Energy Epiphany and Trip to Gwangju

May 31, 2009 § 2 Comments

It is my belief that if Seoul simply turned off half it’s electric signs, it could use that energy to power a hundred factories. I have no math to support this claim, only gut instinct. Look at how crowded with electric signs this little street is!

Lights galore

Lights galore

Last semester I did a lot of “research” and brushed on my k-pop knowledge in preparation for this trip. While doing so, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that many popular singers re-make their songs to become “Energy” songs. Energy songs are basically cute ditties to encourage young people to reduce their electricity consumption and help “save the earth.”

I had my epiphany while at Mokdo, a higher end shopping district in Seoul (see top picture). The clothes were pretty but too expensive for a traveling college student. I am eagerly anticipating my trips to Dongdaemun, the mecca of haggling shoppers in Korea. They sell everything from house ware to clothing and the prices are low. Yesterday I went to Gwangju. I was excited because I learned about the Gwangju uprising at Berkeley.

It was disillusioning when I got there because there was no indication of its rich past but it was still interesting just to be there. It took about 3 hours by car to get there from Seoul. Once we arrived, I met two more cats (Pico and Bijou) and two of my brother’s friends. They are both nursing students and the same age as I am. Even though we are the same age we used formal Korean because we were strangers. Gradually as we became more comfortable, we dropped the formal endings and spoke to each other informally. They were so cute and funny and not really the stereotypical docile Korean girl. We ate dinner at what we thought would be a more traditional Korean restaurant that served an array of Korean side-dishes but it was actually a wedding hall with all different kinds of food.



The other girls hardly ate anything and kept on saying they needed to lose weight even though they were so skinny! They were probably 2/3 my size. I feel like that is just the culture here though and I’m pretty used to it now. I think I’m finally at an age where I am impervious to comments like that in that I have no desire to lose weight. After taking Nutri-Sci at Berkeley, I don’t think there is a point in worrying about things like that because losing or gaining a significant amount of weight is just way too much work. Why not live life and just enjoy it? Anyway, after resting and wandering for a few hours we decided to get a Thai massage. It actually hurt quite a bit and was a little strange but I was so tired I just fell asleep. I immediately fell asleep again upon reaching the hotel only to be amazed by….



This is a touch-screen control system. Using this little panel I can look up information about the hotel, adjust the temperature, turn lights on and off, and MORE! I was so amazed. I don’t know if we have this in America. Maybe they have it in the really fancy, nice hotels and I just haven’t seen it before. The lights were the coolest feature to me. I just lay in bed and turned lights on and off for a while. I don’t think So-Min, the girl I shared a room with, appreciated it but she was too polite (or tired) to say anything. hehehe…

I got back to Seoul today and ate at this really good gamjatang (Potato Stew..even though there are hardly any potatoes in it…not sure why its called that). After you finish the meat (pork haunch, I think), they make fried rice with some of the stew and it is really good! I can’t wait to keep one eating more Korean food.

My discoveries

-Korean people drink A LOT. Celebrating something? Bring out the soju! Bored? Bring out the soju! Uncomfortable? Stressed? Happy? Sad? Bring out the soju (or beer)! Drinking is such a big part of the culture that it is hard to have fun without alcohol. I was talking to my brother about this and we have a few theories. First, Korean people are pretty self-conscious and inhibited because of societal constraints and it isn’t until they have some liquor that they feel comfortable breaking out of those constraints. Behavior that would be frowned upon a sober person is accepted by someone who is drunk and will probably not remember the next day. Second, the work day is so long for the common company man that by the time they get out of work (9am-11pm is not unheard of), the only things open are bars or nightclubs. Third, many people’s apartments are too small or dinky to host more than a few people so it is hard to stay in with friends.

