What (Not) To Wear

When you think about the Asian Fashion scene I am sure that the Harajuku girls of Japan (whether you know them by that name or not) is one of the first images that comes to mind. That, and impossibly skinny and impeccable women made up to perfection. I feel like Korea didn’t really make a big impact on the global fashion scene until the 00s but more likely it was a combination of watching Gucci’s S/S 2013 trunk show in Seoul online (Sidebar: I worked in a really cool agency and my boss opined that creativity begets creativity so watching a superbly produced fashion show counted as research) and the fact that Raj first planted the seed of South Korea in my mind in 2013 that made me sit up and take notice of the country.

Of course I went into overdrive researching the country, the dos and don’ts, trying to find out as much as possible about Songdo – for which there was limited information online, hence the birth of this blog – but one thing that I didn’t think about was clothing beyond the practical i.e. lots of warm layers for the ridiculous winters.  Turns out there are a lot of unspoken rules about what one should wear to minimise* the staring as you go about your business. A quick note – my tips below don’t cover a working environment be that in an international organisation where the global standard of dress tends to apply,  or a Korean organisation, where as far as I can tell high heels are the only acceptable shoes for women.

(1) Keep ’em covered.

Generally speaking, exposing one’s shoulders and anything with a low décolletage is frowned upon. Spaghetti strap tops and dresses are sold here but girls will tend to wear them over a t-shirt – and this rule is adhered to by even the youngest of society. Now I feel like the shoulders rule is of less import but if you are blessed in the bust department and a sleeveless top almost inevitably means a bit of cleavage on show, perhaps its better to keep those tops in your holiday wardrobe. You’d probably get away with it fine in Songdo due to its international composition but in both the smaller and larger cities in Korea, a t-shirt helps avoid unwanted attention. Songdo is beyond safe but many stories of local men being a bit creepy towards foreign women flood Facebook (I haven’t been subjected to this personally however, probably because I’m usually in the company of Raj / in a large mixed group).

(2) When it comes to hemlines, the sky is the limit

I have a former boss who used to say that rising hemlines are sign of a rising economy. If this is true, the Korean economy is BOOMING. Whilst knee length is probably the norm for more formal occasions, you will see women in itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny-shorts, skirts and dresses on a day-to-day basis. In winter these will be paired with thick, decorative tights for warmth but short short short is still the order of the day. As it can get breezy, I’ve seen women wearing cycling shorts (or similar) under their skirts and dresses to avoid a Marilyn-moment – and if you are of average European size, this trick also helps with the dreaded chub-rub (as does hacking a pair of tights into shorts along the gusset line).

(3) Footwear is key

In summer, I am guilty of slipping on flip flops to run my daily errands but a Korean woman will always be well-heeled. Be it trainers (sneakers), pumps, sandals or heels their shoes are well cared for and chosen with care to work with their outfits. Many fancier bars (very strict on- and off-line defamation laws in Korea prevent me from naming names) won’t allow you in wearing open-toed flats (even if they are actual sandals and not flip flops) and keep a stock of heels for women to borrow.  I’ve even seen trainers for hire at outdoor festivals for women who make the mistake of wearing their heels to such events. You’ll find no end of footsie socks, cute trainer liners and fancy tights in all the subway stations to accompany your shoes too – and as with most things in Korea, the cuter the better!

(4) Game, set and MATCH

The phenomenon of couples wearing matching clothes is HUGE. It’s something that I am yet to get Raj to do but you’ll see tons of couple wearing his’n’hers t-shirts, sweatshirts, coats even! I’ve also seen a couple wearing matching skirt (for her) and shorts (for him) and taking about a million selfies to document the outfits obviously.

Now a whole separate post is needed about how women always look immaculate here but even if they are going grocery shopping in tracksuit bottoms and uggs, their faces are flawless and hair is neat and tidy. Long gone are the days that I had the patience for such things but once in a while it is fun to try 🙂

So there you have it. A simple set of tips for what (not) to wear in Korea if you want to fit in or at least, not stand out quite so much.

