The Kimchi-ite: 10 More Differences Between South Korea And The Rest Of The World

In the U.S., there is the art of tipping. In Finland, there is no such thing as college tuition; it’s almost completely subsidized by tax Euros. And in Ethiopia, food is eaten only with the bare right hand. Given South Korea‘s unique history and culture within Asia, there is no shortage of comparisons that can be made between it and the rest of the world. Even though I already reported on “10 Differences Between South Korea And The Rest Of The World,” more and more unique cultural curiosities are revealed to me everyday – things I couldn’t have possibly conceived of back in Florida.

1. Fan Death
Possibly the most internationally notorious Korean cultural quirk is the belief that if you fall asleep in a closed room with a fan on you will die. Theories include the fans causing hypothermia or even that the fan is removing all the oxygen from the room. Today, the myth is largely dying out with the new generation, none of my Korean friends believe it whatsoever, but they mention that they heard about it all the time when they were younger.

2. Koreans work more
On average, Koreans work 2,057 hours per year, 14% more than Americans, who on average work 1,797 hours per year. That’s an additional six workweeks per year. But that doesn’t really show the whole story and is probably only the officially reported and paid hours. It isn’t entirely uncommon for people to work 6 days a week, clocking in over 10 hours each day for a typical office job, with little or no overtime pay.3. Conscription
All South Korean males between the ages of 18 and 35 are required to serve in the military for between 21 and 24 months. This two-year commitment is a matter of much pride, controversy and angst amongst Korean men.

4. Don’t whistle after dark
Whistling at night is considered bad luck; it’s thought that it will beckon snakes and spirits.

5. Free and amazing delivery
Delivery is gold is Seoul. You can order virtually anything, at anytime, anywhere you are. Usually there are no delivery fees and you will often get full-blown, non-disposable plates and metal utensils. All you have to do, is leave it all out front of your apartment and the delivery guy will come by and pick it up later. Many restaurants that are not known for delivering in the U.S. have fleets of delivery scooters in Seoul – even McDonald’s.

6. Please eat. Don’t let it get cold
If you eat dinner at a restaurant with others, you will almost definitely not receive your food at the same time as each other. Your food just comes as it is finished in the kitchen.

7. No falling or springing
When my Facebook feed was recently flooded with status updates from my American friends groaning over an hour of lost sleep due to daylight savings time, I just laughed and savored the fact that my sleep schedule was not affected. Like most of the rest of the Eastern world, Korea does not observe daylight savings time. I personally love it. It allows me to get a better feel on the passage of time over each year.

8. Rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner
Within Korean cuisine, there is no such thing as breakfast food or even specific lunch or dinner food. Most meals can be had during any time of the day, and all meals are accompanied by a helping of kimchi. McDonald’s does serve a typical Western breakfast menu, but the Korean restaurant next door does not.

9. No waiting on hold
Customer service is seen as essential, and business hotline wait times are kept to an extreme minimum, with people getting angry if they are left on hold for more than three or four minutes. When I tell people that it isn’t uncommon in the States for you to be on hold for an hour or more when calling the cable company on the weekend, they simply cannot believe it. One Korean friend who used to live in New York City once called the Metro Transit Authority and hung up after being on hold for 20 minutes, thinking that it was impossible to be left unattended to for so long and so her phone must be broken.

10. Limited travel patience
Earlier today, my Korean girlfriend asked me how far Disney World is from where I grew up in Miami. I replied, “Oh, not that far … less than a four-hour drive.” She simply could not believe that I would call four hours away “not that far.” South Korea is a relatively small country, about the size of Indiana. Driving from one extreme end of the country to the other takes five hours. Even then, there’s still the option of high-speed rail, which will cut down your travel time to just three hours.

Be sure to check out the first list of Korean eccentricities here. As always, you can find more on Korean culture, food and eccentricities from previous Kimchi-ite posts here.

[Photo credit: Jonathan Kramer]

China’s “red tourism” commemorates 90th anniversary of Communism

red tourismCome up with a wacky tourism concept, and they will come. For the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party’s founding on July first, enterprising operators throughout China are creating a new crop of cultural and commemorative “red” tours.

On the idyllic island province of Hainan, visitors young and old alike travel to rural Qionghai, to visit Pan Xianying. At approximately 95 (Hainan isn’t so great at archiving old birth records), Pan is one of three remaining members of a famed, all-female Chinese Communist army unit. As such, she’s a living attraction on a “red” tour of Hainan, The Sydney Morning Herald reports.

Pan was about 15 when she joined the unit in 1931; the battalion was formed by a Hainanese Communist to promote gender equality. The unit was disbanded after several years, when Nationalist forces drove local Communists underground. In 1949, the women gained national attention after Chairman Mao overtook China. The battalion is now the subject of several films and a song.

