Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Autumn in Seoul - Take Four

An argyle sweater vest is always correct for a brisk autumn walk.

Those of you who have been reading the blog for a while may recall that, our first September in Seoul, I wrote this slightly homesick-and-wistful post about missing the signs of autumn back in the US:  pumpkins, changing leaves, hayrides, scarecrows, and (if millions of Americans are to be believed) the annual return of the Pumpkin Spice Latte (MsC=not a fan, but she recognizes it as a harbinger of the season.)

While it wasn't a particularly outstanding post (looking back, MsC thinks it was a bit self-pitying,) I do, nonetheless, have to give my 2011 self kudos for making one true and accurate observation, which was:

 I imagine that, after a few years in Seoul, I will see (things) and get a slightly nostalgic 'it's almost fall' feeling because I'll connect (them with the season).  But this first year, I don't have any cultural connections, so I don't have any sense of being part of the culture or the sense of anticipation.  And that, of course, is the heart of the matter and part of belonging in a culture:  knowing what is coming and being able to anticipate it because you've seen it before and done it before.  Remembering, along with everyone else, the joys of the season, and looking forward to all it holds. 

As it turns out, I was right. 

This is my 4th autumn in Seoul, and I know what to expect and anticipate now.  Along with the rest of the city, I breathed a sigh of relief as the brutally hot and humid nights cooled off and we all started sleeping with our windows open again.  I noted with pleasure the familiar sight of the beautifully packaged gift sets of Spam and cooking oil as they appeared in the shops, the lovingly wrapped gift sets of enormous and flawless Korean apples and pears - all ready to be given to family and friends during the Chusok (Korean Thanksgiving) festival.  

As September has given way to October, there have been more signs, such as:

The annual falling of the Gingko berries.  If you are not familiar with the gingko tree, it is a sturdy, columnar tree that thrives in Seoul's climate and is widely used as a planting here in the city.  Its dense leaves provide excellent shade in the summer, and its deciduous nature means that it doesn't block the winter sunshine when it is needed the most.  The only real drawback of the Gingko tree is that it drops bazillions a copious number of berries (or whatever its fruit is called) in the autumn, and these berries - when crushed underfoot - don't smell exactly terrific. In fact, they smell pretty bad.  The street sweepers try to keep up with them, but it's a losing battle.  Everywhere you go, you'll find sidewalks everywhere littered with Gingko berries - both whole, crushed, and decomposing (as you can imagine, the decomposing variety are most popular with the dog.)  

Gingko berries everywhere

The truth is, I've gotten so used to them, I really don't notice their smell anymore.  The only time they bother me is when I'm walking down a steep hill.  If you step on a crushed Gingko berry the wrong way, it can be as treacherous as a banana peel.  

The arrival of the cafe' blanket:  Seoul is a city full of cafes, and people sit outdoors whenever possible, for as long as possible (until the winter just gets too brutal.)  To help extend the season, cafe' owners supply blankets for their patrons, usually hung over the backs of the chairs.  Once you see the blankets come out, you know cooler weather is on the way.  

The Fruits of The Harvest:  While we in the USA typically expect pumpkins, apples, and corn on the cob to feature in fall displays, there are a couple different players in Korea - for example, the persimmon.  Let me just come right out and say that persimmons were not a large part of my diet in the US, except when they showed up in a mixture of dried fruit.  Here in Seoul, though, there are persimmon trees everywhere, and, because they grow so well in this climate, one sees persimmons for sale at fabulous prices displayed in all the local markets.  

I was not aware that we actually had a persimmon tree in the garden behind our own building until I began spending a lot more time in it after we got the dog.  I kept wondering what the squashy, decomposing orange fruits were that she kept trying to roll in.  Here's the culprit, uphill from us.

As in the US, the apple harvest is a big part of autumn.  The fruit and vegetable truck guy who makes the rounds of our neighborhood(complete with terrifying loudspeaker that sounds like he is warning everyone about a North Korean invasion, but it's really just an announcement along the lines of, "Get your ripe fruit and veg right here at my truck!")  had had loads of delicious apples available lately - another reminder that fall is here.

And of course, chestnuts:

Restaurants gear up for colder weather:  As I mentioned, there are a lot of street cafes in Seoul, and many restaurants provide some (or all) of their seating outdoors.  Since space is at a premium and no one wants to lose customers all winter long, the restaurateurs of Seoul have figured out how to keep their customers warm and comfortable even after the snow starts to fall and blankets are no longer enough:  plastic tents.  It's another sure sign of the season when cafes, porches, and other outdoor seating areas begin to appear tented in clear plastic.  As the weather cools, space heaters will appear, and Seoulites will continue to enjoy their favorite foods (technically) out-of-doors.

