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Gillian Farber

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South Korea’s bizarre land of love

It’s funny living in a foreign country for so long, your once narrow-minded definition of ‘normal’ starts to unravel and you lose a sense of normality to some degree. Of course, each culture has its own set of rules and standards and it’s only natural to compare one’s foreign culture with your own. However, after time you start to forget what you used to think was ‘acceptable’ or ‘unacceptable,’ ‘reasonable’ or ‘unreasonable’ and you find yourself questioning the random and mundane obstacles you face every day.

It’s hard to remember my first impressions of South Korea, but one of the first memories I can recall was stepping off the plane almost two years ago and seeing a couple dressed exactly the same head-to-toe. I tried to come up with an explanation for this bizarre sight, but my life’s experience just didn’t have one. After only a few months, I figured out this absurdity was really as absurd as I thought. Korean couples actually enjoy, and are somewhat praised for, dressing identically in public. Their uniform proves to others that they are ‘going steady’ and are taking their relationship to a whole new level. This cultural dress code is known as ‘couple sets.’ Clearly, a bit more in your face than exchanging rings or updating your Facebook status, as is the custom in certain western societies.

In Korea, relationships are praised and envied by others. Stores around the city sell these eminent ‘couple set’ matching outfits. There are also restaurant ‘couple-set menus’ where for one price, you can order a meal for two. It is evident that South Korea takes pride in catering to couples young and old and in a very obvious way.

Tying the knot at a young age is highly desirable in Korean culture. A handful Korean’s live with their parents until they marry and since a large number of people have settled in apartments rather than houses, sharing rooms with family members is very common. As a result, there are a variety of ‘love motels’ that surround the country. A love motel is a cheap stay for lovers to spend some alone time together, either by the hour or overnight. Love motels are a distinctive part of Korea’s ‘love’ culture and are also economically alluring for travelers.

Last summer, some friends and I travelled to the east coast of Korea, where we stumbled upon an outdoor museum called “Love Land.” I can’t recall a more bizarre theme park in all my travels. The grounds are decorated with large (and not so large) phallus statues, along with sculptures of humans, presented in erotic sexual positions. Although the idea of love is a prominent concept in the minds of Korean people, the park itself portrays a heavy focus on sex which is taboo in most Asian countries. I would highly recommend it for some awkward moments and a good laugh.

As a Westerner living in a foreign country, sometimes it’s just best to appreciate where you are, revel in the culture and learn from it, even though it may be far different from what you’ve ever experienced before.

A renowned Korean, martial arts philosopher, Master jin Kwon, in many ways summed it up best: “Remove the roadblocks when you see them, otherwise you will have to climb a high mountain.”

Follow Gillian on Twitter at @GillyFarb.

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Keep calm and have a cuppa

I found it somewhat intimidating when Google, my trusted online research platform, revealed negative impressions of a country I was about to consider as a new home. “Want to be happy? Don’t live in the UK” and “How to: Survive five weeks in England”. According to my online research, the people were loud, the weather was dreary and I shouldn’t expect to leave the country with a penny of savings in my bank account. “Great,” I thought. What was I getting myself into?

Moving to an English speaking country, however, was a lot less stressful than moving to South Korea, where I taught English for two years. Asia opened my mind, exposed me to a different set of cultural norms and introduced me to my partner and boyfriend, Adam.

I met Adam, the only other foreigner waiting for the bus, minutes after landing at Incheon airport from Toronto. That four hour bus ride made for four hours of conversation that we both didn’t want to end. Needless to say, it didn’t. And after our contracted year was up we decided to move to the UK (Adam’s native land) for as long as my working visa permitted. I was prepared to live and work abroad once again, but this time as part of an English culture— even if they spoke the language in a way I still struggle to understand.

It has now been five months since I moved across the pond, and other than the strange looking mushy peas, obscure lingo and irrational football fans, Brighton has proved to be a quaint yet beautiful seaside town. In the past few months I’ve rode on double decker city busses, chatted to genuine hooligans at a Fulham football game, experienced the electric crowd at Manchester United’s Old Trafford and drank more cups of tea than there are days of the year.

