(Above) A picture of Sulli, an actress and singer who committed suicide in 2019. Many reports say that she was a victim of cyberbullying. It’s strange to me that someone like her would want to die.
I’ve been thinking about how I came across a number of news videos over the last several years saying that some young Korean celebrities had killed themselves. They were very good-looking, talented, young women and men who had made a big name for themselves by singing or acting and they were loved by all Koreans. And they had a lot of money. But many had hung themselves in their homes all of a sudden.
And I was so concerned when I saw a few years ago in 2020 that the then-mayor of Seoul, Park WonSoon, aged 64, had gone into BuGak Park in the city’s North and was missing after his daughter had called and told authorities that it sounded like he was planning to commit suicide in a note he left for his family. He was found dead in the forested national park some hours later. The very official search party had been made up of search dogs, drones and many young policemen who were wearing camouflage-coloured uniforms. Back then, I watched news footage of the searchers entering BuGak Park near where Mayor Park had gotten out of the taxi he had taken. I couldn’t believe it was happening because suicide isn’t as common in Canada as it is in Korea. Something like that occurring the way it did would be unheard of in Canada, especially a suicide that’s so public. The information given to people at the time was that one of Mayor Park WonSoon’s former secretaries was charging him with sexual harassment. I have seen videos about other powerful or famous men in Korea who were being accused of sexual offences and they committed suicide too. Many of these men had hung themselves in the utility closets or basements of their own apartment buildings.
(Above) The visitation at Mayor Park’s funeral. At funerals in Korea there are many white chrysanthemums like this on the tables. You can see a picture of him here.
I don’t fully know why there are more suicides in Korea the than there are in most other countries, but I have some ideas about it. Korean society is strict and has existed for over 5 thousand years. No one dares to step out of line in any way. Korean people do not make noise or act belligerently at all, ever. Everybody is freshly showered and calm at all times. The crowds are very orderly and the streets are safe. And I believe they feel that everyone should behave the same as everyone around them does. A student I had in Garak-dong told me that if everybody is reading a book on a subway car, a Korean who is on that subway car will want to open his bag and take out a book and start reading it too. He said that comes from Confucianism, which teaches its followers to do what others are doing. Confucianism is from China and most of Asia still has strong influences from China today. For instance, Chinese writing still exists in all Asian countries, including Korea. All Koreans still learn to read and write Chinese along with their own language. Confucianism still influences Korean society, like Chinese writing is found today on restaurant signs and signs on temple buildings in Korea. So, the people of Northeast Asia put a strong emphasis on the feelings of the crowd and put less emphasis on the importance of of be the individual. Maybe it’s somehow easier to kill yourself if you believe that an individual like you is much less important than a large group of your fellow citizens? I don’t know.
(Above) BuGak Mountain is very recognizable and is behind the main palace, Gyeongbokkung. It’s kind of pointed and has a lot of granite on it. The mayor entered BuGak Park from the East side of the mountain that is on the right in this picture.
I was told by a few other Canadians when I was in Seoul that Korean men killed themselves over losing their jobs or incomes. They had heard of a taxi driver who had a family killing himself over not having enough money, they told me. It seems to me that “losing face” or shame is a reason for many of the suicides in Korea.
There have been official reasons given for a number of the recent, high-profile suicides in Korea. One beautiful actress who was found dead told people in her suicide note that she had been severeIy abused by the film industry by having been coerced into having sex with a lot of men who were associated with movies. I understand that she was brought to a place and told she had to sleep with the man in that room, and that she darned well had to do it and there was no “saying no” about it. She was killing herself because she couldn’t get over any of it. At least one male Korean singer told people before he killed himself that he was suffering from depression for a long time and that it was unbearable. A lovely, young, female singer, Sulli, who’s in the photo at the beginning of this blog post, couldn’t deal with the repeated, hateful comments written by Koreans on her public webpages and committed suicide. Another problem that contributes to suicides of Korean celebrities is the control the big entertainment companies exert over the young talent who have contracts with them. The rules are very strict and there’s little freedom. The companies want the talent to look and act perfectly and it must be awful. In one article I read recently, it said that online comment areas for celebrities in Korea now have some rules and limitations about nasty comments because of what Sulli and some other stars who killed themselves endured.
(above) A publicity photo of one of the many K-Pop music groups in Korea. The pictures, dances and clothes are perfectly staged by the big entertainment companies. Everybody and everything has to be perfect.
Mental illness like depression and women being oppressed in the workplace are problems that are mostly taboo over there. These issues were not addressed in the late 90s and I dont think they’re being acknowledged by Korean society as awful problems that need to improve right now. For a while the MeToo movement from the West caught on in Korea and several years ago a lot of women spoke out over having been sexually harassed at work(that Seoul mayor’s secretary might have been part of MeToo…), but would sexual harassment be all gone by now? I’d bet it’s still a big problem over there, as they were way behind the West in dealing with it in 1997. And I don’t think there’s much help for Koreans who suffer from clinical depression right now. I’ve seen many articles lately that say mental illness has a huge social stigma in Korea and admitting that you have a mental problem is frowned upon and discouraged.
(Above) Lip gloss for guys. It’s vegan! Korean women are bombarded with ads for all kinds of “cute” sorts of makeup they don’t need, and now the men are being targetted as well.
I found that Korean society was rigid in its expectations of people in general and that everything in Korea had to be presented in a specific, perfect way. Things had to look perfect – look at Korean movies where dishes and flowers on a table have to be placed there in a precise way and they have to look beautifully aesthetic every time. And no one can be fat. Also, in Korea, if someone doesn’t have a university degree, he or she is not accepted by other Korean people in general. I don’t know what happens to those who can’t get a degree or can’t be thin…do they have their own underground societies and just constantly try to keep away from the many fussy Koreans who disapprove of them? Or is it worse than that? Do parents disown their children over these perceived-as-necessary things? It’s like how Sail Lee told me I shouldn’t have worn my glasses one day because I was supposed to always look as beautiful as possible. Or how one of the ministers at the Sejong Institute told me I looked like a man because I had cut my hair so short. I experienced that Korean society could be hurtful and critical, and some of the highly-publicised victims of suicide that I read about did too. The strict expectations of women in Korea, where they always have to look as beautiful as possible, are an immense, constant pressure on them. Just that alone would really bother me.
Whether social problems alone cause suicides in Korea or if biological, genetic problems like susceptibility to depression cause them, suicides in Korea should be studied further and solutions should be found and implemented. Teaching coping methods to kids in schools or putting posters up in school hallways or in subways to change attitudes toward beauty and educate people about sexual harassment are just a few actions that the Korean government can do to help lower the instances of suicide. But unfortunately, since Korean society is so set in its ways, it will probably be a long, long time before attitudes and habits change.
I spent the winter of 1997/’98 in Seoul. I hadn’t known anything about Korean weather at all before I went. I knew nothing about Korea. Nothing, like I wrote in my first blog post.
I had borrowed an old book that described some facts about Korea from my city’s public library in July of 1997 to try to learn something about the place – anything, even, before I took a plane over to Seoul. The book said that Korean women did not go out anywhere, like to restaurants and other businesses. It also said that the people all wore white clothing…. It was describing what Korea was like before the Korean war! But I didn’t know that before I travelled to Seoul. I fully expected to find a few stores with only men in them when I arrived, and I thought everybody would have white clothes on! During one of my classes in September, I asked the LG students if that book could have been wrong and I told them what it stated. I told them I didn’t notice that women weren’t in public places. The older, highly dignified manager, Joseph, said those things the book said were true, “…a hundred years ago!!!…” while he chuckled incredulously. He couldn’t believe any book would portray Korea as being so backwards, but I couldn’t believe my small city’s library was so backwards back then that it had no modern books about Korea.
I hadn’t brought any warm clothing with me for wintertime. If I needed a coat or a sweater or gloves, I thought, I’d have to buy them there in Seoul. Well, that would have been all right if their women’s clothing was made and sold in large sizes! And I remember thinking to myself before I left, it isn’t really cold there anyway, is it? No one really knew. And after all, movies about the Vietnam War showed jungles, I remember thinking to myself. I am very embarassed to write that on here. Unfortunately, there was no easily accessible internet back then like we have nowadays to instantly find information.
While I spend every winter here now in my remote, rugged area of Atlantic Canada, I often think back to what the snow was like when I lived in Seoul….I imagine feeling the tranquility that was in the air on the mornings after it snowed. On mornings like this, everything everywhere was white and more than once there would be a magpie cawing and landing on a roof of another building as I looked out of the window on the 4th floor of my institute. I can still see the thin layer of snow over the roads, on cars that were parked on the sidestreets and on the tops of all of the buildings. And I can still imagine the peacefulness that was in the air. After a snowfall, the temperature was around zero degrees Celcius, with no wind, so it didn’t feel very chilly.
Typically, only a few centimeters of gentle snow fell during the night once a week or so, and that was mostly it for the winter – except for one time when there was a typical light snowfall one night and then there was another one the next night, but the snow didn’t stop before daybreak – the snow had kept falling that morning. So the accumulation there was 2 centimeters from the first night, 2 centimeters from the second night plus whatever was falling that next morning. Oh my goodness, it was disruptive to the Koreans! Only 2 inches of snow! And I had to go to Bucheon for my Anam class with Mr, Choi that morning. I waited an extra long time for my bus once I got to Baekun. My bus came by but didn’t stop so I kept waiting. It was snowing lightly. I looked at the traffic going by. There was less traffic than usual, going very, very slowly and a few cars had actual chains on their tires. I had heard of “snow chains” for tires but had never seen cars with them before. These cars were not making it down the streets very well. My bus came again and passed me without stopping. Finally, I got on a bus but I was very late for my class with Mr. Choi.
