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Each year, Eumseong, a city in Chungcheongbuk-do, South Korea, holds a Pumba Festival. (Fun fact: this is where United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is from.) “Pumba,” which doesn’t relate to The Lion King ( you will hear this joke ad nauseum from the expat community), means “beggar” or “vagabond.” Historically, back when Korea was poor, pumbas would roam the country.

They let us pick our costumes.

They let us pick our costumes.

As with most festivals in Korea, there is a parade with people dressed in very colorful, almost clown-like outfits, with their faces painted. There were gakseori, people who perform traditional dances and play musical instruments. There was also a “beggar opera” in an open-air auditorium that was packed with people.

Locals painting themselves.

Locals painting themselves.

In the beginning, I confess I had misgivings, because having lived in and visited developing countries and impoverished areas, I had no inclination to “celebrate” poverty. But during the festival, I realized that it was really more of a joyful occasion that got everyone in the province together, young and old alike. And like most festivals in Korea, it has to hearken back to something historic. As South Korea is one of the most developed countries in the world, this is a tradition that to me resembles a cross between a mime festival and Mardi Gras. In a country that celebrates perfect porcelain skin, it was refreshing to see brightly colored faces.

Ajummas: always the best dressed anywhere and anytime in Korea.

Ajummas: always the best dressed anywhere and anytime in Korea.

Also, as a modern “vagabond” myself, I do kind of relate to this idea of moving around and having to entertain people and struggling to survive.

These kids were among the best part.

These kids were among the best part.

If anything, the most unsettling part of the experience was this army of ajusshi and some ajumma who were decked in hiking gear and DSLR cameras, taking photos of the costumed people who were mostly foreigners like me. Apparently, there was a 1-million won prize for the best photograph. And so we were followed by paparrajusshi all afternoon.

Yikes. Paparajusshi.

Yikes. Paparajusshi.

They could get quite aggressive and would dive in the strangest positions that I believe yielded the most unflattering shots. I mean, come on.

I kid you not.

I kid you not.

And so I wanted to turn the tables and took a lot of photos of them. Like so.

DSLR heaven.

DSLR heaven.

I didn’t really mind, since most were friendly. However, I only posed for one. An ajumma. I don’t get the impression that women here have a lot of rights. I hope she wins the million won.

… is what they call this terrifying practice of getting screaming children (and occasional adults) to run after adorable farm animals, who do not look as though they’re having fun. The event, which I saw in Hampyeong’s butterfly festival, also had an enthusiastic emcee. Perhaps it’s me being a waegukin (foreigner), but I was quite horrified.

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Check out the ears of the poor bunny:

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This is a blurry shot, but I think it deserves to be published. I call this photo, “The Pig Won.”

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Flowers are starting to bloom in Korea. Hurray!

Color. Finally.

Color. Finally.

On the way to pick up my fourth passport from the embassy—Oh the luxury of smelling and touching a crisp new passport!—even this bear agreed:

Yes, little bear. Yes, it is.

Yes, little bear. Yes, it is.

Fare thee well, the winter of our discontent.

In Seoraksan, a mountain in the east of South Korea, it’s like a calligraphy painting that came to life. It was a grueling yet doable trek, with me giving high fives and fist bumps to the friendly elderly Korean people who regularly climb these mountains. It seemed as though they do it without breaking a sweat.

(I want to be an ajumma when I grow up. Such respect for these badass people who are so physically fit and look as though they just stepped out of a hiking catalog.)

It's like a calligraphy painting that came to life!

It’s like a calligraphy painting that came to life!

I bet it will look beautiful in the fall. I bet that’s enough reason for me to go back.

Gorgeous.

Gorgeous.

There is nothing like getting physically and mentally pushed to my limits to power me through the second half of this residency. Hwaiting!

hotteok, South Korea

hotteok, South Korea

Annyeong, everyone! I’m starting another project.

During my first three weeks in Seoul, beyond the palaces, the museums, and other beautiful attractions the city has to offer, I learned to fall in love with their street food. I have started some drawing projects over the years, and so I came up with The Movable Feast: A Street Food Project, an interpretative illustration project that celebrates the joys and oddities of street food around the world.

