Five feminists sat down for lunch, each with differing levels of proficiency in English ranging from native (me) to barely able to follow along, and differing levels of proficiency Korean ranging from native (three women) to non-existent (me). Talk shifted quickly but smoothly from “How was your flight?” to ““What do you mean the United States doesn’t provide paid maternity leave?” as we ate from a bounty of salads – octopus, cold noodle, mushroom. I counted six total – seven if I included the pork belly (which wasn’t really a salad); eight if I included the black sesame porridge that served as our opening dish.

KWDI apps

So delicious!

The owner, a man, came by frequently to make sure we were happy. We were, or at least I sure was.

As I emptied my plate, the woman next to me kept replenishing its bare spots that exposed the pale blue design of trees and river. The food, the dinnerware, my companion all so delicate. I think everyone was surprised at my enthusiasm to not only try but enjoy everything over our conversation of infant mortality rates. I ate until I was more than sated.

Then came the banchan – the small dishes that are served with the main course at most Korean meals.

KWDI snacks

OK, of the seven pictured here, from upper left going clockwise, there is some seasoned spinach, kimchi, I think seaweed, radish kimchi, watercress, a shellfish of some sort, and I have no idea.

The main course. What I had thought was the main meal, well, wasn’t. As we discussed self-care for researchers who study emotionally raw subjects (domestic violence, child abuse, and the struggles of single mothers were among the areas of expertise), a bowl of rice and a mild stew were placed in front of me.

KWDI main

I love this pot so much. So sturdy and elegant, how I imagined the women we discussed.

I ate what I could, which wasn’t much. The smaller women around me somehow managed to empty their cast-iron bowls. Then, they poured tea into the remaining rice, those burned portions that stuck to the bottom, to create a wonderful broth that tasted like popcorn. This, they said, was what women traditionally ate after serving their husbands and children. The leftovers. They told stories of women who were beaten if too much remained, of women who dared to leave enough food for themselves after cooking all day.

Black coffee was served downstairs as conversation turned to domestic violence supports and the history of comfort women. Small roasted yams were served along with the coffee, the steam and aromas from both twisting upwards into each other as they filled my nostrils. An unexpected combination blending perfectly. Our meal complete, I wasn’t sure which part of me was more satisfied – my belly or my mind.

comfort girl night

Statue of a comfort woman


No turning back

This is a partial and rough account of beginning my volunteer work tutoring North Korean refugees while I was living in South Korea. Now that I have started a teacher-training course (CELTA), I have been thinking a lot about my first foray into teaching English and thought I would post this, despite it being incomplete.

Crowded room on the 3rd floor of a bank building in the shoddy office of an under-funded human right’s organization. We all sit and wait.

Slowly we introduced ourselves as teachers, what we wanted to teach, and when and where. The director of the volunteer organization was selective when it came to writing the information we shared on the board. It seemed his Korean counterpart was more thorough in her note taking as the board filled up with strange characters for the students to read.

When it came time for the students to introduce themselves, they were nervous. They spoke in broken English which sometimes blurred into Korean and we were supplied with a translation. They all pointed to the places from which they fled using a map on the wall. Most came from the northern most point, so close to Russia. I guess that’s where they first experienced freedom. And now they were here in Seoul. Most said they first arrived in 2009. Most were university students in their new home, which was both close but distant from their families (if they are still alive).

After the introductions were complete, it was time for the refugees to choose their tutors. I was the first person chosen, which left me feeling proud, disappointed, and afraid. Now I was committed to seeing this volunteer work through. I would have to travel to Seoul by myself, I would need to sit one-on-one with someone who barely spoke English. I would start to see if I was any good at this at all – despite the fact I’ve been teaching for over 20 years.

Then it was time to have a group photo taken. I felt odd about the whole thing. Is it normal to record the images of those who escaped from the neighboring land? Does North Korea continue to look for these people? Many of the refugees seemed hesitant to come to the front of the room, yet they all complied. We were all crammed together, forced to squeeze in tightly so we all fit into the frame, so that may have been the reason that the woman to the right of me dug her fingernails into my arm while she stood next to me. Or why my future student, standing on my left, grabbed the fabric of my sleeve and partially hid behind me. Or why two others made peace signs and held them up in front of their faces. Then again, maybe it was because they didn’t want to be seen but didn’t feel they had the right to say no to participating in the group photo — it’s not as though they grew up in a place where saying “no” was an option (at least politically). The director did say that no one had to be in the photo, but did they understand his English? Did they feel comfortable going against the request of authority?

The meeting was over and I left the crowded room with tutoring sessions slated for the next day and the one after that. No turning back now.

