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On Wednesday of this week, Koreans celebrated their own version of Thanksgiving. Called Chuseok, it is the most important holiday of the year and combines a harvest festival with the vestiges of ancestor worship. There is also a great deal of booze involved.   

While Chuseok proper was on the 22nd, it’s a three-day break from work. And in my wife’s family, the visit to the tomb comes the day before Chuseok. So, on Tuesday, Ian and I joined two of KJ’s cousins, their wives and children, and my father-in-law on a visit to the tombs of his mother and father. Other families do this on the morning of Chuseok itself.   

A view of some of the tombs (burial mounds, really) at the graveyard where my father-in-law's parents are buried. You can also see some folks paying their respects.

A view of some of the tombs (burial mounds, really) at the graveyard where my father-in-law's parents are buried. You can also see some folks paying their respects.

 

While very few South Koreans actually still worship their ancestors, they continue to pay their respects to their parents and grandparents by trimming the grass and plants around their tombs and making offerings of food and makgeolli (a milky-white Korean rice wine). Then, everyone gets down on the ground and bows before the tombs. After this, it’s time to drink the makgeolli and eat the food. Kind of an interesting concept for a picnic really.   

Ian passing the time while we wait for one of KJ's cousins to arrive with his family. The pink Paul Frank outfit with blue trim is a gift from my wife's younger sister, who insists the outfit is unisex. I'm not entirely convinced, but what can you do?

Ian passing the time while we wait for one of KJ's cousins to arrive with his family. The pink Paul Frank outfit with blue trim is a gift from my wife's younger sister, who insists the outfit is unisex. I'm not entirely convinced, but what can you do?

 

KJ didn’t come with us to the tombs because there was cooking to do. And this being South Korea, cooking is women’s work, so she stayed behind to help her mother out. After we returned, the wives of the cousins pitched in as well to help get everything ready for the big day. We men did absolutely nothing to help. I might point out here that South Korea is a land of cutting-edge electronics and Fifties-era social mores.   

On the morning of Chuseok, we all got up very early and waited for my father-in-law’s elder brother to arrive from Busan. He’s a retired priest – actually a monsignor, which is even better, just below a bishop. In fact, he trained almost all of the priests currently active in the Busan area, I’m told.   

Well, if you’re Catholic, it’s pretty darned handy to have a priest in the family because you can have Mass without leaving the house. And that’s what we did. It’s part of the Lee family’s way of celebrating Chuseok – Mass first, bowing to photos of the patriarch’s parents and then eating breakfast. However, I should confess, that I missed the bulk of the Mass and all the bowing, because Ian just couldn’t stay still that long. Since I didn’t understand a word of what was being said anyway, it fell to me to take him outside and walk around in the rain.   

Now, there are some important differences between Korean Thanksgiving and North American Thanksgiving. One is that there isn’t just one big meal in the Korean version. There are three – breakfast, lunch and dinner – and they’re all the same. Each meal featured a bowl of rice; bulgogi (a marinated beef dish); Korean-style tempura; marinated squid; a variety of kimchis (fermented vegetable dishes); some other dishes I’ve forgotten about; and makgeolli. Yup, rice wine at about 7:30 in the morning. Lots of it, too.   

Lunch was the same, except it featured soju instead of makgeolli. Soju is basically the national drink of Korea. It’s a distilled beverage typically between 24 to 27 per cent alcohol, clear, slightly sweet and cheap as borscht. A 300 mL bottle costs about 60 cents in the supermarket. Not the greatest alcoholic beverage in the world, to be honest, but after about three shots you don’t even notice it tastes a bit like mouthwash.   

Dinner was also the same, except that the cast had changed. The cousins and their children had gone off now to visit the families of the wives and they were replaced by my father-in-law’s sister, her husband, their two sons, and KJ’s two sisters, their husbands and their kids. The booze changed, too. This time, it was Scotch. And lots of it.   

The menfolk sitting around enjoying Scotch while the womenfolk put the finishing touches on dinner and bring the food to the table.

The menfolk sitting around enjoying Scotch while the womenfolk put the finishing touches on dinner and bring the food to the table.

 

Once dinner was finished, it was time for the main event, which was the priest uncle giving KJ a stern lecture in front of everybody about how terrible it is that we’re traveling all over the place with a baby in tow when we should be buying a house or some such and being respectable people, instead of, in his words, being “worse than gypsies.” After he was done, my mother-in-law took a pretty good run at KJ, too. I’d been instructed by KJ in advance (we knew this was coming) not to say anything at all, so I went out for smoke breaks anytime the urge to spout off approached irresistible levels.   

