How was your Christmas, Dear Reader? We had a nice Christmas at home. Some of our family friends came over on Christmas Day to celebrate the holiday with us. I hope you also had a wonderful Christmas or Chanukkah, if you celebrate either one of them.
I had the day off from work today. In the morning, I went to a dentist’s appointment. Most Koreans went back to work today; I’m glad to have had an extra day off. In the afternoon, my wife and I had lunch at a Greek restaurant in Itaewon called "Santorini" and then went shopping. We left our son home with our nanny. It was nice to get away for a change and have some quality time for ourselves. My wife finally bought a new wallet, and I made her promise to throw away her old one. The faux leather has severely cracked, and she was using a paper clip as a makeshift zipper. Her new red leather wallet is a nice upgrade. In the afternoon, we stopped by Starbucks for some coffee and then went to E-Mart for more shopping.
I am always on the lookout for new and interesting observations about Korean culture. Four came to light today. I had planned to write about two of them, but I figured I might as well pass them all on to you. In the morning when I went to the dentist, I passed by a group of elderly Koreans cleaning up a neighborhood. I might not have given it another thought, but then I recalled a recent article I read in Seoul Magazine about elderly Koreans’ dedication to recycling and conservation in Korea. I was amazed that a group of elderly Koreans, perhaps in their 70’s, would venture out on an absolutely freezing morning after Christmas to clean up the neighborhood. The article mentioned that recycling in Korea is generally unprofitable and that the elderly do it mainly as a public service. The Korean War and its aftermath significantly impacted the psyche of the elderly, and many grew up during long periods of tremendous scarcity. I really admire their dedication.
I made my first visit to a Korean dentist today. His office was filled with memorabilia from his alma mater, the State University of New York at Buffalo. Dentists often post their credentials and diplomas on the wall for patients to see. However, this dentist went so far as to prominently display posters of Buffalo and the university campus, alumni bumper stickers, and other varsity products. I found his dedication a bit amusing. It also reminded me just how much Koreans value an American university diploma. Whether they graduate from Harvard University or from Podunk College, Koreans prize American college degrees because they are highly regarded in Korea. Many equivalent degrees from top U.S. schools are held in higher esteem than degrees from top Korean schools. I wondered why so many Korean students would work so hard to get into top Korean schools when they could earn a degree just as highly regarded from a U.S. school. In some respects, it appears more difficult to earn admission to an elite Korean school through the rigorous college entrance exam than to be admitted to a top U.S. school.
At "Santorini" Greek restaurant, my wife and I dreamed about living someday in Greece. We were not quite so enamored with the food. Greek is one of my favorite cuisines, and Seoul has just two Greek restaurants, "Santorini" in Itaewon and a gyros joint near Ehwa Woman’s University. We ate gyros, but they did not taste quite like they do in the United States. For one, our only meat choices were limited to pork or chicken, not beef and lamb, as are more typical in Greek cuisine. The avgolemono, a lemon chicken soup, was too brothy. Following our meal, I asked the restaurant owner why they did not serve dolmathes, one of my favorite Greek dishes. (Dolmathes are grape leaves stuffed with rice and minced lamb and served hot or cold with a side of tzatziki sauce.) The owner commented that they cannot buy grape leaves in Korea. It reminded me that some ethnic foods are virtually impossible to reproduce in Korea. Likewise, I imagine that Korean food is nearly impossible to find in some parts of the world. I wondered how many Korean restaurants are in Athens, Greece. Not many, I reckon. Good luck finding kimchi near the Aegean Sea.
At Starbucks, I met an American businessman who has lived in Korea for over two decades. Out of curiosity, I asked him if he knew four long-time American expatriates I met in Seoul. He said he knew every single one of them personally! I met all four of them on different occasions for different reasons. It reinforces the fact that the long-term American expatriate community in Korea is extremely small. If we were to stay longer, I too would become, for better or for worse, part of this small circle of American expatriates living in Seoul. It definitely does away with one’s ability to remain anonymous for long.