Inclusive cuisine

Street food is arguably the most socially inclusive, yet sometimes unnoticed or taken for granted, of all cuisines. There is neither dress code nor reservation required. Everyone has to wait their turn. Street food is among the best things to eat when one is rushing to work, taking a break in between classes, or being too lazy to cook. It is cheap, easily available, and delicious.

The menu of street food can be simple (such as coconut juice and watermelon slices) or more complex and hard-to-find (such as escargot on the go, lobster sandwiches, and grilled tamales) This system includes a range of members—from the ambling taho vendor (Philippines), the seasonal bocadillo stall (Spain), to scheduled and franchised food trucks (United States). It is a mobile and complex system that consists of the producers of raw materials, the makers of the actual dishes, the transportation and infrastructure that bring them to the venues in which they are served, the governing bodies that allow their selling, and the vendors and consumers themselves.

Globalization and diaspora

In many ways, I have discovered that street food is a symbol of globalization and diaspora. Many of them hail from other countries, but with local flavor. Consider goroke, the Korean version of the French croquette. Or hotdogs in Iceland. Or shawarma in Canada. It is also a symbol of urbanization—as the population who move from rural to urban areas increase, so does the need for alternative sources and ways of distributing food.

Street food as identity

I believe that street food is a vital part of the culture and identity of a city. It is indicative of the sustenance immediately afforded by its geography. But more than that, it is a symbol of a people’s resourcefulness, creativity, and survival. They tell us stories about ourselves.

Eating and perception

Eating street food fires up all the senses, which are the center of my larger body of work. Street food conjures up memories of childhood and gives strangers a shared experience of a meal. These drawings themselves are interpretative; more than documenting what they are, I also draw how they’ve made me feel, and write the memory I have about them.

Follow the project’s Tumblr here.

P.S. Drawings up every Monday!

P.P.S. As I am based in Seoul, many of these posts will be about Korean street food, though I will draw all the other street foods I’ve eaten in other countries, past and future. But if you wish, you can submit photos of street food from your country and I can try it out and draw it. Or submit your own drawings, following the format I’ve started. The link to submit is here.

The Movable Feast, where eating means research. Thank you for checking it out.

So I’ve decided to move to South Korea. Seoul, to be precise.

When I tell my friends I’m moving to Korea, I have three common reactions:

Common reactions to my move to Korea

Common reactions to my move to Korea

But seriously, it’s to do an art residency in Seoul. While it will be my fourth home city (“home” being anywhere I’ve lived in for at least six months because really, it’s probably the only criterion I have left), it’s my first time to live in East Asia.

Seoul, my fourth home city

Seoul, my fourth home city

A big part of choosing South Korea among all other countries is, duh, taekwondo, which I have realized has way more impact on my creativity than I think I give it credit for. Yes, I expect training after studio hours to be the most badass there, so I have high expectations for Dojang/School #15 and Sabonim/Master #29.

Korea, land of taekwondo. Oh la la! Hurray!

Korea, land of taekwondo. Oh la la! Hurray!

I only had a few weeks to pack as much Korean in my head as I possibly could, as I don’t think taekwondo terms will help much. For future expats in Korea, check out the incredibly helpful and hilariously engaging videos of Eat Your Kimchi and SweetAndTasty, which I’ve also written about in a previous post.

Simon and Martina of Eat Your Kimchi

Simon and Martina of Eat Your Kimchi

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Professor Oh and Friends


Thanks to the internet, I have come with things like deodorant, bedsheets*, and bras that will fit me—things that are apparently very hard to find in Korea.

Things I was advised to pack

Things I was advised to pack

And so the past two weeks were of doing what I now call The Expat Thank-You and Farewell Rounds (Part 7) of saying goodbye and having conversations with close friends and mentors. Closing another chapter through conversations, no matter how short that chapter was, is important to me, hence the lightning round of brunches, coffees, lunches, dinners, and drinks that make me question the human need of saying farewell over carbs. It’s quite sad to leave again, but I choose to look on the bright side. I am looking forward to uninterrupted time of continuing my work in a country that values tradition, skin care, and taekwondo as much as I do. Woohoo!

Ciao, friends! See you soon!

Ciao, friends! See you soon!