Enterprising authorities in Qionhai are now offering tours of the unit’s former training ground and meeting spots, and offering hikes, during which one can experience the thrill of following a difficult route once used by Red Army soldiers. Adding a further note of authenticity: guides wear era-appropriate green hats adorned with red stars (also available as souvenirs), and hikers willing to cough up an extra 100 yuan can even slog in full soldier regalia. The hikes are said to foster “army-style camaraderie.” Does that mean dysentery is included?

Not surprisingly, there has been official encouragement behind revolutionary tours, although red tourism isn’t new. Mao’s home city of Shaoshan in Hunan province, as well as the Communist base of Yan’an in Shaanxi province attract tourists, and authorities in places like Chongqing encourage the learning of “red songs” printed in local newspapers or on websites.

Chen Doushu, head of the agency organizing the Hainan tours, says red tourism reflects a desire by many to look back fondly on the past, after more than 30 years of focus on the future during China’s rapid recent modernization. “Chinese people cannot forget their history, and the best way to do that is to go and remember it, to study it. That’s where red tourism comes from.”

Apparently, absence does make the heart grow fonder.

[Photo credit: Flickr user xiaming]

Making sense of the North Korean artillery attacks

Seoul, South Korea

I left Uijongbu, South Korea in the second half of September 1998. My olive drab duffle bag slung over my shoulder, I walked to the bus that would take me to Osan Air Base and a flight back to Boston. My one-year tour had come to an end, and it was time to leave, with eight months in Georgia all that stood between me and my discharge.

It was a busy year, particularly because of the U.S. missile strikes on Tanzania and Afghanistan, not to mention the entangling of a small North Korean submarine in South Korean fishing nets. Because of this, not to mention my proximity to the DMZ (and North Korean artillery on the other side of it), I took an interest in activity on the Korean peninsula that has not waned in the ensuing dozen years. So, when I awoke this morning to news of an artillery exchange on the west coast of South Korea, I paid attention immediately.

Seoul, now the second largest city in the world, is only around 35 miles from the DMZ, making it highly vulnerable to attacks from North Korea. Uijongbu has turned into a second city of sorts – think of it as similar to Stamford, CT in relation to New York City – turning it into a valuable target, as well.

%Gallery-40658%


Though most North Korean artillery can’t reach Seoul – Business Insider reports that only 17 of them can – there’s plenty of havoc that can be wrought between the capital and the border.

Early in my tour, a simple lesson was communicated: get comfortable with your protective mask (called a “gas mask” by those not in the business of wearing them). My memory has faded – it has been a while after all – but I think I can recall it with some degree of accuracy. In Seoul, you have 60 seconds to don your “pro mask” in the event of an attack. In Uijongbu, it shrinks to 16 seconds. In Dongduchon, where I was stationed for a few months, you have nine seconds … and in Panmunjom, on the DMZ, all you have time to do is gasp.

This is the reality of the peninsula. Seoul is an incredible destination – and one that should be on your list. The DMZ tour is a unique experience, I’m told (I couldn’t go because of service obligations the night before), offering a rare look at one of the most dangerous places on the planet. Nonetheless, it remains a region at risk.

Well, how risky is it?

%Gallery-107308%

That’s difficult to say. During my stint in South Korea, there was little happening day to day to remind you of the unpleasantness only a road march away. We conducted the business of keeping the army running in much the same manner that we did when I was stationed in Georgia. The growth of the South Korean economy demonstrates this on a larger scale, and even the recent attack seems unlikely to be followed by an all-out war. The shelling has been called the most aggressive act since fighting was ended by cease fire in 1953, but there have been other instances of hostility in the intervening decades, from acts of terrorism to exchanges of small-arms fire.

The timing of the incident also indicates that there is underlying motivation aside from an urge for conquest or destruction. U.S. envoy Stephen Bosworth indicated that it probably wasn’t coincidental, reports Time Magazine, saying that it followed the inspection of a new nuclear facility by former Los Alamos labs director Siegfried Hecker (who, interestingly, spoke at my undergrad commencement ceremony in 1997, only a few months before I checked in at Dongduchon’s Camp Mobile to begin my tour). Also, the recent leadership succession announcement, in which Kim Jong-il’s son, Kim Jong-un was anointed, may have played a role.

%Gallery-105693%

Doubtless, this event will have an effect on tourism to South Korea – especially if financial market activity is a reasonable indicator. A reminder that we live in (and travel to) a world at risk, however, shouldn’t act as a deterrent. I miss Uijongbu and Dongduchon, sipping soju and chomping yaki-mandu. It’s a strange environment, moving freely when you know the same opportunity isn’t afforded a dozen miles away, which only serves to define the experience further.

So, you tell us: would you visit South Korea right now?