The Jjimjilbang Experience: Dealing with bodies

Jjimjilbangs are a combination of spa, family getaway, and cheap sleeping space. At least that was what this one was all about – admittedly the one we stayed in was one of the larger ones, being in Seoul and near a train station (I just looked it up — It is also apparently one of the more famous ones). I had no idea what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t this.

going in

We’re going in!

When we checked in we were given a uniform. A loose fitting shirt and pair of shorts identical that everyone wore; like a prison uniform or scrubs. Really, it was pajamas. Everyone wearing the exact same pair of pajamas like we were all on the same spa and sleep team. We also got a key numbered to designate our locker spaces; everyone wore theirs around their wrist, its springy bright cord reminiscent of a friendship jelly bracelet or an old phone cord.


Now I look like everyone else 😉

Uniform in hand, we first went to an area to take off our shoes and store them in a small locker. Then it was upstairs to get into our proper attire. Women went to one floor, men to the other, so our group separated. The first floor was for co-ed mingling, but the rest of the place was gender segregated. Another set of lockers – these bigger – so we could put away our civilians and become one with the masses. Except for my skin tone and hair color, I looked like everyone else in the shapeless getup.

Back downstairs to look for the men. They were nowhere to be found. We scoured all the offerings on the first floor – snack bars, an arcade, a common room where some watched TV, but most just lounged about. Sauna rooms and an ice room where young couples had a chance to snuggle and others just enjoyed soaking up the warmth or cold. A restaurant, an internet lounge and a movie theater. People everywhere and of every age from toddlers to the elderly all here to doing all sorts of things before going to sleep. Purchases such as food, arcade games and internet time are recorded by swiping your bracelet on electronic pads;  payment is due at check out.

My friend (a Korean woman who married one of Dave’s good friends) and I gave up searching for the men and went back upstairs to enjoy the spa. In a jjimjilbang spa clothing is prohibited, so I stripped off my uniform and placed it in the locker.

Walking around naked, I found myself sucking in my belly even though no one seemed to care. Even my white skin seemed uninteresting to everyone else. Yet I remained unhappy with my body in a place that displayed all shapes and sizes. My body certainly was unique (relatively large breasts on a medium-sized frame), but so were ALL THE BODIES. I continued to the spa.

The spa area is amazing. Several pools of varying temperatures ranging from the scalding to the freezing; some of the pools have jets, while others are filled with water containing minerals meant to improve health by either reducing arthritis, increasing energy, or decreasing stress. There are also optional treatments such as massage and the salt rub, a Korean specialty.

After relaxing in the pools, it was time for sleep. We stayed up pretty late (it was around 2AM by the time we decided to turn in) so space was at a premium. We managed to grab the last two spots on a heated floor; thankfully we had grabbed two pillows – more like plastic covered square cushions – downstairs when we were looking for the guys. Normally people sleep on foam mats along the walls, but those were all taken. Bare floor space in the middle of the room was all that was left; my friend and I slept head to head, trying to leave enough space on either side of us for when others got up in the middle of the night. There were about 50 women in the room.

I didn’t really sleep. Sleeping on a bare floor among a bunch of people I didn’t know proved to be a little much for me. But I can see me getting used to the concept and I would try it again. Nevertheless, that day  I gave up slumber early and left the room to head downstairs. People who had gone to bed later than I were still curled up on the floors, in stairwells, and even under tables. Note to self (and others): if it’s crowded at the jjimjilbang scope out a place to sleep sooner rather than later.

Eventually the rest of my group woke up, found each other, and we checked out. Unlimited access to the spa pools and the right to fight for a place to sleep ran us $13 a person. Pretty damn cheap even if the sleeping accommodations aren’t my favorite. The other reason it was worth every penny?: The experience of the jjimjilbang reminded me that beauty is culturally constructed; there is no universal ideal shape, curve, or skin tone. People don’t come to a jjimjilbang to show off or judge others. They come here to relax and take care of themselves.

entrance beetle

Beetle at the entrance. Kinda cool, kinda creepy.

Sorry I didn’t take pictures – it felt like a violation of people’s privacy and  rude to do so. But you can check it out here!

Love Motels

Love Motels are everywhere in Korea. Basically, they are hotels with a late check-in time (10PM or later) and often set up to be a getaway for couples. Since people – especially women – are expected to live at home until marriage, there really isn’t a place for a couple to have any privacy. I’ve also heard that another reason young adults live with their parents is because the rental deposits are so huge (read: $10,000 to $50,000 bucks!), that no one can afford their own place. Enter the Love Motel which provides people with the opportunity to have sex in a private place, even though premarital sex is frowned upon here (In that way, the US is not much different in its attitude about premarital sex, especially among the young – commonplace, but still seen as improper on some level). Love Motels also have a bit of a reputation for being a place for affairs and sex workers, as they can be rented by the hour – though sometimes a monogamous couple may choose the hourly option if staying overnight would arouse too much suspicion within the family. So yeah – Love Motels. They’re pretty ubiquitous and basically set up for sex, which is sort of weird for Korea since this country is pretty secretive about sex for the most part (a subject for at least one other blog post).

