Craft Beer in Korea

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The craft beer scene in Korea is growing fast. Ten years ago, there weren’t many options outside of the mass-produced domestic beers, and even in the four years that I’ve lived here I’ve witnessed massive growth. I’m not here to shit on Cass or Hite; they serve their purpose. But as an enthusiastic beer-lover, I’d like to share several worthy breweries, taprooms, and pubs that are worth your time. I won’t link (Korean businesses seem to be allergic to websites), but all of the places are easy to search on Instagram or Facebook.

Outside of Seoul

Wild Wave Brewing Company is located in the southern coastal city of Busan. The last time I visited, there were about 10-15 beers on tap, including several sours. If you love sours and saisons, this is a good bet because the brewers seem passionate about the style and also do a lot of barrel-aging. Their beers are also available in taprooms throughout the country, and you can buy their signature beer, Surleim, in bottleshops everywhere.

Another Busan brewery is Gorilla. The taproom is massive and they serve pizzas and other pub food. They have a wide variety of brews, a few of which are available in taprooms around the country. They release new styles frequently and they also sometimes collaborate with other brewers.

Budnamu is located in a town called Gangneung on the east coast. Their taproom is a gorgeous, almost traditional-style complex of buildings. They don’t do a lot of specialty beers and usually just keep to their five or six core beers, but there’s something for everyone: a stout, a pale ale, a saison, a wheat beer, etc. Occasionally, you will find their beers in places around Seoul and they’re a fixture at beer festivals during spring and fall.

Fundamental Brewing Co. is an up-and-coming brewery located in Suwon. The taproom is a little tricky to get to via public transportation, but it’s well worth the trip. The building, nestled into the trees, has a sleek and modern warehouse aesthetic. The company is relatively new, so they are still building up their beer selection, but they are releasing new beers every month or so. All of the brews I’ve tried there have been solid, and the food is EXCELLENT. The bar also keeps a few other local beers on draft, if you want to try non-Fundamental brews. Their beers can sometimes be found at pubs in Seoul.

Chillhops Brewing Co. is in Seosan, and I’ve never actually visited. But I’ve tried several of their beers at festivals and brewpubs around Seoul and never been disappointed by the quality. Chillhops is pretty hot these days and I’ve heard that when they open the taproom on the weekends, people line up to get in. Based on what I’ve tasted, I can understand why. As the name would suggest, they specialize in using different kinds of hops. I’m not into super hoppy beers, but I appreciated some of their IPAs that used nelson sauvin.

The Hand and Malt isn’t technically craft anymore, as they were recently purchased by AB InBev, but they’re still making interesting beers. They started out doing more Belgian-style brews and they even have a few different types of cider. I’ve never been to their physical location, but most local bars have at least one Hand and Malt beer on tap and almost any bottle shop will sell cans.

Seoul

Seoul Brewery is also relatively new (they opened the end of 2017) but they make quality beers. Don’t let the generic name fool you; their beers are quite playful and the Hapjeong location has a fantastic back porch made for summertime sipping. Seoul Brewery has a second location in Hannam.

Magpie Brewing Co. originated on Jeju island (which is where the brewing facilities are located) but they also have a taproom in Itaewon where most of the year-round and seasonal varieties are available. I particularly like Magpie for their art design; they have wildly inventive and beautiful posters that accompany the release of each new beer. You can purchase the posters for yourself on-site. The beer is no slouch, either. I always look forward to whatever new, experimental styles they come up with.

Mysterlee Brewing Company in Gongdeok is one of my favorite places to go because they release new beers frequently, and they have a great chef who always creates new menu items. The food is delicious and the beers are interesting. The brewers are always experimenting with flavors and pushing themselves to fine tune recipes. The taproom is a handsome industrial space with ample natural light. If there’s a beer you want to take home with you, they will can-on-demand.

Pongdang Craft Beer Company (located in Sinsa) is mostly a pub, but they do have a few original beers on tap, usually standard stuff like pilsner or pale ale. I like it because they curate their taplist and bottle selection very carefully and often will host exclusive tap takeovers from international breweries. It’s also the place to go if you want to try really heady stuff like Cascade, which is hard to find elsewhere in Korea. Pongdang has another location, Sour Pongdang in Noksapyeong, which specializes in sours/saisons/farmhouse ales. There aren’t many sour specialty bars in Korea, so this is a rare gem.

Another one of my favorite places is Seoul Gypsy because it has the perfect mix of great beer, great food, and great atmosphere. The taproom is inside a renovated hanok facing the outer wall of Changdeokgung Palace, so it has a hip, funky vibe mixed with traditional quaintness. Space is limited, which means that beers are made offsite and in small batches. There are usually one or two Seoul Gypsy originals on draft and the other taps are a mix of local offerings and special imports. The beers they make are excellent, good enough to make up for the fact that they don’t brew a large selection.

Won Nation Brewing started its life as a pub called Craft Studio, but the owners recently started their own brewing company and rebranded as Won Nation.  Prior to establishing the the current incarnation, the brewer collaborated with Chillhops on a couple of beers that were well-recieved. Full disclosure, I am friends with the owners! It’s a cozy little spot in Hapjeong, the owners are warm and sociable, and the pizza is killer. Two months ago they released the first beer as a standalone operation and I’m excited to see what they come up with next. They keep a nice variety of other beers on tap as well as some bottles (local and imported) and Mike is very knowledgeable and good for a recommendation.

Calikitchen, or California Kitchen and Craft Pub doesn’t brew, but it’s still a great place to drink craft beer. The atmosphere is casual and the food is great. Tacos are their specialty, but don’t sleep on the burrito bowls, either. The owner Chuck is a personable guy who is enthusiastic about beer and curates the taplist carefully. I got turned onto Hardywood beers here because Chuck was pushing for more distribution in Korea (it seems to have worked). Calikitchen often holds special tasting events and collaborates frequently with other local businesses.

Beervana is a really fantastic space in the ultra-hip neighborhood of Mullae. It occupies an entire building in the heart of an old industrial area, complete with seating on the rooftop. The interior decor and artwork is quirky and colorful, lots of hippie vibes. I’m not sure if they’ve released their own beers yet, as they’ve only recently started brewing. But in the meantime, they have a nice selection of about 8-10 beers on tap.

