Tag Archives: Seoul

Thoughts while waiting at Incheon Airport 

On one of the worst days of air pollution that I’ve experienced in six years, this duly accessorized Korean girl is madly stuffing her duty-free booty into an empty bag she brought just for this purpose. I feel like it says something about our industrial-consumerist society that even as we choke on the particulate matter from our factories, we can’t stop buying shit we don’t really need because, hey, it’s kind of a little bit cheaper!

On first look, one may be tempted to think she’s sorting airport garbage, but they already have that covered here at Incheon International Airport. 

That’s because it’s a duty-free party down here at gate 119

So much tax-free makeup, so little time before glacial melting and air pollution ruin the fun of looking good. 

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Unintentional Self-Parody in Retail: Coffee and Cell Phones, Together at Last

Jamsil Cell Phone Stores

Apologies for the blurred artifacts in the middle of this photo. I took it with my phone’s “panorama” feature while my hands shook with excitement.

In the ancient Korean conception of the universe, the Earth was flat and sat atop a coffee shop at one end, and a cell phone store at the other. These in turn rested on more coffee shops and more cell phone stores.

One medieval scholar, asked by a student what was at the bottom, quipped over his rice cakes, “It’s coffee shops and cell phone stores all the way down.”

Okay, I lied. That’s actually the belief system of contemporary Korea. Or so one would be tempted to believe after walking around Seoul.

Consider the outlandishness depicted above. A store that sells phones with contracts for the three major Korean carrier companies will open less than 20 feet away from another store that sells phones with contracts for the three major Korean carrier companies.

The new phone store will be attached to a major coffee franchise. Unseen in the photo, the new coffee shop is around the corner from an independent coffee shop and across the street from a failed independent coffee shop. It is literally next door to a Paris Baguette store, which also serves coffee. It’s also a block away from the famed purveyor of coffee drinks, Dunkin’ Donuts.

Two coffee shops in Jamsil

Two coffee shops next to each other in Jamsil.

How much demand exists for these products? I have a cup of coffee several times a week at Paris Baguette. Sometimes it’s busy and sometimes it’s dead, but I’ve never had more than one person ahead of me in line.

What about phones? I’m skeptical. Even the manufacturers fear not much. That’s because the phone market is nearly saturated. There’s not much room for growth when even some 8-year-old children I taught in Bundang had phones better than my basic model. If you’re Korean and don’t own a smartphone by now, your flip phone is probably going to the grave with you.

One analysis even says there will be negative growth in Korea’s smartphone market by 2016. And yet, here it is, a phone store next to a phone store and less than 200 meters from another phone store. We’re talking about stores selling the exact same products at the exact same prices.

Worse, someone thought it was a good idea to invest in a month-long interior renovation to build a store combining cell phones and coffee. That’s right — they will sell phone contracts inside the coffee shop. It’s like all the jokes I ever make about Korea are slowly becoming real-life scenarios. (Hagwon teachers might want to take cover, since I also have joked that instead of killing themselves, disgruntled students will eventually figure out that terrorism is a far better method for venting their angst.)

I could be wrong, though. Seoulites seem eager to blow money on overpriced fru-fru coffees. But according to this academic paper citing government sources, Seoul had more than 12 thousand coffee shops in 2011, a 54 percent increase over the previous year. How many more lattes can the deeply indebted public afford to keep this bubble inflated?

I’m not the only one who suspects it’s a bubble. The Korea Times reported last year about the “cutthroat” nature of the Seoul coffee scene.

In a bubble, everyone invests without considering the downsides because there is no perceived downside. By the time clueless people have heard about a trend and decided to throw money at it, it’s already inflated most of the way.

Speaking of clueless people, here’s a hilarious quote from the Times story. Just keep in mind that clueless people can also staff giant corporations.

“We’ve decided to open a coffee shop because we thought it would be a relatively easy business to run,” said Kim, one of the two young owners of a small coffee shop along the street. “But it turns out it isn’t.”

Physical labor is the hardest part of the job, she said.

Maybe Coffine Gurunaru, Cafe Bene, et. al will take a page from the Poonglim playbook and start forcing their employees to buy unsold coffee inventory with their own wages when off the clock.

