Monday, August 07, 2006

Forget me not, Seoul

It's my last morning in South Korea: time to go back home.

It's been an incredible journey full of new experiences and new people. I'm left with a few great friends for life, an increased knowledge level of Korea and Asia, the ability to read and write Korean characters (but not to understand what it says) and fluency in chopsticks. Not everything here has been positive. Not getting to know many Koreans, the never-ending rain and waiting for five minutes at every traffic light have all been a part of my summer here as well. But the general taste in my mouth is positive.

So it is somewhat wiser, gastronomically more experienced and just a bit tanned I say farwell to Seoul. Forget me not!

Monday, July 24, 2006

Facts and Figures

Korea is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. With 492 people per square kilometre it becomes second only to Bangladesh (and then some Lilliputian areas such as Monaco, Singapore and Hong Kong). The estimated population density of the city of Seoul is 16 600 / km2. This is about a thousand times the density of Finland. You can imagine what this means for real estate prices. Owning a house is often a utopia for many Seoulites.

The city of Seoul holds a population of 10 million (yes, twice as much as Finland). If the entire metropolitan area is considered, the figure pops up to 22.4 million. This adds up to being the third largest in the world after Tokyo and Mexico City. Sometimes it’s a bit overwhelming, making this little Finn feel a bit insignificant. But then again, I think I’ve been to the most important spots around this city and know the way around pretty well. I can’t really speak Korean, but can get by.

Check this out, it's a great picture. In the middle there is the Han River, but all of the white is houses. And it goes on for miles more, especially to the East and South.

The four most common last names cover 50% of the population. 22% are Kims, 15% have Lee as their last name, 8.5% are called Pak and 4.7% belong to the Choi line. Koreans keep a special book called jogdo in which they keep a record of all of the members of their clan. Meaningless to say that there are several Kim and Lee clans, but most Koreans can trace their roots back even a thousand years.

In addition to this Korea is one of the most homogenous societies in the world. Koreans are really proud and protective of their Korean blood. Out of the 48 million population, the largest minority are the Chinese, of who there are about 20 000. Of course there are approximately 1 million foreigners residing in the country, but they are all here short-term.

A pie chart showing the distribution of Korean last names. (click on the picture to enlarge)

Monday, July 17, 2006

Fresh mud and live octopus

So I have another culinary adventure to share. A bunch of us Finns and a few of our friends decided to embark on a mission. We were to try a very normal local food: live octopus. Basically, they take the octopus out of a tank, chop off its head and serve the arms (no, they are not called tentacles) on a plate. Simple and delicious, right? I swear I have never been so excited to eat anything. The arms were still moving, desperately trying to find their way back to the sea. My god, it was gross! I can’t believe I actually put that thing in my mouth. My hands were trembling, but I just closed my eyes and went on with it. I tried to chew as fast as I could, but it was really hard. And the suction cups kept on sticking to your tongue. I felt a bit better since all of the other people in the table were equally disturbed by the act, as the pictures prove.

Yes, it really was just as disgusting as it sounds.

Timo having the same trouble as I was. David, the vegetarian, looking surprisingly happy in the back.

Jenna, our Korean hostess, had no trouble letting an dead octopus leg stick to her tongue. Awesome!

On the brighter side, Yonsei organized a trip to the Boryeong Mudfestival ( Basically there’s nothing else there but mud. So we just ran around in the mud, painted ourselves with mud, mud wrestled, took a mud slide and swam all the mud off in the ocean. There was also a mud spa with a mud sauna, a mud Jacuzzi and mud bathes. A lot of people that I know ended up going with different groups, so it was also great to see so many people at the same time. Actually, it was an absolutely awesome day. And my skin felt really smooth and relaxed afterwards.

See all 'em boys posin'.

The holy Trinity: Juho the Son, Lauri the Father and Otto the Holy Ghost.

A spa, boy style. Me, Mark, David and Otto.