%Poll-56123%

[photo by tiseb via Flickr]

Now Open: the Pentagon’s super secret art collection


Did you know the Pentagon collects art? The United States military began taking an interest back in 1840 and today, the total collection counts more than 15,000 pieces produced by some 1,300 actual American soldiers. Most of these artists are self-taught, enlisted military personnel and depict the sights and scenes of life in the armed forces–often at war and often in other countries.

I got a sneak preview of the exhibit a while back and was amazed by the talent and emotion depicted in the collection. From Vietnam to the Gulf War to Iraq and Afghanistan–these paintings explore an insider’s view of war, sometimes tender and sometimes horrific yet utterly lacking in propaganda or modern media. One artist even painted on canvas torn from combat tents because that’s what was available in Iraq.

Interested travelers can get a taste of our nation’s long-hidden art reserve in Philadelphia, where 300 pieces have been chosen for a special exhibit, Art of the American Soldier at National Constitution Center. The show opens today, September 24, 2010 and runs until January 10, 2011, after which it will begin a national tour.

(Attack at Twilight; Roger Blum, Vietnam 1966)

Military museums in Rome


The Italian army gets a bad rap.

Sure, it made a poor showing in World War Two, but it was Italian Communist partisans who finally bagged Mussolini. Plus the Italians fought in one of the toughest fronts of the First World War, high in the Alps against the Germans and Austro-Hungarians. They endured freezing conditions on top of glaciers for months on end. One of the favorite tactics was to cause avalanches to bury the opposing side. A few years ago the mummies of three Austro-Hungarian soldiers were found frozen in the ice, and another World War One soldier was found last month at an Italian ski resort.

The Italians are also pulling their weight in Afghanistan with 3,800 troops, and joined in the invasion of Iraq and served there for three years. Sadly they have suffered more than 50 deaths in these wars.

And then there was Operation Alba. Operation Alba? Yeah, that’s been pretty much forgotten. In 1997 the government of Albania collapsed, plunging the country into chaos and leading to fighting that killed some 2,000 people. Italy commanded an international coalition that restored order in a textbook case on how to properly run a peacekeeping operation. The rule of law was established and the troops were gone in five months. Military successes tend to be forgotten in favor of military disasters.

Rome has several military museums dedicated to its fallen heroes. Usually overlooked in favor of the giant archaeology and art museums, they offer an interesting glimpse into forgotten history and weapons you’re unlikely to see anywhere else. Take this little tank I’m standing next to, for instance. This is an L3/35 with twin machine guns (now removed). They were introduced in the 1930s and are a stage in development between the lumbering behemoths of WWI and the more practical tanks of WWII. They proved useful during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and 1936. Despite their thin armor, the Ethiopians didn’t have anything to destroy them, although some brave warriors managed to immobilize them by sticking pieces of railroad track or even sabers into their treads! The L3/35 also saw service in North Africa in WWII where they proved easy prey for the more advanced British tanks.

%Gallery-102423%Here are some of the military museums in Rome:

Ufficio Storico Stato Maggiore Esercito: The Italian army archives has an interesting collection of tanks and weapons, mostly from the two World Wars. Several display cases show artifacts dug up from the Alpine front of World War One. It’s in a military building, so bring some ID and expect to have your bag searched. Via Etruria 33.

Museo Storico della Fanteria: The Infantry Museum houses the best and largest military collection in the city with artifacts dating from Roman times up to the present day. The garden is decorated with tanks and cannon set beneath an ancient Roman arch, and the three floors inside are filled with racks of guns, full uniforms, paintings, and dioramas. Piazza San Croce in Gerusalemme 9.

Museo Storico dei Granatieri di Sardegna: Two doors down from the Infantry Museum is one dedicated to the grenadiers of Sardinia. It traces their history from 1659 when they were armed with primitive grenades to their present-day duties as part of the Mechanized Infantry. Piazza San Croce in Gerusalemme 7.

Museo Storico dei Bersaglieri: The Bersaglieri are an elite force in the Italian army famous for running everywhere, even when they’re in their barracks. This makes them very fit and they’re considered some of the toughest troops in the army. Founded even before the unification of Italy, they’ve fought with distinction in all its wars. Porta Pia i Via XX Settembre.

Museo Storico della Motorizzazione Militare: This museum dedicated to military vehicles displays more than 300 tanks, trucks, helicopters, mobile rocket launchers, motorcycles, and more. It’s located in a large military base. Bring ID and expect to be searched. Viale dell’Esercito 170. If you like tanks, you might want to check out our list of other great tank museums.

There are several more military museums worth seeing, so check out the list the Italian army has here. It’s in Italian, but the basic information is easy enough to puzzle out.

Don’t forget to check out the rest of my Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s Sinister Side.

Coming up Next: The Catacombs of Rome!