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Cute poops

Having just returned from Korea where Rory and I were very busy preparing for the wedding in May, I was quickly reminded of how different the toilet culture is in Korea. There is nothing that can prepare you for it if you are from the Western Hemisphere. The incident came in the restroom at Outback Steakhouse. The stall was outfitted with a very sophisticated toilet that was operated by some sort of  control panel. Unfortunately the controls were not in English and I pushed one that caused a small spout to appear from beneath the seat and sprayed me with a very precise jet of toilet water. This leads me to my first point about toilets in Korea:

1. Toilets are often more than just toilets. Seriously, one of the buttons had an icon that looked as though it could also function as a hair dryer.

This is the toilet that got me!

My second realization came when I was in the toilet at an upscale department store. There, I sat down to do my business only to realize that from where I was sitting, I had a full view of the office building across the street as well as the pedestrians below. I could see them and, they could see me. Similarly, at another restaurant, I went to a urinal that was directly in front of a large open window that looked out into a courtyard. Therefore:

2. Toilets are not always private.

You never know who's looking

Being in Korea in December, it was averaging -10 degrees Celsius when we were there. Many times, the toilets at restaurants or stores  were outside the main heated section of the building and in a hallway towards the back. These places are seldom heated and so going to the bathroom was sometimes a chilling experience. Lesson 3:

3. Your pee may freeze.


Koreans love toilets. I don’t know why but they seem to be very proud of them. So much so they even design houses like toilets. This is why, even in some of the grungiest back alleys of Seoul, public toilets are often spotlessly clean beacons of ceramic comfort. In Canada I would never go into one of these. There would be no paper, no light, bugs, dirty seats, no running water and graffitti advertising the shady services of guys named ‘Long John’.

4. If you really gotta go in Korea, don’t worry, there are clean toilets everywhere.

Now that said, it isn’t always true. Some toilets are really old. And even some of the new ones are not the sit down style toilets we Westerners are used to. They require a certain amount of flexibility and dexterity. That’s right…

5. You might have to squat!

Easier than it looks!

In North America, the bathroom is an important component of the entire home. In addition to the bath/shower, toilet and sink operations it is also part library, part powder room and part walk-in closet. When describing homes, we even specify whether it is whole or half bathrooms. “3 and 1/2 baths” (whatever that means!). But in Korea, the bathroom is a functional, compact effective use of a small space. Firstly, they are usually all ceramic, tiled from the floor to the ceiling with nay a bathmat to be found. For this reason, there are no shower curtains either. This means you can splash and spray all over and everything just runs down into a drain. I’ve been in bathrooms where I was showering sitting on the toilet in a space the size of a refrigerator box. This also makes them self cleaning in a way. Very smart.

6. Korean bathrooms are not a luxury, they are a necessity.

Two birds with one stone

Oh and Korean toilets also tend to share facilities between the genders. That’s right, often you might find that women are walking past you at the urinal to get to their stall or you both share the same sink area. It doesn’t bother me as much as some people but I still recognize that it is a bit strange.

7. Everybody poops! But in Korea they don’t hide it so much.

Sharing can be fun!

Korea has a toilet super hero, his name is Sim Jae-Duck (Jack), 68 and he is the man who brought about the ‘restroom revolution’. According to him bathrooms are an important “cultural space”, and a “beautiful place to rest and meditate.” *update* According to the Sanitation Updates blog, Mr Toilet died earlier this year. He was the founder of the World Toilet Organization (WTO). *update again* I’m now not sure if there are two toilet superheroes with the name Sim. There is a Jack Sim and Sim Jae-Duck, who built the toilet house. Either way…

8. Koreans love toilets so much they make international organizations, build colleges and lead revolutions for improving them.

Mr. Toilet in his youth Which Mr. Toilet is this?

Wow, I didn’t even realise I had so much to say about toilets. I’ll leave you with this then. I found this joke at one of my favorite Korean blogs,  Ask a Korean.

Two guys were sitting in the public bathroom stalls, when the first guy talks to the second guy:
A: Er, excuse me. Do you have any toilet paper?
B: I’m sorry, I do, but just enough for myself.
A: Oh come on, can you please help me out?
B: No way man, I’m sorry.
A: Look, I’ll pay you $10 for that toilet paper.
B: I’m sorry, I really need this.
$10 bill is slipped into B’s stall from A’s stall.
A: Alright then, do you have ten $1 bills?

It will be winter but hopefully Seoul will still be bustling.