Stan Seoul used to be hard to find. You could walk right past the building and not see the tiny sign taped onto the double doors. Fortunately, the signage has improved a little bit, but this place is worth finding even if you have to go a little off the beaten path. Stan Seoul often features imported craft beers that are hard to find anywhere else in Korea, in addition to a few domestic craft beers. The decor is minimalist but the atmosphere is friendly. The food menu is creative and delicious.

If Belgian beer is your thing, check out Nuba. It’s the place to go for all your dubbels, quadruppels, strong ales, and trappist beers.

Seoul Beer Project has kind of an interesting concept. They focus strictly on importing beers that are not otherwise distributed in Korea, but they only feature one or two breweries at a time. The first time I went, they sold cans and draft from two different breweries in New York. The selection was pretty big — maybe 6-8 beers from each brewery. And the second time, I went, they had beers from London. They rotate the stock pretty regularly. so you have to keep up with them on Instagram to find out what’s new.

Bori Maru is a pub and bottle shop in one, which is very convenient. You can enjoy a nice selection of beers on draft and then browse the shop for take-out beers on the way out. Sometimes they’re the best deal in town.

Craftbros is another great place that has a taproom and a bottle shop on the premises. They even brew several beers of their own, including Gangnam Pale Ale, which is bottled and pretty easy to find in shops around Seoul.

I only went to Craftroo one time, but I was absolutely enchanted by the architecture, which incorporates a modern structure into an old hanok. Go for the atmosphere, stay for the beer. They recently started brewing under the name Craftroot, so you can check out their signature beers, too.

All the rest

The places listed above are just some of my favorites that I’ve tried. There are so many other significant breweries and pubs in Korea that I didn’t have time to talk about in this blog post. There are also a lot that I’ve never tried, or tried so long ago that I can’t remember my impressions.  Here’s a long, but probably incomplete list :

The Satellite, Euljiro Brewing, Levee, White Crow, Goodman, Vaneheim, The Table, September (Goowoldang), Ark Beer, Galmegi, The Booth, The Playground, Amazing, Andong Brewing, Hidden Track, Breitbach Brau, Jeju Beer Company, Praha 993, The Ranch, Brewery 304, Caligari, Platinum, Ggeek Beer, Kabrew, Whasoo, Kramerlee, Artmonster, Ambition

Happy drinking!

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The Culture Shock of Daily Life

In a previous post, I discussed certain aspects of culture shock that I experienced when coming to Korea. But in retrospect, I think those examples came from observations made over a longer period of time and they don’t really get at the immediate experience of adjusting to life in a new country. So in this entry, I’d like to recreate some of the tiny, unexpected things that made my daily routine jarring and unfamiliar right from the start.

Home life

If you’ve lived in one country for most of your life, you have a pretty good idea of how houses work. Even when you go over to a friend’s house for the first time, you have a general sense of where to find things and how to operate the facilities just based on collective experience and intuition. But when I walked into my Korean apartment for the first time, I was starting with a clean slate.

The key to the front door was a shape I’d never seen before.

I couldn’t get the stove to light because I didn’t know about the valve that turns the gas on and off.

I didn’t know how to operate the air conditioning unit. Instead of central air, most Korean buildings use individual wall units in each bedroom (but often not in common areas, like kitchens). Most wall units are adjusted by remote control, but mine was long gone.

Before I could use the hot water heater, I needed to use Google Translate to decode all of the buttons. Even still, it took months before I fully understood how to use the boiler properly. Korea uses a heating system in the floor called ondol (온돌) which has a very long history, stretching back almost 3,000 years. The wall thermostat that controlled the hot water also controlled the heated floors, so there was a steep learning curve. One time I accidentally left the hot water heater on too long and while I was at work, it switched over to room heating. Almost boiled myself when I came home to an apartment that had reached 40 degrees celcius.

Using the washing machine was also a new challenge. For awhile, I had post-it notes stuck to the machine to help me remember which buttons controlled which settings.

One thing that would be a shock to most Americans is the shower. Korean apartments and hotel rooms have what is called a “wet bathroom” as opposed to the western “dry bathroom.” This means that rather than having a shower stall that is separate from the sink and toilet area, the entire room becomes the shower, with a large drain in the center of the floor. In fact, the showerhead is often attached to the wall directly over the sink, and you have to flip a switch to redirect the water supply from the sink faucet to the shower hose. God forbid you forget to switch it back after you finish your shower… There were a few times when I went to brush my teeth and accidently blasted the top of my head.

On the second night in my new apartment, I discovered that houseware shopping was a  a challenge, too. Top sheets are pretty much impossible to find. Koreans also don’t use bath towels. Instead, they use tiny little hand towels to dry off after a shower, which still confuses me after almost four years of living here, and nobody uses hand towels to dry their hands.  That drives me crazy because I HATE walking around with wet hands after I wash them.

Another thing that has caused me unending frustrations are brooms. Instead of having a long handle that lets you stand comfortably while sweeping, most broom handles in Korea are no longer than 18 inches, so you have to stoop over like a little old woman just the clean the floors. Why? WHY.

Dining Out

Eating at a restaurant in Korea can be very intimidating, and not just because of the food itself. The rules of ordering and paying are a bit different than in America.

Most restaurants have self-seating unless there’s a wait. Since many places are quite small, there may only be one or two servers for the whole establishment, and there’s no assigned sections.

The thing that is difficult for a lot of Americans, including myself, is that you have to call the server over to the table. It’s normal to shout across the room to summon the server or even just to yell the order at them where they stand. Some places have buttons on the table, which is nice if you’re shy. But unlike in American restaurants, you can’t just wait and expect that someone will eventually come to you.

Things like water and side dishes are usually self-service. Chopsticks, spoons, and cups are already on the table. Fast food restaurants and ramen shops are replacing cashiers with touch screen ordering systems.

