Between Yogurt and Milk

Propelled by caffeine and the type of high that only 5 days on the beach in Thailand during Chuseok can inspire, I shoot through the lobby to the elevator entrance area.  The elevator deposits me onto the 12th floor where I scan my finger print and then sign my name on the employee sign in sheet.  I then pass through the double doors leading to the main office area and proceed to my desk to login to the company time management system.  I have now jumped through all of the ridiculous hoops required to prove that I am in the office.  Time to fuck off to Starbucks.  Just kidding.

The espresso machine is warming up, and I’m sitting at my desk.  A tap on my shoulder.  A gloved hand.  I turn around to be greeted by the Yakult ajumma.  Everyone’s favorite middle-aged female yogurt peddler dressed in the iconic beige company colors from head to toe.  Strict uniform and grooming standards adhered to fully, betraying the company’s Japanese origins.  The Yakult ajumma is hustling for accounts in our office, but she has her work cut out for her.  No other yogurt drink peddlers have secured accounts with any of our famously penny pinching staff.  One of my co-workers is so stingy, he actually washes disposable paper cups and reuses them.

The yogurt drink racket is a tough one.  You either score accounts, or you starve.  It’s all about leads.  Gotta get those leads.  Someone on the inside, probably for a commission, has tipped off the Yakult ajumma to our office’s yogurt drink supply chain deficiency.  In a typical Korean office, the Yakult ajumma will have several clients to visit on her morning yogurt drink runs.  She’ll collect a daily or weekly fee, while supplying nutrition in the form of liquefied yogurt in a small plastic drinking container.  Korean-American colleague Lee never gets tired of telling the same lame yogurt joke every time he sees the Yakult ajumma.  “Hey Jake, what’s the difference between a K-pop boy group, and a yogurt?”  errrrr  “There’s less fruit in the yogurt!”  I’m pretty sure that when the boss forced everyone to go through a sexual harassment seminar, the woman from the bar association mentioned something about gay jokes, and how they could lead to lawsuits, or something.  I’m also fairly sure that Lee was too busy mentally undressing the presenter to actually hear anything she said.

Men in Korea live with their mothers until they get married, at which time they are handed off to wives who take over some of the nagging responsibilities, but none of the mothering responsibilities, leaving many an ajeossi with feelings of profound emptiness. The maternal teet is tucked back into the waist band, no longer available for suckling.  She doesn’t wash my clothes the way mommy did, and her rice doesn’t taste as good.  The other day she actually ordered delivery food instead of cooking me a hot meal.  Along comes a child, and suddenly an ajeossi is no longer even getting the proper nutrition he needs to survive his grueling office routine.  The kid gets all the attention; ajeossi is just there to smile stupidly and underwrite the purchase of designer goods and expensive after-school academies.  As the months pass by, bit by bit, he hardens into a brittle shell of a human being, but wait…..

This is where the Yakult ajumma comes in.  A touch of mothering, a bit of nutrition, and some friendly chit-chat.  She asks me how my day was, and worries about my health!  When was the last time my wife and kid even looked up at me when I sat down at the dinner table?  My wife sleeps 16 hours a day, and spends the other 8 hours glued to home shopping TV channels or her smartphone!   

The Yakult ajumma, heaven-sent, pops a little plastic straw through the foil top of a tiny yogurt drinking bottle, and with it she nurses a grown man back to life with 12 types of vitamins and minerals.  Mission accomplished, she mounts her motorized icebox and glides down the sidewalk out of sight, swallowed by the rolling steel and concrete metropolis until she reappears tomorrow at the same time to deliver nutrition and collect envelopes of cash.

The only question I have is how did this woman get past security, the front desk fingerprint scanner, and the employees-only locked double doors?  Is security so lax that they’ll let anyone into the office?  Just last June building security was read the riot act for letting a senile gentleman carrying pineapples and a giant machete into the building to sell pineapple slices.  His strategy was to stand next to employees and whack the pineapple with his machete until the terrified victim offered to buy a slice.  Safety first!  Did anyone do their job and ID the Yakult ajumma at the front desk?  Who decides which peddlers to let in, and which to turn away?  I suppose part of the Yakult master plan all along was to hire a female-only staff of yogurt peddlers precisely because they have the ability to breeze past building security.  No matter in our case though.  If the Yakult ajumma were a man carrying a large machete and talking to himself, the dumb-shit security guards on the first floor would probably wave him on up, and the front desk girls would then smile and buzz him in the front door.


In my eyes I done seen some crazy thangs in the streets. Gotta couple ‘joomaz workin’ on the track just for me. But I gotta keep my game tight like Kobe on game night.. Takin’ money from these bitches, yeah I know that ain’t right.

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A Man’s Breakfast

Most people live not for the routine itself, but for the small interruptions that break the monotony of the routine.  The coffee corner hidden between a cheap partition and an antiquated workhorse copy machine serves as a morning beacon of hope for our company’s foreign staff, a sort of refuge. We congregate and exchange fragmented bits of information as the hydraulic pump inside the Italian espresso machine wakes up and pumps water through the heater coils in a loop until it reaches the correct espresso temperature.  Nobody is truly awake yet.  We need stimulation.  It is during this time that the foreign staff talk serious business.

“English muffin with butter, yogurt” says one waegook colleague. “Not bad” mutters someone else. “Scrambled eggs, one slice of toast, and a black coffee” I say. More nods of approval. “Seaweed soup, leftover fish cake, rice, something red, and something green that looked like grass.” says editor Mike, newly married to a Korean wife with whom he communicates solely in Korean. Looks of sympathy from the group, but Mike grins. He’s satisfied with living an entirely local lifestyle, eating and drinking as the locals do. Good for him. The steel Italian giant produces it’s first shot of espresso. “A cold croissant and a carton of milk” says the company Frenchman. Lee, the gyopo from the Sales Department downs the espresso shot. “C’mon Smith, spit it out. What did you have for breakfast today?” Smith, also an editor, also married to a Korean, hesitates before answering. I see two other waegook colleagues literally rubbing their hands together and licking their chops with anticipation. “Two eggs Benedict with smoked ham. A side of Canadian bacon. One home-made waffle with Crown maple syrup, powdered sugar and blue berries. Small dish of Greek yogurt with diced nuts and slices of banana and strawberry. One circular hashbrown, handmade. A glass of Thai orange juice, and a milk.”

“Fuck off Smith!” Lee from sales crushes his paper coffee cup and slams it into the trash can. Cries of jealousy and injustice erupt from the circle as the machine continues to whir, sputter and grind. Smith’s Korean wife is a professional chef, previously employed with some of the best hotels in Europe and Singapore and now five months pregnant with nobody to cook for but Smith. His morning breakfast stories are almost pornographic fantasies to those of us who have been on the peninsula for years, and are the primary reason we all gather around the espresso machine at the same time each morning while the Korean staff stare with suspicion.  Are they plotting against us?  Engaging in vulgar, sexist western male gossip?  Plotting to undermine the big boss?

As Smith describes a breakfast dish, desperate long-term expat colleagues will prod him for details. “What did she do next, Smith? Did she use cheese? Like, real cheese?” Or “What did the omelet look like Smith? Give me details, I want details!“, all while licking their chops and rubbing their hands together like the hungry wolf in a Tex Avery cartoon. I have to wonder about some of these guys’ lives. Has it really been that long since they saw a proper omelet or a home-made waffle? I’ll admit that sometimes as I am driving to work or taking the subway, I actually wonder what Smith’s wife cooked for breakfast that day. Was it something spectacular? How does it compare to what I ate?  How was the dish laid out and where did she get all of the ingredients? Though I have never met Smith’s wife, I sometimes actually dream of Smith’s wife’s cooking as I commute to work. A man’s breakfast can largely determine how the pre-lunch bit of his day will unfold. People who eat what Smith eats for breakfast can’t possibly feel depressed on Monday mornings. If Smith were flat broke, he’d probably still be happy. Even Lee, the Korean-American married to an American girl does not eat this well, Cornflakes being his primary morning staple.