So tomorrow Rory and I leave for Seoul and attempt to leap the second major hurdle in our quest for matrimony. The first, of course, was meeting Rory’s mom earlier in the year. That time, I was nervous until I saw that she was just as nervous, having never been outside Korea and meeting her daughter’s Canadian fiancée for the first time. Then, the language barrier was accepted and Rory translated for us both.

This time it’s different because I will be the one out of my element. Not only will I have to present myself to Rory’s father and brother, I will also be bowing low to grandma, uncles and some neighbors. I promised Rory’s mom six months ago that I would learn Korean for when I come to Korea and meet the rest of the family, as they might not be as accepting for Rory to translate everything.

I have been trying for the last six months to be at least a little conversational in Korean. Unfortunately I am not going to be able to understand a lot. I find that Korean is difficult to hear because of all the formal endings attached to everything. The ‘aiyos’ and ‘imnidas’ mask the root words and so I have to try very hard to hear what few words I might recognize. I hope that they are a little impressed with what I’ve learned and maybe being in Korea will help me too.

The ceremonies will require me to dress formally, bow in unison with Rory in front of each person, say a phrase that I have yet to learn and present gifts. I will be spending a good amount of time on my knees, nodding in feigned understanding and most likely looking to Rory to translate. I hope hope hope that they respond to me similarly to Rory’s mom. Even though we can hardly speak, she seems to like me a lot.

Some of the Gifts we will be presenting:

Chinese medicine, fine spirits, diamond jewelery and envelopes filled with cash

And then there are Rory’s friends. I actually look forward to meeting some young, fun Koreans as I expect they will understand English even if they are uncomfortable speaking it. I look forward to going out for Korean BBQ and eating great kimchi. I look forward to exploring the city again, even though it will be cold. I look forward to spending time with Rory visiting the old Korean house where we will be married in May as well as checking out the hotels and places we will recommend to our guests. I look forward to cold weather (and maybe snow) after living in a desert for 2 years. I am just nervous about meeting the family.

Wish us luck!

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I’ve only  just heard of this but it strikes me as quite a strange superstition. Apparently, people die in Korea from fans!

Asian girl

This isn't the type of fan we're referring to...

Fan death, as in the fairly standard consumer air fan that most people are familiar with and can be purchased at Walmart for $31.88, is an urban legend in South Korea that blames the electric fan for suffocating, poisoning and freezing people if it is left running overnight in a closed room. Fans manufactured and sold in Korea have timers and warnings.

We're not talking about these types of Korean fans. Though they do look deadly!

These are the culprits! They even look guilty.

According to Wikipedia, The Korea Consumer Protection Board (KCPB) even warned against them and said they are a leading cause of seasonal deaths.

As you can tell by this shocking report, the phenomenon is mainstream news worthy!

Beware of fans!

Beware of fans!

Related Stories (this one’s really funny)

You will get something like this which will allow you to eat at the wedding

Rory and I had a bit of a fun argument last night. We were looking at options for wedding invitations and the websites we were looking at also were selling food tickets as well. I was a bit confused about this. Rory explained that it is customary for guests to receive food tickets when they turn in their wedding gift (money stuffed into a small envelope.) While I knew that money is supposed to be given instead of toasters and glassware I didn’t understand the whole ticket thing. As long as there are no wedding crashers, we should have a good sense of how many people will come to the wedding and can just let people eat without having to give them tickets in exchange for their gift. Rory explained that it is a way to keep track of how many people are eating and because it is what everyone is used to doing. Who am I to argue with that?

This is what Rory and I will look like at the wedding (minus the whiskers)

Now I received a slightly related link to a New York Times article about the tradition of giving money at Korean weddings and it interests me further to find out that the tradition is to open the envelope in front of guests and mark how much they paid in a ledger. I find this to be a bit insensitive and slightly unfair but I don’t think it’s done to purposely shame people into giving more, it’s just a way of doing the whole wedding present thing in a simple, quick, efficient and open way.

I find the article interesting mostly because of the idea that some people were using the wedding ceremonies of politicians and their families as an opportunity to bribe them with large cash gifts. I don’t expect anything similar to happen at our wedding but I think Rory and I agree that we can be bribed pretty easy 😉

Red envelopes with money are the standard gift at traditional Korean weddings

Here is a link explaining some of the Korean gift giving customs. If you have any questions, feel free to ask us.