Korean meals are traditionally communal, with meat and side dishes intended to be shared, so some restaurants won’t allow customers to dine alone. For barbecue pork and beef, you need at least two people to get a table and you have to order at least two servings of meat. However, as more and more people are dining alone, new restaurants have started popping up to cater to solo customers.

Ordering take-out is common, but getting your leftover food “to go” is not. Either eat all of your food at the restaurant, or just leave it behind.

Instead of having the bill brought to the table, you simply pay at the register before leaving. Since the restaurant is small and menu options are often limited, the server can easily remember what you ordered. And Korea doesn’t have a tipping culture, so paying for your meal is no fuss.

Drinking

One thing that’s frustrating to me and my friends is that it can be difficult to “grab a drink” at a bar in the American sense. Korean drinking culture is very structured around eating, so many pubs require customers to order food with their alcohol.

Like eating, drinking alcohol is also communal. When Koreans go out as a group, there are usually different “rounds” throughout the night. The first round is dinner. Beer is served with dinner in large bottles that are meant to be shared among the group rather than enjoyed individually. Soju bottles are also passed around. The second round takes place in a pub, where everyone orders more food, even though we just finished dinner. This food is called anju (안주), the Korean equivalent of bar food. The third round often means going to a karaoke bar, and yes, there will be even more anju with drinks.

So finding a bar where you can just enjoy your beer or cocktail can be a little more challenging, especially if you aren’t in a trendy area. Neighborhoods like Itaewon or Hongdae that have more western-owned or influenced businesses might have more choices. Craft beer bars and brewpubs are a bit more forgiving if you’re not ordering food. The “self bar” is also a good option and an ingenious concept. The self bar (often called a “beer warehouse” or 맥주창고) has giant coolers stocked with a variety of beers both domestic and imported. Prices are posted on the refrigerator doors and customers can just grab bottles and chilled glasses  to enjoy at their tables. When it’s time to leave, you present your empty bottles to the cashier and pay your total.

And if you reallllllly want to keep your drinking casual, you can go to the local 7-11. In America, drinking beer in front of the convenience store might get you arrested for loitering, but in Korea, it’s a good time for all. Many convenience stores have picnic tables outside where people can enjoy their snacks, beer, and soju. In fact, some stores are the hottest places in the neighborhood for hanging out with friends and meeting new people.

Public Bathrooms

The good news for Americans is that Korea has mostly adopted western-style toilets instead of the traditional squatty potties that cause anxiety for tourists. Some older buildings still have the old style toilets, and older subway station bathrooms are half and half.

Public bathrooms are thankfully abundant in subway stations, public parks, and any large building with a public entrance. But there are a few things to watch out for, especially when using bathrooms that are shared by multiple businesses.

Many places don’t stock toilet paper in the bathrooms, either for fear of theft, lack of regular maintenance, or an attempt to discourage non-customers from using the facilities. Some bathrooms have a communal toilet paper dispenser outside the stalls, to guarantee equal distribution, rather than having some stalls run out of paper faster than others.

Other restrooms may forgo toilet paper altogether. In this case, it’s the responsibility of individual businesses to provide toilet paper Let’s say you are eating at a restaurant and need to go to the bathroom. The restaurant has a roll of toilet paper next to the exit and you should take some with you when you go out. It’s important to pay attention to these things so you don’t find yourself stranded on the toilet with no paper.

A lot of these public toilets don’t have soap and they definitely don’t have paper towels. And even if there is an electric hand dryer, it’s usually disconnected or blows freezing cold air.

I recommend hand sanitizer.

 

Korea: No Country for Murderinos

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My boyfriend knows I’ve been bingeing the My Favorite Murder podcast recently. Sometimes I listen to it while I’m doing chores or putting on makeup and he overhears little snippets.

A few days ago, he commented to me that the existence of such a podcast would be inconceivable in Korea. Making jokes about murder or taking a gossipy tone when discussing the deaths of real people is shocking. In Korea, he said, people would be too worried about offending the surviving members of the family.

I thought this was an interesting observation. It made me think about the cultural factors in America that would make My Favorite Murder possible, and why those factors seemingly don’t exist in Korea.

First of all, there’s a cultural difference in humor. From my perspective, it seems that dark humor isn’t as common here as it is in America. For sure, Koreans can be very cynical about their society and their politicians, so it’s not like everyone has a sunny disposition. But any Westerner who has spent time over here can tell you that Koreans generally don’t understand the kind of sarcasm or ironic distance that is second-nature to Americans like myself. Korean comedy doesn’t have that constant bitter or negative edge to it.

However, I don’t mean that My Favorite Murder is mean-spirited; the hosts Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff take great pains never to make jokes at the murder victims’ expense. They aren’t being flippant about murder and death. They simply use their discussions as a pressure release valve for anxieties about mortality, which often involves a lot of nervous giggling. But for people who aren’t used to hearing jokes about such dark topics, it’s jarring.

Aside from differences in humor, I wonder how the popularity of the True Crime genre differs from country to country. Is the current obsession with mostly an American (or Western) phenomenon? Of course, Korea has crime documentary TV programs, similar to Unsolved Mysteries or America’s Most Wanted, and lots of popular movies are about brutal serial killers. Memories of Murder is a modern classic, focusing on a string of real killings that happened in the city of Hwaseong during the 80s and 90s. Clearly, there’s interest in true stories of crime and murder, but most media treats the topic with a deadly seriousness.

In America, though, we have a whole industry around true crime. There’s books, movies, documentary features, docudramas, docuseries, and true crime podcasts like Serial. Famous serial killers have been fetishized by cult-like fandoms who treat them like rock stars. The true crime craze has gotten so big that Netflix made American Vandal to satirize the types of docuseries that gave the streaming platform some of its biggest successes.

Furthermore, as many people have pointed out by now, the true crime obsession in the US is mostly driven by women. A lot of time has been spent trying to figure out why. Are we drawn to darkness because we have a death wish? Are we trying to avoid becoming victims by learning about all of the possible dangers? Is there something feminist and subversive about a woman reciting gory particulars?

Perhaps the relative openness of American culture allows women to discuss things that Koreans would still consider taboo or unladylike. I can’t imagine Korean women having the same passion for talking about the gory details of rape and murder. But maybe I’m wrong.