That morning, before I left for Bucheon, when it was still snowing into the daytime after those 2 light, nighttime snowfalls in a row, a Korean man at my institute exclaimed, “We are getting a lot of snow this year!”. I thought it was so funny that 5 or 6 centimeters over less than two days could be considered “a lot of snow”. My hometown in Canada has 77 days on average where snow falls each year. Around that time, I explained to several Koreans about how in my area of Canada, people use “winter tires”, made with heavy treads, so your car won’t slip or slide while you drive it on snow-covered roads. It was another topic for discussion and practice in my English classes. Seoulites had no idea about harsh winters, deep snow or ice or snow removal. Their winters were short. By the time February came in Korea, winter was over. February in my province back in Canada was often the worst month of winter; in February, there’s an average of 16.4 days where snow falls in the city I’m from!
When I was in Seoul, there was never any wind at any time, I remember, and it only rained a few times during my whole stay in Seoul, from September 1st, 1997 until February 14th of 1998. If there was any wind ever during those months, it was a very gentle breeze, and there was a breeze so seldom that I only remember calmness. That fall was so absolutely beautiful, with perfect temperatures and tons of yellow gingko trees and bright red Japanese maples to see. This was after an extremely hot September where the bright sun had been beating down on me relentlessly every day from so high up in the sky, and where I needed air-conditioning in my bedroom every night until September 30th, all night, to be able to sleep.
I kept an eye on the weather and noticed the winter was coming very gradually. In my province of New Brunswick back in Canada, the weather was unpredictable and often harsh. The daytime high could be plus 10 degrees Celsius one day but could be minus 5 degrees Celsius the next day. Big fluctuations in our temperatures were common. And there were storms. When I was in elementary school, we would get snowstorms that lasted for days. Storms where I live now and where I grew up can be “ice storms” or blizzards. In Seoul, the temperature gradually got cooler each night and cooler in the mornings when I walked to the subway station to get to Bucheon to teach Mr. Choi. By the end of November, I found it had gotten cold. My toes were cold because I only had the sneakers I wore from Canada to wear, as there were no suitable winter boots anywhere and they had no women’s footwear that would fit me. Men’s winter boots for sale there were all made of black leather and were very sleek and fashionable. They seemed to be made for going from a taxi into an office building to me. One morning around December 1st, when we all had to get up to start our day, there was a thin “blanket” of snow covering the ground outside. It was the first snow of the season there. The snow had fallen during the night. It was calm and peaceful that morning and the air felt so pleasant, even though it sometimes felt cold in Seoul at that time. Canadians call that type of weather a “damp cold” because the ocean is nearby, making the air humid and that makes it feels colder. I figured out back then that Seoul only had a total accumulation of around 10 inches of snow that whole winter, if that. Ten inches measures 25 centimeters. But where I was from, the total annual snowfall was close to 280 centimeters! The freezing wind was raw and bitter a lot of the time in New Brunswick as well.
Sometimes on a December evening where I live in Canada, the winds are calm and the moon shines on the freshly fallen snow. There are only a few times each year for someone to see what actually look like millions of sparkling diamonds on the ground at nighttime when the snow is new. The temperature is sometimes just right in December for snowflakes to twinkle like that. When I’d see a newly-fallen covering of snow over everything in Seoul in the morning, I felt happy because for me it was just like a nice day or evening in December back home. At home in my part of Canada, I felt good if it was 0 degrees Celsius with calm winds. The winter in Korea never progressed to being stormy like I was accustomed to and there was never a minus 56 degree Celcius windchill, which I sometimes had to tolerate back in the North Atlantic.
I found that Korean people had what I call a “romantic” idea towards snow when I lived there. They all told me they thought snow was beautiful. No wonder. In most of Korea they didn’t have storms or have to constantly shovel it or get around in deep snow. Their walking in winter wasn’t too hard and their driving wasn’t difficult or impossible like it is in my part of Canada. I have noticed by watching Youtube videos that Seoul has been getting a little more snow lately than it did in 1997, but their winters are still mild, in my opinion. Many titles of videos filmed in Seoul say “…Heavy Snow…” in their titles but it’s only 5 centimeters that is shown. In my province, a heavy snowfall is one of 15 cm or more.
One day in Seoul, I took the subway by myself to the North near the Gyeongbokgung Palace in central downtown Seoul. It must have been a Saturday or a Sunday, as it would have been on a day I was not travelling to classes and teaching. The Anguk subway station I went to that day had artwork about Korean culture on its many long walls on more than one of its levels that you could look at back then. This art went along with Gyeongbuk Palace, which was full of architecture from the past and had a large museum on its grounds. The artwork on the walls was also connected to Insa-dong, where Seoul’s famous antique stores and art shops were. These two areas were close to Anguk Station.
There was no subway stop right at Gyeongbuk Palace back in the late 90’s like there is now. When I came out of the Anguk subway, I crossed the very wide, busy road to the North. Then, I picked a street on the Eastern side of the palace and took a walk up it, heading towards the distinctive mountains of BukHakSan and BukHanSan. When I look at the old pictures I took that day now, I feel upset that the whole area has been changed. It’s been turned into streets of almost-flashy cafes and streets containing many traditional Korean buildings for tourists to visit. The large area containing the traditional dwellings and shops is called Bukcheon Hanok Village. I don’t think there were enough Hanok buildings in that neighbourhood for a huge village to have been restored, but it is possible there were a lot and I just didn’t notice. It is lovely to have the traditional-style buildings of the Bukcheon Hanbok Village in the area now, yes, but I liked the way the neighbourhoods in Korea looked back in the late 1990’s better.
My pictures’ subjects are original and authentic. A few of these pictures have been put in an earlier blog, but a few have not.
I like the picture above because it shows residential buildings of an Anguk-dong street the way they looked in the winter of ’97/’98. The area had not been “modernized” yet when I took the picture. As far as I know, this street as it looks here is now gone. On the right in my picture are a few short buildings with traditional tiled roofing. Many of these grey, tiled roofs on little stores in the center of the city have disappeared, as many Korean neighbourhoods have been changed and “redone”. Also, I keep noticing in recent videos and pictures that the nice grey color of many tiled roofs looks darker and almost black now. I think the tiled roofs of all of the temples, palaces and pavilions in Korea have been upgraded like this in recent years. To me, a tiled roof looks better and more real when it’s a slightly faded grey than if it’s a very new-looking black colour. Even though I am frustrated about it, I feel I am lucky I saw these buildings when they looked more real.
In this same picture on the right, you can see the little old-style store is selling tangerines in crates outside. That was a common sight for me when I lived in Seoul. And those Korean tangerines were the best little oranges I’d ever eaten before or since.
Above here is another picture I took in the Anguk area. There is some old-style tile roofing on top of a low building and on a wall. Seoul was very modern back then, however. There were amenities closeby wherever you went and many, many people owned very new cars. I saw a lot more older cars and many just plain ‘old’ cars in my home city back in Canada than I ever did in Korea.
My only complaint back then was the lack of any brewed coffee anywhere. Expensive cafes and even the coffee machines on the streets only had instant coffee in the late 90’s. I see a Starbuck’s on almost every corner in Seoul on YouTube videos today and I see there are currently many other chain coffee shops on top of so many more independent cafes throughout Korea. I do sincerely hope there’s real, brewed coffee at some of them, for everybody’s sake.
The mountains showing in the photo above are in the north. A minibus is coming down the street in the middle of this picture. I have a feeling it was used by a private English academy to transport very young students. A sign on the building on the right says, “TalknPlay” because there’s an English institute/hagwon there for children. You can see a tall church steeple further up the street. There were a lot of Christian churches in Seoul back then but not all of them were not what westerners think of as “churches”. Many churches were just up on one of the floors of a regular-looking building. You wouldn’t know many churches were nearby until nighttime, when the crosses on so many buildings and on top of so many countless steeples everywhere would suddenly all light up orange around you.
I read lately that there is a higher percentage of Christians in Korea now than there was in 1997. A third of Koreans were Christians in the late 1990’s. I remember talking to a few Korean male students in 1997 and they said that in Korea, a third of the people were Buddhists, another third were Christians and the other third of the population were “no religion”. “No religion” was their way of saying what I would have called “atheist” at the time. The information I saw recently stated that there are more Christians and more atheists now in Korea but that there are less Buddhists now as well.
When I talked to “Sail” from my LG class about religion in Seoul, he told me about the foreign Christian people who went door-to-door trying to convert others to their particular religion who were commonly found in Korea at that time. In my hometown in Canada, they are usually Seventh Day Adventists or Mormons. Sail said there were many of these people knocking on doors in Korea and that the Koreans laughed amongst themselves because the religious person would read a sign on a door, and like me, the person could read Korean but did not know much vocabulary. So the religious person was often saying, “Hello, Mr. Beware of Dog…” when a Korean person opened the door and saw him.