I used to ask my Korean colleagues what they ate for breakfast. They’d always look at me like I was a moron for asking such a stupid question. I later came to realize that their answer would either be (A) seaweed soup and rice, or (B) nothing. Indeed, it was stupid to ask them the same question every day and expect to get a different answer. Perhaps I want hoping they’d surprise me. I get the feeling that some men have been eating the same thing for breakfast and lunch for years or possibly decades.  There is no breakfast culture in Korea, as you might expect from a place where people prefer to photograph food to actually sitting down and savoring it.  For the unemployed, there is a kind of faux-brunch Itaewon ‘culture’, but it’s just not the same.  The typical Korean breakfast is cheap, plain and simple, mostly consisting of whatever side dishes the family didn’t eat the previous night.  A man could potentially eat for breakfast exactly what he ate for dinner the previous night.  Excellent for cost-cutting, but painfully boring to think about.

The espresso machine reaches steady operating temperature and the smell of coffee permeates the office. I think the espresso machine cost more than the copy machine sitting next to it, but good coffee, like a good breakfast, is essential. Once you start skipping breakfast and drinking Maxim instant coffee, there’s no turning back. There are those who refuse to compromise when it comes to certain things, and there are those who drink Maxim coffee and smoke the cheapest cigarettes. Then there are those like Smith, who smile because they know they’ve got a good thing and won’t ever let it go.

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Life, As Other People Live It

Henry Update (per request)

A lazy Saturday afternoon on Itaewon’s golden mile.  I nurse my beer as Henry drinks what appears to be a Honey Butter Selfie-Stick Churro Macaroon Latte from Starbucks.  Why he needs so much sugar and caffeine on a Saturday afternoon, I will never know.  Ever since Henry’s Itaewon blowout last month, his wife Ji-young has put him back on the Korean husband allowance system (KHAS), whereby he has no access to credit cards and is given a mere 10,000 won per day on which to subside.  I’ve never understood this Korean tradition whereupon getting married, the male hands over his entire salary to his wife, and is given back a pittance in the form of what we western folk would call and ‘allowance’.

The prevailing sexist ideology used to defend this age-old practice is that men are reckless and free-spending, and will ruin their families financially if they are allowed access to their own money; money they earn by toiling around their offices for OECD record-crushing work hours while still maintaining puzzlingly low levels of productivity.  Henry seems to have proven this sexist generalization to be true, at least in his case.  Furthermore, with his limited 10,000won per day budget, I also find the purchase of a Starbucks Honey Butter Selfie-Stick Churro Macaroon Latte to be a bit extravagant.  Aside from the occasional blow-out, Henry has been pretty good with money, or so he says.  “Hey man, I once saved my allowance money for 3 months to buy a baseball glove.  Ate nothing but company cafeteria food, and walked to work everyday!  Ji-young thought I was taking the bus, but nope, I was pocketing that 1,600 won.”

Three months of saving his allowance to buy a baseball glove?  This man is nearly 40 years old.  Sadly, my Korean colleagues, for the most part, live under this type of wage slavery system; lives controlled entirely wives by pinching the flow of ‘pocket money’ down to a trickle.  Ironically, in Korea, it is men who are expected to diligently save for years in order to provide their nothing-in-the-bank, materialistic girlfriends with the apartment and wedding of their dreams.  More often than not, the bride brings nearly nothing to the table financially, having frittered all of her cash away on overseas trips with girlfriends, shopping, etc.  If the groom is lucky, the wife’s parents will provide furniture for the apartment.

This is one reason why the whole men-can’t-handle-money argument starts to get poked full of holes.  A guy who saves up for 5-8 years for a wedding and apartment, suddenly after putting on a wedding ring, is no longer capable of saving money?  Instead, his wife, often times jobless, rarely with a degree in finance, accounting, economics etc, is entrusted with the family’s entire financial portfolio.  I ponder this as Henry downs the last of his overpriced coffee.



A female coworker tells me that she was in a PC room playing Starcraft when her grandfather died, and that her parents couldn’t get her to leave the PC room because she was in the middle of a game.  This was in the late 1990’s.  Another female coworker tells me she thinks that the big boss is having an affair; no she’s almost certain.  No, it’s actually an open secret.  Rumors abound that chairman Kim is using company funds to pay the lease on a car that mysteriously, nobody has ever seen.  His wife already has a car, his loser kangaroo-baby son doesn’t have a driver’s license, and the big boss hasn’t stopped driving his own car despite it being three generations out of date.  So where, then, is this new leased car that shows up on company accounts?  Chairman Kim has been looking a bit happier these days, and taking longer lunch breaks.  I’d like to criticize his lack of morals, but morals, ethics and running a profitable business in Korea do not go hand in hand, as they might say.  So the big boss is practicing his immorality both in and out of the office now, who am I to complain?  I’ve met the wife and son before, and I’m surprised it took him this long to find a girlfriend on the side.

I scan the parking lot for vehicles matching the description of the one on company accounting records, but alas the mystery vehicle is not in the company parking garage.  Chairman Kim appears to be playing it safe, and outsourcing his liaisons.


‘Slow down, Dipshits!’ -Korean Government

The WSJ (whose fine publication I’ve been stealing from Korean hotel lobbies for nearly a decade) have recently published a piece outlining how the Korean government is trying to get everyone to ‘slow down’, even when it comes to so-called recreational things, like hiking in the mountains.  After the Wall Street Journal deep-sixed it’s Korea Realtime website, I figured we’d see even fewer articles about Korea from them, but I guess I was wrong.  The WSJ and other foreign media companies that cover Korea but are headquartered outside of Korea have the wonderful advantage of being brutally honest without fear of reprisal.

The article summarizes what anyone who has lived in Korea could have probably ascertained on their own; that Koreans cannot give up their ‘Me First Me First’ culture, even when it comes to formerly non-competitive things, like mountain hiking.  Instead of enjoying their leisure time, breathing in the fresh air and enjoying as much time outside of their Daewoo Heavy Industries plastic coffin box apartments as possible, the locals have turned hiking into a pushy, shove-y, all-out race to the top of the mountain where they line up to take group photos at the peak before quickly rushing back down to the bus stop, the shouting, the traffic and the chaos of daily life.  Oh yeah, and they do all of their speed-hiking in grossly overpriced, hideous ‘look-at-how-much-I-spent’ hiking gear in every shade of neon imaginable.

So what does it mean when a society takes something that is meant to be relaxing, and turns it into something unrewarding, stressful, rushed and expensive?  Well, one could venture a guess.  When a society takes a leisure activity and makes it into a miserable contest where participants compete to outspend and outpace each other to the top of a mountain for the sole purpose of gloating, taking a selfie, and immediately descending, it might indicate that these people are not in truth comfortable with being happy, and that they actually thrive on stress and misery.  Perhaps Koreans are so accustomed to stress and misery that they have to generate stress and misery in situations that would normally be devoid of such things.  And the ridiculous ‘look-at-me-I-spent-more-than-you’ childish culture of gloating about over-consumption and overspending is actually just a laughable race to the bottom.  The hiker who spends the most on their hideous hiking uniform doesn’t thrive on the knowledge that others admire them, they thrive on the knowledge that they are creating envy and misery by raising the bar of consumption among their peers.  The more you spend, the more you make other people miserable with envy, and the end result is that to escape their misery, everyone else spend-spend-spends hundreds of dollars on gaudy hiking uniforms.

The same basic pattern is readily observable in any type of past time that is publicly engaged in.  Camping, for example.  Another past time that most would consider to be relaxing.  Get your tent, get your sleeping bag, get your BBQ and get as far away from the pollution of the big city as possible.  Or, you can do it Korean style, by buying a $2000 tent, $900 BBQ, $400 cooler, and four $120 camping chairs, loading the family into the car and driving to the most densely populated artificially constructed camp site you can find, preferably as close to the polluted city center as possible, where you will then setup your $2000 tent 1 meter from another family with another $2000 tent.  Your kids will be screaming and running around between bouts of smart-phone gaming.

Your wife will spend most of her time avoiding the sun and humble-bragging on Instagram with photos of your wonderful luxurious camping life while you show off your $900 BBQ grill to the family next to you, who bow their heads in shame because they could only afford the face-losing $700 grill.  Your $900 grill next to their $700 grill clearly highlights your elevated (pretend) social status.  All the while, large Korean companies laugh all the way to the bank because they are charging you obscene prices that people in rich countries would laugh at and call preposterous.  Congratulations, you’ve won.  Well, you’ve won until some other family shows up with a $1000 grill and you have to dig into your savings or burn a hole in your credit card to keep up with them.

So then, why do so many activities have to be a race to the bottom spending contest, a cheapened ‘me-first’ experience?  Is it possible for misery and suffering to be culturally ingrained?  Can this nonsensical behavior be un-learned?  The article seems to think it will take around a decade to see any real change, which I think is optimistic.