If anyone has better insight on this matter, I’d love to hear it.

Becoming an English Teacher in Korea, Part 2: The Personal Experience

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Walking around the streets of Gangnam during training week.

My job in Korea was supposed to begin in February. I had been working at a university for one year, which meant that the fall semester would end in December and my lease would expire at the beginning of January. This seemed like a reasonable time to quit my job and move out so that I could spend the next six weeks preparing to go to Korea.

If you read my previous blog post, you know that’s not exactly how things played out. My criminal background check, which was only supposed to take three months to process, actually took four months, causing me to miss the deadline for February. Now I had to wait until May.

So, a six-week wait now transformed into almost five months, I tried to make the best of my time. I had already quit my job and moved out of my apartment, so I bounced back and forth between Mom’s house in Mississippi and Dad’s house in Alabama, spending about two weeks in each place.

I taught myself the Korean alphabet, listened to audio lessons on survival phrases, and practiced my pronunciation. My friend had sent me a PDF of a Korean textbook, so almost every day I studied new vocabulary words. It wasn’t as good as practicing with other people, but at least I knew the basics by the time I arrived in Seoul.

I also set myself a goal to lose at least 20 pounds before I left America. In the southern United States, my weight didn’t especially stand out, but I was unhappy with myself and knew that stigma against overweight people is much higher in South Korea. I worried about how people would view me and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to buy clothing.

Five or six days a week, I went to the local YMCA to exercise, and I tried to limit my diet to roughly 1200 calories a day. I was always hungry, sore, and very cranky. At first it seemed like the pounds would never come off, but finally my weight started dropping. I think by the time I finally left for Korea, I had lost 25 pounds.

It was so good to spend that time with my family and friends. I didn’t know then that it would be more than two years before I saw them again. There was a lot of excitement about moving to another country to live and work, but there was also a deep sadness about the things I was leaving behind. I turned 34 in March and it was the last birthday that I celebrated with my family.

When May came and it was time to go to the Atlanta airport, just walking out the door was the hardest thing.

Then the frustrations came. International moves are stressful enough that you hope at least everything goes smoothly, but for me, they did not. Nothing major, but irritating enough to compound my anxiety.

We boarded the flight in Atlanta, sat on the runway for awhile, and then were told to get off the plane. There were mechanical problems and the flight was now cancelled. Everyone waited in line for more than an hour to get their travel plans rescheduled. By the time I got to the counter, all flights out of San Francisco (my connection) were full, so I had to be redirected to LAX and then spend the night at a hotel before flying to Korea the following morning.

My original plan was to arrive in Seoul Saturday night and have all day to recover on Sunday before beginning training on Monday morning. What actually happened is that I arrived at the hotel in Seoul after 10 pm on Sunday night. My luggage did not. Somehow in all the confusion about my rescheduled flights, my suitcase didn’t make the connection.

Let me tell you that jet lag is HELL. And jet lag when you’re stressed about training and passing a test so you don’t lose your job and have to return to America in failure is an even bigger hell.

After a couple of days in Seoul, I was so sleep-deprived that I felt sick to my stomach and couldn’t eat anything, which made me feel even worse. I almost failed my medical exam because the anxiety had sent my white blood cell count through the roof.

Training wasn’t especially difficult in retrospect, but because of my frame of mind that week, I struggled and worried constantly.

Spoiler alert: I passed the test.

By the time I arrived at my school that afternoon, I was exhausted and barely functioning. My new coworkers wanted to go out for drinks after work, but I went to my apartment as quickly as possible and went to bed early. My apartment wasn’t ready yet — the landlord had to clean and re-wallpaper the unit — so I slept in a spare room across the hallway for a few days.

What I remember the most from that time is the loneliness. I didn’t expect it, even though I should have. I had just spent five months with the people that I loved most and suddenly I was half a world away, knowing no one and nothing.

Eventually things got better as I grew more familiar with my surroundings and the people I encountered in daily life. I can write more later about adjusting to life in Korea.

 

Becoming an English Teacher in Korea, Part 1: The Logistics

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(My contract contained various snippets of non-disclosure and non-disparagement language, so I will not mention the name of the company I worked for. My feelings about the academy system are complicated, but I don’t have anything especially negative to say about the company.)
As it turns out, the hard part of moving to another country isn’t the physical transition but the piles and piles of paperwork it takes to procure a visa. The months of waiting. The uncertainty.

The first steps were pretty easy. I put in an online application on the company website. From there, the process was turned over to a recruiter, which is the way that many ESL jobs in Korea are handled. The recruiter emailed me to set up a phone interview. We discussed my teaching experience, how I adapt to new situations, and ran through some quick role-playing scenarios.

After the phone interview, I was quickly approved as an eligible candidate. Not long after that, I received an offer letter from the company that included information about my salary, minimum and maximum working hours, housing options, and vacation time. I accepted.

At this point in the process, candidates still don’t know exactly where they will be placed. As I mentioned in a previous post, the company has almost 200 branches scattered throughout the country, and potential teachers could end up at any one of these branches. Applicants can request to be in the city or the countryside and indicate regional preferences, but of course the company can’t guarantee placement at specific branch, or even in a specific town.

While I waited for my placement, I had to start gathering the required documents for a working visa application. I needed letters of recommendation, notarized copies of diplomas and a birth certificate, and worst of all, a criminal background check. At the time I requested my criminal background check, the waiting period was about 12 weeks, but right after I submitted, the estimated wait time jumped up to 16 weeks.

This was a big problem for me. I had started the application process on track for a February start date, but due to the delay in my criminal background check, I had to wait three more months for the next session to begin in May start date.

I eventually received my placement at a branch in Yongin City, a large suburb of Seoul about 30 minutes south of Gangnam. I was happy with the placement because I had requested to live near Seoul, but not within the city limits.

Finally, after an agonizing wait, my criminal background check arrived at the recruiter’s office and I was cleared to apply for my visa. I took all of my documents to the South Korean consulate in Atlanta where they would attach the visa directly to my passport once it was approved. A week later, I got my passport back by post, visa granted! Time to buy a plane ticket, with only two weeks to spare before training started.