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Beondegi (silkworm larvae)

Beondegi is available pretty much on every corner in Korea. Kids love 'em

The first of a long list of strange Korean food posts belongs to Beondegi 번데기, which is silkworm larvae. I’ve seen it in this soupy form but I think it can also be eaten in a more dry, crunchy state. (update: see pic below) It is a favorite amongst Korean school children who buy them by the cup-full on busy street corners. I’ve tried it. Can’t say I enjoyed it.

Also available in cans.

Related posts:

Dry cup of silkworm larvae

The after-school snack kind.


this is traditional wedding box and some of it's contents. We will do a bigger post on this later.

In Korea marriage isn’t just between a couple, it is also the marriage of two families. Yai mul is how you call all the wedding presents that are exchanged between the two families. Jamie and I are going to go look for some diamond jewelery today that we will give to my mom when we visit in December. Normally this would go into the Ham 함, the wedding chest that the groom presents the bride’s family. It is also filled with fine silks (예단) that the wedding party uses for the wedding day and a formal letter that states the groom’s family’s acceptance of the bride into their family.

We are breaking a little with the tradition by giving my mom the jewelery ahead of time. Normally it is a pearl set, a diamond set and a watch given for the father. These are normally all presented just before the wedding but for convenience we will give them a bit separately.

The actual Korean word for marriage when referring to a girl is Shi jip Kan Da (시집간다). This literally means ‘going to the groom’s house and becoming their family’. This is why the groom’s family presents such lavish gifts. It is in thanks to my parents for raising me to be such a great wife to Jamie :p

We’ll be sure to share pictures when we get back from the Gold and Diamond park.

Racism in Korea

Japanese aren't loved in Korea

An article in the NYT yesterday reminded me of a story:

My first day in Korea in 2005, I was riding the subway, watching an old wrinkled Korean lady bouncing a really cute baby on her knee. The kid’s eyes were locked on mine as he garbled and cooed and his grandma smiled shyly at me in my amusement. Then the subway stopped and a young couple, a businessman and an old man came into the car. I kept making stupid faces at the child when I started hearing a loud Korean voice over the normal din of a midday train ride. At first I ignored it but then it became louder and more vicious sounding. I finally looked to see the old man sitting down and he was litterally spitting as he cursed foreign slurs directly at me. I was shocked and looked back at him. He stood up, assisted by a cane, and kept yelling at me. I moved back slightly, a little frightened when the grandma with the child said something to him in a stern voice and he sat back down. He kept muttering curses at me though until finally the young woman said something to him. She said it politely but with an edge and he finally shut up. She then turned to me and apologized. Her boyfriend did the same. I got off at the next stop. His eyes followed me out the door, as did the chubby cheeked Korean child.

Multiple generations live together in Korea

I didn’t know what that was about until later, it was explained to me that Koreans, especially the older generation, are pretty racist. It comes from living on an island. It comes from conservative education that tries to instill a strong sense of nationalistic and ethnic pride. It comes from Japanese invasions and drawn out wars. It comes from being stuck between some very distinct societies. It’s kind of normal there. That’s one of the reasons why it is a really big deal for me to be marrying Rory.

Long after I left Korea and travelled the rest of Asia, I looked back at my time and the people I met in Seoul. There was a serious shift happening and my generation in that country were torn between two very distinct cultures; that belonging to the old and traditional, conservative values of their parents and their own free-spirited, confused and artistically hungry sense of selves.


This is a great photo from flickr photographer 2five1

That train ride now reminds me very much of an elevator ride I took with my dad and great grandmother in her building when I was young and she was alive. A stubborn, Irish mother of 14 in rural Quebec, Great Grandma D’Arcy was a live, fallen power cable, full of spark and energy, often seen dancing a jig with a grin on her face. However, when two large black guys entered the car, her smile distorted as she began dropping N-bombs and cursing the most foul obscenities I think I’ve ever heard. Even as a young child I was shocked. I understood though that it was just her ignorance, her life in ethnic isolation. Not so different from the old Korean man on the train. I think Korea is one generation away from being awesome.

A lot had to happen for change to come about in the West

Going back to the NYT article, it is good to see that the government and laws in Korea are starting to reflect the new realities. In just the past seven years, the number of foreign residents has doubled, to 1.2 million and younger people are starting to marry non Koreans. People might read the article and think, ‘wow, what took them so long’ but consider that an interracial couple was denied a marriage license recently in the US.

I don’t often tell her but I am supremely proud of my fiance for choosing to stand up against the traditions of her family and her country in order to marry me. Women like Rory have started challenging the norms. They are Korea’s version of  Richard Loving. I’m hopeful that our children will be the ones who set Korea free.

