korean dishes like bulgogi, kimchi and jjigae from professionals then practice in the comfort of your kitchen and invite some friends over to show off what you've learned. They'll be thankful for the meal and you'll appreciate the extra body heat.

5.  Dance the Night Away with Hot Guys and Gals:  For those that prefer partying until the sun comes up, there is no shortage of dance clubs and music bars in Seoul's nightlife districts. Hongdae and Gangnam are two of the more popular locales to jam out to hip hop and electronic jams and meet other attractive youngsters looking to do the same.

This blogger did a fine job of putting together the pros and cons of the more well-known clubs. Do know, however, that most of these places ignore fire codes and allow the dance floors to get so packed that it becomes virtually impossible to move. This is beneficial if and only if you're actually going to a club to literally warm up.

4.  Warm Your Bum: Ondol (heated floors) are the saving grace of winter in Korea. I've actually come to favor this traditional (and typical) method in which Korean homes are heated over the central heating we use in the West. There is seriously nothing better than plopping oneself down on the hot spot of the ondol with a blanket and a good book while snowflakes fall silently outside. Head out to the hidden hanoks of Samcheongdong and Bukchon Hanok Village to experience similar winter bliss. If such a thing exists.

3.  Spice it Up:  Another way to kick up the heat is by torturing your taste buds and gorging on Korea's spiciest foods. Buldalk (literally, "fire chicken") consists of tender slices of barbecued chicken that is doused in a chili pepper sauce and is a good dish to build up one's spice tolerance. Another option is jjamppong, a Korean-Chinese fusion soup of seafood, noodles, and a red broth that tastes as fiery as it looks. Still my favorite sweat-inducing snack is tteokbokki, spicy rice cakes that are so popular there is an entire food neighborhood dedicated to them. Just bring along an antacid. Or two.

2.  Have a Warm Heart: Nothing warms the heart more than giving back to one's community and there is no better way to do this than by getting involved in one of the many volunteer groups throughout the country. Whether your interests lie in helping the homeless, supporting unwed mothers, teaching English to North Korean refugees or promoting animal rights, there's a group for just about every cause.

1.  Wash Away the Winter Blues:  The most obvious and perhaps most effective way to stay warm during merciless Korean winters is by spending an excessive amount of time in jjimjilbang, public bath houses no doubt established by ancient folks who disliked the cold as much as I do. Here, one has the option to soak in hot tubs, relax in steamy saunas and even get a body scrub to rid of all that excess dry skin.

Upscale jjimilbang also feature facilities such as movie theaters, internet lounges, aromatherapy rooms and restaurants. So what are you waiting for? Get over your fears of public nakedness and enjoy an afternoon of premium pampering. And for those preferring a more upscale pampering experience, there are plenty spas around the city that will have you wishing every day were winter.

No matter how you stay warm this winter, have fun doing it!

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

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