Process finished, right? WRONG. At this particular company, your contract is not given until after you pass a week-long, unpaid training course at the corporate headquarters in Seoul. In other words, you could travel all the way to Korea just to have your job offer rescinded if you fail the final test. Training itself might not be especially difficult, but the threat of being sent home without a job created an intense atmosphere.

Now that I had cleared all of the hurdles necessary for a work visa, I packed up my suitcases, flew to Korea, spent a week in Seoul for training, and passed without a hitch. Within an hour of passing training, I was loaded into a taxi and sent immediately to my branch in Yongin.

From start to finish, the whole process took about six months. If I had been wise enough to expedite my criminal background check, it would have been much faster, say less than four months. Learn from my mistakes, kiddos.

Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House is Impressive Despite Its Flaws

I just finished watching Netflix’s much-buzzed-about new horror series, The Haunting of Hill House, which is inspired by Shirley Jackson’s novel, but not really an adaptation of it. As a horror aficionado, I have opinions! The first half of this post is safe to read if you’re avoiding spoilers; I’ll let you know before diving into spoiler territory.

First of all, despite a few problems that I’ll discuss later, I loved it! As much as I live and breathe horror movies, I’ve never seen a horror television show that was actually scary in any way. The Walking Dead is boring, and American Horror Story is entertaining but deeply silly. I had given up on television as a promising medium for thrills and chills. However, with the success of The Haunting of Hill House, I’m starting to see that long-form storytelling can have some real advantages in delivering scares.

Mike Flanagan, the series director, managed to sustain the tension of a 90-minute film over the course of a ten-episode run. He did this by showing restraint: scaling down on cheap jump scares, and limiting the outright horror moments to one or two per episode.

The longer run-time also meant that certain motifs could grow more poignant as they recurred, allowing for a couple of mind-bending payoffs later in the series. Some people complain that this approach was too repetitive, but as with any horror content, your mileage may vary in what you find frightening. Certain specters, like the now-infamous “bent-neck lady,” scared the crap out of me every time they appeared, while others, like the bowler hat guy, didn’t do much for me at all.

Another advantage of horror television is that it gives viewers time to care about the characters. In a movie (especially slasher-types), characters are hastily introduced as shallow archetypes in the first ten minutes, and then methodically picked off. The only character with any shading is generally the final girl. But The Haunting of Hill House spends the first half of the series developing the five protagonists, with a dedicated episode to each one. Some viewers have criticized the Crain siblings as being too self-absorbed or unlikable, but this is again a matter of personal taste. I didn’t find all of the characters likeable, but they were compelling enough that I cared about their experiences.

The thing I loved most about the series — and caught me by surprise — was how heartbreaking it was. The sadness of certain events contributed to the horror. We don’t usually associate sadness with fear because horror fiction so often glosses over the reality of grief, despite the fact that so many of the stories are about death, loss, and uncertainty about the afterlife.

Okay, so let’s get into the big problems of the series. SPOILERS BEGIN NOW!

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I’m not alone in being deeply unsatisfied with the final episode. A lot of viewers feel that the last few minutes of the finale undermine most of the series, and I tend to agree. Everything kind of falls apart?

My first issue is that the show doesn’t have any internal consistency when it comes to the “rules” of the house. For most of the episodes, it seems like the malevolent spirits are all extensions of the house itself. The house is presented as carnivorous, waiting to devour the Crains’ souls even decades after they have vacated. The ghosts that haunt Nell and Luke are mostly there to lure them back to the house so they can be destroyed (and then presumably the rest of the family, too). The whole process started with the house driving Olivia insane by sending ghosts and visions to disorient her.

But the problem comes at the end, when the ghost of Olivia is presented as being mostly herself. Her motivations for killing her children and keeping their souls in the house are her own twisted maternal instincts. Is the Olivia we see a manifestation of the house, wearing her face, in order to manipulate the Crain kids? Or is she simply the ghost of the real Olivia, a human woman who succumbed to mental illness?

The series wants this to be ambiguous, but that doesn’t totally work with what we’ve been watching for nearly ten hours. The house sent Nell the visions of the bent-neck lady to torment her, which ultimately led to her death. Olivia didn’t do that, even if it resulted in a post-death mother-daughter reunion.

And if Olivia’s ghost at the end is just a mask for the house’s insanity, then how can Hugh’s death be a happy ending? The end of the series shows Hugh returning to his wife and daughter in the afterlife, all smiles, hugs, and glowing light. That’s not a happy ending unless we are supposed to assume that the Olivia-ghost we’ve been seeing is the true soul of the living woman we met, rather than a ghoulish manifestation of Hill House’s evil.

AND! If the Olivia-ghost we see is actually working on behalf of the house to devour the Crain family, I don’t buy that she/Hill House would be satisfied with Hugh’s death instead of taking the four other children. Especially not after pursuing them for 25 years. That doesn’t make sense.

The other thing that bothers me about the series is how uneven the roles of the five siblings are. It’s not explained in any satisfactory way why certain kids have a connection with the house and others don’t.

Shirley, in particular, seems kind of pointless. Because of the season’s structure, with one episode focused on each character, the siblings seem to carry equal weight in the overall story, but I’m not sure where Shirley fits in. Her experiences in Hill House weren’t related with the supernatural. She didn’t see ghosts. She isn’t haunted by ghosts as an adult, either. The story of her affair six years earlier seems shoehorned in at the last minute, and it doesn’t have any connection with her childhood.  Of course, her secret affair is potentially life-destroying, but a one-off fling isn’t really on par with Nell’s experience of a lifelong haunting by her own dead body.

The house’s/Olivia’s fixation on the twins also seems a bit misplaced. One one hand, it makes sense that Olivia would be protective of their innocence since they are the youngest children. However, it would also make thematic sense for the house to set its sights on Theo. The show establishes early on that Olivia’s family has psychic/empathic abilities, and Theo has inherited that ability! She has the most direct line to her mother’s sensitivity, but that plot point is mostly dropped after her feature episode, which comes very early in the series. Theo’s supernatural power seems more like an afterthought, which is a real missed opportunity.