If you have been following the news, you’ll know that the monsoons hit the Korean peninsula pretty hard this year. There was a typhoon running around the south causing a lot of damage. Here in Seoul it’s been raining pretty much four days straight. And I mean poring. I don’t have any shoes left to walk outside in, even if I wanted to leave the house. Of course there are slightly graver problems than my lack of chance to tan and my forever-ruined Lacoste’s, such as several people dying and millions of won worth of damages. The Han River, which runs through the entire city, has flooded so bad that all of the parks around it meant for running are now more suitable for swimming. When the water levels hits the freeway, that’s when it gets scary. People have had to evacuate from their homes and probably will return to ruined apartments. But in any case, if it so happened that any of you were worried or something (hey, thanks for calling), I’m fine and so is everyone I know. For more on the floods, read

Way on the other side of Russia, in Finland, apparently there has never been a better summer. Though I try to remind myself that being in Korea is quite cool, I cannot help and feel a little resentment. I want to have strawberries and peas at the market place, have a barbeque at my backyard, have a cider at a terrace, go swimming in a clean lake and stay up all night when the sun is shining. I’m positive that a rainy season will start immediately after I return in August… I just try to live by the consolation my friend gave me: “Summer will be soon gone and forgotten, but the fact that you were in Korea will be remembered”. I’m trying to tell myself that he’s right, but the smell of grilled steak is still rather tempting. Here’s a link to an article from the New York Times praising Finland’s summer:

In my dreams

Monday, July 03, 2006

Fashion and Popular Culture

Seoul is a very vibrant city with own sense of style and a distinct cultural scene. Here I offer some of my insights to the bubbly zeitgeist of Korea.

First off, everyone here is skinny. It must be food. America, turn your eyes to Korean refrigerators! As a generalization, Koreans dress “better” than most Westerners. When I say better, I mainly mean more formally. Of course this often translates to better in the way that they actually look quite good as well. An interesting feature is that couples here match their outfits. And I’m not just talking about genre or color coordination, but they actually wear the exact same item of clothing, like a t-shirt or shoes.

A very popular look for girls here right now is a very glamorous 1950’s lady-look. Think Audrey Hepburn. They wear pleat skirts, dresses, boleros and cute little cardigans. And high heels. Always high heels. Many of them clearly put a lot of time and effort into their daily dressing-up routine. I think they look quite nice.

There’s just one way to describe the way young men around here dress. Gay. No, not flamboyantly chic, nor stylishly metro, just plain gay. As my friend Brian put it, they make “Oscar Wilde look like a monk”. So we're talking big v-neck t-shirts, purple shirts with pop-up collars and jeans only to be worn by Ms Sixty herself. The look is completed by long hiply unsymmetrical haircuts that accentuate their relative femininity ever further. But hey, I ain’t one to judge. Make up your own mind, here's a pic of popular Korean actor Lee Jun-gi:

Koreans live under the impression that Korean culture is taking over the world. There is even a word for it: Hallyu. What is basically happening is that some Korean soap operas have been sold to Southeast Asia and a Korean singer BoA has been number one on the Japanese charts. At the Korea Times the word hallyu is mentioned on an average three times a day, usually utterly out of context. The term has come so big that even at Yonsei – one of the most prestigious universities in the whole of Asia – they teach an entire course on the subject. This is a direct quote from the syllabus of Understanding Popular Korean Culture and the Korean Culture Wave:

Many people now look to Korea for inspiration in fashion, lifestyle and entertainment. It is not an exaggeration to say that Korea is setting new international standards in business, politics, and culture.

I’m positive all you readers from outside Korea could not agree more with the above.

