Weekend Wanders: Ilgok-dong

Last Sunday, in keeping with our habit of exploring our own city when we are not away on the weekends, we headed to Ilgok-dong. Looking at a map of Gwangju, Ilgok-dong sticks straight up out of the northern part of the city. This was actually what drew us to it. We were curious about the white spaces around the neighbourhood as these so often represent hills with trails and other such interesting places. Turns out we were right.

Ilgok-dong is surrounded on three sides by hills and farmland. Hills wrapping around the western and northern sides are laced with trails and we wandered into these to try to get a view of the area.

Map at one of the trail entrances showing the extent of the trail network around Ilgok-dong

Map at one of the trail entrances showing the extent of the trail network around Ilgok-dong

There is a trail all along the top of these hills that loops most of the way around Ilgok-dong, but time constraints prevented us from exploring the full extent. We climbed up to the top of Hansaebong before taking a different route down into Ilgokmaeul (Ilgok village).

The top of Hansaebong. This was really interesting  peak mostly because there was so much going on. There were lots of people on the exercise equipment, which is common, but what was really interesting was the clock and the mirror in under the shelter. Over Blake's right shoulder you can see a guy making use of the mirror.

The top of Hansaebong. This was a really interesting peak, mostly because there was so much going on. There were lots of people on the exercise equipment, which is common, but if you look really carefully at this photo, you’ll also see a clock in the shelter (set into a recycled styrofoam container) and a mirror. In fact if you look over Blake’s right shoulder, you can see a guy making use of said mirror.

We feel that this village area is much more interesting than the main street, lined with high rise apartments, where the buses drop you off.

A view out over Ilgok village as we came off the trails.

A view out over Ilgok village as we came off the trails.

Buildings in the village are more eclectic, with a mix of old and new. The streets are like a maze and there are tons of interesting shops.

In the midst of several cafes and restaurants was this gate to what we think is a temple.

In the midst of several cafes and restaurants is this gate to what we think is a temple.

One of the things that really struck us was the abundance of cafés and western style restaurants tucked away in this village. We stopped at one for a bit of reading but were eventually driven slightly crazy by the couple next to us playing video games and movies with their phone volume cranked, so we decided to head on home.

We did resolve that we would come back to Ilgok-dong with more time to spare so that we could walk the entire ridge line around the neighbourhood. On a clear day, the far side should provide something of a view out over Damyang. Either way, it’s certainly a great place to come for a little urban wander.


When the Principal retires…

On Friday afternoon, one of my co-workers stopped by my desk to give me a small, wrapped gift. I must have looked rather puzzled, because she immediately explained that it was from the Principal, who would be retiring next week. He’d given one to every teacher in the school. I repeated out loud: “It’s a gift from the Principal because he’s retiring next week?” Yes. While I knew he would be retiring at the end of this semester, I had no idea it was customary for a retiree-to-be to distribute gifts for the entire staff… I asked if I should open it right then. Given the affirmative, I carefully tore off the wrapping paper to find a small box containing a green towel. Screen-printed onto it was my school’s name, my Principal’s name, “Retirement Celebration” and the date, all in Hangeul. Being a practical sort of person, I considered how handy an extra towel would be to have around the house. After expressing how grateful I was to receive this lovely gift, I continued with my work for a few hours, mulling the whole thing over. In my head, I came up with various possible explanations for what seemed like a reversal of Canadian gift-giving culture, and I marveled at the Principal’s generosity.

Throughout the day, teachers were buzzing with talk of the upcoming event: a carefully planned trip to the Jirisan area as a celebration of the Principal’s retirement. Every teacher (and I imagine all other staff) were invited to participate in the festivities, including a dinner and a trip to the sauna. I, too, was invited but politely declined as I had already RSVP’d to at least one good-bye party for the weekend. Interestingly enough, all new teachers (save for me) appear to have been required to participate in some sort of choreographed dance performance for the event. The teachers would all be leaving Friday afternoon before school let out, and would return sometime Saturday afternoon.

Later in the day, it occurred to me to mention the gift to another co-worker. She repeated that, yes, the Principal gave each and every teacher in the school one of these towels. If my calculations are correct, there are over 50 teachers in our school, plus administrators and other staff! I mentioned that the Principal was exceptionally generous to give such a gift. I also noted how interesting this situation was to me, as, in Canada, staff would pool money to buy the Principal a retirement gift – not the other way around! My co-worker smiled this sort of bemused smile, and explained that the towel was actually a sort of response to a retirement gift from the staff. Apparently, when a Principal retires, he is given the choice between cash or gold as a retirement gift. To pay for this, money is taken out of teachers’ salaries every pay period!