-Korean people smoke a lot. There aren’t as many smokers as there were five years ago but I discovered that many kids nowadays even start in elementary school. The two girls that I met both smoked A LOT. They were chain smokers and lit up every hour or so. They knew it was bad for their body and wanted to quit but that is something that is definitely easier said than done. It’s funny though, although there aren’t as many cigarette smokers in Berkeley my age as there is in Korea, Berkeley definitely has more marijuana smokers. However, in Korea very few, if any, students smoke marijuana. In the end, both substances are addictive (either physically or psychologically) and bad for you, but its interesting how they are stigmatized differently in the two societies.

-Gas costs a lot here. Americans wouldn’t complain as much if they knew the premium on gas here. It cost more than $60 to fill my brother’s tiny two-door Hyundai.

-Hulu doesn’t work in Korea. =(

-When I try to play Blockles on, the connection is too laggy and I can’t see my opponent’s screen. =( =(


Day of Fail

May 29, 2009 § 1 Comment

Today was exhausting.  I got up relatively early to go get a cell phone with my brother before he had to work.  I had to buy a used Korean cell phone and then go to Kangnam to a SK Telecom service center to put money on it.  The whole process took a while but it was nice to be able to have the freedom a cell phone allows.  I didn’t have to be my brother’s shadow anymore.  If you come to Korea it is much more convenient to get one at the airport.  It’s just that I forgot when I arrived and going back to the airport is a hassle.

While my brother took care of some stuff I walked around and window-shopped.  I ended up buying some pencils and pens that are normally twice the price in the States.  It’s not that they are really cheap here…it’s just that Morning Glory hikes up the prices for cute pencils and pens at home because they can.  Now I know how jetpens makes money!

Afterwards we went to get some Mexican food at On the Border.   I don’t think Mexican food is very popular here.  Out of all the foreign food options, Japanese food is the most popular and mainstream because it has been institutionalized for so long.

Okay, the real story starts here.  I told my brother that I would be fine finding the subway station on my own and getting back but LITTLE DID I KNOW.  I wandered for about an hour just walking around the mall (COEX) and looking for a cute camera case until I decided that I wanted to go home.  I knew there was a subway station close by but it took about an hour to find it!  This is going to sound ridiculous to people who live in Korea because COEX has a subway station connected to it.  It would probably take a normal person 5 minutes to get there.  It’s just that COEX is so big and I kept on walking down the wrong corridors.  I also asked many, many employees but I didn’t understand some of the terms they were using so I would blindly walk in the direction they gestured.

Oh!  I should talk about the language barrier.  I can speak Korean but there are a lot of words/names I need to learn before I can become functional in Korean society.  While getting directions, reference points were lost on me and I realized that I never learned words like corridor, district, etc.  Also, for some words there aren’t even any American equivalents.  Anyway, once I found the subway station my faulty (but cool) cell phone accessory swipe card wasn’t working AND I didn’t even know which direction to go.  Finally I just gave up, exited the station, and took a taxi.  It cost about $7 from COEX to my brother’s apartment but it was worth it for the AC and convenience.  Public transportation probably would have cost about $1.

Currently I am sitting here and typing and wishing that I could just stay in my brother’s clean, safe apartment forever.  I don’t want to have to deal with the hot and air polluted environment outside these walls.  I know the sentiment will pass but I have to admit, today was a pretty disheartening day.  I left the apartment so filled with enthusiam and optimism regarding my abilities to navigate Seoul only to be crushed in bitter defeat.  But alas, tomorrow is another day and I shall try again.

Until next time,


Cool things:

  • You can use a cell phone accessory to put money on and use for the subway.  Sort of like using a keychain to go onto BART.  Of course there are the more traditional cards and tickets but not for me!
  • Korean cell phones have a universal plug for charging so no matter what brand your cell phone is, all chargers are compatible.  AND you can charge your phone at just about anywhere: restaurants, internet cafes, convenience stores, etc.  Today I charged my new cell phone as we ate lunch!
  • The uniforms are so colorful and pretty here.  Most stores have a set pattern or color scheme that all their employees wear.  I wanted to take a picture but I was too shy to ask.  Maybe next time.