Posted in Itaewon, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Dateline, Itaewon, Sunday Afternoon

She’s pointing at the Joongang Ilbo because she apparently does not understand what I am searching for, what I am in need of. She and I are in the same solar system, but we are communicating at different wave lengths, man. So I switch to Korean. “No, no, no. You see, I’m looking for the lowest quality, most bottom-feeding journalistic rag on the Korean peninsula.” Her eyes come alive with understanding. I think we have a comprehension breakthrough moment. Then the middle-aged clerk at the MiniStop convenience store across from the UN Club looks me dead in the eye and tells me “Sorry, we don’t carry the Korea Times here.” Dejected, I spill back out into the street.

It’s Sunday afternoon, and I’m in Itaewon with a pocket full of cash and a whole day to kill. Everyone I know is either busy, gone, dead or under ‘Korean wife house arrest’ with balls, credit cards and cash buried in a kimchi jar somewhere. This is my sad state of social affairs. I normally sit down at the Seoul Pub with a copy of the Korea Times and a Sharpie pen, making mature journalistic annotations and commentary in the margins when I come across something thought-provoking. Before starting, I discard the sports page, ‘culture’ page and ‘English times’ page. I am assisted in this process by several glasses of beer:

news_best_friend news_big_blow news_HJ news_joints news_mers news_mers2

Once I finish with the newspaper, I usually neatly fold it and return it back to the store from where I purchased it so the next curious expat can enjoy the Sunday paper with all of the dull sections removed, and colorful commentary added as a kind of bonus content. Thank me later.

I decide to set a budget of just 100,000won for the entire day. I have already had 24,000 worth of beer, leaving me with 76,000 won. I call my whoremonger friend R. who is under ‘Korean wife house arrest’. He is under ‘Korean wife house arrest’ because his wife caught him jerking off in the living room to a photo of a bikini-clad racing model I sent him via Kakaotalk. Addiction counsellors would say that by sending him a provocative photo, I intentionally triggered an ‘addiction relapse event’.  Somehow, I feel partially responsible for his current predicament. I ask him what kind of trouble I can get up to in Itaewon with 76,000won. “Well, 76,000 is handjob/blowjob territory, you can’t get much more than that. But there is this one deaf-mute woman working on Hooker Hill up at the top on the left side up that tiny stairway. She’ll give you a piece of paper and basically you can write down what you want, and a price, and she’ll grab the pen from you and write down her price, trying to haggle. She doesn’t read English, so you have to kind of draw a picture of what you want.”

Hmmm, I think I’ll pass on that one. “Well, if that ain’t your scene, you could try one of those massage places. I heard you can get a prostate massage in the basement of the Hamilton hotel for 50,000.” I google ‘prostate massage’ on my smartphone after hanging up. I then dial American friend Henry, who is also under ‘Korean wife house arrest’ after blowing a large wad of cash on these very streets last month. He’s been here since 1998, he should know. “Ever heard of a prostate massage?” I ask. “Yeah man, I got you covered. See, there’s this little place I go to in Mokdong run by this grandmother. Been goin’ there for years, man. What you do after paying is you get up on this kind of table/bed thing while the old lady gets oiled up, and…..” Henry stops short when one of his kids finds him hiding in his home office, phone to ear, hand cupped over mouthpiece and threatens to ‘tell mommy’. “I gotta go, chat later.” He hangs up.

I decide to go for a normal massage. I pay my 50,000 to the front desk woman who leads me to a small dark room and hands me a little plastic bag with something inside of it. She tells me to disrobe, and walks out to get the masseuse. I open the plastic bag to find a hair net. I think to myself, ‘Why do I need hair net?’ Maybe they don’t want to mess up my hair during the massage, or maybe I have to shower first. I put the hair net on my head and disrobe. The masseuse comes and starts to laugh. “That for you body, you not put on head!” Oops, I guess the little fish net thing she gave me was actually some kind of strange massage underwear that they use for oil massages. I wondered why it had those two holes in it. I guess that’s where you put your legs through

After a G-rated, but professional massage, I’m feeling pretty good and I still have 26,000won in my pocket. I walk the mean streets of Itaewon desperately trying to blow the last of my Korean currency load. I browse the shirts being sold by the street vendors. One of the novelty t-shirts reads “SHITPISS FUCKCUNT COCKSUCKER MOTHERFUCKER”. I ask the kindly 70-something grandmother how much this fine shirt costs, and she says 15,000. Another shirt says “Blow Me or Go Home”, while a red shirt featuring Santa Clause says “Twerk, Bitch”. Nothing catches my eye. I pass the counterfeit Dolce and Gabbana underwear seller, the fake hand bag seller, the tailor touts, the shouting Turkish ice-cream man, the fake Hermes belt vendor and the grandmother selling fake Rayban sunglasses.

I decide that it might not actually be possible for me to spend the whole 100,000won in Itaewon. If you had 100,000 in your pocket, and a day to kill in Itaewon, what would you do?

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Jake in the Office

The elevator comes to a stop on the 12th floor and another prosaic day of work begins.  I barely touch elbows to desk when the woman who calls herself the ‘Coordinator’ materializes next to my desk.  From past experience, I have come to learn that anything she has to say will be almost as useless and irritating as her job title, ‘Coordinator’.

“Jake, we reviewed the monthly time stamp records for last month, and it appears that you did not scan your fingerprint at the front desk from the 20th to the 31st.  If you don’t scan your fingerprint, we cannot pay you.”  She tells me this in grammatically perfect, book-learned English.  The ‘Coordinator’ is nothing if not studious.  Her accent and intonation are what betray her method of study, but it has to be said that her English is leaps and bounds better than my Korean (will ever be).

“Well, if you can’t pay me, then I guess I can’t do my work, so it would seem we have reached a dilemma.”  I say this with a shrug of the shoulders, palms facing the ceiling.  We both know that I was in the office on the aforementioned days, and we both know that I will be paid regardless.  The ‘coordinator’ job seems to have been created specifically for Ms. Kim, who is in some distant, vague way related to our boss (Senior Kim).  She’s one of those middle aged spinsters who spent the previous 20 years telling men that they were not tall enough, not rich enough, not handsome enough or not gentlemanly enough to qualify for her hand in marriage.  As a result, she is now steadfastly single, and has been for years.  She has reached her marriageability half-life and according to female coworkers, nags anyone and everyone to set her up with a ‘decent’ man (when this info is relayed to me through the office grapevine, emphasis is placed on the word decent, as if to imply that any guy with two legs and a job will do).  According to Senior Kim, Ms. Kim (coordinator) spent nearly 14 years studying for, failing, and re-taking the civil service exam before finally giving up.  This is, in effect, her first ‘real’ job …at the age of 39.

Let’s rewind back to February for a moment. The snow is beginning to thaw and boss has learned that certain members of the staff have taken to ditching work after lunch time, and going to the golf course, room salon, or just going home to snooze.  Some of the more careless would simply go to the parking garage and sleep in their cars for a few hours, as CCTV footage would later reveal.  Our humble company initially started with an attendance policy that could be described as the ‘honor system’, whereby the management simply assumed that the staff were in the office working the assigned hours.  Of course whenever the ‘honor system’ is relied upon, we can observe in our colleagues a certain level of moral elasticity.  At first, everyone comes and goes on time.  Then it’s “Well, I left an hour early today, but I’ll put in an extra hour tomorrow.”  Which quickly becomes “Fuck it, I’m leaving at 1 to go play golf.”

The situation first became apparent to the boss when he noticed that the reserved parking spots for mid-level ajeossi staff tended to empty out after lunch time.  Without damaging anyone’s dignity (read: holding guilty parties responsible), a new ‘sign in’ policy was implemented, requiring each employee to sign in and out on  a piece of lined paper at the bottom floor security desk each morning and evening.  After it became clear that one person could sign several people in and out, the boss switched to a computer program that requires everyone to log in and out with their own unique passwords at the beginning and end of the work day, using their office PCs.  This new employee monitoring system seemed to work for a week or so, until some of the younger employees figured out that they could log in and out from their smartphones while sitting in the comfort of a nearby Starbucks.