It also doesn’t make much sense that Hugh says the house is most dangerous to Stephen. The young actor who played Stephen as a kid had less screen time than the other child actors, so it really didn’t seem like the show was setting him up as important. Like Shirley, most of his adult problems were pretty mundane and non-supernatural, despite the fact that he “saw” ghosts (but didn’t recognize them) as a kid.

So out of five kids, only two or three (the twins, plus maybe Theo) have direct ghostly connections to the house and the other two are just kind of normal, a bit fucked up, but in the way that humans who didn’t grow up in a haunted house often are. Maybe it’s wrong for me to expect perfect symmetry, but the show sets up that expectation by giving equal screentime to each character’s life.

Finally, I wish we could have seen more of Hugh’s life between leaving the house and reappearing at Nell’s funeral.  I was hoping the show would explore how his relationship with his kids fell apart and what exactly he was doing to “hold the door” and sheild his children against the house’s evil.

These are big flaws. But overall, I enjoyed The Haunting of Hill House and would be really curious to see a second season. The cast was solid, the sets were convincing, and the ghosts were spooky. I don’t ask for much more. And yet the show did give me more by creating an emotional investment in the characters and providing a couple of twists I’ve never seen in horror fiction before. Episode five alone was enough to cement my devotion. “The Bent-Neck Lady” is a hell of an episode that I never want to watch again.

On Culture Shock

Why does Krispy Kreme have a “Tomato Chili Cheese” donut?

Culture shock was not what I expected it to be. Before arriving in South Korea, I had steeled myself against the bigger changes that I already knew were coming. Like, of course I knew that language barriers could be confounding and isolating and that encounters with unknown food items are often cause for anxiety and discomfort. And even if I was not an expert on Korea, I was aware of a nebulous “Asian culture” that prescribes bowing as a sign of respect and taking off shoes before entering another’s home. All of these things were as expected.

It’s the smaller stuff that sneaks up on you. And South Korea is very Westernized, which means that it takes awhile for certain differences to become apparent.

At first, your daily life is not so thoroughly upended.  Korea is a wealthy nation, so you have access to all the conveniences of modern life that you are accustomed to in America. The hustle and bustle of a city is largely the same, even half a world from home. You can still go to a movie theater and eat popcorn while watching a Hollywood movie. English signs and English menus and English logos on clothing are everywhere. Even if you are not used to taking public transit, the subway lines are color-coded and the announcements are multilingual. It is very easy to be an English-speaking foreigner in Seoul.

And when you do start to notice the differences creeping in, you may be delighted by them instead of disturbed.

During my first week in Seoul, I had to go through training at my academy’s corporate headquarters before being sent to the branch where I had been placed. One evening after training, a group of new recruits decided to cook dinner in our hotel room’s kitchenette, so we stopped by a local market to buy food.

A couple of workers seemed amused by how much money we were spending, cheering on our total at the register as the number grew higher. Then one of the men pressed a small bottle of liquid into each of our hands. It looked like some kind of energy drink.

We were confused.

“Service,” the man kept saying. “Service.”

And he made gestures indicating that drinking the bottle would make us strong. We tried to refuse, unsure if they wanted us to buy the drinks, but they insisted that we take them. I couldn’t understand if it was a joke. Maybe it was some kind of disgusting herbal drink and they were having fun at the unwitting foreigners’ expense.

This was my first introduction to the Korean concept of “service” (서비스, or “seobiseu,” a pronunciation slightly off from the original English word). Service is the custom of giving out free gifts and samples, as a reward for loyalty, a thanks for spending large amounts, or an incentive to buy more.

In America, you get free stuff from time to time, but in Korea it’s a whole other level. If you go to the restaurant with a large group and order lots of food, eventually the servers will bring out other dishes for free. If you stay long enough at the noraebang (the Korean version of a karaoke room) the manager will add twenty extra minutes to your rental time. If you buy a lot of cosmetics, the checkout lady will throw free samples into your shopping bag by the handfuls.

This is all delightful to me. Also delightful: underground shopping in the subway stations, 24-hour convenience stores everywhere, public transportation in general, free movie posters at the theater, noraebang, kiosk ordering at ramen shops, an abundance of Instagram-able locations. And the food! I really love Korean food.

Then there are cultural differences that are puzzling, but still not bad. Young couples wear matching outfits on their Saturday outings. Every snack that you know should be salty is unexpectedly sweet. People wear surgical masks in public.  Women use their umbrellas, no matter what the weather is like. If it’s raining: umbrella. If it’s snowing: umbrella. Sunny: umbrella. Even if it’s overcast, still with the damned umbrella, because god forbid a hint of sun touches even one square centimeter of their skin.

And have you seen the hand job soap? Public bathrooms often only provide bar soap, but sometimes its on a metal arm that juts out from the wall and you kind of have to…masturbate it a little… to work up a lather. It puts my mind right into the gutter, every single time.

And finally there’s the cultural stuff that makes me feel a bit crazy no matter how long I live here. For example, most of the world has acknowledged a universal “walk to the right” rule on sidewalks. But not in Korea! People walk in every direction and run into you headlong, even if you’re the only two people on the whole sidewalk! Please, please, please, learn how to walk in a straight line. It’s nice.

Other frustrating things: lack of a healthy alternative/indie music scene, free-size clothing (supposedly “one-size fits all” that…doesn’t), scooters on the sidewalk, widespread apathy towards red lights, modest necklines but verrrrrryyyyy short skirts, etc.

These are all trivial things, of course.

Awareness of the bigger cultural differences came later, with experience and a kind of education. After the honeymoon period, when the adventure of it all faded away, I could start to reckon with the country on its own terms, acknowledging the social problems and trying to understand where I, an outsider, could possibly fit into all of this. I will try to discuss some of those problems in later posts.

Let’s Get Spooky with My Favorite Murder

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It’s October, which means I’ve been mainlining spooky shit for weeks. Horror movies, horror TV, and horror podcasts. I also recently discovered the My Favorite Murder podcast and binged the first twenty episodes or so. I’m about three years behind, but better late than never!

