Tea farming is hard work, Taiwan

Tea farming is hard work, Taiwan

On a hot, sticky day in June, my brother and I took a cable car out of Taipei into the mountains to see the tea farms. Here a farmer takes a midday rest by his crop.

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Kdrama Review: Boys Over Flowers (2009)

Where do I begin? When I was talking to the amazing students at Seoul Women’s University this summer, many of them recommended this drama to me. It was phenomenally popular in Korea and has been a popular export internationally. As a pop-culture reference,  it seemed like an important show for me to experience. So, without any further beating around the bush, here’s my review:

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Summary: After saving a student at a posh private school from a suicide attempt, plucky and poor Guem Jan-di is given a scholarship to the academy. The school is run by F4 a group of four rich bullies. There’s the smug handsome heir to the biggest company in Korea, Goo Jun-pyo; the quiet, musically talented Yoon Ji-hoo; the pottery prodigy playboy, So Yi-young; and the casanova gangster, Song Woo-bin. Guem Jan-di ends up taking the group head-on in a battle of will until romantic feelings begin getting in the way.

Characters: Our heroine, Guem Jan-di is “plucky.” Meaning she yells a lot and occasionally kicks people. Yet, at the same time she is a perfect Cinderella. She always seems to need rescuing. For a girl whose only talent is supposed to be swimming, she seems to nearly drown an awful lot. In kissing scenes she is completely passive– she stands completely still with her eyes shut as the male doing the kissing leans into her.

Our male characters are extremely unlikable from the start. They encourage the entire school to bully a student to the point of suicide and never show any remorse for it. They all come packaged with tragic back stories that are supposed to make them sympathetic, but in no way excuse their actions. Ultimately, they are supposed to “learn” from Guem Jan-di, she is supposed to “tame” them while they pamper her with weekends away, pretty dresses, and nights out.

Cha Ga-eul, Guem Jan-di’s best friend is also very passive, but her romantic subplot is at times less annoying than the main plot. Guem Jan-di’s family is extremely annoying. Stereotypical loud, over the top family.

Plot: The love story was painfully long and drawn out with ridiculous barriers constantly being put up against them. Plenty of plot points are over the top (a kidnapping? a crazy car race?) and somewhat sexist (Guem Jan-di ending up as Goo Jun-pyo’s “personal maid” for a time).

Also, it seems that there are no teachers at this posh private school. It’s just run by monstrous children who very viciously bully others. This is a very dark side to the show, but that is glossed over and they focus on this teenage romance instead.

I will say, this show and other Korean dramas aren’t afraid of showing people who are in economic distress. That is something that the US media often ignores– or uses as a premise, but pushes to the side. Like Eun chan of “Coffee Prince,” Jan-di works multiple jobs to help keep her family properly provided for. The difficulties of being poor are actually a part of the plots of these dramas, which is a point in their favor. Though, in this case it does add to the CInderella comparison.

Style Points: 9/10 The boys of F4 are always extremely well dressed. Sometimes it’s too trendy, but the eye candy (at least as far as fashion goes) was on a very high level in this show.

Feminist Points: 3/10 For all her “I kick bullies in the face” attitude, Guem Jan-di is ultimately very passive and constantly needing a man or sometime the entire F4 to swoop in and save her. She does set some boundaries and actually works toward her own goal by the end of the series– actually developing a bit of independence, for which I added another point.

Throat Punch Factor: 9.5/10 Oh my goodness. I wanted to punch Goo Jun-pyo in the face in nearly every scene. Most of the F4 deserve some throat-punching, especially in the early episodes.

Overall, I felt very frustrated with the characters. The things that kept me motivated to watch it were: everyone seeming to know and love this show, and the fact that I like Lee Min Ho and Kim Sang Bum. I would never do a rewatch. It drove me crazy. Maybe if they had kept it to 16 episodes or so, it wouldn’t be so bad, but it was 25. Twenty five.

A Dose of K-Pop, part I

In the same line as my recent developing Kdrama habit, I’ve been doing the K-Pop things too. Since returning to the States, I’ve had to give many Americans a lesson in K-Pop. If all you know is Psy, you are missing out. Here are a couple of my favorite K-Pop songs.