Not so cool things:

  • Mexican food at On the Border is ridiculously expensive here.  It was almost $30 for a burrito!  Granted it was a fairly large burrito but still!!  That same burrito would not go for over $8 in LA.
  • Salad bars are very uncommon in Seoul.  You won’t find anything like a Souplantation or Fresh Choice here.

Random things:

  • There are pharmacies and cafes on every block!  At least in the two areas I saw today: Kangnam and Seocho-gu.

My first full day in Seoul

May 28, 2009 § 1 Comment

After a day of listless wandering around the apartment in the heat, I went out with my brother and a new friend to eat dinner.  It was interesting meeting an expat from Canada who is Chinese-Vietnamese.  She is ethnically Chinese but her family is from Vietnam.

We ate at a place called Bulgogi Brothers that was ridiculously expensive but very clean and orderly inside.  The best things about the restaurant was the meat quality and service.  My cup was never empty and they would come over to turn the meat for us on the grill.  Usually it is really smoky at places like this but their ventilation system must be top notch because I didn’t notice any smoke.  Anyway, while I was googling the name of the restaurant to make sure I got it right, I came across this great article on the history of bulgogi.  Check it out if you have some free time.

After dinner my brother and I went to watch the Korean movie, Mother, at COEX.



It amazes me how good Koreans are at producing disturbing thrillers.  If you are into dark or artfully directed movies, I highly suggest Mother, Old Boy, and Lady Vengeance.  Don’t blame me when you get nightmares though.

I had so many poignant thoughts today through observing people or conversing with my brother but it sounds so trite and uninspiring when I try to write it down.  I really need to practice my skills as a writer in conveying the appropriate tone and producing the desired effect.  I’ll try again tomorrow but for now just know that I am learning a lot that makes me stop and think about who I am and where I come from.

I’ll end this post with a few cool things I discovered today:

  • You can un-press elevators in my brother’s building!  Don’t you hate it when you accidentally press the wrong floor and have to make an additional stop?  Problem solved!
  • “Etiquette flush” buttons in every bathroom stall (at least in the COEX, a mall).  I saw this when I visited five years ago but I actually used it today.  =D
  • The restaurant I got a to-go porridge from today morning wrapped my food like a present! It was so pretty and they even wrap you some side dishes.

Vivo and Penny

May 27, 2009 § 3 Comments

I haven’t really been able to do much in Korea yet.  I arrived around 8pm, got to my brother’s apt by around 10pm, took a shower, and then went to sleep until 4am Korea time.  Currently it is about 6 am and I am waiting three hours until the restaurant in my brother’s building opens so I can get some food.  Seoul food! ^^ My favorite thing about high rise apartment buildings in Korea is that they usually have a 24 hour convenience store on the ground floor and one or two restaurants. Talk about easy access!

Although I haven’t done any exploring outside my brother’s apartment, my new friends Vivo and Penny are keeping me company.



Vivo is the boy and very active and mischievous.  Earlier today I was in the study where the cats are not allowed but he somehow jumped three feet and pulled the doorknob to allow himself in.  He walked in nonchalantly as if nothing was awry.  Later while I was sitting on the couch he went behind me and patted my head as if I were his pet!  That’s when I took this picture.



Penny is the lady of the house and very, very sweet.  She lets me cradle her like a baby where she stays put and purrs to her heart’s content.  They are both pretty independent though so they don’t let me hold them too long.  I love cats.  And dogs.  And most other animals.  I can’t wait until I get a kitty in the States!

Anyway, that’s all for now.  Hopefully I will have more interesting things to report once this day is over.  Bye!

I’m in Korea!