And here is where Thanksgiving Korean style revealed itself to be essentially the same as Thanksgiving in Canada or the United States: It’s a time for family to travel sometimes great distances to get together for a big meal and to remember just how much they really piss one another off.   

Good times.

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Well, the time has come to say goodbye to Yangsan, our home in South Korea since March 24th. And now the real backpacking begins. Three-month stays in comfortable houses are a thing of the past for us. From now on, my wife, our baby and I will be moving about much more frequently and relying on one big backpack, two daypacks and a baby carrier. 

For a lot of parents, the above probably sounds like a nightmare. It’s difficult just to go grocery shopping with an 18-month-old toddler. What kind of crazy person would want to go backpacking with one? 

It’s a fair question, and I’m entirely open to the possibility that we are indeed nuts. I’ll be honest and let you know that it all does seem rather daunting now that we’re only nine or ten hours away from our train trip to Seoul and just two days away from our flight to our next country –  and the beginning of our “for real” backpacking tour. 

I’m also really excited, though. Most of the best times of my life have come while living out of a backpack and exploring foreign countries. I’ve never brought a baby along for the ride before, but our little guy is pretty resilient and seems to really enjoy new places, people and things. I have a feeling he’s going to be an excellent traveller. 

We've "simplified" our lives to this: a travel backpack, two daypacks, a baby carrier and Ian's teddy, Hudson Bear.

We've "simplified" our lives to this: a travel backpack, two daypacks, a baby carrier and Ian's teddy, Hudson Bear.

 

That’s not to say there won’t be difficulties. Of course there will be. There always are, but it’s the difficulties that give travelling a lot of its flavor. In fact, some of the hardest times I’ve had backpacking are some of my favorite memories. The weekend I was homeless in Munich, visiting a war zone in the former Yugoslavia, a broken-down car in the middle of the Australian Outback – these are all experiences which I am deeply grateful to have had. The first two profoundly affected my life. 

There are also all the other experiences which go along with travelling: the amazing people you meet, the extraordinary art you see, and all the new cultures you get to immerse yourself in and learn about. This is what my wife and I really want for our son. They say the first four years of life are the most important, and we’re operating on the theory that giving him such a stimulating start to life can only be a good thing. 

Or maybe we’re just crazy. Who knows? We’re about to find out. 

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Faithful readers of this blog are well aware that my level of proficiency in the Korean language is just slightly above non-existent and well short of pathetic. From my fumblings, I understand how difficult it is to learn another language and how amusing the attempt may be to native speakers.  

It is a soothing balm to my ego, then, to encounter so much broken English here in South Korea, on signs and T-shirts and what not. I’d like to share some of my favorites with you now. They range from simple (but amusing) spelling mistakes to odd grammar and finally to the surrealistically poetic.  

If you enjoy these, then you will definitely enjoy a website called www.engrish.com, the king of broken English websites.  

If you enjoyed "Dances with Wolves", you'll love "Dances with Lilies".

If you enjoyed "Dances with Wolves", you'll love "Dances with Lilies".

 

What's the difference between a shark and a sturgeon?

What's the difference between a shark and a sturgeon?

 

Experts on sturgeon are impressed by the range of formatting they exhibit.

Experts on sturgeon are impressed by the range of formatting they exhibit.

 

This has got to be the world's most upbeat and eager-to-please chain of convenience stores.

This has to be the world's most upbeat and eager-to-please chain of convenience stores.

 

Very impressive indeed.

Very impressive indeed.

 

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Every country has its strange beliefs. A goodly number of Americans are convinced public health insurance is a Commie plot, many Japanese believe keeping a toy cat somewhere in their home is lucky, and the Scottish think haggis is food. Here in South Korea, a lot of folks believe in something called fan death.   

When I was teaching ESL back in Vancouver, I heard a lot about fan death. Basically, what many Koreans believe is that letting an electric fan run all night in a closed room can kill the people sleeping inside. This is why the electric fans here have timers that turn off these dangerous appliances automatically. People are very strongly encouraged to make sure they are set before going to sleep.   

Any time the topic of fan death would come up with my students, I tried to get them to explain to me how exactly an electric fan in a closed room could kill you while you slept. Some interesting explanations were offered.   

One theory is that keeping an electric fan on all night in a room with the door and windows closed can lead to suffocation. When asked how, students would explain that people suffocate because the fans move air away from them. When I pointed out that a fan moves as much air in your direction as it pushes away, they usually looked somewhat taken aback.   

Another theory I heard often is that electric fans give off carbon dioxide, which builds up to deadly levels in a closed room. Well, I see two problems with this one. First of all, you would need an airtight room for this to work. Then there is the fact that electric fans do not run on fuel and so do not produce carbon dioxide when in operation.   