“Te Amo” by U-Kiss:  super catchy dance song with smatterings of not just English, but also Spanish throughout.

“Catch Me” by TVXQ (also sometimes romanized as DBSK): a really stylish song with some electronic bits that remind me of Daft Punk. Also check out “Keep Your Head Down” by the group.

“Like This” by The Wonder Girls: A really cute playful song. Bonus points if you learn their little dance that goes with it.

“Bar Bar Bar” by Crayon Pop: you will either love or hate this song. Possibly both because it is really insidious and will get stuck in your head. But it’s so happy…

“Smoky Girl” by MBLAQ: still not sure what a “smoky girl” is… but it’s a catchy song. It feels pretty slick and fresh. The video has some cool visuals, and the group swans around in nice suits and such.

“Eat You Up” by BoA: BoA is probably my favorite female K-Pop artist. I love her voice and she rejects a lot of the girly cuteness most of the female singers present.

“Sherlock (Clue+Note)” by SHINee: SHINee is probably my favorite Korean guy group. They have a smooth sound and, I mean, they made a Sherlock Holmes inspired album… if this video doesn’t make you into a fan, I just don’t even know. (Warning: Taemin has really bad hair throughout this video.)

So enjoy the music, there’ll be more to come. Love these songs? Hate them? What are your favorite K-Pop songs?

Kdrama review: Coffee Prince (2007)

So, it looks like my start date as a teacher has been pushed back a few weeks later than expected. For the past few months I’ve been watching some Korean dramas to stay immersed in the language as much as possible. It looks like I’ll be doing that for another month or so until I’m back in Korea.

Many Korean shows are available on YouTube or through sites like Viki and DramaFever. So far I have picked up some new words and these shows also provide some cultural insights. So, I figured I may as well review some that I’ve been watching for other inquiring minds. Whether you want to work on your Korean, or simply are looking for a new show to watch, I’ll give you my honest appraisal.

First up: Coffee Prince (커피프린스 1호점)

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Summary: Eun-chan is a tomboyish 24 year old working multiple jobs to keep a roof over not only her head, but over her mother and younger sister too. She’s been head of the family since her father died when she was a teen. She meets the rich and handsome Han-gyul and due to a series of misunderstandings he believes her to be a boy. Feeling pressure from his family to marry (but still harboring a crush on his cousin’s long-term on-again-off-again girlfriend) Han-gyul hires Eun-chan to pretend to be his gay boyfriend and crash the blind dates his grandmother arranges.

Han-gyul’s family lay off him regarding marriage, but make him take over a run-down coffee house owned by the family company. He decides to staff the coffee house entirely with attractive young men to draw the students from a nearby women’s university. Still thinking she’s a boy, he hires Eun-chan. Things get complicated when she begins to have feelings for Han-gyul and he begins to find himself returning them.

Characters: Eun-chan is a very likeable character who has had to shoulder a lot of responsibility at a young age. Which is why it’s a little hard for me to believe she cries so often. If I do a series rewatch I will have to tally how often she cries because my goodness it’s often. I also find it hard to believe that no one realizes she’s a girl… but suspension of disbelief I suppose. She’s funny and determined and grows into herself by the end of the series.

Han-gyul is a sort of arrogant rich guy who is incredibly attractive and has a tragic back-story–pretty much textbook for a K Drama hero. However, he’s not as much of a jerk as many are. I have to gauge K Drama heroes by how often I want to punch them in the throat. I hardly ever wanted to punch him in the throat, so he scores pretty high by comparison. The chemistry between Han-gyul and Eun-chan is good as well.

The side characters are good as well for the most part. Han-seong, Han-gyul’s music producer cousin is one of my favorites. The men of the coffee shop are always amusing to watch interact as well. There is definitely some fan-service at work here, casting a variety of “types” so that most women watching the show will find at least one man to fancy. Sun-ki, one of the coffee house employees definitely stands out. His character has minimal lines, but is always able to steal a scene– I was really happy when he got his own little subplot.

Plot: The premise is a little ridiculous, but it’s supposed to be a romantic comedy. Some fluffiness is to be expected. There were actually moments when I got a strong Twelfth Night vibe from the show (it is one of my favorite Shakespearean comedies).