So I would like to pause the expat content and spend a couple of posts talking about my own favorite murders.

The first one that I’ve chosen is the 1993 murder of Gregory Glover, an American soldier in Germany, by his friend Stephen Schap.

Stephen was stationed in Germany and brought his wife Diane. The wife had already had three miscarriages, so Stephen had a vasectomy to spare her the pain of further miscarriages, despite the fact that they had desperately wanted a family. Their marriage seemed happy, but started to fall apart in Germany.

Diane began an affair with Stephen’s friend Gregory. She got pregnant, and of course couldn’t tell Stephen because he would know right away that it wasn’t his baby.

The husband had his suspicions after finding Diane’s diary. Some of her writings implied that she was having an affair, but wasn’t explicit enough for Stephen to be certain. He confronted her; she denied it. Stephen tried to move past his concerns, but Diane was secretly working towards divorcing him to be with Gregory.

One day, however, Diane experienced some complications with the pregnancy and rushed to the hospital. At this point, she couldn’t hide her condition from her husband anymore and was forced to tell him the truth. At first he seemed understanding and agreed to a divorce, but he came less than an hour later, very upset. He demanded to know who she had been sleeping with and wanted to know details about their sex life together.

Stephen left the hospital room, claiming that he was going home to pack up his things and move out.

Soon after Stephen left the room, Diane and Gregory talked to each other on the phone about the situation and what to do next. Gregory had called her from a phone booth. After they had been talking for a few minutes, Gregory sounded alarmed and started swearing. Some accounts claim he said, “Your husband is coming,” before the phone line suddenly disconnected.

About 20 minutes later, Stephen returned to Diane’s hospital room, carrying a bag. From inside the bag, he pulled out Gregory’s decapitated head and shoved it into his wife’s face, yelling, “Look, Diane — Glover’s here! He’ll sleep with you every night now. Only you won’t sleep — because all you’ll see is this!”

He put the head on the bedside table so that it faced his screaming wife, and sat down on the bed to wait for the doctors to rush in. Two doctors entered the room and shut the door to try to detain him until the cops came, but Stephen didn’t even try to run away. He just sat on the bed and told the doctors his story over the next twenty minutes.

Now, I’m fascinated by this murder because it totally sounds like an urban legend. Everything about it is so perfectly constructed that it seems like it can’t possibly be true. The timeline of events that day unfolds so quickly, and with such a horrific logic. There’s a clear climax and resolution.

The story is also very straightforward. In most true crime stories, there’s a lot of mystery and ambiguity, conflicting or puzzling pieces of evidence that seem to point in several directions at once. But everything that Stephen Schap did, he did in public, in clear view of everyone. Other soldiers saw him stab Gregory fifteen times outside the phone booth and then bend over him to start cutting into his neck. They watched him kick the head off of the body, pick it up, and then get into his car to drive off. The whole thing is just a nightmare. But if this was a fictional story, you would say that it has a satisfying conclusion. Real life rarely follows such an arc.

You can read the original story, “The Jealous Husband’s Gruesome Gift” in the Washington Post for more details. The article is a lot more gripping than my dry-ass account. It’s sensationalistic and bonkerballs.

The Academy System in Korea

img_0636As mentioned in my last blog post, I took a job in South Korea based on the recommendation of a friend who worked there six years before. She had taught English for a large company that owned nearly two hundred branches of what Korea calls “academies” (in Korean, “hagwon”). I worked at an academy for almost three years and learned a lot about the unusual system and its many problems.

This is a long post, so unless you’re interested in the intricacies of Korean education, you might wanna bail. Otherwise, buckle up.

What is an academy?

The word “academy” in Korea has a different implication than in the United States. In America, “academy” generally just denotes a private school. However, in Korea an academy is less a school than a privately-run educational center that is focused on individual subjects.

Academies exist for nearly any subject you can imagine: math, science, history, dance, art, English, taekwondo, music and even coffee-making. Attendance in these programs requires expensive monthly fees. Classes usually run in the evenings, after students have finished their normal school day.

There are thousands of these programs in South Korea. In a typical upscale neighborhood, a single office building could be packed with ten separate academies. Sometimes they’re small, family-owned businesses, but there are also several large corporations, like the one that I worked for, which operate dozens of branches across the country.

If parents want their kids to get additional help with a particular subject beyond what public school provides, they will enroll the children at one (or more) of these academies. Depending on the program, a single lesson might run for one, two, or three hours, starting around 1:00 PM for younger elementary school children and ending around 10 or 11 at night for middle and high schoolers.

Pressure to succeed

Why would parents send their kids to school until so late at night? If 10 PM seems extreme to you, then you might be shocked to learn that a curfew law was created in 2008 to prevent academies from offering even later classes. Otherwise, some parents were willing to send their kids to school well into the AM.

Basically, competition in Korea is extremely high. The country is densely populated, with few natural resources, and coveted jobs are rare. As early as middle school, kids start building their skill sets and resumes to prepare for college admissions. English education has been particularly sought-after as a status-marker over the last 10 or 15 years as Korea hustles to maintain its foothold in the global market.

Most students start learning English during elementary school, but students who learn exclusively through the public school system tend not to be fluent. To achieve proficiency, they must attend expensive academies, preferably ones staffed by native English speakers. Many programs try to simulate immersion as much as possible. This is where people like me come in.

The social costs of academies

There are many obvious problems with this system. First of all, the rising cost of tuition lays bare the stark income inequality in the nation. It’s usually easy to tell when someone has merely learned conversational English at public school versus someone whose family could afford to attend a pricy academy. There’s a huge difference in their speaking abilities.

Naturally, there is also an emotional factor. Children don’t like to study all the time because they are children.

Abandon whatever romanticized notions you might have about the hardworking Asian child, always so diligent and disciplined compared to their Western peers. Like all kids if given a choice, they would rather play games than go to a three-hour English class after school.

Aside from the constant pressure to succeed, one has to remember that these kids are taking classes from 8 or 9 in the morning until 10 or 11 at night with little free time. And when they finally do get home, they often haven’t had dinner and they still have homework to do.

What kind of life is that?