In the past nine years, I’ve always headed out west, and so this should be quite an adventure. Truthfully, it kind of feels like I’m going to another planet, or a parallel universe. I’m going to pretend the entire country is a dojang to minimize any untoward cultural misunderstandings. The bowing, the removal of shoes before getting in the room, shaking hands while touching your elbow—I’ve been doing this in taekwondo for the past 16 years.

Thanks to taekwondo, I feel that the chances of me unwittingly insulting a local are radically decreased.

Thanks to taekwondo, I feel that the chances of me unwittingly insulting a local are radically decreased.

It seems like only six months ago when I packed up my life and said goodbye.

Oh wait, it was.

Well, here goes nothing.

*Edit: So I’m here in my studio and they DO have bedsheets, or at least something that covers the bed. What the hey, internets. 

For reasons I will write about later, I have decided to learn the Korean language and culture. More specifically, I have decided to pack as much useful Korean phrases as possible into my head (and know how to say them in context) in the next few weeks.

I didn’t think that open source courseware from universities was the way to go. I love using online resources such as Khan Academy, Udemy, and Coursera, but they don’t really specialize in languages and cultures. In addition, with the timeframe I was giving myself, I didn’t want to feel like I was taking a class.

To my surprise, it wasn’t easy to find good online courses that teach Korean, perhaps because a lot of Korean people already speak English. Still, I believe that learning a people’s language is one of the best ways to understand them. When I lived in Barcelona, it was only when I started learning Spanish and Catalan that the locals started opening up to me. (Not that they weren’t nice to me before, but you get the idea.)

Learning a new language and culture always gives me what I refer to as a “brain massage”—I can feel my cerebral cortex almost groaning under all that cognitive load. Incorporating language classes into a busy schedule isn’t easy, and it was important to find learning material that were easily packaged into digestible pieces that are easy to recall.

Looking at the relatively small landscape of Korean culture and language videos, here are the two that are keeping me up at night (both from Youtube):

1. Professor Oh and Friends (SweetAndTasty on Youtube)

I’ve never come across better styled and more entertaining language and culture videos than those of Professor Oh’s. Her first video caught my eye, and I remembered her because her mnemonic for Korean consonants was to sing them to the melody of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. This was something that we used to do in high school, but to remember all the Chinese dynasties. (It’s quite a versatile song, yes?) It’s also really helpful that she points out common mistakes in pronunciation. She’s come quite a long way from that endearingly shy first video, and now she’s morphed into several characters. As someone with many alter egos as well, I totally relate to her. Keep going!

(Also check our her other alter ago as Ramona Champion.)

Professor Oh and Friends: Making the Korean language unforgettable. No kidding.

Professor Oh and Friends: Making the Korean language unforgettable. No kidding. (Photo from their Facebook page)

Because desperate times call for desperate measures, my Korean language notebook has frantically wriitten notes in the five languages I know, to highlight similarities and make me learn faster. Some Korean consonants were very similar to Mandarin, for example. It’s also funny that some words were the same in lots of languages. Banana is, well, pretty much banana in several countries.

2. Eat Your Kimchi with Simon and Martina

It’s impossible not to talk about Korean culture blogging without writing about Eat Your Kimchi. Canadians Simon and Martina Stawski came to South Korea in 2008 to teach English and started doing video blogs about their experiences as expats. They blog about the K-pop industry, but it’s their videos on culture that’s helping me. Now hugely popular, they have more than 260,000 subscribers on their Youtube channel. They even surpassed their Indiegogo goal to register EYK as an actual business.

Simon and Martina of Eat Your Kimchi. Prepping expats for Korean living (and K-pop) since 2008. Whatup, nasties!

Simon and Martina of Eat Your Kimchi. Prepping expats for Korean living (and K-pop) since 2008. Whatup, nasties! (Photo from the Eat Your Kimchi Facebook page)

From what I’ve learned from both Professor Oh and Eat Your Kimchi is this—having that human connection where the speaker is looking at you is a plus. Having well-defined characters or personalities allow for more contextualization, and when I remember the words and phrases, I hear the characters speaking them in my head together with their idiosyncracies. It also helps that they seem to be genuinely nice people with normal lives. Thoughtfully written scripts also work well in helping me remember. I switch back and forth from these channels because it’s great to have both Korean and non-Korean perspectives.

These people all feel familiar to me, and I might instinctively give them high fives if I ever see them. Seriously, thank you, for making this process wonderfully entertaining and useful.