There were some moments that felt very real about dealing complications of relationships (though they were extra complicated in this case). There were many subplots throughout the series. Most of them were strong and you felt invested in those stories as well as the main plot. Though, I confess, when Eun-chan revealed her true identity, the show did lose a little steam for an episode or two, but it came together again at the end.

Style Points: 6/10 Han-gyul and Yoo-joo especially are snappy dressers and the coffee house setting was very aesthetically pleasing.

Feminist Points: 7/10 To be fair, I’m mostly basing this comparison off other Korean dramas. Coffee Prince presents us with a heroine who is able to use the fact that people assume she’s a man to assert herself. She’s tough (a taekwondo teacher who ends up carrying a drunk Han-gyul home as a nice parallel to countless drama scenes that involve a boy carrying a tipsy girl home). She also has her pride and works hard. She doesn’t accept financial help from Han-gyul in spite of her family’s difficulties. She also sets the terms for their relationship, determining what pace she’s comfortable with.

Overall, I really like this series and would recommend it (and not just because the very handsome Gong Yoo plays Han-Gyul… but, I mean… look). It’s definitely one of my favorites out of the Korean romantic comedies I’ve seen.

The “What did I pack?” Post

If you are preparing for your first trip abroad, or simply packed way too much on your last trip, this may be useful to you. Before I went abroad for the first time last year I pored over several similar posts online (but still packed way too much). Many travel guides and tips are geared toward backpackers or male travelers, the needs of which are different. This is about how a twenty-something female spending 5 weeks in two Asian countries in the heat of summer with events that require looking nicer than the common backpacker grunge packed for the occasion.

I knew I had done well when I arrived in Taiwan and both my brother and his roommate looked at my luggage and asked, “Is that it?”

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All my worldly possessions for five weeks.

Above is a slightly dark photo I took just before leaving for the airport back in June. I took a carry-on size bag from a luggage set (which I checked) and a duffel bag (which I carried on). That was it. When I met up with US friends in Korea I discovered that nearly all of them had packed twice the volume I had. Yet, I don’t feel like they had that much more. There was never a moment when I regretted packing more lightly.

What allowed me to pack so lightly was, in part, the rolling technique. To make the most of your suitcase space you don’t want to fold your clothes, you want to tightly roll it. You can fit things much more efficiently with this technique.

So here’s what I brought:

5 tanks tops of various colors– all worn countless times

1 tee-shirt– also worn many times

1 button-front shirt– worn about 3 times

2 light weight cardigans– great in air conditioned places, chilly evenings, and on the plane

1 pair of long pants– worn on the plane coming and going and twice on chilly evenings in Korea

2 skirts– worn many times, one I even substituted as a dress one evening by putting a belt and sweater over it

1 dress– worn about 4 times for more formal occasions

2 pairs of shorts– worn countless times

bathing suit– worn once, probably could have left it home, the ocean was too cold for a proper swim anyway

assorted underthings– you’ll never regret taking an extra bra or 10+ pairs of underwear, they don’t take up  much room

1 pair of comfortable flats– to pair with dress and skirts

2 pairs of sneakers/walking shoes– one worn over, one packed as a spare for when the other got wet in the rain

I also brought some basic shampoo, soap, and cosmetics, but not much. In fact my recommendation for women traveling to Korea is not to worry to much about cosmetics. Unless you need very specific brands, there is probably better selection for skin care in Seoul than in any US city. Places like Nowan have an entire street of facial care shops. All tailored to different needs, all pretty cost effective. I got a set of tea tree oil toner and lotion for about $14 US.

Even for shampoo and such, US brands like Dove are widely available at the neighborhood grocery.

If you’re not used to the humidity, you’re probably not going to want to wear a lot of makeup to begin with. Korean makeup is usually of good quality and not too expensive, plus it is made for that climate. So if you really want to dress up for a night out, you can always pick up some eyeliner or lipstick at a shop there. The only thing that is impossible to find is dark foundation colors, so you may want to bring that.

So, I hope this has been helpful or educational for some of you out there. I was able to do laundry regularly, so I never felt like I under-packed. I’m not at the point were I can bring just a backpack for a few weeks travel, but circumstances don’t allow many people to do that. That doesn’t mean you can’t pack a bit more lightly and save yourself a backache.