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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Inhaling Korea: Learning Its Language & Culture

"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart."
Nelson Mandela

Many people believe that learning a language is required to really understand a culture. If that is so, learning to speak, at least some Korean, may be your ticket to gaining insight into this amazing place called Korea. I was fortunate. I first came to Korea as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer. That organization ensured that all its volunteers had three months of intense language and cultural awareness training. It was a free-pass to the living museum that is Korea--a gift that I did not fully appreciate at the time. I do now.

Thumbs Up! Learning Korean at Yeungnam University's Korean Language Institute

There has never been a better time to learn the language and the culture. Your efforts will reap immediate benefits. You will see Korea through a richer and more intimate prism. Koreans will generally react very favorably to your efforts to learn their language and explore their culture. For more about how many Koreans react to foreigners learning Korean visit

Fortunately, there are numerous avenues for learning Korean and for exploring Korean culture. Many local universities and language institutes offer both language and culture courses. For example,Yeungnam University in Gyeungsan, conveniently situated on the green line, has its Korean Language Institute.

Private language institutes and other organizations provide numerous meeting and cost options. The Daegu YMCA, for example, has a variety of language levels and class meeting times. They also offer cultural classes related to Korean cooking, art and traditional musical instruments. Go to, then click on "Home" for the Winter/Spring schedule of classes.
What time is it? Learning to tell time in Korean

The internet offers even more language learning options. Two recommended online language learning vehicles are Learn Korean Online and Livemocha

One can always choose to live in Korea without learning the language. But the wisdom of the ages strongly suggests otherwise."To have another language," said Charlemagne, "is to possess a second soul." 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Full of Bull

"How about a bullfight?" my Korean teacher asked me one recent afternoon. "A bullfight? In Korea?" Once I got past the total incongruity of that image, I pushed back. "No way," I said. "I once saw a bullfight in Barcelona, Spain. The blood, the torture, the sheer brutality. I walked right out of the arena in total disgust." "Ah," Ms. Kwak responded. "Obviously you don't know about Korean bullfighting."

Scratch the matador, the sword, the gore. It's all bull in Cheongdo, South Korea. Bullfighting has been a tradition here for over 1,000 years. Korean Hanwoo bulls weighing between 1,322 and 1,764 lbs. clash like huge brown titans. Happily these bulls live to fight another day. "Spain's bullfight is between man and bull and assumes that men will defeat bulls," said Lee Joong Geun, county executive of Cheongdo. "But Cheongdo's bullfighting is an energetic fight between two bulls." In fact, owners have deep affection for their animals. Some even sleep with their bulls.
Korean bulls: clashing of heads and horns; but no matador, no gore

The annual Cheongdo Bullfighting Festival is held each March. Nearly 100 bulls compete for the title of "strongest bull." Foreign guests are invariably pleasantly surprised by their Korean bullfighting experience. It's curiously entertaining and fun. Two bulls fight head-on until one just backs off, either from exhaustion or intimidation. Sand is certainly kicked up, but unlike their Spanish and Mexican counterparts, there are no casualties other than perhaps loss of pride. 
Packed arena during the March Cheongdo Bullfighting Festival

In fact, I left the arena will a wide smile on my face. I had bet Ms. Kwak that the bull with the blue marking would win. She had taken the bull painted with the red circle. Mine won. Lunch was on Ms. Kwak.

Getting to Cheongdo: From downtown Daegu it is about 35 kilometers to Cheongdo. It can be reached by bus, train or rental car from Daegu.

Statue at the Bullfighting Museum in Cheongdo

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

[Dec/Transportation] Subway Superlatives: Riding the Daegu Subway

It's almost always sad to witness the slow, reluctant demise of an aging athlete: the once robust, virile performer becoming a shadow of his former self. Inevitably, a young upstart with speed and agility, wrapped in a fresh package, steps onto the stage, bathing in the spotlight of adulation.

Every major city in its time must respond to the challenge of efficiently transporting its citizens from one point to another. Boston (slow and without a schedule), New York (dark, dirty stations) and Paris (antiquated access, wheelchair-unfriendly)--all boast subway systems that remind us of athletes past their prime.

Korea's subway systems are the fresh, new "kids" on the world transportation "block." Daegu's new subway system leads the pack as perhaps the best example: it is fast, spotlessly clean, safe, reliable and brimming with optimism.
Daegu subway stations: bright, litter-free, safe
Daegu Subway System Fast Facts
Began Operation           Nov. 20, 1995
System Length             118.2 Kilometers/74 miles
Lines                            Red (Line 1) and Green (Line 2)
Stations                        58
Transfer Station            Ban-wol-dang Station
Basic Fare                    1200 won/$1.10 (1100 won with a transportation card)
Managed By                 DTRO/The Daegu Metropolitan Transit Corporation

The mission of DTRO is to provide "safe and comfortable transit"--and that it does, superbly. The subway cars are glistening clean and modern. The stations are bright and user-friendly offering handicap access, elevators, escalators that turn-off when not in use, and easy access for passengers with bikes-all driven by a state-of-the-art electronic pass system.

Convenient bike rails. Bikes welcome on weekends
For a great "how to navigate the system" overview click here

Boasting best practices from around the world, Daegu's subway system is simply best-in-class. Take her out for a spin. She'll leave you breathless.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Message In a Bottle: Korea and Israel

In some surprising ways, Korea has become my second home. I would have hung that mantle on Israel, with all our trips there and my decade of work with Seeds of Peace. But certainly that connection has become far too complicated by how Israel, as a political entity, treats a people (the Palestinians). I think that relationship is a bit like an addict and an enabler. Every time I try to will hope and good intent on the State of Israel, one of its leaders steps forward, yells something about a foolish new policy, and peace retreats two steps, or even further, into the shadows. It's an exhausting and disappointing process.

Korea is a much easier marriage (at least for me). Like Israel, the food here is great. Like Israel, the politics (with its neighbor, North Korea) are heavy lifting. But Koreans ignore the demons. Yes, there are the occasional incursions and gunfire. But what else, they seem to say, would you expect from a sad and outcast drunken neighbor?

The list of what I love about Korea is long: the food, the people, the topography (and only the size of the State of Indiana!), the culture, the history. And, not insubstantially, I suspect (no, I really do), that I may have lived a previous life here. Either that, or I am confusing a previous existence here with my earlier stint as a 22-24 year old peace corps volunteer. Either way, some very emotional strings are pulling me...