The Kimchi-ite: The Culture Shock Of South Korea

When I moved to South Korea, it was my first time in the country and I had no idea what to expect. Going from the airport to my new apartment, differences from my prior life slowly came into focus. Signs were now written in lines and circles I didn’t understand, brand new glass skyscrapers were poised next to traditional tile-roofed houses and all the cars were made by Hyundai. As I walked around my new neighborhood at 4 a.m. on a Wednesday recovering from jet lag, I was expecting to be alone on the streets. Instead, when I walked around there were plenty of people out in the city, eating and drinking at cafes, going to work, doing their shopping or just stumbling out of bars. This constant, 24-hour activity is something I haven’t seen anywhere else. As the sun came up, more and more people came to the streets. Crowds seemed to form everywhere and I would quickly learn that they are a big part of Korean life.

South Korea is a little larger than the state of Indiana but with eight times the people. About half of South Korea’s 50 million people live in the greater Seoul area, making it one of the biggest, most populated cities in the world. Subway cars overflow as people push their way in, which is when I learned that the Korean words for “excuse me” and “I’m sorry” are almost never spoken. Even when trying to get out of the city to do some hiking, crowds of thousands will be there too.

When moving to a foreign place, there are so many moments that you feel completely lost and worry that it will become overwhelming. Am I going to accidentally offend anyone due to our culture differences? Will I be able to make new friends? What if I get sick of eating kimchi everyday and just want some food from back home?

Soon, however, everything starts to feel normal and you realize that life isn’t really all that different. You still do laundry, McDonald’s is always around the corner and cash comes out of ATMs. There are still minor differences in daily life – you have to spend an hour online trying to find a translation of your washing machine, McDonald’s offers free delivery and you can transfer money directly to a friend’s bank account from an ATM – but it becomes difficult to imagine a life without these idiosyncrasies.

This constant flux of familiarity and strangeness is part of what makes life as an expatriate so exciting. Constantly experiencing new aspects of cultures, learning about different trains of thought, meeting interesting people, eating food that looks make believe and just constantly being surprised by the world.

[Photo credit: Jonathan Kramer]

Disney World at Christmas: Expect crowds. BIG crowds.

Disney World Christmas crowdsI spent many a childhood vacation driving back and forth to Florida. My family loved to vacation here. We went to various beach communities around the state, and our trips would often involve a day or two spent at Walt Disney World.

So the whole family was excited when, in 1984, one of my aunts moved to Florida. It was immediately decided that the extended family would spend Christmas there. Not only that, but we were all going to Walt Disney World. On the day after Christmas. Because, surely no one is on vacation at Walt Disney World at Christmastime.

On Dec. 26, the whole extended family – grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, probably 18-20 of us – loaded up in a motor home for the 1-hour drive to Walt Disney World. It was smooth sailing for the first 45 minutes, and then we hit the traffic. It took an extra hour to get into the parking lot, and the lot closed practically right behind us.

I still remember the nervous voices of my parents and the other adults in the car, quietly discussing the crowd levels.When we got up to the Ticket and Transportation Center, there were people everywhere. Into the Magic Kingdom we went, and it was packed, as well. I only remember riding one ride that Dec. 26 – It’s a Small World. I also remember waiting at least an hour in a 2-hour line for Dumbo before being forced to leave the line because some younger cousins had to use the bathroom.

Our expectations of an empty park and lots of rides and shows were not met, and the whole day was way less than magical.

I have now lived in Florida myself for 17 years. And almost every January or February, I run into someone, new to Florida, who decided that Walt Disney World would be empty around Christmas and it would be the perfect time to take the family. And their tale always ends up like mine. I listen, and then explain that there are certain times of year that we locals – and that includes them now – don’t go the parks. Christmas is tops on that list.

What I know now is that many families have made a trip to Walt Disney World their Christmas tradition. And with good reason, because there are a lot of Christmas sights to see at Disney World. But those folks go in with their eyes open to the crowds.

So, trust me, Walt Disney World is crowded at Christmas. While Disney doesn’t release attendance figures, the two weeks surrounding Christmas and New Year’s Day are widely believed to be the highest attended times in the Disney theme parks every year.

Photo of the Day (11.30.10)

India is the seventh largest country by geographical area and with a population of 1.18 billion people, it’s the second most populous nation in the world. With such an immense concentration of people, unique languages, and religious practice, India has a well known reputation for being a little chaotic at times.

I love this photo for the symbolic dichotomy of chaos; masses of people on the streets and a frightening tangle of wire strung up in between crowded buildings. It’s almost as if the wires are delicately holding the buildings together as the crowd bustles, unaware. The photo was captured by Flickr user Trent Strohm in the crowded lanes of Old Delhi.

Have you gotten lost among the crowd in a foreign place? Send us your pictures! Submit to our Flickr group and it may be selected as our next Photo of the Day.

Trinkets and treasures: Istanbul on and off the beaten path


The tourist season in Istanbul is well underway, bringing hordes of tour buses and groups into Sultanahment (the Old City) each day, perhaps even more this year as the Turkish city is currently one of Europe’s Capitals of Culture. Whether you are planning your first visit or your tenth, here is a look at some of the most touristed spots, why you should fight the crowds to see them, and where you can get off the beaten path.