May 27, 2009 § 1 Comment

The view from my window as we landed in Korea
The view from my window as we landed in Korea

It was a trip of many firsts…

  • My first time seeing so many half Japanese, half Caucasian kids (8 on my flight)
  • My first time throwing up after a flight =(
  • My first time using internet in an airport
  • My first time seeing my brother in five years!
  • And my first time meeting his cats

Graduation advice

May 24, 2009 § 2 Comments

Woohoo!  Friday was my graduation ceremony for ISF (UGIS).  I’ve been so busy though so it hasn’t really soaked in.  College graduations at UCs are so impersonal because you hardly know a third (if even) of your graduating classmates.   It was really chilly that day and all I really remember is that my cap kept sliding off.  Thanks to everyone who came!  I didn’t really invite that many people because I know how boring these ceremonies are and to be honest, I was only going so that my mom could see me walk.  She was in the hospital during my high school ceremony (which was much cooler because I got to go on the big screen *woot!*) so she really wanted to see this one.  Anyway, I just wanted to record the advice that I received this year.  =)

Case in point

Case in point

Robert Reich: “Don’t plan your life”

Robert Reich: “May your work be filled with purpose, may your job be filled with meaning, may your lives be filled with joy”

Bathroom stall on campus (through Nisha): “Go big or go home”

Mom: “Find God now”

Sis: “Don’t get fat”….5 minutes of reasons why being fat detrimentally affects your life

5 Lessons a Millionaire Taught Me (through my cousin Caroline): “Repeat after me, ‘Today is the day I decide to be wealthy, be it materially, financially, spiritually, or emotionally'”

Someone much wiser (again through my cousin Caroline): “Even after all this time, the sun never says to the Earth, ‘you owe me.’  Look what happens with a love like that, it lights up the whole sky”

Random (non-graduation related)

Sis: “Don’t feel bad about not giving a homeless person food or money…they’re better off than you (referring to my student loans/debt)”

Connie (she didn’t say this but I learned this from her experience): Don’t listen to your boyfriend when he says that it won’t take that long to get to the airport

Bethany Franco (through Caroline): “To stay naturally thin, try not to swallow any of your food”

Sis: “Flossing is more important than brushing”

Caroline: “If you’re not going to read any books after college, AT LEAST watch Oprah”

Pre-travel preparation

May 20, 2009 § 2 Comments




This summer I am traveling for two months through Korea, China, Taiwan, and Japan.  I’ve known that I wanted to go on this trip for a while but I started preparing late and am currently scrambling around to get everything settled.  I recommend putting aside at least two months to get everything done so you don’t get overwhelmed.   Here are some of the things I wish I had known earlier:

1. Travel Buddy-This really depends on the type of person you are.  I think people should generally travel with people more similar to themselves (if you even want anyone).  If you are okay being independent and like to explore on your own, go with someone who can do the same.  If you enjoy the security of having someone familiar by your side at all times, travel with someone you get along REALLY well with because you will be together 24/7.  Also, be very clear from the beginning about your expectations from each other.

I originally planned this trip to go alone and then a couple months later a friend asked to join.  Although I was hesitant at first, I saw the merit in traveling with another person and was excited to share my experiences with a friend.  Sadly, it didn’t work out for a variety of reasons.  But long story short, be clear from the beginning and if you decide that it is not right, give people plenty of time to make alternate arrangements.  I learned this lesson the hard way, essentially throwing away hundreds of dollars in changed flight schedules and deposits.  =(

2.  Flights.  A multi-city trip ticket will be much more expensive than a round trip airfare.  I called many, many airlines (United, Cathay Pacific, Korean Air, Asiana, Singapore, etc.) only to find that most airlines charged about $2500 for a package going from SF to Incheon(Korea) to Shanghai/Pudon (China) to Taipei (Taiwan) to Tokyo/Narita (Japan).  The best deal I got was by calling United and speaking with a reservation agent and fiddling around with dates/times/carriers to find the best fares.  It costs $25 more to book with an agent but it is worth it if you get a good one.  My initial estimate was $1600 for all the flights but I had to pay around $300 more because I changed my itinerary twice.