The third and final solution is the new fingerprint scanner that has been installed at the reception desk in the front lobby.  Each employee is to place their index finger over the fingerprint scanner which then creates a log, verifying their arrival to and departure from the office.  Of course what I have not yet mentioned to my gentle reader is that after each successive upgrade, the previous employee management system was not discontinued.  To put it in simple terms, at one point in time, employees were required to sign in on paper, login via their computers, AND scan their fingerprint in a single day, all to verify that they were at work.  This illogical, convoluted waste of time and energy is the sole responsibility and brainchild of Ms. Kim, ‘coordinator’.

So here we are today, Ms. Kim standing by my desk, trying to navigate the face-losing bureaucratic clusterfuck nightmare that she has created for herself.

“Well Ms. Kim, I may not have scanned my fingerprint on the 29th, but you can clearly see that I signed in at the front desk.  And here, on the 30th, you can clearly see that I was logged into my office PC, though I forgot to scan my finger print.” And this conversation goes on and on for about 30 time-wasting minutes as Ms. Kim shuffles through various log sheets, cross referencing my attendance on each day for the month of July like this was grammar school all over again.  The conversation ends much as it began, “Okay, well, you need to scan your fingerprint, otherwise we can’t pay you.”  I nod my head and wave her away as my antiquated office PC wheezes to life.  The loading screen of pirated Windows 7 Home is strangely calming.

When my PC finally finishes booting all of the Korean bloatware, spyware and malware installed courtesy of the IT department, I surf over to the Wallstreet Journal’s Korea sub-page, only to find that it has ceased to exist.


Yes, Korea may be a ‘flyover’ country –a place people fly over on the way to Tokyo or Shanghai to do business- but one can’t help but feel disappointed that the WSJ has dropped their Korea Real Time page. This was one of the only sites I could rely on for proof-read, mostly unbiased Korea related news untainted by government propaganda (kimchi is a super food, Japan is bad, k-pop is taking over the world, Samsung is number one! etc.) The KRT site will be sorely missed and there seems to be nothing to fill the void. Several people have voiced their disappointment in the comments section. How much was it costing to keep that meager site alive? What caused it to be pulled? Was it the lack of any serious/reliable/interesting/stimulating/believable business news in Korea? Was it the absence of anyone mildly interested in scribbling a few basic articles? Was it the hundreds of rabidly racist, vitriolic, xenophobic comments posted by angry Koreans (or Koreaboo weirdos) in the comments section that eventually made it more trouble that it was worth?

Another one bites the dust. Now all one can do is cycle through local rubbish newspapers, reading government and Samsung approved articles where sources are seldom cited and one gets the nagging suspicion that statistics (if not entire news stories) are completely fabricated.  Korea’s status on the international playing field is thus that the WSJ has seen fit to lump the entire country into the “Asia” section of their website, along with Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, while at the same time maintaining the China and Japan sub-pages.


Lunch at the revolving sushi place in the basement of our office building. A guy in the printing department claims he saw Ms. Kim (coordinator) walking around the building with a thermometer and clipboard, recording the temperatures in everyone’s office. Cost-cutting appears to be one of her key responsibilities, and to that end she is brutal and efficient. An Indian guy (name escapes me) who is performing the dual responsibilities of Web Designer and IT Manager claims that he was written up because the IT room temperature was 23 degrees; one degree below the allowable 24. “But we have to keep the servers cool, otherwise everything crashes!” he exclaims. Ms. Kim has affixed a long blue string to the vent on every air conditioning unit in our 12th and 13th floor offices, so she can tell at a mere glance who is running their air-conditioner, and who is dutifully saving energy.

While Senior Kim takes a business trip to LA to meet with some publishing companies, I have the next two days off. The possibilities are endless, but all roads lead to Itaewon.

Posted in Life in Korea, Please understanduh my unique culture, The Expat | 4 Comments

Jake on the Town

Walking down the street in the ‘new’ Itaewon this afternoon.  I observe how the place itself, and the demographic have undergone a near total shift.  The streets are crowded with swarms of local women, who arrive in flocks to stand in line outside of restaurants hawking faux-foreign cuisine.  When they get inside, they will no doubt order a ‘famous’ dish from the menu, that is to say, whichever dish has been recommended to them by whichever Naver blogger happens to be in the spot light on this particular day.  They will then spend 5 minutes photographing the food, and then posing for a ‘selfie’ while the food sits there and gets cold.  The pictures will later be uploaded to Instagram with comments reading something pretentious like “Just another typical lunch in Itaewon, yawn.”  Itaewon, August 2015, what’s not to love?

I once got into a debate with a friend about why so many women seem obsessed with photographing food.  My colleague ventured a guess that since Koreans were deprived of food during their struggle for independence, food holds some kind of mystical and magical appeal to them.  In fact, “Did you eat?” was long a popular Korean greeting, something akin to how we Western people might say “Good afternoon.”  I, on the other hand feel that people who photograph average looking cuisine in average restaurants have decided that being an interesting person in real life has been replaced by being an indefinable character on social media platforms.

If you can’t be interesting as a person, you have to appear as though you are at least doing something interesting.  If you aren’t doing something interesting, then you have to at least be hanging out some place interesting.  When all of that fails, you fall back on posting as many food pictures as you can on social media, and hoping that someone, somewhere will recognize and admire what you had for lunch, and what you will later dispel into a toilet bowl.  Regardless, whenever I eat at a restaurant in Itaewon, all I hear is the click click click of smartphone cameras firing off, documenting what Ju-hee and Hyun-jin and So-hee ate for lunch today, no doubt adding another notch in the belt of some rubbish food-centric Naver blog.

The new Itaewon crowd is precisely this: People who want to dip their feet into the shallow end of the foreign experience while wearing a life vest and a full-body swim suit.  They don’t want the entire foreign experience; they want something safe and measured and predictable, like a foreign-style hamburger, cooked by Koreans, in a Korean-owned restaurant.  Or ‘fusion’ kimchi tacos.  Something they can identify, with  little sprinkles of foreign exoticism mixed in -but in a totally contrived, controlled, safe environment.  They aren’t ready to jump into the deep end or remove their life vests yet, and they never venture out alone; they move in flocks.  People who move in flocks; or ‘flockers’.  People who worship trends; or ‘trendsters’.  Itaewon is completely inundated with flockers and trendsters.  Photographing a Turkish khebab in Itaewon is the Western equivalent of taking a selfie inside of a Taco Bell in Seattle.  Subsequently uploading the photos to Instagram is the Western equivalent of bragging about graduating from high school.

I’m headed towards Hooker Hill, and one of the last expat refugee containment centers; the Goldfish Bar.  A bearded waegook walking in front of me is talking to his husky, flip-flop clad Korean girlfriend as they waddle side by side.  “An expat is a person who leaves their country to go and live long term in another country.”  His explanation was obviously prompted by a question from her.  He’s setting her straight on the difference between an expat, and someone who is simply in a suspended state of disbelief, dodging student loans while drinking cheap beer and chasing snatch halfway around the world.  Wait a minute, I know people who have been here for 12 years and are still doing that.  Wait a minute, that’s everyone I know.

I approach Hooker Hill, the sidewalk is a catwalk, and summer time clothing in Korea leaves little to the imagination.  I pick my tongue up from the sidewalk and stroll into the Fish where Lehman-Brothers-flunkey-cum-ESL teacher Henry is already waiting for me.  The crowd is a bit rough around the edges at one of Seoul’s last expat watering holes.  A dark-skinned American man in a black leather vest is talking to his Filipina companion; “I used to be a cop, but then I got mixed up in some shit and had to fuck off real quick” he says.  The pear-shaped former bargirl ooooos and ahhhhs at his tale of bravado.  At another table, a dodgy looking Kiwi man explains to his equally shifty looking friend, “Yeah mate, so my university made me sign this written agreement saying that I wouldn’t have any further contact with any of my female students….”  I love the Goldfish Bar.

Henry looks haggard and has already drained half a pitcher of beer.  I sit down and wait for the story.  I know there is a story because Henry is wearing the same clothes that he was wearing yesterday evening when I saw him at the Seoul Pub.  “Ji-young is super angry at me, but I can’t even figure out why!” he exclaims.  “Last night, when I tried to go home, she locked the door using the bolt from inside.  I called her and I could hear the phone ringing inside the apartment, but she wouldn’t pick up!”

I ask Henry what time he went home.  “Well, actually, it was more like this morning, like you know, maybe 6:30am?”  I can’t imagine why the mother of his two children would be angry.  “I’m as puzzled as you are..” I tell him as I order a beer for myself.