*Minimise. That’s all you are going to be able to achieve so it’s worth putting on your thickest skin before you get to Korea. Society here is pretty homogenous and the emphasis on how a person looks is high. Deviate from the norm – perhaps you’re bond, or tall or have green eyes – in any way and you will earn the open stares of passers by. A group of girls might look in your direction and laugh – for no reason other than you are a foreigner and  I’ve also heard tell of ajummas (older Korean Women – think your neighbourhood grandma) who thinks nothing of adjusting a bra strap/ fingering the material of a dress  on a stranger sitting next to them on the bus.

 

Aaannnddd Reee-lax

If you’re anything like me, you’ll have a bunch of stereotypes in your mind before you make the move over to Songdo and you’ll very quickly be disabused of most of those. I mean, some of them – Asia being the land of multi-story buildings with lots of bright lights for example – do prove to be true in Seoul, and even other areas of Incheon (Bupyeong comes to mind) but not so in the manicured streets of Songdo. Dream city is the closest that you get to that view of Asia in South Korea, but even still, its pretty tame – at least compared to my imagination.

I also expected cheap mani/pedis – **imitates buzzer** and in fact, the nail treatments here are more expensive and without all the nice soak in warm water / foot scrub elements that you have come to expect from home. And massages. I really thought we would be able to get good, firm massages regularly without paying an arm and a leg. Well, yes, places exist, but to be honest, when Raj and I went to look at them, they all felt a bit on the seedy side and we weren’t so comfortable trying them out. Plus, all my back issues mean that I need a reasonable level of English to be spoken so that I can make the various aches and pains clear. The other option, massages at the spa in the Sheraton, are supposed to be good, but definitely comes at a price.

Well not so any more. Through all my various Facebook group memberships, I glean a lot of (not entirely always useful) information but then popped up this gem:

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I had heard about a place near Cinder Bar / The Prau that was good for massages, so when I saw this post, I decided it was meant to be. Post-board-meeting-massages here we come. I called Mr. Kim and made the appointment for a Saturday morning at 1030. Now, whilst his English is excellent, there was a bit of confusion about the timing, as when I showed up for my appointment, he thought I had said 12. No matter, he rallied and was there with his partner in about 10 minutes but knowing this, I’d probably advise people to send a text or Kakao to confirm the appointment.

We had opted for 1 hour Swedish Massages and, I think because he felt bad about the confusion in timing, he threw in some hot stones as well – Uh-May-Zing! I didn’t even realise how much time was going by and really felt thoroughly beaten into shape post massage. You can specify whether you want to be in a single room or don’t mind sharing and as promised on the poster, there was a 10% discount for having a morning appointment.

So what are you waiting for? Get on the blower and book a massage – you’ll thank me later I promise!

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We followed our massages with a weekend in Seoul – the Louis Vuitton Exhibition at Dongdaemun Design Plaza, burgers at ShakeShack, Dinner at Julios, a movie at the Charlotte Theatre in the Lotte Cinema (Myeongdong) and a visit to an 8 STOREY DAISO made for a great weekend… and another post for another day!

 

Sometimes…

Even I run out of things to talk about. So one of my tasks today was to write a blog post, but sitting here (well, lying here, as today I am adult-ing from my bed) I actually don’t have a lot to tell you folks about. My draft posts either (a) bored me when I was writing them or (b) need a lot more information than I currently have to hand to make sense. It isn’t like I’ve been sitting around Netflix-ing either. I’ve actually had days where I haven’t even put the TV on. I went to Singapore for a weekend to meet a friend *Hi Raj Mistry* and last weekend there was a Ski Trip organised by IFEZ to Pyeongcang – home of the winter Olympics 2018. At the start of February I finally signed up to PT sessions (with an English speaking trainer) and am working on my strength and mobility (and hopefully some weight loss as a bonus) but that’s not an interesting journey for anybody except my older brother and my sister-in-law (shout out to my personal fitness cheerleaders in Vancouver). I recently applied for a 6 month contract position as an events consultant, but more on that if and when I find out what the process is like. The baking has stopped in honour of our ‘get healthy’ regime but I’ll pull it out for special occasions. I continue to Instagram pictures of food. Oh, and I started a secret project that I obviously can’t write about because then it wouldn’t be a secret. Also, even when it isn’t a secret I am not sure I can write about it because, well, its complicated. Let’s forget I said anything.