During my life in Atlantic Canada, I have known many Christians, and all of them are very particular about which actual Christian religion you belong to. Are you Catholic, Baptist, Anglican, Penticostal, Nazarene, United, Methodist, Episcopalian, Wesleyan, Mormon, Adventist, etc? And people from each of them dislike everybody from all of the others. So, in Korea I asked, “What Christian religion? Which one?” and I was told, “Just ‘Christian’. We are all one religion.” I thought that was so great; there were no bad feelings among one group of Christians toward the “other” Christian groups. So no one would be saying only their group is going to heaven, for example, because only their group is worthy. That’s what it’s like in my area of Canada: all of the different Christian groups or “churches” speaking badly about all of the other ones all of the time. This seems to go against what Christianity is supposed to stand for, in my mind. I wonder if things have changed to become more that way in Korea now that 23 years have gone by…
A few churches considered themselves distinct when I lived in Seoul. There were some Catholics in Seoul back then, and I did see a sign on a church saying it was “Methodist” once.
This colourful building above was the most exciting part of my walk. I was walking along the street when I came upon this colourful house that looked like a Buddhist temple to me. For many years, I searched the area on Naver Maps and searched the internet but could never find it again. No Korean person could ever tell me what this building was either. I love that the white wooden decorative trim all around it had so many cut-out shapes of a sitting Buddha. A middle-aged Korean woman was outside when I walked by. She seemed to be cleaning, like getting rid of some garbage. I always wondered if this was a place for female monks because I saw that woman there, and because this structure was so different than others I’d seen, to be honest. But I have never heard of there being any female Buddhist monks though.
Recently, I came across a blog that had a picture of this building in it! It looked exactly the same as mine! I had waited over 23 years to find out what it was. The author said it had been a Zen Center and that it has been taken down and rebuilt altogether now. It’s sad to me that it’s gone. The “new” center is a much less interesting brick building. That informative blog had a photograph of the replacement Zen Center in it and I’m glad because I still can’t find it on Naver Maps when I try. And I had never considered that the symbol on the peak at the top with the three circles within a larger circle was a clue to the building’s identity. “Zen” is an East Asian buddhism as opposed to an East Indian type of buddhism and the symbol of it is always a circle.
The picture above is of what seemed to be an outer entrance of a special property. I couldn’t see what was behind this gate, but I thought its old structure was so interesting. I imagined that a wealthy person lived behind it in an expensive house. After I took a picture of this old privacy entrance, I walked further North, and I became aware of a few guards and then more gates and then of increasingly more guards and gates. I became concerned and felt paranoid, actually, and turned around to return to the Anguk subway station and to end my walk.
Afterwards, when I mentioned the many guards I saw to a Korean secretary from my institute, she said it was because I was getting close to Cheomseongdae, where the president of South Korea lived and worked. The important presidential building she was talking about had a traditional-style blue roof and was called “The Blue House”. The Presidential House is still called The Blue House now and it looks the same as it did then too, except that it’s been recently opened to the public as a tourist attraction. I’ve said in a former blog post many names of places and products in Korea copied famous western ones and The Blue House being similar to The White House is a prime example of this. Korean people told me at that time that not long before I arrived to live and work in Seoul, some North Korean assassins had been intercepted near this Anguk area. They had almost gotten to the South Korean president to fulfill their plan to kill him, I remember being told.
For a long time, I have wanted to write about what I noticed in regard to males and females while I lived in Seoul. There is a personal case of sexual harassment I experienced while I was there that I should write about as well. I have been afraid to describe most of it because I didn’t want to come across as being critical of Korean society. I love Korea and it’s people and my intent is not to offend anyone, honestly. A few women have recently said to me they are interested in what it was like for a foreign woman to be alone in Korea in 1997. I have never said much to them about the topic, but I will now.
I grew up and lived in a country where women are equal to men. Basically. I usually did things alone in my life, so I had many Canadian men overstep their bounds many times with me through the years. But when I lived in Seoul, I noticed right away that Korea was a male-dominated society. Just to give you one big example of this, I observed how the women all had to look a certain way. Korean women were strictly expected to try to look beautiful and desirable at all times and one way to do this was by buying special makeup products. I always tried to look presentable wherever I went, but I saw that Korean people took “beauty” to a whole different level when I was there.
One evening in October of 1997, I had my eyeglasses on instead of my contact lenses. Sail from my LG class was very hurtful at the time when he berated me right in the classroom that evening for not wearing my contacts and for simply wearing my glasses. In Korea, women should always strive to be as beautiful as possible at all times, he told me. He was discouraged and perhaps even a bit disgusted by the fact that I had worn glasses that evening at classtime, as glasses made women look way less attractive, he explained. It wasn’t like that at all in Canada and I felt bad and thought it was unfair for him to say that. Korean women must be under so much pressure to look a certain way, I remember thinking at the time. Sail used the important word “beauty”, as this national requirement was called in English, in his lecture to me.
On billboards and in newspapers and in advertisements on the walls of subway cars were pictures of countless makeup products and the Korean women all went along with this way of thinking and doing things. One day, the Korean secretaries at my institute were acting giddy. They had packages of little, special, absorbent papers to press on your face to take any shine away. They enthusiastically gave me a few to try, I remember. I thought Korean girls and women were all so very beautiful, they really did not need any makeup at all and it seemed absurd to me that they all had to buy so many products to constantly enhance their obvious natural beauty.
I also learned that women not only had to look a certain way, but they had to act a certain way. Women were not supposed to smoke or swear or be aggressive or perhaps not even be assertive. Every time I used the washroom in the subway, I saw cigarette butts in the toilet or the garbage. This was because the bathrooms in subway stations were where women smoked, if they wanted to smoke, as their society did not permit women to smoke at all. They all said it was because women had the babies and smoking was bad to do during pregnancy. Yes, but in Canada, women can resume being a smoker once her baby has been born, I kept thinking… Many women smoked in Canada. I did. In Korea, women were not supposed to drink much alcohol either, if at all, but men could.
When I lived in Korea, women had to study and study for years as girls and then only work for a while until they had their one of two children after marrying. The studying and studying was all just to be at a good job for a few years as they all had to quit and bring up their children once they got married. They usually returned to the workforce once their children had grown up. Women all cut their long hair once they reached middle age or maybe it was once they turned forty. I never did ask. Every one of them did this. My hair was short and I did not have children and I was 28 years old. The Korean men were confused or astounded or downright rude about it to me. Why did I not have children? Why did I have short hair? I heard these questions many times. One minister of the Korean government at the prestigious SeJong Institute asked me, “Why don’t you have long hair?” He was very insistent. “You look like a man!”, he told me, and he went on and on to me about this one day. It was difficult to try to be polite and respectful sometimes when Korean men said these types of things to me. I was hurt at the time by that man’s words, as it is insulting for any woman to be told that she looks like a man.
I wrote in one of my early blog posts that I had a male, Korean friend whom I had met in my neighbourhood, Sang Hyun, who told he liked being with me because he felt free to act like he wanted to around me. He said he could act like he was with a male friend when we were together. He had no male friends left in Seoul. They had all moved away after getting married or had found jobs somewhere else, he explained. He was so happy he could talk about what he wanted to and drink or smoke and relax with me because I was not a Korean woman. He said he couldn’t drink or smoke around Korean women or talk about certain topics. It’s hard for me to fully understand, but I think maybe Korean women were very sheltered and that a Korean man had to be very careful and try not to offend them? I do know he said he had to act differently around a woman than he would act around a man in his society. Maybe things have changed now or maybe this only happened when people were single? He and I were always just friends and were so comfortable together, despite each of us not knowing much of the other’s language. We smoked and had draft beer in a kareoke bar near the Garak Hotel on the night he talked about it. I learned back in 1997 that a Korean woman was not a Korean man’s equal in some ways, but I did see that Korean women were highly prized and greatly respected over there despite this. Men had their place and women had their place in their society and it worked well for them. What Sang Hyun told me about it didn’t mean things would change or should change – it was just the way things were and I still feel I was lucky to have been privy to such knowledge. I remember him talking about it while we were at kareoke and while we walked together in behind the 9-lane wide SongPaDaeRo road and alongside of it at on that Friday evening so long ago. I had no idea things were that way for him and was very honoured by what he explained to me.
I had only been in Seoul for a few weeks and was still feeling very shocked and overwhelmed when I was told I had a new ‘outside’ class. Actually, I didn’t have it yet. I had to try to get it. I was told the offered class was to be held in Yeoido, the financial and media centre of the whole country at the time. A female Korean recruiter came and drove me to the designated building in Yeoido and sat with me during the meeting with some representatives from this new company. This recruiter had a flippant, snobby attitude, I found. Everybody at this ‘interview’ spoke together in Korean and I didn’t have to say much.
Anyway, I got the contract, this haughty recruiter informed me at the end. It was never explained to me, but I figured out eventually that a recruiter got paid by a company to find a real English speaker to help their employees to communicate better in English. Businessmen over there told me many times they had to speak better in English to expand their companies and increase trade in order for their country to succeed globally. My boss used this particular English-speaking Korean recruiter a lot to get jobs for “his” teachers. He got paid whenever his teacher got a contract. Since nobody ever told me that’s how things went, this lack of communication added to my anxiety while I lived and taught in Seoul.
I was shown the next morning by one of my institute’s secretaries how to get to this class by subway. I was to go in the morning on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and teach the head boss of this particular company for an hour. The company I would be working for was one of the biggest “chaebeols” in Korea at the time. A chaebeol, such as LG or Hyundai, was one of seven Korean businesses at that time that were the biggest in the country. Chaebeols all had subsidiary companies like national baseball teams and grocery stores, in addition to a main well-known company, like Hyundai Automobiles. For example, Samsung was famous for electronics but had other businesses affiliated with it, like Samsung’s Korean baseball team, and maybe certain Samsung appliances, and perhaps there was a Samsung Insurance Company, and so on. The huge company Lotte was a chaebeol that owned luxury hotels at first but eventually added shopping malls and cracker-making and cookie-producing companies, etc. to their conglomerate.