While I don’t know if my wages were garnished as such, I am certainly still grateful for the towel, as well as for just a little more insight into school culture in South Korea.

Canada and Back Again

In December we re-signed contracts to stay another year in Korea and immediately began planning a trip back to Canada for our winter break. Because we are required to teach two weeks of camp and there is a strange week of classes in the middle of February, we were only able to be home for a little under twelve days. Going back to Canada and returning to Korea in such a short period of time really drove a few things home. We had a great time in Canada. We saw too many great friends and family to list them all. Tamara got to go trapping with her grandparents and Blake managed to play a bit of Ultimate with old team mates. But while we definitely want to give a shout-out and many thanks to all the people who made time to see us, this post is not about what we did and who we saw on our trip. This is more about the things we were reminded of, transferring so quickly back and forth between cultures.

When we arrived in Canada, the first thing that really struck us was being anonymous again. It’s not that people are rude to us in Korea, but whenever we go anywhere, we do get stared at a lot. It was really nice to just blend into the crowd in Vancouver International. Conversely we were quickly overwhelmed by all the English. It was everywhere! We have learned how to tune out the Korean conversations that surround us everyday, largely because we can only understand pieces of them. If we do hear English, we immediately look for the source because there’s a good chance it’s one of our friends. Being able to understand everyone’s conversations was surprisingly distracting.

Given this anonymity, it was also interesting to have random strangers once again say ‘hello’ to us on the sidewalk, or engage with us in idle chatter in a line-up at the grocery store.

Personal space bubbles magically reappeared, whereas in Korea they don’t really exist. When people bumped into us or entered our personal space, they not only moved away, but they apologized, too. Good ol’ apologetic Canadians…

Other basic cultural differences were certainly evident as well. Tamara never did stop bowing to people (including one of Blake’s professors in Save- on Foods) and we had to continually stop ourselves from greeting store clerks and servers in Korean. Conversely, when we got back to Korea, using Korean felt rather awkward and took a while to recall even the small amount we had learned. Also, tipping. What do you mean we have to calculate a tip into our restaurant tab? Not to mention the mental math in calculating GST and PST.

Cold was another big difference. Not that Canada was actually colder than Korea, at least not while we were there, but it was cold with a purpose. What we have discovered in Korea is that it is chilly in the winter with no real purpose. In Prince George there is snow so you can feasibly do winter sports on a regular basis. Here it is cold with no benefit. It either rains or snows and melts within a day. In short, it was nice to be back where winter really means winter.

Going back to Canada also gave us a bit of perspective on our life in Korea. Whenever we bump into something here that we feel does not make sense, we tend to brush it off with ‘oh Korea…’ and chalk it up to the oddities of another culture. Going back to Canada was a great reminder that senseless things are universal. There were many instances in Canada where we had ‘oh Korea’ moments … only to realize we weren’t in Korea at all.

Our return to Korea had it’s own set of surprises. First, we went back to a part of the Korean school system that really makes no sense. Students return to the same classes they were in before winter break for one or two weeks. Exams are over, there is no material left to teach them and, in Blake’s case, the Principal has forbidden teachers from showing videos. What does this mean? Classes are so unruly that it is difficult to even play games.

On a positive note, it was lovely to again be able to access almost anything we needed (save for foreign ingredients) in our own little neighbourhood, without having to trek across town to get groceries, go to the gym, etc.

Tamara was particularly annoyed, however, to again have to carry tissues at all times, given the lack thereof in public bathrooms here. We really do take that for granted back home in Canada.

When we signed up for our local gym, one of the employees repeatedly called Blake handsome (Tamara agreed wholeheartedly, of course). We have already nearly been run down by motorbikes on the sidewalks. The sides of multi-story buildings are literally covered in signs (many for hagwons – private academies). Good cheese is, again, disappointingly hard to find. People continue to look, for long periods of time, at their personal mirrors in public… We have blogged about some of these observations in the past, but they were, once again, brought to our immediate attention upon returning to Korea.

Sometimes a trip home can serve as a great reminder of just how much of your “new” life in a different culture has become familiar and how many things you’ve gotten used to. It can also help to quell the tendency to take things for granted, both at home in Canada and in our current lives here in South Korea.