I guess I could tell you a little about the weekend’s ski trip to Pyeongchang, but there isn’t a huge amount to tell. As IFEZ organize everything, the sum of your responsibility is to turn up to the G-Tower for the 4 hour coach journey to Pyeongchang and choose the activities that you want to do (Ski lesson, snow board lesson, just hang out etc.) On the return, we stopped at the Olympic Ski Jump venue which was awesome but my general lack of attention span means I didn’t listen to the tour guide and just wandered about and looked at things. The main thing I learnt is that this particular resort has a high level of English, so if you wanted to book a weekend trip there, it wouldn’t be a difficult thing to do. Here’s some pictures to keep you going:

Ok, one of my daily tasks from the trainer is to get out of the apartment and hit 6000 steps daily, so I better get going on that. Luckily, it is starting to warm up outside so the thought of a stroll through the park isn’t too arduous.

Happy Tuesday everyone – and I promise I’ll come up with more interesting things to write about soon!

Social Media & The Expat

So at home in London, I was not quite so proficient at checking my social media (it was a task to be completed on the parts of my commute for which I had network) or uploading things to it. However, I quickly realised that we are so incredibly lucky to have such instant methods of updating and communicating with family and friends at home so I’ve become better at it. I regularly upload photos to my Instagram (which I prefer to Facebook because it has a more limited audience) and as I’ve downloaded Instagram for my mum, that means my parents can easily see what I am up to or the end results of things that we have spoken about. I’m using Twitter to find out information about things in Korea, but also as a source of news (yes, yes, I am being wary of fake news and the like). I mean, we are SO lucky not to have to wait 2 weeks for real letters to be delivered or to get a calling card and make 5 minute phone calls from pay phones with a bad connection so, I embraced technology when we moved and used the internet way more than I used to for personal usage back home. The biggest change in my social media habits is the use of Facebook. It is actually an amazing resource for getting information about different things here, and so I decided to make today’s post about the different Facebook groups that I have joined and pages I have liked since Raj signed his contract.

Below is a list of the pages and groups, with links to each on Facebook. A number of the groups are closed groups, which means that you send a joining request and the page admins will accept or decline your request as appropriate. Some of the pages require you to send a message to the admin to confirm why you want to join the page (this helps avoid the inevitable spamming) so be sure to read any pinned posts and follow the instructions!Hopefully the dearth of information that is available makes it worthwhile to have a Facebook account, even if only for the purposes of joining some of these groups! And it goes without saying that all opinions on the groups mentioned below are entirely my own.

Songdo Expat Community : The very first group I joined and also the one I have used the least. I find it a difficult group to navigate and as a result, questions/comments posted often go un-noticed. When we first arrived, landing on a Sunday with a fair amount of luggage and nobody meeting us at the airport, I posted a question about the best way to get from the airport to The Prau and got no answer. I mean, sure, we worked it out, but for a group professing to make life in Songdo easier for expats, I don’t find it very helpful. Still, I’m loathe to leave it just in case I miss something golden…

Anglo Info Seoul : News, tips and advice for life in Korea. This is one of the groups that I let post to my newsfeed and I usually read an article a day. It’s where I learnt about the recent governmental troubles and protests taking place in Seoul, about the Chicken Flu outbreak of 2016 and other day to day news that I would have normally obtained from the free dailies on my commute. Similar to this group, but less active in my opinion Everyday Korea and Community Korea

Ourshop India: Indian groceries online. And before the opening of Costco in Songdo, also a useful stop for ordering a few Costco goodies online. Delivery is quick and efficient once payment is made (and they have a variety of ways to pay). There are other online Indian grocers but I haven’t used them so haven’t included them here.

Employment groups include  Jobs in South Korea , Jobs: South Korea and Non Teaching Jobs in South Korea all of which facilitate posts from prospective employers and employees alike.

Waeg Farm is a group for those of you who can’t do without your goat’s cheese – especially when it is made fresh and delivered straight to your door!

Korea International Nanny Service is not just for childcare, but cleaners / housekeepers often post here as well. Great if the 3 hour minimum call from the Incheon Cleaning Service  is too much for your needs

Korea Heritage Society  a group to share and enjoy in the rich culture of Korea, with regular posts on activities and events taking place across the country

Used Cars fro Foreigners and Koreans Check out my post on driving here for more information on why this group is so useful!