Subsequently, I had to travel to this class alone by subway and it took a while. To get there, I had to travel most of the way across the southern part of Seoul, from East to West, transferring twice. So I went on the Pink Line, the Green line and then the Purple Line just to get to this one class. It was lovely travelling through Seoul in late autumn. The air was cool and fresh. And in the mornings, the sun shone pinkish-yellow on the cement and glass surfaces of the buildings I passed. Many people were on the streets going to office jobs and many were on the subway but everyone was always quiet and orderly. Hardly anyone ever spoke on the subway or even on the street. I saw hundreds and sometimes over a thousand Korean people each day but it was only once in a long while that I might spot another foreigner like me.
It was very important that I remove my footwear and put on special slippers that were provided for me every time I first entered the office building, before I would meet with my “student”. Having to do this was common in Korea. In many instances outer shoes were not to be worn inside apartments or in prestigious buildings. I had to go to the lockers area and find my appointed locker and switch my sneakers for the same pair of silky slippers every time I went to this class. I’d leave my sneakers in the locker while I taught. These slippers, which were always in my locker, were a very pale pink colour and reminded me of ballet shoes, even though they had a flat, obvious sole.
Going to Yeoido was exciting, since there were no financial centers in my home province at all. And no other business districts were in Seoul at the time, either, back in 1997. My hometown had one tall, ugly office building in it. Only one. On that first day I was nervous about meeting my student. I’ll call him Mr. Park. I remember watching and waiting on the ground floor of the building for him to arrive on that first day. I was with a nice male staff member of that company. My “student” was in charge of this whole, tall building, I realised. “It’s Mr. Park!”, the male staff member who was with me announced after a short time of us waiting. Mr. Park arrived in a chauffeur-driven, big, dark-coloured car and everyone who greeted him bowed to him. As he walked through the building, from the dark car to his office, men and women of all ranks bowed in front of him. The staff members all wore tan-coloured smocks. Canadian culture has no bowing, so it was very different and a little intimidating for me to see, especially so much of it.
I was to sit in a big, nicely-furnished office with Mr. Park for this class. The office looked like a nice hotel room, with a plush sofa and chair and a huge, long, polished wooden desk and nice curtains with sheers. Mr Park was very friendly and short and older. His stature and composure weren’t like those of a powerful, commanding, successful businessman at all. He had a different, funny personality but it was not unlikable at first. What I’m trying to say is that I think he tried to be personable, even though his accent was very strong and his Eng!ish was limited and there was a world of difference between us. He was trying to make me comfortable, at least I thought he was, and at first, he told me some interesting things. At first. And not for long. His heritage was North Korean, he said. Some of his family had been displaced and separated because of the Korean War. This is common over there but he’s the only person that told me it happened to him and his family.
I tried to look at practice readings and exercises with him and we practiced speaking English by having little conversations about the topics in the readings I had brought with me. I have to admit I was so new to teaching in Korea that I honestly did not even know what I should be doing. No one ever told me much about what I should be doing or how to go about teaching English in this type of setting or in any other setting when I was living in Seoul. I always had papers I brought with me that were photocopies I’d made from teaching books to have Mr. Park read. Then we’d discuss important points in the readings in order for him to practice speaking. One of these readings would be about how the rest of the world viewed South Korea at that time, or it would be an opinion piece written about how all people should have babies….. A person could give their opinion or add to a point from the article or ask a question about it, or say other things. Sometimes, like in most of my other classes, I used a paper to write words in Korean and English or draw pictures to help the discussions along.
It sounds all right, doesn’t it? Well, there was one hitch. It began right away. Maybe it was during our second time together or our third meeting… Mr. Park turned the class into talking about female body parts when it started. I tried to talk about the statue down the street I passed on the way there of the bull that copied the famous statue of the bull on New York’s Wall Street. I had drawn a little picture of the bull statue on my paper to show him, as he didn’t understand it when I was verbally describing what a bull is. At that point, he stopped me from talking and focused on the cow’s udder. He pointed and it turned out he wanted me to say “nipple”. He went on and on wanting me to say it. He did a few other things like that at first too. I remember being so frustrated with being interrupted during my explanations and the class wasn’t flowing along smoothly at all. I hadn’t said anything about the “nipple” incident but I didn’t like it and thought it was very, very perverted.
Soon after, the class was monopolized by him telling me he wanted to sleep with me and have me as his mistress. I would not want for anything, he kept saying. “I want you to be like my wife”, he insisted on repeating. Part of what was ludicrous to me was that he was ugly and funny-looking and old. Not that I wanted to sleep with any Korean students or anybody there, whether they were rich or not. I wasn’t interested in any riches as payment for sex and I was not interested in sex at all over there. I was married and my husband was waiting for me back in Canada. Mr. Park hadn’t started this after a lengthy teaching relationship with me. He had started this indecency right away. The whole thing was very absurd. And not right.
Along with talking about how he wanted to travel with me and put me up in my own apartment, he hugged me at the end of the last few ‘classes’ we had. The first hug was of course intrusive, but the second hug was him pressing my body extremely close against him with my breasts being crushed into his chest very hard. There were not many classes before I told my secretary at my building about what was going on. This was hard, as there was a big language barrier in the way. In order to show her it was very serious, I hugged her the way he had hugged me that last time and she cried out in anguish and agreed I would not be able to return to teach Mr. Park anymore. Then it turned into her calling the snooty recruiter to tell her and the recruiter argued and disagreed and she telephoned me in the teachers’ area of my institute and argued and argued with me. She accused me of being attracted to Mr. Park and of leading him on because I had told her that he was “a cute man” at first. Well, if you know the nuances of English, at least in my area of Canada, you know that an old, ugly man who is friendly or funny can be called “a cute old man”. It does not mean the woman saying that finds him attractive. I had struggled to think of something nice to say about him and thought that would be okay to say when I was asked, after our first meeting, that’s all. And the whole time I was defending myself on the phone with the recruiter, some of the other teachers who lived on my floor and some of the live-in Korean students and a few secretaries from my Hanbo Institute had gathered around and were listening to everything. Eventually after a long time of me explaining and reasoning, but not getting anywhere, one of the secretaries took the receiver out of my hand and hung up the phone. I looked up and there were many people who had gathered and they were standing around me, clapping.
The language barrier was bad but the cultural barrier was even worse, I discovered during this fiasco. This man was the head of a prestigious company in a male-dominated country. People bowed to him all day long. He had a chauffeur and lots of money. This made others greatly intimidated, especially people who were his underlings in an influential company. All employees of any company anywhere in Korea were submissive to elders and bosses and laws to start with anyway. In their society, Koreans must obey parents, younger people must bow at a certain angle to older people, and everyone followed all rules and laws to a “T”. In Korea back then, men got away with these behaviours easily because of these written and unwritten rules of their society. My situation with Mr. Park was worse than if it had happened in a western country. And the stuff Mr. Park had said and done to me in just a few weeks was stranger and more exaggerated than if a man in a western country was sexually harassing a woman at work. I didn’t try to scold him and put him in his place. I thought at the time and still do that telling him to stop wouldn’t have done any good. So, in the end, my secretary told me they were going to tell the company he ran that I had been in a car accident so I could not return….many times while I was teaching in Seoul I heard that foreign female teachers had been “…in a car accident…” and were not coming back anymore to a class…. I know I was not the only woman that experienced such a thing.
I remember speaking to one of my Korean students, “Anthony ” Lee, about the fruit I saw in Korea back in 1997. Anthony and I used to go sight-seeing and go out to eat a lot. One of the restaurants we ended up in would be called a “pub” by Atlantic Canadians. Many establisments at that time were places to sit and drink a lot of draught beer that came in very large glasses, but you could also order plates of food at them. The signs outside of these pubs always said “Hof”, which I thought meant the idea was taken from Germany. There were never any forks to help a person like me to eat and I hardly ever saw an English menu in Korea. Even if I could understand the Korean I didn’t know what most dishes were, as my vocabulary was limited. So at this Hof pub, Anthony had to explain what I could order. I ended up getting a plate of vegetables and beef in a nice sauce. We each had a glass of the draught but Anthony said he had always been allergic to alcohol. After he drank some of it his face turned as red as a beet and I was surprised. I have never known someone else who had that problem.
While we were at the Hof restaurant, Anthony ordered a fruit tray for us. Fruit trays were common at many places I went. And they were expensive, I remember. Eating fruit was very common and I’m sure it was more common to eat fruit back then than it is now. Fruit was offered as dessert after a meal in people’s homes, I noticed, whereas in Canada it was more common to have a piece of iced cake or a piece of pie. The fruit in Korea was of a high quality and was always fresh and there was an abundance of all of it. Fruit was for sale almost everywhere I went, like there were always tangerines, Asian pears or large apples on display in front of all of the corner stores. The Korean people loved fruit. I had many of their purple grapes and tangerine oranges offered to me all of the time. That day in the pub, Anthony explained to me while we had some pieces of watermelon and some huge strawberries that there were many greenhouses in Korea that grew all of the beautiful produce they all required. And as usual, everything was so different to me. I told Anthony during our outing that the watermelon on that tray was the most beautiful watermelon I’d ever had. It was perfectly juicy and quite a bright red. The strawberries were huge. I do wish that Canada would have a growing system for produce like Korea has. Farms are disappearing in North America and Canada relies on distant countries for a lot of canned fruits and vegetables and other food. If we had these greenhouses, it would be such a great idea, I think. I admire the intelligent, innovative solutions to potential problems that Koreans use. Their ideas always benefit Korean society and their economy.