*Click* You’re in a Korean Café

Contrary to what we were told prior to arriving in Korea, there is no shortage coffee in this country. Korea has embraced coffee culture to its fullest extent and new cafés are springing up constantly. Since we arrived in Shinchang, at least four new cafés have opened within four blocks of us. Korea appears bent on becoming a caffeine fueled society (given the ridiculously long hours students study here, it’s only surprising that it didn’t happen sooner). But the Korean café experience is nothing like what we are used to in Canada. Oh no, not in the least. There are many differences, but here are a few that really stick out.

It’s Not 8:00 AM

If you are sitting in a Korean café, I can pretty well guarantee that it’s not 8:00 AM. Coffee is an after dinner or afternoon event in Korea. If you are planning on buying your morning coffee from a café, plan on sleeping till ten, cause that’s the earliest most of them open. Tamara and I actually travel with Starbucks Vias because we can’t rely on getting our morning jolt from a local café.


Oh my word, the selfies. Most Koreans appear to have hundreds of pictures of themselves on their phones. Based on my observations, the process appears to be as follows: enter the café and order your coffee, sit down with your friend, whip out your phone, and take twenty to thirty pictures of yourself before your coffee arrives. Note: It appears completely normal to take only one photo with your friend, if that. The exception is if you are in the café with your boyfriend. The young lady then inflicts umpteen photos on the lucky lad who is with her. Men appear to be largely stony faced for these events, likely because it would hurt to smile for that long. I think the best situation I witnessed was two of my students who happened to be in our favourite café when I arrived. After the usual response (OH! Teacher!) and brief exchange of hi, how are you, the young man put his head on the table and resumed his nap while his girlfriend draped herself over him and took another hundred and fifty photos.

I assume these numerous attempts are necessary because women apparently want to get the perfect selfie to put up as their Kakao profile. Again, based on my own observations, the perfect selfie shows barely enough of the young woman’s face for her close friends to identify her. The rest is either cut out, hidden behind a cup, covered with hands either under the chin or over the cheeks, or shielded by the peace sign. I have many theories about why this is, but the result, from my perspective, is that I have never finished a coffee in a Korean café without hearing at least one machine-gun-like explosion of that distinctive *click* made by smartphone cameras.

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Food/Drink Pics

The photos don’t stop with the arrival of the coffee; the target just changes. Floating about in cyberspace are many, many food blogs with reviews, images, and even complete menus. I can only speculate that this is where the plethora of food pics end up, but who really knows. All I can tell you is that they are taken by the legion in cafés all across Korea. So we jumped on the bandwagon!

Few cultures do cute quite as well, or quite as often, as Korea.

Few cultures do cute quite as well, or quite as often, as Korea.

Presentation is usually pretty nice at a Korean cafè.

Presentation is usually pretty nice at a Korean cafè.

Loudly Playing a Movie

Few things mess up a relaxing coffee faster than someone settling into the table next to you, pulling out their phone, and proceeding to play a movie at full volume sans headphones. The first time this happened, Tamara and I thought this was a one-off event. Boy were we wrong. Although it far from a regular occurrence, it has happened in our vicinity half a dozen times. In fact, I am writing this in a café and there is a movie playing three tables over as I type.


Mirrors are everywhere in Korea. Everybody seems to have one tucked away in their purse, backpack, or pocket. Cafés appear to be universal primp time (yes, guys to). Of course, phone cameras double as mirrors and everyone touches up their hair and make-up as a precursor to firing off their first selfie. I guess you never know who might walk by and see you sitting there.

Middle School Girls

Or middle schoolers in general. I am sure there are high school students mixed in there as well, but because I teach middle school, I recognize my own students constantly. In between slaving away in hagwons, they appear to flood to the coffee shops for some much needed social time (and caffeine jolt). The fact that they spend half their time taking selfies and the other half checking their appearance in their mirrors apparently only adds to the enjoyment.

The Date in the Corner

Most Korean cafès come complete with the couple on a date at the corner table. It’s possible these couples are handed out with the registration of a café style business. Either way, most of these dates appear to consist of Kakao-ing (a Korean instant message app) updates to people who are not there. At least, they seem to spend most of their time looking at their respective phones rather than talking to one another. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure if you are allowed into a Korea café if you don’t have a smart phone. I think it might ruin the whole experience.

Sweet Potato Lattè

Korean’s love sweet potato everything. There is a very good reason you have never seen this particular beverage anywhere else. Enough said.

As you can see, Korean cafés are a bit of a cultural experience all their own, and I have never even been in any of the cat or dog cafés that are scattered throughout the city. I am sure I have missed a multitude of Korean café idiosyncrasies (or I am straight up wrong), so if our friends currently residing in Korea would care to weigh in, I hear that’s what the comments section is for.