1. Kimbap. A Korean staple – sushi style rice (bap) and seeweed (kim) rolls that usually contain egg, radish, processed ham, and thin slices of fishcake.
2. Japchae. Another classic Korean dish, these semi-transparent and chewy noodles are made from Korean kokomah (sweet potato) and easily absorb flavors. Japchae usually features a soy and sesame oil sauce with spinach, carrots, onions, garlic, ginger, and wood-ear mushrooms.
3. Honey Butter Toast. Here’s a secret that no one talks about: Korea has fabulous bakeries and baked goods. Honey Butter Toast is so much more than what it sounds to be: Thick cut slices of dense white bread are semi-cubed on a plate, toasted with a generous amount of butter and drizzled with honey, caramel, and dazzled with a dollop of fresh whipped cream. A decadent and simple dessert.
4. Bibimbap. Bibim = mix; bap = rice. This is a bowl full of rice and other ingredients, from veggies and egg to meat and seaweed, usually topped with a red sauce that varies in heat. The eater mixes thoroughly before eating. Delicious!
5. Kimchi Chigae. This stew features the ingredient Korea is famous (or infamous) for: KIMCHI. Fermented cabbage with its spicy-vinegary flavor is cooked down with onions, garlic, egg, and sometimes tofu and seafood to create a rich broth. Served in a dolsot hotpot heated over flame, this dish is often shared and served with sticky rice.
6. Sahmgyeopsal. Korea is also widely known for its indoor barbecue and this dish is part of the reason why. Fatty pork slices feature three layers of meat and fat resembling thick cuts of uncured bacon. Sometimes marinated, this dish is also to be flipped three times, hence the “sahm” (three) in sahmgyeopsal. Served with leaf lettuce wraps and various panchan, this is a great meal for a group.
7. Cold Noodles. Traditionally served after barbecue or as a summer specialty, cold noodles are prevalent in Korea and are usually served with a cold broth featuring ice, water, vinegar, red sauce, and often hot mustard. Vinegar and mustard are also provided table side to adjust the flavor. Nangmyeon is made with hearty, chewy buckwheat noodles which look grey in the bowl but have a dense texture and absorb flavors easily. A local Busan favorite, milmyeon, is made with springy flour-based noodles.
8. Korean Fried Chicken. I have eaten more fried chicken in Korea than I have eaten during the entirety of my remaining adult life. Double fried and often served with different sauces, Korean fried chicken is exceptionally crispy, never greasy, and very affordable. Also, a delivery guy on a scooter will bring it to you at all hours of the day and night, so it’s convenient as well as tasty.
9. Bulgogi. Bulgogi describes a way to prepare and cook meat, and can be made with various kinds of meat, but most commonly is made with beef or pork. The meat is sliced thin and seasoned with soy, spicy red sauce, garlic, ginger, and onion, and then stir-fried at a table-top skillet. The meat is then eaten either with rice, or wrapped into leaves of sesame or lettuce. A fan-favorite here in Korea is oh-ri gogi – or duck bulgogi.
10. Samgyetang. Samgyetang, a whole young chicken is stuffed with glutinous rice and boiled in a broth of Korean ginseng, dried seeded jujube fruits, chestnut, garlic, and ginger. This is very traditional and said to be extremely good for the health.
11. Bingsou. I’ve saved the best for last! Bingsou is shaved ice flakes, drizzled with milk, syrup, and usually other things depending on the variety. Most popular is the Paht Bingsuo – made with sweetened red beans (not my fave). I prefer more Western flavors – but the milk tea bingsou is my current must-have – especially in warm weather!
If you plan on staying for awhile…
1. Pack the following hard-to-find or exorbitantly expensive items: toothpaste, tampons, emergen-c/vitamins, OTC medications, shampoo/body wash (especially if you have perfume allergies!), salty snacks, french roast ground coffee and coffee filters. There’s probably tons of other stuff, but these are the things I missed.
2. Beauty/Skincare/Nail Products are EVERYWHERE and on EVERY street. These items are high quality and low cost – stock up! And for the record, my battle with my one eye wrinkle? I’m winning thanks to Innis Free’s Eco Science Skin (a toner goopy gel) and Lotion (a deep moisturizer).
3. Keep toilet paper handy. Public restrooms and toilets at restaurants are generally disgusting and often have no toilet tissue in the stall, so bring your own. Also, in Korea, toilet tissue is generally not flushed in public toilets, but disposed of in the trash can. This means all restrooms smell like an outhouse, even if they have plumbing. Also, learn to use a squatter toilet – they are everywhere! http://www.wikihow.com/Use-a-Squat-Toilet.
4. Learn basic Hangul characters. Hangul, or the Korean alphabet, is actually relatively easy to memorize the shape and sound of the characters. If you can memorize a few key words, and learn how to sound out the characters, your time in Korea becomes exponentially easier. This only occurred for me in the past couple of weeks, so it’s been more difficult to maneuver around, but has in no way been impossible.
5. You will get homesick – or at the very least, home-curious. Buy a MagicJack. I cannot believe how this little plug-in has made my ability to keep in touch at home so much easier. It does feel like an old school landline, so it’s hit or miss if you reach people or if people reach you, but it has allowed me to talk to my friends and family at home virtually for free. Also – I have a googlevoice number that was really convenient for texting!
6. People don’t smile in photographs. This doesn’t mean people never smile or are unhappy. Culturally, smiling in photos is not customary and is not considered preferred. People flash the American “peace sign” which in Korea means “cute”!
7. Restaurant meals are very inexpensive, BUT they are Korean cuisine. Get used to grilled meats, stir-fries, fried chicken, noodles, rice, and panchan! If you can adjust to the sweet and vinegary taste of most Korean food, you can eat well on a tight budget.