The only fruit I missed while I was there was grapefruit. They didn’t have any. I tried to explain what grapefruit was to a couple of businessmen and they couldn’t understand what I was talking about at all. Now I see they must have learned about it because I see some food is advertised as having grapefruit flavour. It is very difficult to explain important terms to someone who does not have a good command of English. It was hard for me to explain “grapefruit” and sometimes a Korean person wanted to know how I liked a particular dish of food. I said it was good but it was “rich”. I meant I could not eat a lot of it even though it was delicious. That was what my only answer could be in some cases. Nobody ever knew what I meant, even though I struggled to explain many times. Almost every Korean person I came into contact with had a big Korean-English dictionary to look up words on command. When I was teaching Mr. Choi at the semi-conductor plant, he always took the dictionary from my hands and wanted to see the written Korean word that I had loooked up to help our session along. He always assumed my pronunciation and interpretation of the Korean language was poor. I like looking things up and explaining but currently over twenty years later it must be so much easier to look things up on the internet or use Google Translate on the spot as needed. Back in the late nineties there was no wifi except in “internet cafes” and there were no translation sites and not many people had the devices they have nowadays. Many Korean people had cell phones but there were just some internet cafes where a person paid to use the internet in a room full of computers if a person wanted to, and that was mostly it. When I returned home to Canada in 1998, only dial-up internet was available. The lack of technology made my job in Korea more challenging, to say the least.
I noticed when I was in Korea that there was no market for barbecue sauce. I thought at the time that someone could make a lot of money by introducing any kind of western barbecue sauce to put on meat over there. Not many foreign flavours were accepted in Korea over 20 years ago. However, I did notice people loved “curried chicken”. It was on the menu sometimes at their workplace cafeterias. But cheese, which is common in the west, was only incorporated into some of their meals after the year 2000. While I was over there, I thought about how North American barbecue sauce has a tomato base whereas bulgogi (Korean ribs) sauce is soy sauce-based. I wondered if our barbecue sauce could be enjoyed by the Korean people, since everyone required a side dish of kimchi at every meal and other Korean sauces are extremely spicy and contain many chilis. Also, many of their dishes are vegetable-based or meat-free, but in Canada and the US, barbecue sauce is put on generous servings of grilled beef or pork.
When I looked up about melons and squash in Korea recently, it was overwheming. The yellow fruit I wrote about earlier is technically called a muskmelon or an Oriental melon. Green squash, pictured above, are also called zucchini or Chinese squash or other variations involving these terms, such as Chinese zucchini or Oriental squash. Korean squash can be called pumpkin too. These are the only ones I saw over there, although there are apparently other longer, bigger sized ones like the zucchini I see in Canada. Korean squash are lovely as side dishes or in soups or Korean pancakes. I always marvelled at the beautiful Korean produce and how their vegetables could be so versatile and delicious but healthy at the same time. Their produce was so perfect and so bountiful. By the way, Korean pancakes were not like western ones. In Canada, we put sweet, brown sugar-based syrup on pancakes, but in Korea, pancakes have strips of vegetables in them and they often contain pieces of squid. There are even kimchi pancakes.
One of their most wonderful meals is dumpling soup. Mandu guk. Korean dumplings are made into the shape of half-moons. The wrappers are round and not rectangular or square-shaped like egg roll or wonton wrappers. So when they fold this round wrapper in half, with a spoonful of filling inside, it makes a shape of a crescent or half-moon. Back in the late nineties I could go in any small Korean restaurant and get a huge bowl of this soup for three dollars. When my husband visited me during the coldest week of that year, the 3rd week in January of 1998, he walked with me up in behind where I lived one morning and we went into a small, informal restaurant and I ordered us each a bowl of it. The soup was chock full of pork and vegetable dumplings, rice cakes(ddeok), clams, carrot, onion, and other types of food too but I can’t remember what else now. It was very nice to have in the cold weather and I liked having a break from kimchi and their other very spicy dishes sometimes, to be honest, as mandu guk isn’t spicy. I was glad the middle-aged Korean cook and owner (agumma) of the place was willing to serve us, as I knew sometimes foreigners like us were turned away back then. It was around this time that I had started to read Korean menus and could understand a lot of what they said. If I knew what a dish was, I could read it from the menu and understand.
Seoul had important amenities for everyone in most areas and in the basement of one of the apartment buildings beside my institute was a convenience store. I went there sometimes and could never believe everything I needed was close-by in Korea, because in my area of Canada most stores were far away from me, wherever I was. In the city i grew up in, everything was, on average, a 20 minute walk away or a bus ride away. One day when I went to this convenience store in Karak-dong, I was missing Canadian food and even missing English, and was feeling so lonely, when I looked in one of the store’s freezers. It was full of ice cream that was in small tubs and on sticks with colourful wrappers. I was thinking a nice ice cream bar would help me and comfort me….
But when I looked in the freezer I didn’t know what anything was. I couldn’t ask the cashier because he would only know Korean. Everybody else in the store only knew Korean products and could not speak any English. The picture above is a modern one and the freezer I saw back then was even more confusing. There is one kind of treat above that has the word “Big” on it at least. But what is it? I see some Melona treats in the picture above. “Melona” ice cream was available in 1997 and I would get one sometimes. The original Melona is flavoured and coloured like honeydew melon and is pictured at the bottom. Honeydew flavour was the only kind of Melona I came across back then. I see 2 of them in the photo above – they’ve got a green wrapper. Melona has more flavours now and a strawberry kind is in the top left corner of this freezer. At least it’s really an actual strawberry flavour, as ice cream and other foods aren’t always what you think they might be when you are alone in a foreign country.
The trouble for me was that day I saw a wrapper with what I thought was strawberry on it, so I bought it. But when I was ready to enjoy my strawberry ice cream treat back at the institute, I found it was red bean mixed in the ice cream, not strawberry! There was no strawberry flavour of Korean ice cream back then. I was so discouraged and disappointed that I had no western “comfort food” available to me in Seoul. Ice cream is supposed to have sweet flavours in it, like chocolate or caramel or fruit like peaches, not beans!!! It was so strange and unappetizing to me that any beans were in my ice cream. However, now, years later, I would love and welcome any red bean paste in my food. I never thought I’d miss it, but now I do.
North America always had many cows and we traditionally used real dairy cream to make ice cream in the past. Korea hasn’t got many dairy farms so their “ice cream” is different. So many meals from Korea are low-fat and having less dairy helps, as there are no creamy sauces. I was surprised that there were no big sections of cartons of milk in Korean grocery stores, as I had been told by the Canadian government for all of my life that dairy products were necessary to eat on a daily basis. We had to have between 2 and 4 cups of milk each day, we were always taught. There were posters and booklets about it in schools and clinics. Kids in Canada, myself included, had tests and lectures about this. However, I could see when I lived in Seoul that millions and millions of Asians did not eat dairy products much at all and they were all healthy. I then realised millions more people in other continents did not have cows and therefore did not have any dairy in their diets. Dairy products were not necessary after all, I deduced, because of my travel to Asia. I feel kind of foolish for not having realised that not every country had dairy products before and what that meant. Only recently has Canada revised its Food Guide to not necessarily include dairy products as a nutritional requirement. And 20 years after I returned to Canada, I heard on the news that Korean people have a higher life expectancy than Canadians do now, despite them not having a widespread dairy industry. Just the difference in access to milk, yogourt and cheese was a vast difference to me when I lived in Seoul.
Everything over there was so familiar to the Korean people but so very foreign to me. Like I’ve said, ice cream was less creamy than it was in Canada and chocolate bars weren’t as sweet as Canadian ones. Nothing was the same. Whether it was food or the actual walls in a room I was in….floors and heating systems and vehicles….
I wanted to describe some of the peculiarities I noticed about cars, trucks, buses and traffic in general while I was in Seoul. Above, I wrote that many people owned cars even though there was a lack of space for parking, but another issue was pollution. Koreans told me when I was there in 1997 that emissions from cars were a big concern to them. I saw many residents wearing white masks because of the air quality. It was unusual to see scenery without a haze in the way. An interesting thing was that SuIl told me the Seoul government had rules in place where certain people had to leave their cars at home on certain days. They had to carpool to get to and from work or take the bus or the subway on these restricted days. I believe the drivers’ license plate numbers were used as criteria to tell them whether they could drive that day or not.
One Korean man told me that their gasoline was ‘dirtier’ than it was in North America and they used a lot of diesel as well, which created extra air pollution. They had to buy all of their gas from the Middle East, and it wasn’t as refined as it should be, he said. In 1997, their gasoline cost over twice what it did in Canada. I can remember looking at the price of gas when SuIl would stop to get gas, and in Canada the gas was under 55 cents per liter, but a litre cost over $1.20 in Seoul. I couldn’t imagine paying so much. On top of the high cost of gas, a lot of their time was spent just running their cars’ engines, sitting in big traffic jams, so Koreans would spend even more for gas because of long idling times. For me, many things were more affordable in Korea like public transportation, most foods, entertainment, liquor, cigarettes, taxis and admission to events and attractions. There was no tipping and no sales tax. However, clothing, real estate, apartment rentals, secondary education and gasoline were more expensive in Korea than in Canada.