%Gallery-97405%Hagia Sophia
Why go: Istanbul’s star attraction could hardly be overhyped; it is awe-inspiring and worthwhile, period. The sheer size and fact that it was completed in just five years makes it a must-see. Yes, it will be crowded but it’s big enough that you barely notice.
Where else: There is no real comparison to Hagia Sophia, but if you enjoy the murals, plan a visit to Chora Church (aka Kariye Muzesi). While not undiscovered either, the location is outside of the Old City and can be quiet in the off-season and on weekdays.
Getting there: Bus 31E, 37E, 38E or 36KE from Eminönü, or 87 from Taksim, get off at Edirnekapı near the old walls after the sunken stadium.

Blue Mosque
Why go: The city’s most famous active mosque isn’t really all blue, as the interior is covered in tiles of all shades and designs. It’s perpetually filled with rude tourists with uncovered hair talking on cell phones and photographing worshippers (all major mosque no-nos) but if you are seeing Hagia Sophia, it’s right there, the light and colors are lovely, and it’s free. Watch out for the “helpful” guides who will tell you it is closed for prayer and “volunteer” to take you elsewhere; if it is closed to the public, you’ll know it at the door and will have to wait a half hour or so to enter.
Where else: Tucked in a busy street near the Spice Market, the Rustem Pasha Mosque is also decorated with beautiful Iznik tiles but gets few foreign visitors. You may sometimes get the place to yourself, making your visit far more peaceful or even spiritual.
Getting there: From the Spice Market, exit onto Hasırcılar and wander a few blocks past vendors selling everything from coffee to tinfoil to guns; look for an elevated courtyard on your right with a sign for the mosque (camii). From Eminonu, head up Uzunçarşı away from the water, the mosque will be on your left a block or two up the hill.

Topkapı Palace
Why go: In many rooms of the palace, you’ll feel the full court press of people trying to get a good look at exhibits, it’s worth it to see emeralds the size of a baby’s head, over-the-top Ottoman costumes, a bizarre collection of relics, and the reality that life in a harem was nothing like the inside of I Dream of Jeannie‘s bottle.
Where else: While less grand than the other royal residences, Beylerbeyi Palace is a pretty jewelbox of a palace and gives you a nice excuse to visit the Asian side. Only accessible by guided tour, but unlike the European Bosphorus-side Dolmabahçe Palace, you’ll rarely have more than a few other travelers on your English-language tour and the admission is a relative bargain at 10 TL.
Getting there: Ferry over to Üsküdar on the Asian side, where you can take bus 15 to the Çayırbaşı stop right by the big bridge.

Grand Bazaar
Why go: The mother of all tourist traps, it’s hard to say you went to Istanbul without visiting this maze of shops. While quality and value are questionable, it’s an experience to listen to the myriad ways the shopkeepers will try to get your attention (they are very thick-skinned and multilingual). One thing to note besides tourist swag is the “Wall Street” of the Grand Bazaar, a street of Turkish men trading currencies and yelling into their cellphones (thanks to Rick Steves for the tip). Want to actually buy something? Outside the actual covered bazaar lie more streets selling many of the same items without the hassle.
Where else: If you are in the market for a submarine phone or an Ottoman fireplace, Horhor Bit Pazari is your best bet. More of an antiques market than a souvenir bazaar, it’s still fun to wander the hundreds of shops and wonder about the history behind the furnishings.
Getting there: In the very untouristy neighborhood of Aksaray, take the tram to Aksaray, walk towards the metro and head up Horhor Caddesi and look for the sign at Kırık Tulumba Sokak. It can be hard to find so check with your hotel or ask directions when off the tram.

Galata Bridge dining
Why go: The views from the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn are spectacular and unmistakenly Istanbul, but the restaurants on the lower level tend to be overpriced tourist traps. Any place where the waiters try to hustle you into sitting down at their table and the menus are in seven languages should be approached with caution. Better to have a walk along the bridge with the fishermen and stop below for a tea (not the apple stuff, it’s a dead giveaway that you are a foreigner) or beer.
Where else: Waterside cafes are plentiful in the suburbs lining the Bosphorus and while they may also be overpriced, the Turkish locals are spending similar amounts to enjoy the views. Rumeli Hisarı is popular for Sunday brunches and has a cool old fortress to explore, Bebek is trendy and posh, Arnavutköy is full of crumbling Ottoman mansions and fish restaurants, Ortaköy is famous for overstuffed baked potatoes and terrace cafes, and Beşiktaş is crowded with students and commuters having a beer and lounging on bean bag chairs.
Getting there: Ferry schedules are erratic, try buses 22, 22RE, 25E from the tram end or 40, 40T, 42T from Taksim to anywhere along the water. Traffic is often bad along the Bosphorus, so work your way back on foot.

Have a favorite tourist trap or local secret to share? Leave it in the comments.

Venice hosts its own funeral

Venice is dying. At least, according to Newsweek it is. The population has been shrinking so rapidly (it dropped below 60,000 this year) that the mag predicts there won’t be a single full-time resident in the city by 2030. A city that sees millions of visitors per year, an average of 55,000 per day, won’t be home to a single person. Yeah, I’d call that a dead city.

To draw attention to the issue, residents of Venice have organized a mock funeral in which three gondolas will pull a red coffin through the city’s canals on Saturday, November 14th.

In addition to the flood of tourists who make the city nearly unlivable during summer months, other factors such as increasing home prices and a shrinking tax base, have combined to result in the mass exodus of long-time Venetians.

One of the organizers of the “funeral” says this doesn’t have to be the end though. He hopes that by drawing attention to the issue, some of the problems can be addressed and new citizens will be lured to Venice. “It might be the beginning; it could even spur a rebirth. Now we just have to create a Venice [people] will want to stay in. We have to give them a reason not to leave.”

[via Budget Travel]