This is just my opinion, so don’t anybody get offended, but to put it bluntly: Korean pop music is terrible. They can’t sing, the songs all sound the same, and that sound is just bad. Sometimes in supermarkets I just feel like trashing the loudspeakers. I haven’t found a single song that I would like, me who is notorious for my crappy britney-bsb-xtina-nsync taste in music. Right now in Korea its cool for songs to have English names. Stuff like “Once in a Lifetime” or “Let’s Party”. But don’t let the tiles fool you; this only means thought that the first line of the chorus is in English. Or what do you think about this lyrical masterpiece by popular boyband Shinhwa:

Can really be a shooting star? Can't stop the music!
Ddo uri ape yollyojin mirel wihe go-go.
Nege pilyohan kon, Energy wa noeui bitnan nunbit.
We're going higher to keep this hot parade.

Shinhwa, the hottest boyband around.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Feeling American

When most people start their vacation, what does Juho do?
Goes to school.

The second half of my Korean adventure started on Monay as classes finally began at Yonsei University. International Summer School: pretty much me and 500 Korean Americans. For fairness’ sake, there are a few people from different Asian countries and a handful of white Americans. But no worries, everyone seems really nice and I’ve made a bunch of new friends already. And of course I already knew many of the intern-kids beforehand. A lot of the bad stereotypes have also been broken, because there are a lot of actually intelligent and opinionated people. Most students in the summer program are from really good school such as UCLA or UC Berkeley. It makes me a bit jealous though, once I start thinking that maybe I could have gone to a school like one of those. But then again, there’s always the Master’s Programs. Almost everyone else is living at the International House dorms. I’ve decided to stay loyal to Ted and stick around at his place for the rest of the summer. I think I’ll get more out of Korea by doing homestay and not just only hanging out with Yonsei kids.

I’m taking Comparative Asian Economies, Mass Media in Korea, Marketing and Management Strategy and Korean for Beginners. All my courses seem really good so far. Having Korean in the afternoon might become really tiring at some point, though. I have class every day from 9 am to 5 pm. No lunch break. Thank god for kimbap, which is like poor man’s sushi, so rice and other mixed ingredients in a seaweed roll.

It’s weird, but here in Korea I have this new-found American identity. I notice myself becoming more and more Americanized all the time. Maybe it has to do with the fact that all foreigners are just naturally assumed to be American here. But hanging out with people from the States all day probably has something to do with it as well. As soon as I start talking someone says “Wow, you have no accent in your English” (meaning that I sound authentically American :D), to which I respond “Well, I spent some time in the States when I was a kid”, from which they presume that I actually am “American” and treat me as an equal. Even a Swedish girl who knew that a Finnish guy called Juho was coming to the same party as her, thought that I was American after I introduced myself. Apparently I was missing the “Scandinavian coldness”.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Friggin' Hong Kong, baby!

Monday morning at the same time as the Korea-France football game ended, a group of tired but eager travellers dragged themselves into a bus to the airport. Destination? Hong Kong, China. This week was my only vacation week, so I decided to join a group of friends who were going to the free trade haven. Our group consisted of Lauri, myself and an entourage of six Japanese girls from Lauri’s Korean class. We must have looked like having a harem of midgets. I love those girls! It’s a pleasure to just to observe how they are so full of enthusiasm and excitement about life.

Our local tour guide Karman, a friend of the girls and Lauri, had reserved a hotel for us at an island called Cheung Chan just outside of Hong Kong Island. It was an half an hour ferry ride away, which sometimes felt a bit overwhelming, but was ok in the end. The island had beautiful beaches, cheap prices and rumouredly some historically important ancient cave carvings, which we missed even though we walked the market spot on several occasions.

I can’t rave enough about this, but Hong Kong is amazing! I totally fell in love with the zest of the city. Alive, vibrant, modern, clean, humid, exciting. I think the Hong Kong skyline viewed from the Kowloon side is one of the most impressive pieces of man-made scenery I’ve ever seen. Breathtaking. In addition to walking around, we went to see Victoria Peak mountain, took the special tram and saw the Avenue of Stars. It was truly a great city. Maybe someday I’ll get the chance to work there...