A lot of the time, probably over a million people were on the streets in their cars returning home from work while Sail and I were going home in the evening. It was their “supper rush”, even though it could have been as late as 8 at night. I had never imagined anything like the number of cars and buses that were always stuck in many places, waiting to move ahead. Everyone was used to it and many times they beeped their horns. In Atlantic Canada where I was from, if you beeped the horn, it was because you were telling another driver they had done something wrong and you were usually angry. It took me a long while to realise that no one was angry. No one had done something wrong. It simply seemed to be customary to beep the horn to let another driver know you were there and needed your turn to merge. Sometimes the horns seemed to be saying “okay” or “thanks” and not just “I’m here” or “I’m moving now”. There were such a lot of beeping car horns constantly in the traffic jams! I watched these interactions but never mentioned what was going on with the car horns, as Sail and I always had a lot to talk about.
Sail was always very generous, as all of the Korean people were. One time he stopped at a bakery during one of our drives across Seoul and bought me one of the vegetable pockets pictured above. I used to know what they were called in Korean. A Korean pop music station was always on the car radio and all of the city lights were lit up everywhere when we were travelling.
When I lived in Korea, I never saw one older car. Like the buildings must all look new nowadays, the cars and trucks must look new, or actually be new, too. And many types of vehicles were more compact than they were in Canada or the US. I knew that in England they had mini cars, like Austin Minis, because they didn’t have huge spaces in Europe. It was the same thing over there in Korea. Even buses were sometimes smaller and mini-vans were made smaller than the ones we had in Canada. There were no full-ton trucks or half-ton trucks like I saw everywhere back home.
The “mini” buses like the one pictured above were sometimes used by English institutes that had children to transport. One time I had to go to a certain area, and I got off the subway and I remember a Korean person saying I had to take a minibus from the subway stop to get to my destination. Oh yes, it’s right there, yes. To a Korean person it wasn’t a big deal, but it was a big deal for me. It was so cramped and the almost non-existent isle between the seats was so narrow and the seats themselves were so small…I had trouble fitting and sitting. And of course, besides the cramped conditions I had to find out what to pay and dig out the correct change in the confusion. I didn’t even know if I’d be able to get out at the end that time. I did get out at the end, but these situations even at the best of times were always embarassing and sometimes frightening. And I always had an audience. The Korean people constantly stared at me in public anyway, since I was always the only foreigner in the whole area, so I thought everybody noticed how large I was also and I thought they were all watching and thinking about how I was too big to fit. And they did frown upon people who were built big. And they did notice everything. Canadian people are generally built bigger than Korean people, and I could never hope to fit into clothing or footwear over there. So some vehicles were not made to accomodate someone like me either.
There were two types of taxis in Seoul back then. Many were sedans that were usually silver like the one above in the front but they didn’t have writing on them. These were the regular or cheaper taxis. Any taxis in Korea were so affordable I could never get over it. We paid a fortune to take a taxi anywhere in my hometown in Canada. When I first took taxis in Seoul, it was with a ‘secretary’ from my institute. I had to be escorted to an interview sometimes to see if I was suitable for the prospective class. What I found intimidating was that the taxi drivers were so rushed and not friendly at all in any way…I was shocked when a driver got angry and aggressively told the Korean secretary to hurry and had absolutely no patience. This way of doing things made it difficult and stressful for me to take a taxi.
The taxi drivers hardly made any money at all, as I could go very far for under 2 dollars at the time. Too bad they couldn’t have charged more money and not have been so rushed and rude about getting going. Of course, many taxi drivers in Canada charge much more and are still rude anyway. But at that time in Korea, if gas was over $1.20 per liter and they only got $1.50 for a fare to go quite far, I couldn’t understand how these drivers could make any money.
On the whole, taxi drivers in Seoul were very serious and professional. When I had to go twice a week to Incheon city limits to teach the head of a semi-conductor plant, I was supposed to take a taxi after getting off the subway if I was running really late. I did not like to have to do this, but my schedule never did allow for enough travel time in this case. The right bus did not always come in time and was unreliable. My destination was too far away from the subway station to walk. Unfortunately, I had been overscheduled and it was my boss and/or secretaries who were being inconsiderate and pushy by expecting me to go so far away and arrive in time after teaching an early class beforehand at my institute. I should have caused a fuss but I let it go.
I was not an assertive person at all in any way so it was difficult for me to have to hail a taxi, especially in a very foreign country. It was not my way to easily just flag down a taxi. For my whole life up until then, a person would “call a taxi” by dialing the telephone and ordering a taxi by telling the dispatcher what the pick-up address was. On the days I hailed a taxi in Korea, after the taxi stopped for me, I had to tell the driver in Korean where to drive! I had to use the terms “straight”, “right” and “left” and say them in Korean as we were driving along the busy streets. When I got to the plant, I had to say “here”. The driver being dead-serious and in a huge rush made it even more stressful. And I was still always late for this important class after all that! The words I had to say were “chikchin”, “wenchuk” and “orenchuk”. And “yogi” meant “here”.
I wrote above that there were two types of taxis around Seoul back then. The other foreign teachers told me, “Don’t take the black taxis….they’re expensive…” I thought they must be an atrocious price. After a few months I learned that these black sedans were only a few dollars more than the regular ones, so they were still very affordable, and they weren’t expensive after all. Maybe the drivers didn’t get angry and holler at their customers, since they made a few extra dollars for a fare….
One thing I could never get over in Korea was that alcohol was sold in convenience stores and that those 24-hour stores were everywhere. The area of Canada I had always lived in did not have alcohol in corner stores at all. We had to go to special government-run stores to buy alcohol and the opening hours were limited. Other foreign teachers I knew could not get over that a bottle of the main Korean liquor was cheaper to buy than a bottle of water. The most popular Korean ‘wine’ made with rice, called “soju”, was common and cheap. It was true about the cost of the wine and water- if you were in a corner store, you could check prices and see an individual bottle of water cost perhaps ₩2200 but when you’d check a bottle of soju it would cost something like ₩1900.
I didn’t like soju because to me, it tasted like vodka and I didn’t want what I call ‘hard liquor’ or ‘spirits’. Vodka and other spirits like rum and whiskey were always too strong for me . Even though soju is technically a Korean wine, not a hard liquor, soju has a higher alcohol content than most western-style wines. It is made from fermented rice and is very strong for a wine, as it has 16 to 20% alcohol in it. And western wines are made from fermented grapes. A western wine usually has 7% or 11% alcohol content and is usually sipped from a fancy glass with fine food. In Korea, soju was treated more like North American whiskey, which is a ‘spirit’ liquor. Koreans had customary ways to consume their soju, like drinking it quickly and ‘straight’ from a small glass, like North Americans do with “shots” of whiskey. I found it strange and still do, that there is such strict control over Korean society by their government, with many ideas and music and movies, etc, not allowed or strictly censored, but yet the alcohol was so affordable and accessible to everybody.
Some Thoughts on Korean Society…
All societies have different views and feelings about alcohol. For several hundred years, Canada had many people living in it who were of European descent. They had strong Christian beliefs and values and some of these people frowned upon any alcohol consumption at all. Mostly everyone in Canadian society is supposed to be careful of how much he or she drinks, even now. These types of attitudes linger in the consciousness of many Canadians today, still. This is why I find it strange that if no Korean citizens are allowed to hear the Beatles, or to see certain western movies, then why are they allowed to go in a convenience store at any time of the day or night and purchase a bottle of strong liquor that costs less than a bottle of water?
Being from a society in North America that is “freer” than theirs, I tend to think that the censorship imposed upon the Korean people is unecessary and quite confining. I can’t imagine never having heard most rock music or never having seen the movie Goodfellas, for example. That being said, I do find many of the ways in Korea are highly sensible and they certainly work well for them. Everyone has his or her place. l could pick out most blue collar workers when I took the subway because they all wore similar jackets. Blue collar workers all made the same amount of money and lived a certain way. No surprises. White collar workers were called “office workers” and they all had their own similar salaries. Also, all salaries in Korea, no matter what the job was, were similar back then. There was no diversity and huge differences in salaries like there are in Canada so no one was looking down on someone else. That is wonderful.
Another example of the predictability of groups is that middle aged women all had basically the same hairstyles. All of the women had their hair cut shorter once they reached a certain age. And so on and so forth. If you were a top salesman or a shop owner or a taxi driver, there wasn’t much difference in your incomes or lifestyles, regardless of how much ‘better’ your job might be. You still had an apartment to live in like millions of others there and ate the same food and for leisure, you all would watch Korean baseball and hike in the mountains. Furthermore, you would all like and listen to the same music, regardless of what your job was or even what your age was.
Strangers were not thought of in a suspicious way at all, since their society was so homogenous. If a Korean citizen asked another Korean a question in the bank, they were very familiar with eachother and acted friendly with eachother, as though they were close neighbours or cousins. I witnessed this situation often. One time Sail Lee from my LG class was trying to drive my husband and me to see Seoul Tower in January of 1998. He stopped his car to ask a man for help with the roads and it seemed to me that Sail and the stranger were like long-lost friends or old buddies. I remember thinking how remarkable that was, as even then, Seoul was a huge international city of over 10 million people. Unfortunately, Canada is not as ‘free’ as they are in these ways where everybody lives in a similar way and everybody is familiar with eachother. These customs are taken for granted by the Korean people and they can’t imagine it being any other way.
I was pleasantly surprised by their beer. It was very, very good. I shouldn’t have been surprised, because products fabricated in Korea were always consistently of a high quality. I bought Hite beer once I discovered it, and the bottles of beer were usually much bigger than the 341ml-sized bottles of beer sold in Canada. My small hometown in my out-of-the way province in Canada only got its first digital billboard for modern advertising recently, but in Seoul in the late 90’s there were many, many of these billboards that looked like huge computer monitors. They were on the tops and sides of buildings in the old downtown of Seoul and oftentimes they advertised Korean beer, I recall.