Squash vines abound:  Although you probably don't think 'pumpkins' when you think of Korean food, the truth is, squash and zucchini, and their near relations, the cucumber (and don't get me started on how delicious a properly pickled Korean cucumber can be) abound here.  Korean cuisine includes a number of delicious pumpkin soups as well as all sorts of dishes made with squash and pumpkin.  At this time of year, you are likely to run across any number of squash vines - either planted on purpose in one of the community gardens, or (and this is one of the neatest things) tucked away on top of - or next to - a building.  

See those blossoms? They're going to be squash.  Or melons.  Or cucumbers.

One of my favorite incarnations of both pumpkin and zucchini (courgette) squash here in Korea is in the form of jeon,  a sort of pancake-type fritter made with any number of meats or vegetables.  The jeon is lightly battered and then fried in oil, then served, steaming hot, ideally along with the traditional makgeoli, a fermented rice wine.  When eaten on the street in a plastic tent next to a restaurant on a chilly October evening, you have the ultimate Seoul autumnal experience.
Freshly-cooked jeon, ready to be enjoyed

...ideally, with magkeoli (served from the brown pot and drunk out of tin bowls)

....eaten streetside, and served up with flair (thanks, T!)

I've probably been extra- sensitive to the signs of fall this year, because, in all likelihood, it will be my last one in Seoul.  As MrL's contract ends this summer and #2 finishes high school, there is every reason to assume that we won't be in Seoul this time next year - whether we find ourselves just moving to another city in Korea, or somewhere else altogether.  It's anybody's guess where we'll land, but with this knowledge in the back of my mind, I'm taking the time to pay attention and drink in every detail.  

And there's every chance that, wherever I am this time next year, I'll be missing autumn in Seoul.  

Monday, October 6, 2014

A few thoughts about owning a dog in Seoul

Give me food.

(Note:  MsCaroline's experiences are based on owning a smallish dog in an international neighborhood in Seoul.  It is likely that, if she had a larger/smaller/cuter/uglier/different breed dog and lived in a different part of Korea, her experience might well be completely different.  If you are thinking about owning a dog in Korea, do not take her experience as the final word.  Everyone's experience is different - this has been hers.)

As most of you know, we left our beloved Yellow Dog with my cousin in Canada when we moved to Seoul.  We had some serious doubts about his ability to adjust happily to life in a small apartment on the 14th floor of a high rise, as well as his ability to adjust to the general traffic and constant noise of a big city.  While it turns out that plenty of people do bring their big dogs to Korea and successfully make the adjustment to apartment living, we realize now that, despite all that,  it probably would not have worked for him, and we made the correct decision.  He is now living a life that most of us would envy, starting with the fact that my cousin makes him a cooked breakfast every. single. morning.

Just let that sink in for a minute. Every. single. morning.

Anyway, the point is, before we moved to Korea, we heard a lot of conflicting information about dogs in Korea:  how they were treated (badly), how they were perceived(Koreans hate dogs, don't have them as pets, etc,) what it was like to own a dog in Korea (challenging), and how hard it was to find landlords who permitted pets.  Now that we've lived here for 3+ years and have experienced dog culture in Seoul ourselves, we have come to our own set of conclusions, which have occasionally fit with what we'd heard, but more often, did not.

Most of you know that, after 2 years in the high-rise, we moved to a new apartment which permitted 'small dogs,' and, 4 months later, brought home a small, flat-faced dog, which was represented to us as being either a French Bulldog or, possibly, a Boston Terrier.  Or, possibly, some of each, which is probably the most likely scenario.

I may or may not be a French Bulldog.  Or Boston Terrier. You won't know for a few months. 

 In any case, Merlot (our other dog is named after beer) joined the household, and the learning curve began.(Note:  It is not a coincidence that MsCaroline's posting frequency dropped drastically after Merlot joined the household.  When she wasn't trying to exercise the dog enough to get it to sleep, she was trying to engineer a pen that would contain it.  It was a dark time.)