8. Korean bus and taxi drivers are crazy. However, I’ve yet to see a traffic jam or an accident. This might be because I’m in a small town, or because of the time of day I travel on the streets, but it’s crazy to me that drivers who see red lights as optional never crash into each other.
9. The Korean Way also involves a lack of forward planfulness. Often, just showing up IS the plan. For Westerners who are used to a scheduled itinerary, maps, agendas, and structured thinking, this can be frustrating (read: infuriating) and lead to a lot of miscommunication. Also, generally asking for these items is confusing to Koreans, and SOMETIMES asking for a schedule/plan creates the perception that you are rude.
10. Your body is not used to general Korean germs, so be prepared to get a common cold that lasts forever. Or the stomach flu. Or weird allergies. Also, Koreans go to the hospital whenever they feel ill and usually get some kind of injection. This is normal, so don’t be upset or baffled when someone recommends you go to the hospital, it’s the equivalent of going to a minute clinic or a general practitioner.
11. Accept that you will not have perfect communication. Even with people whom you feel are fluent, cultural difference will abound and you should expect to be misunderstood. You should also expect to misunderstand. Be patient, keep trying, and recognize when you are difficult to understand to prevent future miscommunications.
By strangers (and sometimes friends) after discovering you’re a Korean Adoptee (FYI: this is generally a list of things NOT to say to a Korean-adoptee…I didn’t want anyone to be confused):
1. “Oh, do you know who your real parents are then?” Barring the rare occasion of a bad adoption/family, our adoptive parents ARE our real parents, just like the people who raised, nurtured, fed, clothed, cared for, and loved YOU are your REAL parents.
2. “Do you speak Korean?” Hm. We were mostly adopted when we were babies by parents who only speak English (or whatever language is spoken in the country where we grew up). So, no, we do not speak a foreign language just by virtue of our race.
3. “Are you from North or South Korea?” First, why does this matter? Will it dramatically change your perception of my adoption? Second, do you know what the Korean War is? Not many people have come in and out of North Korea for a while now.
4. “Oh! You must feel really lucky!” or alternatively, “How sad for you!” I do feel lucky, but not for the reasons you are probably exclaiming. I’m lucky because I have an amazing nuclear and extended family, and some really wonderful friends. For this reason, I’m not a sad person, although I still have feelings to process about my unique childhood. However, I’m pretty sure you think I’m lucky to be taken away from Korea because you envision it to be some third world country. It is not, and in some ways is even more modern than where YOU are from.
5. “Do you wish your birth parents had kept you?” or “Are you going to search for your real parents?” See #1, above. I think this is such an absurd and invasive question to ask. I think it’s hard for any person to imagine their life another way… Also, for adopted people, whether transracial, international, or domestic, a birth parent search is an emotional and often difficult process which requires a lot of thought. Asking this question with such casualness is disrespectful to the adoptee who must find the mental energy to ask it of themselves.
6. “Do you like Korean food?” Uhhh, not exactly sure what this has to do with being adopted, but, sure, I do. An even stranger question: “Do you like Chinese food?”
7. “Wow, it must’ve been really hard to find other Asians to date while you were growing up!” Yes, growing up in Arizona, there were very few Asians in my tiny hometown. It’s a good thing it’s no longer legally mandated for me to date within my race!
8. “Do Korean people eat dogs?” Usually, I get this question after JUST explaining how I was adopted as a baby and lived in the United States my ENTIRE life – just like you! A: I know no more than you do. (Of course, now I know that while uncommon in modern times, SOME Koreans do eat dog soup.)
9. “Are you a US Citizen?” No, I’ve been living here illegally for 30 years. Don’t tell anyone! In all seriousness: In recent news, there have been a handful of sad stories where adoptive parents innocently failed to complete the naturalization process for their children, whom never achieved legal citizenship. This is unfortunate and unfair for the individuals who are now facing deportation (usually because they have committed a crime or something to alert the government that they are not legal citizens). However, these stories are the vast exception to the rule. When a child is legally adopted, they are entitled to the same legal citizenship status as biological children. (LEGAL DISCLAIMER: This is NOT legal advice and should not be relied upon to take or refrain from taking any action. Please consult an attorney to evaluate your specific needs.)
10. “Will you adopt a baby too?” Will you? Some people feel very strongly about adoption for many reasons, which are generally extremely personal and require great amounts of thought. My status as an adoptee does not change this fact or process.
11. “Are they your REAL brothers and sister?” See #1, above. Also, let’s use SOME common sense. In my family, I have a 31 year old brother, a 20 year old sister, and a 16 year old brother. Three of us were adopted at 4 months old, while my 31 year old brother was 18 months old. So, I’m not a math genius, but don’t you think it might be a wee bit hard to have the same biological parents when I was living in Arizona for 15 years before my youngest brother was even CONCEIVED? By the way, none of us look even closely similar in size, shape, or color. SIGH.
To sum up: I am adopted. I am a person adopted from Korea, which means I was born in Korea but have lived in the United States since I was a tiny baby. When I tell you this information, it is not open license to ask completely ridiculous questions. Please use courtesy and common sense BEFORE asking your question, especially if you are a stranger. If you are not a stranger, then it’s probably okay to ask your questions, even if they are ridiculous; however, if you are a close friend, I reserve the right to harass you endlessly for asking an inane question and for making me ALAG.
Also, other adoptees are super friendly, good-natured people who will answer dumb questions because they think it will help you in the future. I’m not one of those nice adoptees. I believe that stupid questions deserve stupid answers. ^-^
So, ANY QUESTIONS???