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A Map for Non-Korean Bundang Residents

I started this map in early 2013. Many in the Bundang and Yongin area have contributed to it. It’s publicly editable so please feel free to add locations.

It’s also not limited to Bundang, so if you know good locations anywhere in Korea, please add them.

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Super-Badass Train Will Connect Seoul to Busan in 90 Minutes

From the Korea Times, a new train is being tested with a top speed of 430km/hour (267miles/hour)(!!!).  For my North Carolina readers, of which there are at least two, that’s Asheville to Raleigh in one hour.  Fuck. Yes.

HEMU-400X

The super-badass looking HEMU-400X is coming to Korea if it passes government testing.

The story says government testing will be thorough due to unforeseen problems with Korea’s current high-speed train, the KTX.  From the article:

In particular, the latest “KTX-Sancheon,’’ which was built through the country’s own technologies, suffered various mishaps including derailment and stoppages although there were no casualties.

The KTX currently tops out at 300km/hour (186m/hour). That’s not too shabby on its own, though I’d sure hate to be on one of those derailments!

Speaking of derailments, the high-fallutin’ US plan to introduce high-speed trains appears to have fallen off the tracks without ever moving forward.  Guess I might have to sign up for a car-share program if I don’t want to blow my savings when I get back from Korea.

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Bundang Line Opens Stops in Yongin

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Three new stops opened on the Bundang Line this week recently, part of a plan to eventually connect to Line 1 in Suwon.

The new(ish) stops are Guseong, Singal and Giheung, opening up Yongin as a convenient new area for Bundang residents to work and play.

The Bundang Line is in yellow on the pictured map.

On a related note, Popular Gusts dug up a 1988 article about Seoul’s plans for the metro. Notice that 24 years ago, Seongnam was very peripheral.

Daniel Daugherty

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There’s Only One Way to Settle This: A Brew-Off!

Ah, Christmas season! The one time of the year when your sloppy weekend binge-drinking can take on a classy appearance just by having a felled tree in the corner. Or is that just how I do it?  It must have been my mentality this past weekend when I showed up at the upscale Craftworks Taphouse & Bistro for an old-fashioned brew-off.

the three pale ales

The three entries in the pale ale competition, in order from number one to number three.

The crew at Homebrew Korea got with Seoul’s overnight craft-beer landmark to compare the size of their pale ales. The winning entrant would be produced commercially and sold on tap at Craftworks as Bukhansan Pale Ale.

I also can’t tell if this is clever marketing or outsourcing to avoid hiring a full-time brewmaster.  Either way, the real winners of this contest were the people who sipped away the afternoon with nary a Cass in sight.

Now, it being a pale ale contest, I didn’t expect too much in the way of innovation. Pale ale is generally like the American pilsner of microbrewing — a safe, reliably similar choice no matter what label is one the bottle. Additionally, the contest rules limited brewers in the variety of ingredients. The three beers in the contest pleasantly surprised me with their diversity.

I’ve attended a few events with the Homebrw crew before, so I wasn’t surprised by the high quality coming out of their club, but it was reassuring to drink something heavy, hoppy, and flavorful a week before Christmas, just like mom used to make.

Number one, brewed by Bill Miller, punched you in the face with hops as soon as it touched your tongue, then left your mouth feeling a bit dry, making me sip continuously. No wonder I left the place dazed and needing to lie down. Miller later told me it was meant to be a clone of Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale, a valiant and noble mission if ever there was one.

Number two, brewed by Gord Sellar, was the most complex of the group. It smelled and tasted like a Christmas fruit basket decorated with flowers. Every sip brought a slightly different aroma and the beer’s character changed greatly as it warmed to room temperature. It was also unfiltered, which I think worked against it in the competition. Early pints were thick with yeast and hops.

Number three, brewed by Matt O’Dwyer, nobly attempted to match the Platonic ideal of a pale ale. It was an extremely drinkable balance of malty sweetness and a floral hop characteristic. This was a beer you could drink all day and never tire of the taste, although it would certainly make your belly feel full.

The winner was chosen by vote, with drinkers split between Miller and O’Dwyer.  Homebrew Korea’s club representatives then awarded victory to Miller. I’ve had his stuff before and can say he’s one hell of a brewer.

Daniel’s smiling under that moustache.

The only losers are beer lovers, deprived of future encounters with the other two entries. After the way I staggered out of there, maybe that’s a good thing.