Turns out Henry had a long night, beginning at the illustrious Seoul Pub.  After perhaps one drink too many, he was approached by a flirtatious middle aged Korean woman who invited him to the King Club for more drinks.  “I thought ‘what the hell’ man, why not? So we get to the King Club, and the whole placed has changed into a juicy bar!”  I myself was unaware of the shift in business models at the King Club until fairly recently.  At this point, I can guess how the story ends, but I humor him anyway.  “Really?  The King Club? How could such a previously well-regarded entertainment establishment fall down the slippery slope so quickly?”

“Yeah man, so I get inside and the place is empty.  This woman leads me to a table, and asks me to buy her a drink.  Before I knew it, all of her barracuda friends are swarming my table asking for drinks, and my credit card just kind of disappeared.”  Like many men who have had their testicles removed, Henry’s finances are controlled tightly by his wife Ji-young.  There is a rumor among expat circles that Henry subsides on a mere 10,000won per day, but even I can’t believe this, though he is drinking Korean beer today so the story is at least somewhat believable.  “And so Ji-young’s phone starts blowing up with automatic text messages from the bank each time these barracudas swipe my credit card.  She starts freaking out and calling me, but my phone battery is dead.”  I ask him what the damage was.  “The tab hit like $700 before Ji-young called the bank and turned my card off.”

So this explains why Henry looks so glum.  I figure a ‘lady drink’ cost somewhere near $39 which means that Henry bought somewhere around 17 ‘lady drinks’.  “You were a financial analyst, so you know all about how wealth redistribution works.  Last night you basically redistributed $700 of your capital to several members of a lower socioeconomic class.  Did you at least get something to drink out of it?”  Henry explains that as the night progressed, he had a ‘lapse’ and found himself on a sticky vinyl covered folding sofa in the back room of an Itaewon flop house, in the company of a woman old enough to be his aunt.  I guess it wasn’t 17 lady drinks that brought the bill to $700 after all.  If situations like these don’t incentivize you to change your station in life, nothing will.

“So like, now she won’t answer my calls.  I totally don’t know what she’s flipping out over.”

I’m truly as mystified as my good friend.  He changes the subject, “My 11 year old made a Korean war diorama for history class.”  “Big deal” I say, “11 year olds in China are making Samsung flat screen televisions”.  We pay the bill and depart in our separate directions.  A drunken Henry, much like a stream, moves in only one direction.  Down, down into the mean streets of Itaewon and into whatever self-destructive, marriage sabotaging mischief he can get into with his remaining 2000won.  The sun begins to set through the haze of factory smog and another day turns to night in East Asia’s hub of dynamism.

Posted in Itaewon, Uncategorized | 26 Comments

The 8th Annual Expat Korea Congress

The true measure of one’s power is not land or money or physical strength.  The true measure of one’s power is control.  As in, how many people one controls.  You say that you are big and rich and powerful and successful and handsome, and that you can hold a 10 kilo kettle bell 90 degrees straight out from your body with your erect penis?  Big deal hot shot, but how many people do you control?  What’s your name, and how many people do you control?  What is the size of your army?  This is what matters; in terms of power; all else is irrelevant.  My name is Jake, and I control an army of 60 loyal expats, how about you?  ….That’s what I thought.  Go back to your kindergarten job, your gym and your dick-stretching kettle bell exercises.  We’re here to talk about man stuff, expat stuff.  Dust off the 21 year old whiskey and bring out the pipe tobacco.

The 8th Annual Expat Congress is coming up next month and myself along with a committee of 19 other members of the Korean expat jet-set glitterati have been neck deep in paperwork, power point slides, and discarded coffee cups.  Deciding on a venue poses a major logistical problem.  That any large scale expat meeting would be held in Itaewon was beyond question.  But which specific venue would be most appropriate for a large scale meeting of high profile expat movers and shakers?  Some place expat-friendly?  That narrows it down to less than 10 venues.  Some place with no upper age restrictions?  Some of my expat brothers have actually survived beyond their 40th year on this frigid peninsula, despite repeated suicide/escape attempts, so age-hostile places like the Gold Bar (no patrons over 40 allowed) are out of the question.

And then we have to consider which places my various friends have been banned from, which is an extra consideration that only people among my particular social group seem to have to address.  You say you’ve been banned from Dave’s ESL café?  Banned from KoreaBang?  Banned from every Koreaboo website on the internet?  Big fucking deal, man.  I have friends who have been physically banned for life from actual brick and mortar businesses in Itaewon.  I have friends who actually have to sign in with captain Kim at the Itaewon police station and register their presence before the soles of their shoes can kiss the pavement in Itaewon.  I have friends with GPS ankle bracelets that start to beep and send signals to the Seoul prosecutor’s office when they get within 3 kilometers of Itaewon’s magic mile.  I actually have to sit and make a list of friends names, and a list of Itaewon businesses, and then draw little lines all over the place to figure out who has been banned from where.  Painstaking work.  Expat problems.

I’ve been tasked with drawing up the meeting agenda, creating a list of topics to be discussed and voted upon by the 8th Annual Expat Congress, the representatives of which have been elected via a Kakaotalk polling application accessible to only the ~200 most influential expats on the peninsula, you know, the people who actually matter (No, you can’t join without an invitation, so don’t ask).  Complex issues such as “Who will be the next cultural ambassador to Itaewon?” will be addressed. I held the position myself for two years, as did my consigliere Johnny Drama.  Who will be next?  Big shoes to fill, lots of hands to shake, lots of people to meet.  Who possesses the required social skills?  Hushed whispers in the jimjilbang hint that someone whose name starts with “S” or “T” or “A” or “C” could be next, but these rumors are unconfirmed.

Next up for discussion is the re-design of the Expat Hell official name cards and stickers.  People always email me asking how they can join the members-only message board on this site.  Basically, it works in the same way that Korean actresses and models get hired, except you don’t have to put anyone’s penis in your mouth.  You see, new recruits are scouted in person, on the mean streets of Itaewon, Seoul, Gyeonggi-do and as far away as Wonju and Busan.  The signature Expat Hell business card is handed over to individuals who have qualified for admission into our gentleman’s social club.  The boss (me) hands a stack of cards to his underboss, who in turn distributes them to his caporegimes, who in turn pass them on to their soldiers who go out on the streets and into expat friendly places in search of new associates.  It’s all rather complicated.  Think of it as receiving Willy Wonka’s golden ticket.  You don’t choose membership, the membership chooses you.

Additional topics for discussion are the renovation of the Expat Hell World Headquarters on the 6th floor of the Hamilton hotel (room 602).  The room has been handed down from expat to expat over the generations, and frankly is in dire need of a full restoration lest anyone’s mistress complain of roaches or cigarette smoke or plastic bags full of long-used condoms hanging from cheap plastic hangers in the closet.  Which shady contractor will be used for the renovations, or will we simply renovate it ourselves?  Tough decision.  It will all come down to a vote.

The Expat Hell Senior Expat Pension System will also be revised. It would seem that some of our expat brothers aged beyond 40 have run into hard times on the job market.  The Koreans ain’t hirin’ senior citizens, and once you reach age 40, you are basically a senior citizen in Korea.  We younger expats will pay into the pension system to support the older expats who are no longer able to secure full time employment, or pay the legal bills from their 3rd divorce, etc.  Expats helping expats, a strange concept alien to most foreigners in Korea.

The Hooker Hill Relocation Charity Dinner is also in the works, and will be hosted at a well known Italian bistro with actual Italians in the kitchen.  The per-plate donation is still being worked out, with all proceeds going towards the relocation of all of the comfort women prostitutes who will soon be homeless as Itaewon’s Hooker Hill is redeveloped into tourist hotels, bibimbap restaurants and trendy faux-western/faux-authentic eateries.  Social responsibility; helping the community.

A vote will be held on which business venture will next be absorbed by the Expat Hell Hedge Fund.  The coffers are bursting at the seams and the Expat Hell© portfolio is ripe for another acquisition, but what?  Will it be a print shop?  A bar or pub?  A cocktail lounge?  A deaf/mute souvenir cart?  A Thai massage parlor? Allow me to go off on a tangent for a moment.  There is a Thai massage place near my office and in the evenings, they have two Thai girls standing next to the door, greeting potential customers.  One of the Thai girls is tall and thin, with hair down to her ass and silver bracelets up to her elbows.  She looks directly at me with deep, electric eyes every time I pass by on my way to get coffee in the evening.  Her gaze blows wind into my battered sails.  Kryptonite to the working man!  Fuck the coffee; a thousand megawatt smile is all the working man needs to clock in long hours of overtime.