I’ve mentioned in a former blog about how in Korea, some product logos were similar to western ones and some ideas and policies were very simlar to western ones, like how they called 119 instead of 911, or how a type of coffee was called Maxim, like Maxwell House. Well, right before 2020, a big American beer company, Miller Lite sued Hite for copying it’s name and logo. There are presently no results on the internet about this lawsuit that began in 2018.
There were other types of alcohol made using rice besides soju. A milky-looking, sweet old-fashioned wine was called Magkeoli and I loved it. I liked that it wasn’t strong and its effect was potent. After you’d had a few glasses you were feeling really good. It was like getting drunk on sweet, whitish soda. I did find some in a Korean restaurant in Toronto recently. I could not believe I could actually have it once more after not being able to get it for 20 years, but it was not like the wonderful magkeoli I had in Korea, unfortunately. I was so frustrated. Back in the late 90’s the magkeoli (I always pronounced it “makkolli”) was sold in large, light green plastic bottles around the size of a liter or a quart. The same way I loved the Korean yogourt-flavoured soda called Milkis, I absolutely loved their sweet, cloudy magkeoli.
Along with there being small cans of juice with chunks of fruit in them, some small cans had a traditional rice drink in them. The Koreans told me this was a drink that was made in rural areas in the past. I found it was very nice and so very different from anything I had ever drunk before. There were cans of cinnamon-flavoured shighye too.
As far as pop goes, there was a lot of Coca-Cola in Korea when I lived there. It was the only western soda company that had made headroads into the market there. Now I see they have Pepsi available today, but back then, everywhere I went, I only saw the ‘Classic Coke’ cans on offer. Everyone in Korea preferred their own Korean food, though, to anything to eat or drink that was western.
The western fast food restaurants always had a separate Korean-style menu posted on their walls. The KFC and McDonald’s and others always made “bulgogi burgers’ for Korean people, and these ‘burgers’ were really gross to people like me, as they had what I thought of as a pork-like patty with a sweet, soya-sauce-like dressing on them. Sometimes bulgogi burgers had coleslaw or shredded lettuce on them as well. They weren’t like our beef burgers at all. But at tourist spots like Gyeongboekgung Palace and Olympic Park, when I stopped at a food stand they had bulgogi burgers for sale as well as western food. There was even a unique, Korean-style fast food place that had outlets in many areas, called Lotteria, and it offered all kinds of variations of bulgogi burgers and other dishes that were unique foods that didn’t seem to be very palatable to me. Lotteria is still operating. The name ‘bulgogi’ burger comes from their world-famous beef or pork ribs in sweet, soya-sauce based marinade, called bulgogi. Someone decided years ago they should merge this dish with the idea of a western hamburger and it has remained popular with Korean people.
I landed in Seoul on September 1st in 1997 and it was very warm and humid, whereas at home the weather would have been cool and I would have needed a sweater. That September Seoul was sunny every day and the temperature was always 28 degrees. The sun was relentlessly hot when I was outside. I was 12 hours behind from the time zone difference and had no friend at first. I had left my friends and family on the other side of the world. I did know I would be so alone but had not imagined being made to feel bad and alienated by the other westerners where I had to reside and work. I hadn’t thought that would happen to me. The awful feeling they gave me was much worse than the time change and the horrible ‘rotting’ smell from the market across the highway outside. And it was worse than the constant, horrible fear I had over there of getting lost and not being able to communicate about it. Also, I had not much money and would have to wait a month to get my first pay and this worried me terribly. What could I do? I had to go along and hope it would get better and that was hard to do.
These feelings and fears are why I was happy to at least find and be able to buy some of the wonderful juice they had over there at the time. When I put my first tall plastic bottle of purple Korean grape juice in the little teachers’ fridge on the 4th floor of my brick building it made me feel better – like at least something was going right. Pretty desperate but that’s what happened. When I was a very little girl, I had Welsh’s grape juice, made with concord grapes, and loved the beautiful, rich taste of it. So for me, it was comforting to have some even richer, tastier Korean purple grape juice at that time in September of 1997. Even the containers felt like they were of better quality than ones back home. The plastic bottles were a different, slimmer shape and the plastic seemed to be thicker. It all felt ‘different’, and that was exciting to me and it gave me some relief from my hurt feelings and alienation.
I only searched online recently about Korean purple grapes and discovered they are called “kyoho” grapes. They are grown in Japan as well. I knew they were not found in Canada, although we have concord ones that are grown somewhere else in the late summer for sale in my area of Canada. They are not commonly bought or eaten though. In my home province, purple grapes, sold all year round but not grown in Canada, have thinner skins and are a lighter purple colour. They can be bought with or without seeds. We have green grapes too and the green grape juice in Korea was very much like green grapes sold in Canada but we never have any green grape juice for sale. So green grape juice was exciting to me, but what made it extra exciting was the fact that it as actual peeled green grapes in the juice! Small, squat cans of green grape juice were for sale everywhere with real chunks of fruit right in the juice…imagine! There were other kinds of juice sold in small, short cans as well – Korean pear and apple and orange. And there was fruit in them too! These cans of juice were in vending machines, on roadsides and in lobbies of buildings, usually.
I found other great drinks in Korea back then too. There were slim cans of soda-pop called “Milkis”, which were a pop like 7Up with a bit of yogourt mixed in. There were three kinds : “plain” had a blue-themed colour on the can, “orange” flavour with an orange-coloured theme on the can and there was a “strawberry” kind which displayed a pink theme. I marvelled at how the Korean people had thought of making such a drink, as it was very delicious. I missed getting Milkis after I returned to Canada. I did always wish they made a “diet” version though, as it’s quite sweet and I have always tried to watch my caloric intake.
Korea didn’t have any “diet” or “light” foods, mostly because everyone had to be active, even if they were up studying, and no one dared to be overweight, as their society mandated being trim and thin. Anyone who was “fat” was not accepted and was more than frowned-upon. Their diet was low-fat and like I mentioned in a former blog, even their chocolate bars were noticeably less sweet than the ones made in North America. The fact that everyone in Korea worked or studied long hours and everyone got less than 8 hours of sleep every night made it easier for them to stay thin as well. My society back home was laid-back with lots of leisure time for everybody. In Canada, it was way more acceptable to be overweight. Like I said before, everything in Korea was different for me.
Things have been happening fast for Korea and since I lived in Seoul, gradually, companies have been forced by the Korean government to become more reasonable and more accomodating than they were 23 years ago. Back then, my friend and student called “Sail”(really SuIl) worked for over 10 hours each day and sometimes had a 2-hour commute to and from his workplace on top of that. The length of his commute depended on the horrendous traffic in Seoul. I could see he often stayed at work for 12 or more hours on some days. Lately, the people haven’t had to work as long each day like many did when I was there. I understand why everyone slept while they were travelling on the subway back then., as none of them seemed to have enough time to sleep. When I have seen Korean news articles in the past 22 years, I notice news excerpts about rules and laws being changed every so often, like limits being put on how long a shift can be. These progressive laws are bringing their society closer to a ‘western’ one.
The grocery stores in Atlantic Canada sometimes sell Korean pears and they are called Asian pears. They are smaller than the beautiful ones from Korea. For Canadians, a pear has a distinct shape but the pears in Korea are not “pear-shaped” the way I had always experienced before I went to Korea. I never would have imagined that a pear could exist somewhere that was not “pear-shaped”.
My husband asked me a few months ago what this particular item was that was in his dish at the Korean restaurant, and I hesitated because Koreans call it a fishcake, but to me it’s not. And to him it would not be a fishcake at all. In my area of Canada, which is beside the Atlantic Ocean, a traditional food we have is a fishcake, and it’s boiled, mashed potatoes mixed with fish fillets or canned salmon if you want, and onion. You mix all of this in a big bowl with a couple of eggs and some milk and then make actual thick, round cakes out of the mixture. You coat the cakes with flour and fry them until they’re golden…
These Atlantic fishcakes are a special item to order at homestyle restaurants and if you try to buy some like this that have been handmade for sale, they are somewhat expensive and are not easily found.
Sometimes, when I lived in Seoul, my food had small, thin, pieces of something in it and I really could not figure out what it was. I remember being in the basement of my building where the ajumma cooked meals for us, and asking a Korean student what these thin pieces of some kind of cooked batter were. He said it was a Korean fishcake. I immediately thought it was no fishcake, because to me these thin pieces of cooked batter were nothing like fishcakes at home. Another time someone told me the Koreans took minced fish, or ground fish and mixed it with flour to make these. In my memory, I seem to think I was told it could be ground fishmeal in them sometimes or ground fishbones, even. So, when my husband asked me what was in his food, as I mentioned he did at the beginning of this blog, I did try to explain to him what a Korean-style fishcake is.
As time went on I noticed that these Korean fishcakes were in a commonly eaten dish called ddeokbokki, containing popular ‘pounded’ rice made into ricecakes. The pieces of fishcake and ricecakes were put in spicy red sauce and onion and carrot were added to it as well. Korean fishcakes were cooked on sticks and sold as street food commonly too. Pieces of these fishcakes were in soups also. There wasn’t much I didn’t like to eat while I lived there, but I didn’t exactly like their fishcakes. It was the same with their seaweed soup, called miyeokguk, which was a coveted delicacy they all loved. I just didn’t like any seaweed very much, and these ‘fishcakes’ had the same effect on my stomach and tastebuds as seaweed usually did. Ha ha, I remember the Koreans looked so incredulous at me when I said I didn’t like seaweed soup. Kids had it at their birthday parties!