One of the things that make Love Motels different from other hotels are the entrances. The entrances are somewhat secret – off the main road, and shielded with heavy fabric like the kind that you would see in a drive-through car wash. That way, passersby need to make an effort to see who is in the parking lot, people getting out of the car can do so privately, and therefore customers can feel slightly more comfortable patronizing a place. At the front door of some buildings, you can see pictures of rooms that are still available and pay either by the hour, or the night using an automated system, so you do not even need to make eye contact with a desk person.

1 Hotel Pop

Secret car wash entrance.

The pictures of the rooms outside the building are important, IMO, because they show off the décor – another thing that can make Love Motels different. Here (least in the fancier ones) rooms are often theme-based, and customers can choose the room according to what it looks like. Half the fun of staying in a Love Motel is the crazy room! Dave and I stayed in a Hello Kitty room one time (copyright be damned). There was also a Simpsons room and a room made to look like a camp site, featuring a large mural of a crushed beer can. Next time we want to either stay with the Simpsons or in the room with the large gun painted on the wall, film noir style.

Hello Kitty w computer

What age demographic is this for?

Other room features that demonstrate its sex focus? The jetted tub, large enough for two, is in the main room, not the bathroom. From there (or the bed) you can view the giant TV which offers several porn viewing options (some free, some not), along with several other films. The shower is also big enough for two, and the rain showerhead helps ensure both parties can get under the water at the same time. Robes and towels are provided, as are several toiletries including colognes for men and women – and not just tiny bottles, but full-sized. The bottled water, juice, and soda in the fridge are all free of charge.

hello kitty bath

Kick ass bathtub

Then there’s the personal pack you can choose to purchase (though at some places they are apparently free – mine cost just a dollar); this includes, among other items, two tooth brushes, bubble bath, some extra special lotions, and two condoms. Checkout time is noon.

hotel pop bag

All this for a dollar!

Oh, and apparently in some lobbies, there are dildo machines. I have yet to see one though. Our Love Motel did provide free popcorn and espresso, however, which was quite nice.

3 Teddy 2

Just popcorn and coffee here…and a giant teddy bear.

As with any hotels, Love Motels vary in quality and price. From the outside, many are beautiful buildings and some are decorated with humorous paintings or made to look like various structures (one in Cheonan looks like a Swiss chateau; another has a weird Wizard of Oz motif). I think the one we stayed in – Hotel Pop – is in the nice to medium range. Checking in at 10PM in a very central part of Seoul ran us $80 a night.

Oz love motel

We’re off to see the Wizard at a Love Motel in Cheonan

As I said before, Love Motels are all over the place. But apparently Koreans are not pleased about this. A few years ago this newspaper article ran in response to a controversy about a photo essay on Love Motels featured in an English magazine published in Korea. Apparently, the photo essay itself generated a decent amount of negative response from Koreans – how dare this journalist highlight the underside of Korean culture? Or, what seemed to be more the issue: How could our country betray us by allowing this feature to be published? Yet despite the author of the newspaper article – a professor at a prestigious Korean university – defending the right for the photojournalist to feature Love Motels and the magazine to subsequently publish the piece, he still sees Love Motels as a point of shame, and dreams of their eradication.

As a tourist, Love Motels can be a great option if you want to stay in a pretty nice (and fun/interesting) place for a good price. My experience with them is limited, as I only went to one (two separate times) with a partner and we are obviously American (white); presumably we were treated as tourists – not as opportunists. But we were treated with respect and the rooms, while not completely spotless, were clean and well stocked. When we couldn’t find the remote which controlled the TV, lights, and heat, someone came up right away to help. So, Love Motels aren’t just for “illicit” couples; they can be for anyone. I have no idea what it would be like to try to bring your kids there though; but I can see some young people being THRILLED to stay in a place decked out in cartoon characters ;-). That said, some parents may not be too thrilled to bring their children to a place with a sex toy vending machine…

But even if sex is their primary purpose, the Love Motel omnipresence demonstrates that they are here to stay and are used enough to keep them all in business. One sign that Korea’s attitudes about sex and sexuality are far from unique – sex is all around us, but we dare not speak its name.