Over the past year, we've learned plenty about having a dog in Seoul, some of which confirmed the 'myths' we'd heard, and some of which made us realize that things have been changing even in the 3 short years we've been here.  Here's what our experience has been:

Not all Koreans are scared of dogs:  Before we moved to Korea, we read plenty of blogs and forums that told us that Koreans - who have not traditionally kept dogs as pets - were scared of all dogs and that the mere act of walking down the street with one could cause grown men to shriek like little girls and leap off the sidewalk.  The truth is, yeah, there are a lot more people who are scared of dogs in Korea than there are in North America - even more so if you have a large dog, I'm sure.  MrL and I have personally observed grown adults flattening themselves against a wall, pale with terror, as Merlot ( or, "9 kilos of raging fury" as MrL calls her ) trots pleasantly by on heel, hoping for ear scratches.  Yes, I have seen mothers pull their children behind them when we walk past;  I have seen people deliberately step off the sidewalk or cross the street, just to avoid possible contact with the dog; I have seen schoolchildren scream (yes scream) and run away.  It happens at least a few times a week on our daily walks.
Striding down city sidewalks, terrifying all in her path....

However, in all fairness, there are many more people who love our dog and stop to pet her, admire her, or ask about her.  As it happens, the flat-faced, big-eyed, goblinlike appeal of Frenchies and Boston Terriers is extremely high at the moment, and many hip young Koreans view our girl as a bit of a trendy fashion accessory, sort of like a pair of Doc Martens.  In any case, we rarely complete a walk without at least one lovely young Korean woman stopping to exclaim, "Oh, gwiyoun!" (sounds like 'key-oh!' and means "Oh, cute!")  Merlot is so familiar with this now, that if someone says, 'gwiyoun!' in her hearing, she immediately assumes they are addressing her and turns to the speaker.
Goofy and ridiculous, yes.  Some days, the word 'cute' is not exactly applicable.

I should also add that in many places we take her, she is a virtual Rock Star, attracting actual crowds. While I would like to think this is a result of her innate charm, the truth is, one sees very few flat-faced breeds over here, so it's more like taking a 3-toed sloth for a walk.  Hey, what's that? -I don't know, I think it's one of those things I saw on the Discovery Channel. Let's go look at it! - People gather around her, ask to take photos with her or to have her photo taken with their kids (sure, she's cute, but - a photo? Whatever.  Go ahead) .  The day we took this photo on top of Namsan Mountain at the Lighting of the Beacons Ceremony, there had been a crowd around her for the past half hour, documenting everything she did with their camera phones, including her photo op with one of the guards (who struggled to maintain his gravitas):

Go on.  You know you want to laugh.

Initially, we thought this was an older -vs. - younger generation thing, with the younger generation becoming more westernized and more familiar with the concept of dogs as housepets, but since some of Merlot's biggest admirers in our own neighborhood are elderly - and since plenty of schoolchildren still shriek and run away when they see me coming with Merlot (securely fastened to her lead) - the evidence doesn't support that assumption at all.

Plenty of Seoulites have dogs as pets:   When we got here 3 years ago, the dogs we saw most were the tiny, frou-frou types:  chihuahuas, Yorkie-poos, miniature poodles and mini dachshunds - basically, anything under about 5kg that could be carried in one of those dog purses.  They are still very popular - often dressed in tutus, smoking jackets, onesies, dresses, and shoes.  They have dyed hair (pink is probably the most popular at the moment,) polished fingernails, and quite a few have raincoats and boots. I have seen them carried in front packs (like an infant) and even doggie strollers. So, yes, Koreans do keep dogs as pets. Lately, we have been seeing more medium-to-large sized dogs in our neighborhood, and a Korean friend of mine told me that larger dogs (Dobermans, Labs) are starting to be seen as something of a status symbol:  if you live somewhere with enough space to keep a large dog, you must therefore have a substantial income.  I should also note that I know many people who keep dogs in their apartments, which disproves our earlier belief that Korean landlords do not allow pets.  For every landlord who doesn't, there is likely one who does.  Space, however, is still an issue, especially if you live in apartment, as most expats do.  If you do not mind taking your dog up and down an elevator every time it needs to do its business (or teaching it to do its business indoors on absorbent pads) you should be fine, as long as your dog can adjust to living in an apartment and does not absolutely need a big yard to run in in order to be happy.
Sometimes a dog needs space to roam. And sometimes a dog thinks she is a cat.
Eating dog - less prevalent than in the past:  It is true that Koreans - along with many other Asian cultures - traditionally viewed dogs as livestock or food.  It is also true that there are several traditional dishes that feature dogmeat, including bosintang, a stew traditionally eaten during the hottest part of the summer.  However, it is far less common for Koreans to eat dog than it used to be, and many younger Koreans have never done so.  Laws surrounding the raising of dogs for meat and its sale are vague at best, implying that it is against the law, but not actually illegal (I told you the laws were vague.  Or maybe I meant illogical) and there are still markets that sell dogs for meat, as well as restaurants that sell dishes containing dogmeat, so it is not exactly a charmingly antiquated custom that will necessarily die out anytime soon.  Nonetheless, I have never (knowingly) been in a restaurant that sold dog meat entrees, although I know they are out there (MrL has been to one.)  I could be wrong, but my best guess is that eating dog in Korea is a lot like eating squirrel or rattlesnake meat in the US:  yes, people do it, and those who do so aren't about to quit just because it makes some people uncomfortable, but you're not going to walk into your average grocery store and find it in the meat section.  In any case, in my 3 years in Seoul, I have not run across it, and I am more than happy to keep it that way.