This fourteen-hour day also means that children don’t have much contact with their parents. In between school and academy times, students might wander to the local library, play in public parks, or hang out at nearby convenience stores for a quick cup noodle before resuming their studies. From my American perspective, there’s something quaint about kids being trusted to roam the city unsupervised. And Korea is generally very safe in that respect.

On a darker note, though, Korea has a rampant bullying and cyberbullying problem, as the kids are left to their own devices for much of the day. The country has a worryingly high suicide rate, especially among teens, and it’s easy to see why. Stress, competition, lookism, bullying, lack of free time, and little contact with caring authority figures — all of these things combined can be fatal.

Problems in English education

All of these problems that I’ve outlined so far apply to all academies, but English academies have their own specific set of problems. One major problem is that the bar for teaching English in Korea is surprisingly low. (This is one contributing factor to the Loser Back Home stereotype that I discussed in yesterday’s blog post.)

Most academies use recruiters to bring in foreign teachers from countries where English is the primary language: America, Canada, the British Isles, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. This is one of the two main requirements for becoming an English teacher in Korea: you must be born in an English-speaking country.  If you’re a native English speaker but not a citizen of any of those countries, that’s too bad.

The second main requirement is to have a college degree. Field of study is not important.

That’s it.

Teaching certification or experience is not usually required. In many cases, not even a TEFL or CELTA certificate is necessary.

Since every academy follows its own curriculum, new hires may receive company specific training or they may be thrust directly into the classroom with a textbook and very little guidance. So you end up with a system that has lots of young college graduates with no background or particular interest in teaching. Unsurprisingly, this arrangement is not ideal. Not for the inexperienced teachers, and not for their unwitting students.

There are many other problems, but this blog post is long enough and I don’t feel equipped to talk about the educational system as a whole. After three and a half years, I am still learning.

Loser Back Home

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When you’re a foreigner living in Korea, eventually someone is going to ask, “Why did you come here?”

I’m painfully jealous of people who have easy answers to that question.

They can say that they’re obsessed with K-pop and wanted to be closer to their idols; or they’ve always been interested in Asian culture; or they wanted a financially responsible way to see the world; life is one big adventure and Korea is one of many countries on their world tour.

But when people ask me the same question, I get uncomfortable. My story is about failure.

After all, you don’t just up and leave your country at the age of 33 because everything is going swimmingly.

***

Here is the glammed up version of my story: I’m a movie buff, and more than ten years ago, Korean films started to drift across my radar. The big ones, like Oldboy, The Host, I Saw the Devil, etc. Slowly, South Korea shifted from a place I had never thought much about to a place that seemed familiar and inviting.

Then I got hooked on a few Korean dramas, which offered a slightly more immersive experience than movies. The characters’ sense of romance and their sincerity was touching, a refreshing change from my usual cynicism and ironic distance. As a southerner who had been raised to be “ladylike” and deferential, I could groove with the Korean values of respect and good manners. As a teacher, I was intrigued by the country’s reputation for putting a strong emphasis on education.

Around the same time, I made a new friend who had lived in Korea for more than a year and had completely fallen in love. She loved the people, food, culture, music, lifestyle, and she had loved her job teaching English to young children. She would have returned without hesitation — if not for her husband and young child. Listening to her experiences made the prospect of living in Korea seem like a realistic and viable option, rather than just a fantasy. I was sold.

***

The version of the story that I just told you is 100% true and correct, but it’s leaving out a few details.

The truth is that I was not thriving in my old life. I had made some ill-advised life choices, and I was directionless and broke.

Ever since I was a child I had chased the dream of “being a writer” with no backup plan (and let’s be honest, writing as a profession is barely a Plan A).

I finished my MFA in poetry right as the economy crashed in 2008 and moved to Austin, Texas. In those days, people were so desperate for jobs that even a posting for a part-time, minimum wage, retail job would draw nearly 100 applicants. I interviewed for an entry-level grant writing position that only paid 20,000 dollars per year. The organization passed me over for someone “more qualified,” even though the interviewers had marveled over my masters degree.

They hired a more qualified person.

For an entry-level writing position.

That paid only $20,000 a year.

And I have TWO writing degrees.

I. was. fucked.

***

Four years later, I was still living in Austin but working three different part-time jobs, and many of my peers were in the same situation. I had applied for dozens and dozens of jobs over the years, in diverse job sectors, and only interviewed for four or maybe five positions. Exhausted and hollowed out, I trudged through each day as my physical and mental health deteriorated.

Finally I scored a full-time job, but it meant packing up and moving to Tennessee and soon I found that my paycheck at the new job was too small to even pay the bills. My debt grew larger every month.

My job was great and the work was fulfilling, but the lack of funding at my school meant there was no hope of ever getting a raise or a promotion. I had gained nearly 60 pounds and could not recognize myself. Most days I drank heavily. I barely left my apartment except to go to work. I loved my job and my coworkers but I knew that something had to change.

This is when my new coworker entered the picture and began to sell me on the idea of teaching English abroad.

***

In the expat community in Asia, there’s a phenomenon derisively dubbed “Loser Back Home.” It refers to the stereotype that people who teach English abroad are defective. They move to other countries (usually in Asia) hoping that cultural differences will mask their inadequacies. These people have nothing to offer beyond their innate English-speaking ability.

It me.

Hi.

The Loser Back Home shoe fits — or at least that’s how I felt when I first arrived here. And the transition was hard. There were bumps, anxieties, adjustments, heartbreaks, and many confused, awkward moments. But my decision to come to Korea, it turns out, wasn’t a sloppy impulse that was doomed to fail.

In fact, I thrived.

After three years living in Korea, I’ve never been more satisfied with my life. Please let me brag a little bit. When I went on the job market recently, I was offered positions at three fairly prestigious institutions. The job that I eventually accepted is amazing in so many ways, and every day I feel honored to be part of this institution. I’m in a happy and supportive long-term relationship. I don’t live paycheck to paycheck anymore. I shed the 60 pounds. At the age of 37, I’m healthier and fitter than I was at 27.

For some people, moving to the other side of the world seems extreme, impossible to conceive. But for me, it was a life raft.