If you look at travel guide books about Hong Kong they all say that the main attraction of the city is … SHOPPING! I was pretty suspicious about it beforehand. What sort of city has nothing else to offer than shops? Apparently Hong Kong is such as place, just because nothing else is needed. There are so many stores for every single taste and style everywhere. Whether you are looking for 5000 dollar Gucci or 5 dollar Cucci, HK is the place for you. Thankfully we didn’t have that much time, so my credit limit was left un-exceeded for the time being.

According to those same travel guides Hong Kong is also internationally renowned for its cuisine. The city more than lived up to its expectations as plate after plate of more and more delicious dishes appeared at out table. At one restaurant we had Beijing duck, where they brought the whole duck to the table and then the chef cut it to pieces in front of us. Pretty awesome. On Cheung Chau we indulged with various fresh seafood plates. There was octopus, shrimp, mussels, crab and a helluvalot of other fruits de mer. It was excellent! And the whole thing was under 3 euros per person.

Oh, and some of my articles have been tagged by other news sources! Like my article about the closure of a website was distributed by Asiamedia. Though we’re still talking small scale here, it’s pretty exciting :).

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Football fever!

The entire country of Korea has gone ballistic over football (got the pun, quite clever, huh?). Everything revolves around the World Cup. The streets are filled with red and white banners with catchy slogans like "Reds go together", "Korea Fighting" and "Again 2002". Those readers of this blog who know me at least a little might be familiar with the low interest level that I generally have for group sports. But this time I’ve sort of been drawn into the frenzy. Korea played Togo last night and Lauri, Otto, Brian (, some Korean chicks) and myself headed to Seoul City Hall Plaza to watch the game. It started at 10 pm, but Lauri and Brian came already at 2 pm to get us a good sitting spot. The ambience was amazing! At one point I got on Brian’s shoulders and …wow. There were 150 000 strong crowd who all wore red shirts. Before the game started there was pre-show of popular Korean bands. At one point the host came into the crowd to interview people. Of course he spotted us. I didn’t understand what he was saying, but we just shouted and were all supportive of Korea. It was pretty amazing to see your face on these huge-ass screens and have thousands of people scream with you. Soon after, this woman came to talk to us, wanting to do a live interview for TV. First we were to scream and shout like maniacs. Then a reporter would ask us a question, to which we were to reply “KOREAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!” Then she’d ask another question to which we had to reply: “Dae-han-min-guk!” and clap. We practiced a few times and then we were live. I think it went quite well. It was a lot of fun anyway. And of course Korea won the game, so the feeling was quite exhilarating. Here’s a news story of the happening:

I also participated in another big event, but a slightly different one. The Korean Queer Culture Festival was held last week. It culminated with a Street Parade on Saturday. Korea Times staff reporter Juho Tuovinen was on the job. I had real press card and everything. I interviewed a lot people, took tons of pictures and of course walked the walk. I’d never been to a pride before, so I really didn’t know what to expect. It rained all day and I was in really bad mood at first. Korea is a really conservative country and homosexuality is not well-accepted here. About 1000 people participated, which was a lot, but still it was really small for a pride. But the atmosphere was amazing. There was a true sense of unity between the people. Everyone seemed sincerely proud to be there. I ended up hanging out with the foreign crowd. I’m really happy I had the assignment because otherwise I would have never gone. It was truly a great experience. You can read a watered-down version of the article from See how they changed my title from Korea Times Intern to Contributing Writer :)? If you want to read more of my texts, here’s another article that I wrote: It’s about an expat website that got shut down because Koreans were offended by some of its content.

Annina and Pete left for China, but on their last day we took a trip to Everland, a really big amusement Park. I love rollercoaster’s and all the wild rides and in Everland there were plenty. We had a great day! Ted gave me this discount card (like Plussa-kortti or a JC Penney card) to use. The ticket saleswoman didn’t exactly get my drift and I ended up accidentally paying everyone’s entrance with the card. Apparently it had a credit card in it as well. Ups. We’ll of course we gave Ted the cash later, but it’s not that often that you commit credit card fraud. And since when has it been possible to mistake me for a Yoo Wan Sik?