Merlot's primary interaction with the restaurant industry is not as an ingredient, but as a customer. She is well-known at a number of cafes in our neighborhood.
Many Koreans interact differently with dogs than westerners do:

Clucking/tsking/kissing noises:    If you ever want a perfect example of a cultural difference, this would be it. (This is by no means a 'right' or 'wrong' thing, but simply a difference in how we communicate, and it's kind of fascinating, if a bit annoying at times.) In North America, when we make these noises at dogs, we do it with the intention of enticing the dog to come toward us - sort of a, "here, nice doggie" sound. It follows, then, that western dogs who hear this kind of sound respond by heading in the direction of the person who is summoning them. The problem is that when people in Korea make this noise at a dog, it just means, 'this is a noise I make at dogs' or, possibly, "Oh, that's a nice dog," - but it does not necessarily mean that the sound-maker wants the dog to come anywhere near him.  As you can imagine, this leads to daily awkward and embarrassing amusing incidents, wherein the dog is minding its business walking down the sidewalk, someone gets its attention by making noises at it, and the dog stops what it's doing and heads toward the person who has summoned him.  In the US, this would not be a problem, because if you are clucking or 'tsk'ing at a dog, you expect him to come towards you.  In Korea, however, it leads to people backing up and exclaiming in horror alarm as your dog walks towards them. I used to think that, every time I heard someone tsking or clucking at Merlot, it meant they wanted to call her to them for a little visit or an ear scratch.  I know better now, but the first few hundred times I experienced it, I was always confused about what I considered to be 'mixed messages' that were being sent as the 'tsker' backed away.  I asked a Korean friend about this, and she was very surprised to hear that we use these sounds to actually summon our dogs - for her, it's more of just a reaction to seeing a dog. The best I can come up with is to compare it to the way Americans with little kids point to cows and say, "moo."  No response is ever expected from the cow.  It's just what you do.

Petting them differently:  When a Korean person wants to pet Merlot, it's sometimes an interesting - and different - cultural approach.  In the US, typically if you want to interact with a dog, you hold out your hand.  The dog sniffs it, decides whether or not to continue the relationship, and - if the dog approves - you pet it.  By 'pet,' I mean, you do some gentle patting, stroking, or scratching - and if it's a really big dog - maybe give it some gentle whacks on the side, like a cow.

 In Korea, this is not always the case.  In the first place, we run into a lot of people who approach the dog by 'chucking' it under its muzzle.  (This is sort of like what you would do to yourself if you were a middle-aged woman who was hoping against hope to pat away a double chin. Not that MsCaroline would be familiar with this gesture.)  It's not painful or violent or anything - in fact, it seems more like rhythmic tapping - just under the chin, which is (in North American culture, at least) not a typical place for petting dogs.  The other thing that is interesting is when people go to pet Merlot and - before they get their hand to the top of her head - she sniffs or licks their hand.  More often than not, there is either a rapid pulling back of the hand, or a little squeal of alarm, as though the petter fears that she will tear their hand off.  While MsCaroline concedes that an immaculately-behaved dog(which we can all agree Merlot is not) would probably remain perfectly still while being patted on top of the head, she also does not feel that it is completely out of the realm of reasonable behavior for a dog to sniff or lick a hand that is petting it.  However, it is possible that Merlot is the canine equivalent of one of those dreadful children who get away with murder because their soft-headed and weak parents instill no discipline in them.  It could very well be that MsCaroline - as is so often the case with doting parents - is just the last to accept it.

But I can't help it.  She's so.....gwiyoun.

You gonna eat that all yourself? MsCaroline knows - we're working on table manners....