If you’re interested in attending future events with Homebrew Korea or Craftworks Taphouse, join them on Facebook, where you can RSVP for events.

You can read a rather frank review of Craftworks Taphouse & Bistro over here. I heartily recommend the chorizo sandwich.

–Daniel Daugherty

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In Seoul Public English Education, Everybody Loses — Again

Thanks to The Marmot’s Hole for the translation of this article.  Apparently, “students and parents preferred Korean instructors fluent in English over native speakers.”

Let’s just sidestep the issue of public education policy being left to parent and student surveys, rather than language and education experts. I kind of understand the policy decision to de-emphasize native speaking teachers as a key toward English proficiency for Korean students. Native teachers are very expensive to bring over. However, they are not the real problem. The real problem is an English education policy that mismanages personnel and fails to respect students’ needs, forcing parents to spend ever more money on the diminishing returns of a farcical hagwon industry. (Do I sound jaded and cynical, or what?)

Let’s address the elephant in the room, first. It’s apparent before you arrive in Korea that the vast majority of people TEFLing here are grossly un-qualified. Most haven’t even got a fly-by-night TEFL certification or any experience remotely related to teaching, let alone experience managing groups of children. Forget all the AIDS fear, drug testing and worries about “corrupting the youth” — most Korean kids are taught by under-qualified individuals. Yes, that included me when I worked at Avalon. (For those scoring at home, I no longer teach EFL.)

However, the wholesale sacking of mostly unqualified native teachers isn’t going to fix the problems with public English education in Seoul.  From what I can tell of friends’ and colleagues’ “work” schedules, the public EFL curriculum is a non-priority at many schools. They often go weeks without seeing a single class while student assemblies, test days and other events crowd English classes off the regular schedule. A common complaint on Facebook is, “the internet ran out of things to entertain me at work today.”

When these teachers do see the kids, it’s in groups of 30 or 40 who come once a week. Not a chance for anyone to form a rapport or give kids enough reps to justify having a native teacher on hand.

My own students describe public-school English as a one-size-fits-all failure. They lump kids together by age, not ability. This means kids who lived in Canada and can read classic novels in English sit next to kids who can’t pronounce a “z” sound or remember the days of the week. How is this helpful to either student? And remember, this is Korea, where saving face is a paramount concern woven into the fabric of the culture. Some kids will just be left behind by their own ingrained desire to avoid embarrassment. This is a public education policy that fails to respect the socio-cultural reality of 99.9 percent of students.

Dropping native English speaking teachers wholesale is also poor management of personnel assets. Yes, most are unqualified. However, for the few who are qualified and passionate about teaching, the public school setting is the only place that gives them flexibility and planning time to apply themselves properly, as well as a pay scale that respects experience and credentials.

Hagwon hiring standards, on the other hand, are bizarrely low throughout most of the industry. Teachers are replaceable cogs in a preset curriculum cleverly designed to take parents’ money. In most, any actual learning is a happy coincidence. Seoul students will now be deprived of the only qualified, enthusiastic EFL teachers and lessons they can hope to encounter. Unless …

This policy might help the hagwon industry since parents who want native speakers will still be able to demand it with their pocketbooks. Those public teachers who are qualified and enthusiastic will likely gravitate to the industry if they want to continue living in Korea.

However, unlike hagwon teachers, public teachers are used to having the flexibility in their curriculum to design effective lessons based on professional best practices: Lesson plans that integrate reading, speaking, listening and writing skills; and games to reinforce those lessons, keep kids engaged and make them think dynamically in their new language.

Hagwon parents don’t get anything like that for their money, nor do they demand it. As I’ve previously written, they demand more homework and bigger vocabulary lists, not creative lessons and teachers who make the language fun. Those bright-eyed, bushy-tailed teachers with any level of enthusiasm will become soulless TEFL zombies in most hagwons.

In the end, everybody loses. The education system will become even more dependent on hagwons and their flawed educational environments, good teachers will leave Korea or have their souls sucked out, bad teachers will proliferate the system even further, and the needs of children will continue to be ignored.  They’ll lose sleep and stress out over a bunch of classes that aren’t designed to teach them anything, for teachers who don’t care about them.

–Daniel Daugherty

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