Related articles:

After 40 years, interracial marriage flourishing

Just Plain Uncomfortable

Korean Shamans

I like this pic. There are a few Korean iconic symbols that maybe I'll let Rory explain. 🙂

When Buddhist priests and temples were prohibited in the walled towns three centuries ago, anything like a national faith disappeared from Korea, and it is only through ancestral worship and a form of  shamanism that Koreans were able to fill that human need for spiritual guidance.

Though Korea is now more religiously diverse (see Korean evangelist Reverend Moon Sun-myung and photo below from his recent marriage of 20,000 people) Shamanism is still a very common practice and the blessings of shamans are still sought after for everything from taking a new job to, in our case, deciding if we are a good match, making sure we don’t have any opposing energies, advising on the best possible date to get married and predicting the success of our marriage. This is decided not only on our Chinese zodiac signs but also on major recent personal events, for example we shouldn’t be married if there is recent death in the family or on the same month as our parents, etc.

Mass Wedding

This isn't how Rory and I will be married. It seems a little generic...


The process is kinda good because so many factors are out of our control that it actually takes some stress off of us during the planning process. It is proving to be a bit problematic for some of our friends and family though, as we tried to have a fall wedding and told people to plan as such, but in the end we are now marrying in May. (Sorry if this caused you strife) Technically it is out of our hands and hopefully this will explain why.

The Korean Shaman interprets the Chinese sexagenary cycle, a 60 year astrological and elemental cycle, and also takes into account other religious, spiritual and personal history to heal, predict and council on major life decisions and events such as political elections, divorce, employment and marriage. As far as their involvement in our marriage (so far), the shaman based their interpretation primarily on the scientific 60 year cycle which maps the earthly and heavenly positive and negative energies to predict the best possible date for the wedding. It is also the same process which will suggest when the children should be conceived and whether the marriage will be happy and healthy. Sounds a bit frightening really.


The Korean word for Shaman is 'mudang' 무당

It’s an interesting calendar based on the Heavenly Elements 木 (wood), 火 (fire), 土 (earth), 金 (metal) and 水 (water). Each of these elements is further divided into positive and negative energies (yin and yang – but negative isn’t necessarily bad, but more like a battery has two poles). Yin and yang are tied to the moon and the sun, female and male respectively. The five elements multiplied by the two energies make the 10 possible Heavenly Stems of the calendar. These correspond to a repeated cycle of ten years in the lunar calendar and are paired with the repeating 12 animals of the more commonly known Chinese zodiac (Earthly branches). However, there are corresponding hours each day for each animal as well, which further determines personal traits of each individual. It is a bit complicated, which is why people probably consult shamans in the first place.

The combination of 12 animals and 10 elements repeat every 60 years. It’s interesting because apparently the 61st birthday (hwangap) is a significant milestone in a person’s life as pre-industrialized Koreans rarely made it to this age but also because it means you have lived an entire cycle. Rory’s dad turns 61 in April and so we are expecting a big party in advance of our own celebration.

korean shaman

Shamans in Korea are almost always women.This one is performing a ritual dance.

Hopefully this explains some things about how we came about the date for the wedding and why it took so long to nail down. There are plenty more interesting Korean traditions and rituals though so keep visiting the blog to learn more.

By the way, according to the Shaman, I am metal monkey.

Interesting extras:

Shamanism – NY Times article

Fact – There are an estimated 300,000 shamans, or one for every 160 South Koreans, according to the Korea Worshipers Association, which represents shamans.

Korean Shamanism

Performing a ritual

China_24_cardinal_directionsThis is a quick post to let everyone know Rory and I have will be married on May 2, 2010 in Seoul, South Korea.

After taking a good hard look at the energies that swirl about this great universe, the Korean Shaman has suggested only a couple possible dates for us to be married.   This was one of two possible dates in the lunar calendar that represent the best luck, the best timing and the best weather for a wedding. We chose May because in Seoul, the blossoms will be in full bloom, the sun warm, the air cool and of course the kimchi spicy. It’s also because we want to be married as soon as we can.

We are very hopeful that all of our friends and family can attend but understand that this might not be possible for everyone.

Please keep following this Blog for all the relevant details around the wedding but also to share in our adventure. We will be updating the blog with interesting details about Korean culture, the traditional Korean wedding process, specific details relating to logistics for those attending as well as documenting our own experiences. For those of you who use Twitter, you can follow updates through our account @roryandjamie.

Please feel free to share this blog with anyone who would be interested to follow us on our wedding journey.

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Korea photos