My secretary asks me “Jake, why do you make a funny sound and bite your fist every time we pass by this building?”  “Oh, uhhh, errr…. I’m just trying to warm up my hands.” Riiiiiiight.  I am putting in a strong vote for buying a massage shop.  A very strong vote.  In fact, I’m writing it in big red letters across the top of my ballot, ‘MASSAGE SHOP, FOR THE LOVE OF CHRIST’.  I have a strong feeling that the Expat Hell hedge fund will soon be majority shareholder in a massage shop.  Screw the cocktail lounge, forget government bonds, fuck investing in oil or gold or Indian wig factories, and screw the deaf/mute souvenir cart.

When you see the electric eyes and the thousand megawatt smile, you know you are in trouble, but you also know that you are still alive.  Women look at your face as a way of getting information from you.  They are thinking, and the gears in their heads are turning when they look at your face.  Look at any part of a woman other than her face, and she instantly knows that the advantage is hers.  She is in control of you.  She is already dribbling the ball down the field, and you are chasing her.  Chasers can be winners, but they have to start off as losers.  My friends and brothers, are you chasing something?  You are not a winner.  Yet.  The streets are choked with beautiful women.  Are they looking at you with electric eyes?  Are you looking back at any other part of their body besides their face?  Loser.  Good luck.  Me?  I’m chasing my dream of owning a Thai massage parlor.  Eyes on the prize.  And so…..

The pile of papers on my desk looks about ten feet tall, and the empty cups of espresso surrounding my computer monitor are evidence that I have been avoiding sleep and putting in long hours.  My name is Jake, and I control a loyal army of 60 expats.  How about you, Mr. ESL Café?  Mr. kindergarten teacher?  Mr. ‘imported beer is too expensive’?  Are you burning the candle at both ends?  Are you making plans for big things?  No?  Then what are you doing?

Posted in The Expat | 25 Comments

Best Burger in Seoul?

It is Saturday night and I’m driving around Mokdong in the Avante with two of my consigliere.  I have Madonna’s second album playing at full volume.  The first track, “Material Girl”, was written by Peter Brown, who also includes Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen among his clients.  The high-heeled 1984 skip pop jam hit prompts one of my consigliere to question my choice of music for today’s grueling Seoul traffic anxiety-fest.  “Material Girl”, I explain, is a song that is not only still relevant 28 years after its first release, but is actually quite reflective of contemporary Korean society as a whole.

Prompting further visible discomfort from my friends, I skip to the third track, “Like a Virgin”, written by Billy Sterling and Tom Kelly, who count Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, and Cindy Lauper as clients.  “Like a Virgin” is the first song that pops into my head whenever I attend a wedding in Korea.  It’s got an upbeat Billie Jean style bass line coupled with a “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” poppy, synthesizer kind of edge.  This song also serves as an excellent backdrop on those rainy nights, when all you want to do is check into a hotel, change all the light bulbs to pink, throw on your Pororo print panties, school girl uniform, and ankle socks, and then dance like a bad girl while pouting your duck lips and blowing kisses in front of the mirror (you little slut).

But I’m not really here to talk about music today.  What I’m here to talk about is burgers.  Man stuff.  You remember burgers, right?  You used to eat them before you moved to Korea.  I remember them too.  You know me; I never write about food.  I hate food blogs, and Korea blogs, and Korea food blogs that review and post pictures of food in Korea.  I hate foodies, and people who take pictures food, and people who take pictures of coffee, and mixed drinks, and then pose with the cup next to their face, as if to prove to everyone that they did in fact consume what they just photographed.  What’s wrong with these people?  That being said, this is the one and only time you will ever read a restaurant review on this website.  I am very particular when it comes to food.


Best Burger in Korea?

Madonna album turned down, and we’ve been circling around Mokdong for about 40 minutes looking for this place.  The problem is that we have all been to this restaurant, just never by car.  So we aren’t quite sure where it is.  All the buildings look the same in Korea.  Generic poured concrete blocks filled with PC rooms, Cafes, Icecream shops and Pizza Shops.  If you’ve seen one block in Seoul, you’ve seen them all.  We circle and circle the block where we are fairly certain the restaurant in question (Hallasan Burger) is located.

Hallasan (한라산)  is the name of the volcano on Jeju island.  The volcano has no connection to burgers whatsoever.  The name was just a fluke idea by the restaurant’s owner.  Rumor has it that the Korean owner/head chef of Hallasan Burger studied for three years at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York before apprenticing under epic chef Eric Ripert.  The owner recently returned to Korea, and while serving as head chef at two large hotels, has opened this small boutique burger joint on the second floor of a nondescript building in Mokdong.  From my previous visit to Hallasan Burger, I remember that there are no actual signs on the outside of the building.  There is only a small green and yellow sign in the elevator area of the dingy, otherwise cookie-cutter office building in the heart of Mokdong.

I searched and searched the internet for directions, but this place doesn’t have a website (yet, that I know of), and so we took to the streets and searched for the place the old fashioned way; by going from building to building.  Finally, my friend spots what looks like the building.  He gets out and runs into the stairway to look for the green and yellow placard that reads “Hallasan” in Korean.  We have arrived.  There is no actual parking in the building itself, so you will have to park in the garage of the Officetel next door (with Thai restaurant), if you drive.

We park, exit the garage, and walk back to the “Hallasan” building.  The elevator is out of order and we take the stairs to the second floor.  On the second floor, there is a strange bar with black walls, and black lights hung all over the place.  They have a few white cats running around the bar, which adds to the creepiness, I suppose.  Past that bar and on the right side is Hallasan Burger, the small sign on the door is only in Korean, and lists the opening hours as 12pm to 3pm, and 7pm to 10pm.  We arrive around 7:30 and all twelve seats are already taken.

The single waiter, who speaks no English tells us to wait outside, and he will call us when a table is ready.  The three of us can already smell what we’ve come for; what is probably the best burger and fry set in all of Korea.  Collectively, the three of us have been in Korea for over 30 years.  That’s a lot of food, a lot of restaurants tried, a lot of burgers, and a lot of disappointment.  Searching for the perfect burger in Korea is a kind of Holy Grail challenge that can be all-consuming.  Personally, I stopped eating burgers a long time ago, because the disappointment of poorly executed burger after poorly executed burger started to wear me down; chip away at my soul.  You can only be disappointed so many times before you start to lose hope.

After about 20 minutes, the waiter comes out and tells us that a table is available.  We walk inside and sit down.  It’s a small place, with a half exposed kitchen, a single refrigerator, and three tables with four chairs each.  There is one waiter, and the chef/owner mans the kitchen with the help of a single trainee.  The menu is a single page of tan colored paper with only five burger options.  Previously, I had the “K1 ‘Premium’ Burger”, but today I order the “House Hanwoo Steak Dream Burger”, which is a flat-grilled, crisp edged cheeseburger, using grain fed hanwoo (Korean) beef.  The patty is accompanied by shredded romaine lettuce, fresh tomato, onion, cheddar cheese and generously sized slices of avocado.  The sauce is something like a mayo-wasabi mix.  Price:  23,000 KRW:

House Hanwoo Steak Dream Burger from Hallasan Burger, Mokdong, Seoul

House Hanwoo Steak Dream Burger from “Hallasan Burger”

One of my friends orders the “Seoul Burger”, which according to the menu, has a mix of rump, rib-eye and fillet steak, served with a side of béarnaise sauce, -almost impossible to find in Korea.  When it arrives, the “Seoul Burger” is somewhat disappointing.  It arrives with standard fast food trimmings, and processed cheese, which is a bit of a letdown considering the 19,000KRW price tag :

"Seoul Burger" from Hallasan Burger, Seoul.  Best Burgers in Seoul

“Seoul Burger” from Hallasan Burger, Seoul

My other friend orders the “Island Bacon Sandwich”, which is not a burger, but actually a Reuben sandwich with extra lean corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and thousand island dressing on grilled rye bread.  The set includes oven baked, sea-salt and vinegar potato chips and one 1/4 sliced kosher dill pickle.  Price:  21,000KRW:

"Island Bacon Sandwich" from Hallasan Burger, Seoul.  Best Burger in Seoul.