Bugs in cans…
When I was in small grocery stores, which were often almost hidden in basements and not easy to locate, I noticed pictures of bugs on some cans of food that were for sale on the shelves. I really was curious as to what this was. I had never heard of anything like those insects being eaten by any culture. “Could there really be a bunch of insects in these cans? Who would want to eat them?”, I remember thinking. So many times I had questions about things but often there was no way to find out the answers when I was in Korea. By the time I’d have a chance to ask a Korean a few questions, I’d ask what I could, but communicating over there was time-consuming and sometimes frustrating. Actually, I tried to ask one of the secretaries(“Julia”) at my institute about these bugs one day, and she made an embarassed face that was part disgust too and really did not want to explain it. I can still see her shaking her head and looking away and shrugging it off. I kept wondering but really did not like to ask anyone after seeing Julia’s reaction.
In the old days in Korea, they ate these silkworm larvae. They are still eaten as street food sometimes now. So, some people likely ate the larvae back when I lived there, hence the cans I would notice. And when I think about it years later, I was wrong to think my culture did nothing like eat insects like these because we sometimes see cans of snails or “escargots”, in Canada for sale, and I ate some of this food from France at Christmastime once with my husband years ago.
There were so many interesting, different types of foods in Korea I could never describe them all…
The coffee situation in Korea was not very advanced in the 1990’s. Koreans seemed to like coffee but I never saw or heard of there being any percolators in apartments and never noticed any ground coffee in stores. I only ever saw instant coffee there in most of my travels back then. There were many vending machines placed outside on a lot of streets. Most of these machines were selling little paper cups with around a third of a cup of hot instant coffee in them. It cost 350 won for each cup and you could choose coffee having milk and sugar or choose black. To me that was just around 35 Canadian cents a cup. These machines seemed to be everywhere I went, in tourist areas and on sidewalks, and sometimes I did get a cup, although I found the cups tiny and wasn’t crazy about it being instant.
Sometimes an office had little paper pouches of powdered ready-made coffee mix to pour into your hot water in your cup. That was your coffee break. The hot water always came from a water machine that had hot water or cold water to drink – you dispensed it yourself from a spout into your cup and the ‘spouts’ always were a blue colour for cold or a red one signifying hot water. The package of mix had instant coffee mixed with sugar and powdered whitener and you stirred it around and that was as generally good as it got for having a cup of coffee in Korea in 1997. I never did see a coffee mug once!
Coffee shops, which were new, expensive places to me, as my area of Canada didn’t have any such places, sold a cup of coffee that was in a western-style teacup, for ₩4000 to ₩5000, which was atrocious in my mind because that was like over 4 dollars or over 5 dollars. Over 20 years ago! The coffee served to me in these cafes tasted like instant coffee, and I thought it was a small amount too. But not as small as the 35 won cups from the vending machines! The ‘coffee shops’ or ‘cafes’ may have been serving ground coffee and it may have been brewed, but it certainly didn’t seem to be. It was slightly gritty and there seemed to almost be some kind of filmy residue in it. They almost always gave you your coffee already mixed with sugar and whitener whereas in Canada, many times the customer puts his own in himself.
When I talked one time to Sail Lee, a salesman at LG Cellphones in my Karibong teaching job, about these coffee shops he said the prices were so high because you were paying for the atmosphere in them. One we both went to near my institute, or ‘hogwan’, had an all-wooden interior as the shop’s theme. We have a lot of wood in Canada but Sail explained that in Korea wood had to be imported from Southeast Asia, like Malaysia, Indonesia or Thailand. He told me wood in Korea was almost non-existent and was very expensive to import, so it was rare to see it there. This was actually true. Houses and office buildings were made of brick, cement, granite and steel. Parts of temples or palace buildings were so special in part because they were made of wood.
Back to coffee and tea…When you were given white sugar to mix into your powdered coffee it was in cubes and wasn’t as sweet as the sugar I was accustomed to in Canada. Sometimes the cubes were light brown in colour. And you were given a sort of coffee whitener you had to put in your coffee, not milk or cream, as dairy products were not common over there. The whitener could be a thick liquid if it was a fancier set-up or usually it was a powder in little packets. On the subject of their sugar, I saw some Effem chocolate bars in convenience stores, like Mars and Snickers but when I bit into them, the chocolate was not very sweet! I looked at the packages and they came from Australia. I think the food not being as sweet as North American foods is wonderful, as what Canadians have is made from ‘high fructose syrup’ and is unnatural, ‘fake’ sugar. Like I have written before, everything was different there, even the coffee, sugar and cream that we took for granted any day in Canada and the USA.
A number of Korean ways and names copied the west over there, but they had ‘opposite’ policies. For example, there was Maxim for Maxwell House and highway signs said, “dial 119” for an emergency instead of 911 that we had in North America. Funny how somebody in government years ago who organised progressive policies must have deliberately chosen opposite-to-the-West terms and businessmen must have chosen product names that were similar to western products back then.
I remember wanting coffee to drink when my husband and I were travelling in Busan and Gyeongju in late 1999 and there wasn’t much chance of finding any at all as we were not in Seoul. Coffee was lacking in Seoul but at least there were vending machines and cafes selling a bit. I have a few memories of looking at the streets in these cities outside of Seoul and thinking wistfully about a cup of coffee. I know a large number of trendy cafes have spread to many places around Korea by now and that franchises like Starbucks are plentiful. Many things have changed very quickly throughout the whole country, I’ve noticed. I wish for some of these things to have remained the same, to be honest…. Korea and especially Seoul had more character back in the 90’s.
In grocery stores I saw containers of loose green Korean tea leaves and they were expensive – these containers cost $15 to $40, usually. Their teas are special and they have rituals for drinking them and also, their teas have varied uses. Common teas, which were to be added to hot water, were barley, corn, “nut”, lemon, plum and there were many others as well. I remember the Korean secretaries at my institute calling a certain kind of hot drink “nut” tea. This “nut” tea was really Job’s tears tea, I discovered years later. In Canada Job’s tears is sold as a homeopathic supplement for depression in capsules, I know, but in Korea it’s a highly popular tea. If you bought a box of this “nut” tea the powder turned your hot water milky white or off-white and the taste was slightly nutty and creamy like milk at the same time. Many times you were supposed to feel good about drinking their teas because they had health benefits besides having a good taste. Job’s tears tea was called yulmucha. Tea is “cha”.
One of the most common hot drinks was their lemon tea. It was so nice, rich and sweet with the citrus rinds in it but I prefered my Canadian tea bags of British-style brewed tea more. I add milk and sugar to my kind of tea. Korean people call western tea “black tea”. I didn’t know when I was there at first and had to learn. This was difficult to get used to because I never thought of my family’s tea as being black. Back home here I ordered tea once from a lady from Shanghai and got Asian green tea because I didn’t order “black tea” from her. Green tea from Northeast Asia and even lemon tea and the other kinds of teas you do not put milk and (sometimes) sugar in are called herbal teas in Canada. I prefer black tea to any herbal teas. I could only find boxes of Lipton brand black tea and a few boxes of Tetley tea to try to have my “black” tea when I lived in Seoul. It was very frustrating and disappointing because these brands are not like King Cole or Red Rose, which were for fussy black tea drinkers in Canada and England. My parents and grandmother would have cried missing their special British-like, black tea and they would have been upset at the lack of ‘proper’ tea in Korea, actually. My father, mother and grandmother drank their tea multiple times every day at home and were very particular about it. My mother had always said that Lipton and Tetley tea were “not real tea” and that Lipton tea is ghastly, so I don’t know what they’d ever have done over there.
I bought some corn tea while I lived in Seoul. Some teas were sold in teabags and that is how I got my corn tea. Dried kernels of corn were crushed up in gauze-like bags and you’d set a bag in hot water that had been boiling and leave it in the pot to steep for a while. I had bought a little portable stove and a pot after I’d been living in Korea for 5 months and I made some corn tea before I left Korea. I liked a little sugar mixed in with my corn tea. It was rich-tasting and had a deep, sweet, corn taste when I sipped it. We had nothing like that in Canada. You can buy Korean tea that consists of dried corn kernels to boil and the kernels are huge and dark brown. Their fresh corn over there is not sweet or soft to bite into like it is in Canada. We have North American corn niblets in cans called ‘peaches and cream’ variety and use canned ‘creamed corn’ in dinners and we eat wonderful ‘bread and butter’ corn on the cob and it’s lovely but in Korea their corn on the cob is on the dry side with big kernels. They love it but it’s not very nice to eat. I tried it once and was surprised. In Canada and the US we have many recipes made using corn. We make soups and chowders and casseroles with it, etc. I saw corn tea and sometimes saw corn on what was supposed to be a Korean version of pizza while I was there. Besides eating roasted corn on the cob, drinking corn tea and putting a bit on fake pizza that’s all I saw corn used for.
There were vending machines everywhere in Seoul back then selling several kinds of tea. They were lemon, Job’s tears and another few kinds I can’t recall. The machines were everywhere, like the hot instant coffee machines were, and it cost 350 won or 500 won to get a little cup of your chosen hot tea. You could tell it was a powder though that was mixed into hot water. Just the same, I had gotten sick over there and had a few bad sinus infections and these little cups of hot tea helped me a lot.
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