Undeterred, some of my more creative and ardently committed students moved on to my favorite theory: that the blades of electric fans chop up oxygen molecules. Now, I’m just about the farthest thing from a physicist, but I am nonetheless pretty darn sure that the energy required to split apart oxygen molecules is higher than that generated by your typical household electric fan.   

Besides, all of these theories (and the many others I haven’t mentioned) also leave a couple interesting questions unanswered: Why do only sleeping people succumb to fan death? Why don’t wide awake people die as well?   

Unsafe at any speed.

Unsafe at any speed.

 

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Imagine an election campaign where you are phoned only once, where nobody knocks on your door and there are no attack ads on TV. A lot of people in the West would think, “Sounds great.” Well, not so fast. South Korean politicians have other ways of making sure folks know they’re running for office. And in the leadup to the provincial and municipal elections held here on Wednesday, they made darn sure voters did not forget them.          

Perhaps the main means of accomplishing this was through the use of what I call speechmobiles – something I’ve never seen before. The best way to describe them is with a thousand words worth of picture, so here you go:           

A speechmobile for one of the candidates parked by the side of a road in Busan.

A speechmobile for one of the candidates parked by the side of a road in Busan.

 

 These little things were absolutely everywhere in Yangsan and Busan during the election. And you definitely knew when they were in your neighborhood, because they had loudspeakers mounted on them – and they were turned all the way up to 11.          

Often, a candidate’s speechmobile would drive around with nobody in the back. However, it would blast out bits of his or her stump speech, as well as campaign songs praising either the candidate or the party.          

I was quite amused by the fact that one of the campaign songs was set to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It”, while another was set to the tune of “YMCA” by the Village People. A lot of other campaign tunes were set to old Korean pop songs that the older – more likely to vote – people would remember. Frequently, the speechmobile would have a few ajumas in the back, too, waving at all the folks as they drove by.          

Every now and then – and with greater frequency as Election Day neared – the candidate would be in the back of the speechmobile giving a rousing oration.          

A candidate giving a drive-by speech to all the cars and pedestrians on a busy street in Busan the day before the election.

A candidate giving a drive-by speech to all the cars and pedestrians on a busy street in Busan the day before the election.

 

The candidates were also out and about at all the various community events and festivals, just like back home. They would also hang out around churches on Sunday morning to greet worshippers as they filed in.          

The candidates were not the only ones working hard, however. The ajumas were out in force, too.          

Every time I entered or exited a subway station over the past several weeks, I would see a big group of ajumas all wearing their campaign uniforms and bowing to the riders. They would say something about how So-and-so was going to work hard for them. Usually, one of the ajumas was holding a portrait of their candidate.          

It was also common to see these ajuma armies standing at busy intersections and doing choreographed dance routines while singing their candidate’s song. Another popular campaigning spot for ajumas was in shopping malls.          

A bunch of ajumas getting the word out in a Busan shopping mall the day before the vote.

A bunch of ajumas getting the word out in a Busan shopping mall the day before the vote.

 

 In addition to the speechmobiles and the armies of ajumas, I was also interested in the fact that Election Day is a holiday in South Korea. To encourage turnout, everybody gets the day off work. Of course, human nature being what it is, many people simply take advantage of this bit of free time to sleep in and head out of town to do something fun instead of voting.          

For example, my younger sister-in-law and her husband took KJ, me, Ian and their son to a dinosaur theme park in Masan. Turnout on Election Day was about 56 per cent.          

Ian gets the heck out of the way of a dinosaur.

Ian gets the heck out of the way of a dinosaur.

 

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I’d like to show you some photos today of where we’ve been staying in South Korea these past couple months. Below are pictures of the in-laws’ house in Yangsan, as well as of some spots nearby. The first part of this visual tour will focus on places Ian enjoys visiting. Then I’ll really ramp up the excitement and show you where I smoke.     

This is the in-laws' house. In a country where most people live in small apartments, we're living large here in Yangsan.

This is the in-laws' house. In a country where most people live in small apartments, we're living large here in Yangsan.

The pots used by my mother-in-law to make kimchi, soy sauce, denjung and so on. You can also see the backyard dog, Samsunhee. Awesome dog. Ian enjoys petting her and walking around the pots.

The pots used by my mother-in-law to make kimchi, soy sauce, denjung and so on. You can also see the backyard dog, Samsunhee. Awesome dog. Ian enjoys petting her and walking around the pots.

Two of the four cows that Ian loves to visit every day. We always know when Ian wants to go outside, because he points to the front door and says, Moo! (Sometimes quite urgently.)

Two of the four cows that Ian loves to visit every day. We always know when Ian wants to go outside, because he points to the front door and says, Moo! (Sometimes quite urgently.)