“Island Bacon Sandwich” from Hallasan Burger, Seoul

It is worth noting that the only available sides are house-baked sea salt and vinegar potato chips, or what the menu calls “duck fat skin-on” chips.  Personally, I prefer the duck fat skin-on chips because the sea salt chips are a touch sweet and for me, slightly under-seasoned.  Each burger or sandwich is served with a single 1/4 cut kosher dill pickle (no Korean pickles here, for the love of Christ).  The owner/chef doesn’t offer any drinks aside from water, and there are no sauces or seasonings available at the tables.  The walls are a dark green in color, and the tables look like re-purposed doors surrounded by short-legged bar stools.

Though I can’t speak for the other dishes, I will offer a short review of the “House Hanwoo Steak Dream Burger”.  This overall dish had good balance, the acidity of the kosher dill working well with the richness of the hanwoo patty, though by contrast with the duck fat skin-on chips, this dish seemed a touch salty.  The hanwoo patty itself was of high quality and had silky smooth texture yet deep, intense flavor.  With wasabi-mayo and avocado slices, it could be argued that there was kind of a “California Roll” flavor going on here.  The oven baked buns are made in-house, and present a slight hint of garlic seasoning, but not enough to be overpowering.  The burger was not so large as to be messy, and could be enjoyed without the use of fork or knife.  This restaurant is not typical Korean plastic-chemical fast food fare, nor is it gimmicky Itaewon/HBC “please take a photo of our food” fare.  Just honest burgers, with no options and minimal sides.  So confident is the owner/chef, that you cannot even choose how long your patty is cooked.  Simply order, and wait.  No nonsense, no whining, no endless options to customize.

The bill came to 63,000KRW for three of us.  Water is free, of course.  There is no restroom inside of the actual restaurant (the place is tiny), so you will need to use the restroom in the hallway outside of the restaurant.  Since no alcohol is served, people tend to eat, and then vacate their seats as opposed to loitering around.  Previously I had come during lunch time, and I didn’t have to wait, but I’ve heard that evenings are much busier, and on weekends, the wait time can be from 20 to 30 minutes.  I heard about this place from a friend, who is a chef at a well known French restaurant.  I doubt that many foreigners have been inside the place, since it only opened two months ago.  The technical precision in the kitchen is hard to fault, and the dishes had lovely flavor balance. The limiting factor for any Korean kitchen is the ultimate quality of the ingredients that can be obtained, especially with regards to vegetables (compared to the finest produce in the Mediterranean or Japan) but the owner of Hallasan Burger is clearly a top class chef. His cooking and own style have clearly developed from years spent overseas.

Best Burger in Korea?  After years of searching, I can confidently say “Yes”.

They don’t yet have a website (that I know of), so I do not have the exact address.  I’ve done my best to mark the location on the maps below.  You go out Exit 8 of Omokgyo station, turn left at the first side street, and the proceed down the street for about 100 meters until you see Kimbap Cheonguk (김밥천국) on your right.  Turn right immediately after passing Kimbap Cheonguk.  Go another 50m and you should find yourself at the intersection below.  Because there was no address on the building, I can only point you towards the general area (see picture 2).  Look for the “A+” room salon with red windows on the second floor:

Hallasan Burger, Voted Best Burger in Seoul Korea

Second floor, check the stairway for the green and yellow sign.

Hallasan Burger, Voted Best Burger in Seoul Korea

Within walking distance of Omokgyo Station.


Posted in Best Burger in Korea, Best Seoul Restaurants, Expats Helping Expats, Life in Korea, Seoul Eats, The Expat | 105 Comments

Regression and Life Reflections in the Department Store

I’m sitting on the bench across from the escalators in the Shinsegae department store on a weekday afternoon.  I’m wearing a dark navy, tailored two button suit with notched lapels.  I’m wearing a dark blue tie with subtle, diagonal white stripes against a fine grid checked navy blue and white shirt.  I am wearing a pair of John Varvatos Richards Wingtip Oxford shoes, in brown.  The suit is actually just a prop; I don’t have to work today, and I have nowhere in particular that I need to be, other than outside of my house.  I’ve got a large paper Starbucks cup filled to the top with a mixture of approximately 70% rum and 30% Coke.  I have a nagging suspicion that the aged Korean pensioner sitting next to me has caught on to my act.  I think he can smell the rum, so I turn away each time I take a swig and make every effort not to breath in his direction.  It wasn’t always this way.  It used to be more Coke than rum, but I suppose that is a different story.

Perhaps the pensioner is staring at me because my hair is a mess.  This day was particularly windy here in Seoul.  That’s one of the things I miss actually; the sound of wind.  There are lots of old oak trees in my home town, and during the autumn months you could hear the wind ripping through the oak trees –it sounded almost like running water passing over round stones in a shallow river bed.  You could smell oak and cedar in the air, and touches of salt water.  The smell of freshly cut grass, summer barbeques, and chimney smoke (remember that?).  In downtown Seoul, the wind rips through the concrete office buildings, and the smell in the late evening?  Well, I wouldn’t exactly describe it as ‘oak’ or ‘cedar’.

I check my reflection in the glass screen of my cell phone, the battery having long since died.  I’d get up and check my appearance in the restroom mirror, but there are groups of roving pensioners circling the plush benches like vultures.  The instant I got up, a pensioner would snatch my spot on the bench.  For many of Seoul’s elderly, the plush benches in an air-conditioned department store represent a pleasant change from what they would otherwise be doing on any given weekday afternoon.  So no, I won’t be giving up my seat on the plush bench.  At least not until I’ve finished my rum and Coke.

This particular bench is in high demand due almost entirely to its positioning on the ground floor of the department store.  It is from this bench that one has a clear, unobstructed view of women coming down the escalator.  Imagine a conveyor belt that deposits women right at your feet every few seconds.  I used to walk around whenever I wanted to people-watch, but now I’ve got it all figured out.  No need to move at all, the escalator does all the moving –technology.

The pensioner sitting next to me continues to glance over in my direction, without making any attempt to disguise his glances.  Wait a minute; perhaps he is staring at me because he’s seen me here before.  Perhaps we shared this bench last week as well.  Perhaps we are former bench mates.  I’ve become somewhat of a regular here, you see.  I’ve always struggled to remember things that are not important, like the faces of the people I share department store benches with.  Perhaps when I’m older, and nothing else matters, and life is winding down towards its eventual end-point, I’ll have a sharper memory for the inconsequential things that I currently ignore.  Perhaps I’ll remember the faces of strangers.

As the time passes, my pensioner benchmate and I watch as streams of women are delivered at our feet by the magical mechanical moving stairs.  As a result of Korea’s plastic surgery epidemic, watching women come down the escalator gets a bit monotonous, as it feels like I’m seeing the same women come down time after time, only in different outfits.  Wait, there’s one!  She looks natural!  I look up from my coffee cup.  Paper-white skin, tall, cheek bones higher than her eyes, arms like long wet noodles.  Sweet Mary mother of Joseph, she’s like an angel descending down the second floor escalator.  And here I was, about to get up and leave. My interest has suddenly been renewed.  I’m thinking I should call someone and share this brilliant experience, but my phone battery is dead, and all of my friends are at work anyway (sucks being an adult).

I look over at my pensioner benchmate, but he is busy looking at the woman who just came down the elevator.  She is probably several centimeters taller than he is, due to dietary differences between the older and younger generations.  He looks at her, and then looks at me, and then says nothing. I have often wondered if people get quieter as they age because they have been disappointed by the human race so many times.  And for most of us, not too many people show up at our death bed.  All those years, all of that emotion, all of those hopes and dreams, all the reaching out; and no one shows up.  It makes reaching out to others look like a fairly poor investment.  You are unlikely to get much back.  Maybe that is why it is so rare to find people who can be selflessly kind to strangers without any sort of hidden motivation.  It represents risk-taking without any obvious payback.

After staring at me for a moment, the pensioner slaps me on the knee and says “예쁘다!” (beautiful).  He may not be a player anymore, but he knows quality when he sees it.  He’s no longer a player, but he’ll always be an enthusiast.  Our bodies, and energy and stamina wane with time, but enthusiasm is something we can all maintain until the end.  Perhaps he’s got a cranky old wife at home, 할머니 tits hanging past her belt, who gets on his case about money, and soju, and cleaning the house, and smoking, and “Why do I always have to wash the goddamned dishes?”  He and I are not players, but we are actors on the same stage, at the same point in time.