I’m learning to replace the word “cheers” for thank you and am still finding it difficult to remember which way to look before crossing the road. I have stopped asking to use the “restroom” at a pub, as the bar tender assures me there are no available sofas, and bangers and mash really are served at every food establishment in the country. The words “proper” and “jumper” have subconsciously edged their way into my vocabulary and I have to remind myself to interchange “cilantro” and “coriander,” or “pudding” and “dessert” when speaking to family back home.

It’s difficult not to compare my time spent living and working abroad in Asia and Europe. The “foreigner bars” are just as rampant and occupied with the same, pleasant nostalgic conversation. I admire the eclectic colours, smells and multiculturalism buzzing in the streets. The abundance of proud gay couples embracing one another is unlike anything you would see in South Korea but just reinforces Britain’s beauty. Brighton has been coined London by the Sea and is a city like no other. It is young yet historic, exotic yet traditional, vibrant, lively and free spirited. I enjoy the bountiful parks, gorgeous castles, green countryside and English breakfasts.

Google may have shone a dim light on some of the more unruly British character traits, but other than being loud beer drinkers they are passionate (about football), have a ready sense of humour and are welcoming, genuine and warm hearted. High tea, eating fish and chips with malt vinegar while listening to the fab four in the background, baking “jacket” potatoes (you know them as baked potatoes), talking about Princess Kate as “being up the spout” (meaning she’s pregnant), living here in the UK is not exactly “easy-peasy” . The Brits’ bizarre colloquialisms are quite arbitrary but I’m trying not to get my knickers in a twist.

Taiwan: the not so ugly duckling of Asia

Living in South Korea as an English teacher is a great way to travel around Asia. Last month my boyfriend and I decided to leave the snow behind and find the absent sun.

Taiwan, known for pleasant seasons year-round, averaged a temperature colder than expected this winter. Not only was the weather unpredictable, but New Year’s Eve proved to be an unconventional chain of events. With poor judgment and lack of planning, our midnight was spent on the side of a busy freeway. The night ended with a “suite” upgrade and VIP service at a local club. Let me start from the beginning.

We had decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Taiwan’s capital Taipei. Taipei was previously known as the “ugly duckling” of Asia. Many tourists seemed to overlook the small island.

My first impression of Taiwan was that of a traditional country struggling to be modern. There were old deteriorating buildings alongside new cars and expensive shops. I loved the unique ambience of the city and the night life was bustling with markets, street food vendors, and small art exhibits. We visited Shilin Night Market which features a  wide range of fashionable shops, authentic Taiwanese games, and eclectic food stalls.

The locals were exceptionally helpful when we haggled with taxi drivers in English. They went so far as to offer us rides which made my first hitchhiking experience a breeze. A friendly stranger in a minivan welcomed us on board where we sat cramped between crates of eggs and jugs of milk. Arriving unharmed at our destination, we bathed with locals in a beautiful hot spring and enjoyed a breathtaking view of the mountains.

The evening ended at a traditional Taiwanese restaurant where the menu looked more like a Latin tome. English was non-existent here and knowing little Mandarin made things quite difficult. We pointed to a picture and prayed we didn’t order any domesticated animal meat. To be sure, there was Adam on one side of the table moo-ing like a cow and I had my elbows bent, trying to mimic a chicken. The waitress smiled politely and walked away. Our melodramatic performance left us feeling defeated, but dinner ended up being pleasantly appetizing.

After spending five wonderful days in Kenting it was back to Taipei. A simple error in hotel rooms, ended with a huge upgrade to a family sized suite. We took advantage of our newfound luxury before heading to Taipei building 101, famous for its annual fireworks display at midnight. Until the tower was trumped by Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in 2010, it was the world’s tallest building.

At 11:58 p.m. we were still in the cab but could see the distant tower. We paid the fee and stood with other pedestrians in the middle of the highway trying to get a glimpse of the lit-up sky. Jam-packed with locals and Westerners wishing “Happy new year,” the crowds outside were electric with excitement. We found a bar where friendly locals shared their VIP booth and drinks with us.

The eclectic cuisine, vibrant night markets, stunning nature reserves, and welcoming locals make Taiwan a unique and exciting vacation spot for tourists of all ages. Taiwan is no longer an ugly duckling. It has blossomed into a truly dynamic country.