There are a couple of things you should know.  On each flight, there are different price classes for tickets.  For my particular trip, from SFO to Seoul, I found out from the first reservation agent that the “L” class tickets had the cheapest fares.  The next time I called, I made sure to continually ask for the cheapest class of tickets.  The seats are not of lesser quality than more expensive tickets.  It’s just that they have a set amount of bargain tickets that they reserve during certain time periods.  Also, being willing to make a stop-over slashes the price dramatically.

Booking through a national carrier like United is more convenient  because it has several partner airlines that service the locations it does not.  I was able to book flights from Beijing to Shanghai to Hong Kong, etc. through various different partners of United Airlines.  I’m not sure if it was cheaper (an online comparison showed that the rates were about the same) but it definitely was more convenient than making each reservation separately.

3.  Health.  UC Berkeley has this great service called the Travel Clinic through the Tang Center.  For $60 dollars you get a meeting with a registered nurse/travel consultant who tells you about all the possible diseases you can catch in the regions you are traveling to and what vaccines/medications you should have.  To be honest, I probably didn’t really need one because I am traveling to pretty developed regions but I’m glad I was able to learn about this great service.  I also decided to get the typhoid vaccine just in case.  They will also prescribe medicine for traveler’s diarrhea in case you are overseas and become sick and are unable to understand the local language enough to visit a pharmacy.  A lot of the information is online but the Tang center has your medical charts so they can do a side by side comparison of your specific needs.

4.  Visas.  Out of the four countries I am traveling to (Korea, China, Taiwan, Japan), there is only one place US citizens, regardless of time of stay, MUST get a visa for.  And that is China.  For a whopping $130 regardless of how many times you enter and exit.  Visas for the other countries really depend on how long you plan to stay.  Usually if it is less than 30 days, you don’t need a visa but make sure you check or else you will not be allowed to board your flights.  The Chinese consulate is right next to Little Tokyo in SF with the entrance on Geary Street.  Go early and give yourself about a month for the visa to process.  I was waiting for other people to go with and only gave myself a week to process the visa and am currently screwed because I have no time to pick it up on Friday (the date it is ready) and the office is closed on Monday (I fly out on Tuesday).  We will see what happens with that…

Usually visas to China take 3-4 days to process but because of H1N1, they lengthened the process to 6-7 days.  There is also no mail service so you either have to go in yourself or send a proxy.  Be prepared to wait at least an hour, most likely longer if you are traveling during the busy seasons (summer is definitely one of them).

5.  Couch surfing.  I only recently discovered this.  Basically there is a website that allows you to connect with complete strangers across the world and stay with them, meet up, or host them in your home country.  I am still figuring out the kinks and am still a little dubious about the security of the whole process but I have to say, I think it is a great idea.  I am considering utilizing this service to find locals in the countries I am going to because even though I have friends in most of the regions, they don’t always have the time or enthusiasm to host a tourist.  Couch surfing connects you with people who genuinely love hosting guests or traveling.  Everyone on the website seems so interesting and I can’t wait to meet some of them.

Honestly, I was really freaked out by the idea of staying with a perfect stranger in another country (Craigslist murders, ANY Law and Order episode.. right?) but as I found out more about the website, most of those fears melted away.  Regardless, people still need to be careful and make sure to carefully read profiles before initiating or accepting a request.  I’m sure all the single, 40+ year old males on the site are very nice and interesting but I just wouldn’t feel comfortable staying with a stranger in that demographic.  In the end, it comes down to choice and if you’re not comfortable, you can always contact another couch surfer or just stay in a hostel.  One great advantage about couch surfing is that there is no monetary transaction and people are forbidden to charge for your stay.  However, they can request that you pitch in for your own expenses like food and electricity.  I will write more about this once I actually use it and meet someone from it.

There are so many more things I want to share but if I make this post any longer nobody will read it and it won’t be effective.  My best piece of travel advice is to simply keep an open mind.  I plan to blog my adventures as I go along so please come along for the ride!

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