Many, many years ago, before I set foot in Korea, I had a beautiful girlfriend just like the one who came down the escalator.  She never really had much to say, but she was gorgeous.  I assumed that she was quiet and reserved because she was ‘deep’.  Perhaps there was character there, somewhere.  Maybe she was the ‘one’.  After time, I realized that she was not ‘deep’ – she was just a stupid, vapid, aimless drifter with hardly any brain activity at all.  But I liked her.  I’ll never know why.

The pensioner sitting next to me probably has several decades of knowledge to impart on a younger person such as myself.  From time to time, in situations like this, I wish I spoke Korean well.  We are two men sitting on a department store bench, sharing the sight of a beautiful woman.  We are like two old fishermen staring at the night lights of a luxury oceanliner as it passes us by. The pensioner has stories to tell, and I have stories to tell, but neither of us can communicate with the other.  What a shame.  A decade from now, I’ll probably still be coming here, to this same bench.  My benchmate having long since passed away, the rum and coke having been replaced by straight soju, and the tailored suit no longer fitting like it used to.  In life, it’s important to realize what makes you happy, and to chase it.  And if you can’t chase it, you can always sit at the bottom of the escalator in the Shinsegae Department Store and be an enthusiast, like me.

Posted in Life in Korea, The Expat | 27 Comments

Late Night Drinks with Other Waegs Part 15

As I slowly pull up the driveway of a five star international hotel which I won’t name, I am greeted by a sight that boggles the mind.  I creep up towards the valet curb, slip my sunglasses over my forehead and rub my eyes before taking a second look.  There, standing among of a crowd of tourists, moneyed up Korean layabouts, and various airline employees, is American friend Henry.  And he is not alone.  He is flanked on the left by the largest Korean security guard I’ve ever seen in my life.  On his opposite side, there is an ajumma.  Wait, I need to rub my eyes again and squint to confirm that I am not hallucinating -no, to his right stands an ajumma, approximately 4 feet tall, late 40’s or early 50’s, scandelously dressed, with her arms locked around Henry’s left elbow in an iron grip.  Henry is holding his shoes out in front of him, and is standing barefoot at the curb.

A valet attendant approaches but I hit the button activating my hazard lights, open my door and wave him off.  It is only when I reach the curious threesome that the security guard, who must be at least seven feet tall, releases Henry’s arm as if transferring custody to me.  Henry’s shoes, pants and shirt are dripping wet, but his jacket is miraculously dry.  It is a late Tuesday afternoon and as I look around and realize that everyone is staring at us, I lower my sunglasses back down to obscure my face.  I can’t afford the guilt by association, because this is the same hotel from which I usually steal my morning copy of the Wallstreet Journal while pretending to order overpriced coffee from the overpriced cafe.  Among the crowd, a distinguished looking Middle Eastern man in a pilot’s uniform appraises us and gives a look that can only be interpreted as disapproval.

As I guide Henry towards the car, a strong aroma of alcohol and chlorine wafts from his person and nearly overpowers me.  The call came about an hour earlier, and Henry is still reasonably trashed.  He is putting on a good show of faux sobriety while somehow managing to remain vertical despite ingesting what I can only assume was a  generous amount of liquor.  The ajumma -whom upon closer inspection, must be 50-60 years old, and who also looks like a retired whore- refuses to let go of Henry’s arm.  She assumes that wherever we are going, she is also going.  I look at the security guard, whom in the interest of avoiding another “scene” gently coaxes the ajumma from Henry’s arm so that we can make a hasty exit from the valet zone.

Henry is wearing a pair of white Fendi sunglasses.  They are women’s sunglasses in the style of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.  I pull back over to the curb and hit my hazard lights.  “Where did you get those sunglasses?  Who do they belong to?”  He responds, “They’re mine man, don’t worry, don’t worry, just drive!”  I look in the rear view mirror and there are now two women standing with the giant Korean security guard, pointing in our direction.  I remove the sunglasses from Henry’s head, exit my vehicle for the second time, and jog back to the security guard, handing over the sunglasses, bowing and apologizing in Korean.

I roll down the windows and the rest of the trip to Samseong-dong is silent.  I choose Samseong-dong because I know of a cafe there with parking directly in front, where I can drink coffee, wait for Henry to sober up, and keep an eye on my car at the same time.  We grab an outside table and I order two Americanos.  “So, you decided to take a swim huh?” I say, stating the obvious.  “It was hot outside.  I just wanted to dip my feet in.”   This doesn’t explain why Henry is soaked from head to toe, and I can only guess that shortly after his “swim”, security was dispatched to pull him out of the pool and remove him from the property as discretely as possible.  “And that ajumma.   What………the fuck is…..wrong with you?”

Henry explains, “Oh man, she was buying me drink after drink, man.  That lady loves to party!  She said she was an artist or something, maybe a painter.”  This is funny, because it didn’t seem to me like the ajumma spoke a word of English, and Henry’s Korean ability, despite him having been here longer than myself, is questionable at best.  Henry removes a soaked pack of Marlboros from his pants pocket, takes out a single cigarette and tries to light it.  The waterlogged cigarette has no intention of submitting to this lighter, and so Henry stands up and announces that he is going out to find a convenience store.  He squishes down the sidewalk in his drenched shoes.

I take a large swig of black coffee and slowly lean back in my chair, arching my head back so that I can see the evening sky.  This is kind of an involuntary physical reaction that I have to stressful situations.  As I stare up at the polluted sky, it occurs to me that most of my friends are straight out of a Somerset Maugham novel.  What is it about expat life that so profoundly changes some people?  What is it about this place that makes people self-destruct, or sabotage themselves?  A young Korean couple sits at the table across from me.  The boyfriend has a DSLR camera.  He has been taking pictures of his girlfriend ever since they arrived.  20 minutes later, he is still taking pictures.  For some reason I begin to get irritated by this, and after 40 minutes have passed and the sound of the shutter has not ceased, I feel like shouting.

How many fucking pictures does this guy need of his girlfriend, and is no one else bothered by this?  It is a public display of attention and love.  For some reason, watching this display makes me feel slightly more advanced, socially.  I would never behave in such an idiotic fashion.  I’d never torture some poor girl by forcing her to pose for so many pictures.  I’d never be so needy as to carry a fucking camera with me everywhere I went.  As if the memories will evaporate if you don’t eternally preserve them in digital files.  It’s a fucking cafe, not a wedding photo studio.  The girl seems nice, and cute, and interested, and polite.  Why is this guy wasting her time with his compulsive picture taking?  Like, she’s going to vanish at any moment and all he will have left are his stupid photos.  I don’t get it.  I don’t understand these people.  How many pictures is he going to take?  Five hundred?  A thousand?  I keep my mouth shut.

I remember my first girlfriend at age sixteen.  Beautiful, tall, thin, popular, deep summer tan, with long blonde hair.  We’d spend our summer at the beach.  We’d go to the movies.  We’d get ice-cream.  We’d go shopping.  I’d skateboard with my friends, and she’d sit and watch with her friends.  We’d have lunch.  We’d walk on the beach.  We’d lay on the sand and talk for hours.  I was so mesmerized by her that nothing else in life really mattered.

I was too stupid to carry around a camera at the time.  I would have taken a million god damned pictures of her.

Henry comes back with a pack of new cigarettes and seems to have reasonably sobered up.  I don’t have much to say because Henry has more recently become one of those people who only contacts you when they want or need something from you.  Once these expats run out of bridges to burn, they usually self-destruct quietly, and alone.  This is one of the reasons that I tend to keep other expats at an arm’s length.  Living as an expat long-term in Korea is somewhat like camping out next to the railroad tracks and watching train wrecks.  And if you miss the most recent train wreck don’t worry; there’ll be another.  Oh yeah, and the odds are in your favor that you will be personally involved in some of the train wrecks.  The higher your income, the greater your opportunity to become involved in more spectacular and varied disasters.  Exciting, right?

For more than a few expats, the measurement of one’s current situation is a reflection of how screwed up you are in comparison with the other expats around you and in your peer group.  And since there are countless levels of “screwed up”, it’s quite possible to convince yourself that you are “normal” no matter how far you slip down the slope.  In my case, there is some evidence that I am not normal.  Does this bother me?  Not really.  Though I hope that when I start diving into hotel swimming pools fully clothed, somebody stages an intervention.

Posted in Late Night Drinks with other Waegs, The Expat | 42 Comments