This is a field right next to the cow's shed. Every now and then, the owner of the cows lets them run around here.

This is a field right next to the cow's shed. Every now and then, the owner of the cows lets them run around here.

I let Ian play on this quiet little street beside the cow farm once he's had enough of visiting the bovines. He's fascinated by all the storm sewer grates you see. He gets a kick out of watching the water flowing beneath and an even bigger kick dropping rocks through the grates. My task is to keep an eye out for cars.

I let Ian play on this quiet little street beside the cow farm once he's had enough of visiting the bovines. He's fascinated by all the storm sewer grates you see. He gets a kick out of watching the water flowing beneath and an even bigger kick dropping rocks through the grates. My task is to keep an eye out for cars.

After visiting the neighbor's cows and dropping rocks through the storm sewer grates on the adjoining street, Ian loves to visit these nearby rice paddies. Here he busies himself with the important task of dropping small rocks into the water.

After visiting the neighbor's cows and dropping rocks through the storm sewer grates on the adjoining street, Ian loves to visit these nearby rice paddies. Here he busies himself with the important task of dropping small rocks into the water.

After we're finished visiting the dog, the cows and the rice paddies, Ian and I head up this little lane that leads to the house. It also has storm sewer grates, which means Ian has more little rocks to drop.

After we're finished visiting the dog, the cows and the rice paddies, Ian and I head up this little lane that leads to the house. It also has storm sewer grates, which means Ian has more little rocks to drop.

This is my emergency smoking spot. It's where I smoke if my father-in-law is puttering about in his garden by my main smoking spot. This is where I received the packet of mineral salt I talked about in The Salt of the Earth.

This is my emergency smoking spot. It's where I smoke if my father-in-law is puttering about in his garden by my main smoking spot. This is where I received the packet of mineral salt I talked about in The Salt of the Earth.

This is my primary smoking spot. You can see my father-in-law's garden right below.

This is my primary smoking spot. You can see my father-in-law's garden right below.

View from my primary smoking spot #1

View from my primary smoking spot #1

View from my primary smoking spot #2

View from my primary smoking spot #2

View from my primary smoking spot #3. Just past my father-in-law's garden is the property of one of the neighbors. I still haven't decided if this is the world's smallest farm or a garden on steroids.

View from my primary smoking spot #3. Just past my father-in-law's garden is the property of one of the neighbors. I still haven't decided if this is the world's smallest farm or a garden on steroids.

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WARNING: This blog post ends with a really lame attempt at humor. You’ve been warned.     

I’m always surprised by the things I miss whenever I’m overseas. When I was 21 and backpacking around the world for a year, it was Old Dutch potato chips (click here if you’re not Canadian). When I was living in xenophobic Dublin from 1999 to 2000, it was Vancouver’s racial tolerance. Now that I’m in South Korea, I miss grass and strong coffee.     

When I say I miss grass, what I really mean is that I miss all the parks and playing fields that Vancouver and Victoria have. In Vancouver, especially, you don’t have to walk very far to find a nice big patch of grass. This is fantastic if you are the parent of a really energetic little kid like Ian.     

Back home, it was easy to find places where he could run and run and run until he was all tuckered out. If he fell down a hundred times, it didn’t matter. That soft cushy grass was no danger. And it was easy to keep him well away from cars.     

South Korea, by contrast, is unfortunately not greatly endowed when it comes to parks and playing fields. This is pretty understandable when you consider the twin facts of its small geographical size and relatively large population.     

South Korea is about the size of Portugal, but seventy per cent of the country is covered by mountains. This means that 46 million South Koreans and all the factories, farms, shops, roads, military bases, etc. are squeezed into a very small area. In a country this cramped, it’s no wonder there are nowhere near the number of parks and fields we take for granted back home.     

The lawn in front of the in-laws' house is nice, but our little guy needs a lot more space than just this.

The lawn in front of the in-laws' house is nice, but our little guy needs a lot more space than just this.

 

Coffee is another thing I miss – strong coffee. KJ and I are on a constant search for a nice French or Italian roast, but so far we have had no success. We’ve tried many of the cool little independent coffee shops, as well as the chains with interesting names such as “Angel in Us”. We’ve even tried Starbucks. You would think Starbucks in South Korea would offer a nice strong cup of coffee, but no. The strongest they’ve got here is what would pass for a medium roast back home.     

So there you have it. Those are the two things I miss. For the reasons mentioned above, I can accept the paucity of parks and playing fields in South Korea. I wish it weren’t so, but I can accept it. However, the total lack of strong coffee is not acceptable. I know the South Korean government has more pressing matters to attend to at present, but I do hope they will address this situation as soon as they have the time.     

There are quite simply no grounds for weak coffee.  

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