Expat Grocery Gurus Korea: New Products, Discounts And Clearance Sales featuring tips and advice on where to buy products, when there are sales etc. Everyone here is super helpful and friendly so if you are looking for the source for a particular product, don’t hesitate to ask!

Particularly useful for expats are:Every Expat in Korea,British Expats in Korea,  Indians in Korea and Expat Women in Korea. I mean, you get the odd douche (excuse my French) on all of the groups but by and large the communities are helpful, friendly and supportive.

Not one I’ve had much need to use but always a good to have around is Expat Healthcare in South Korea.

Cooking in Korea is a great resource for sharing recipes, gleaning inspiration, asking for tips and advice and, as I find when I’ve achieved something new in the kitchen, a bit of validation from others who are also navigating the world of Western Style cooking in Korea.

For Incheon/Songdo specific groups, these are a few that I have found:

Incheon Global Campus and Yeonsu, Incheon, South Korea features interesting events and information from our locality

Incheon-Songdo Photography for all the photo lovers in the area, with some really stunning shots of where we call home!

For buying and selling second-hand goods check out Songdo Flea Market and Incheon Flea Market.

Songdo Girl’s Night Group is a community for the ladies of Songdo with at least a monthly event planned

For the exercise conscious among you, check out GCF Yoga which is a beginners Yoga Class, taught in English 3 times a week at the G-Tower for GCF employees and their families and Zumba in Songdo , which is about, well, Zumba classes in Songdo.

Road Tips ideas for trips and events for the expats of Songdo, by the expats of Songdo.

I’m sure new groups will come along sooner or later, but for now, that’s all folks.

The Weather

Weather is weather, right? You’ve got Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter and you know what to expect from the seasons. Not so in Songdo. Here, the weather is absolutely-off-the-charts-mental and you pretty much have to be prepared for every scenario.

Just last week (penultimate week of August) I was planning my days to make sure that I stayed indoors, with the lovely lovely AC, between midday and 5pm, just to avoid becoming one big sweat bucket the moment I left the apartment. Even at 9 or 10pm, it would be a sweltering 29 Celsius (Real Feel in the 30s) and that was supposed to be ‘cooler’ temperatures. Today, I’m sitting here watching buckets and buckets of rain top down and listening to the 90km/hr wind whistling outside the window. It is so strong, that I can’t even open some of the windows in the apartment due to the pressure! Our building receptionist just told me that this weekend is going to go back to be crazy-hot. Mental I tell you.

And let’s talk about the temperature swing while we are at it: from -20 Celsius in the winter up to a real feel of 40 Celsius in the height of summer. A full 60 degree swing is not something I have ever experienced before and, judging from the reactions of our friends here who hail from all over the world,  I’m not sure there are many countries that have the same temperature swing. People here are convinced that coming from London, the winters here must be nothing new for us but that is so far from the truth I don’t even know where the truth is when I look back.

Moral of the story: Be prepared for everything. You need to have:

(1) Thermals (100 denier tights, gloves, hats, scarves, coats and I love my trusty Uggs)

(2) Sunscreen – in the winter I can (and need to because the climate is super dry) use it in addition to moisturiser, and in the summer, in place of (more than one layer of product is not going to work well for anyone in the peak of summer humidity)

(3) Hats – for both hot and cold weather. And to cover up a bad hair day, you know.

(4) Umbrellas, and if you are going for true Korean-Style, you can use these as sun protection too, and for when it is too windy for an umbrella, rain jackets (NorthFace. Always NorthFace) and if you are a backpack carrier, a rain cover isn’t a bad idea.

(5) Sandals, trainers and rain-wear.

And you need to have these things year round, because you never know where the crazy will take you next.

Travel Racism

A more random set of musings for today. Recently, I left a group on Facebook that was dedicated to women who love to travel. There were women from all over the world who shared pictures of their travel with one another, asked for travel advice and it was also a safe space to ask for help or advice – one girl’s story was that she had travelled far from home to see a guy that she had started seeing on a previous trip. Once she arrived, he was cold and distant and basically ditched her in a country where she didn’t speak the language and had nowhere to stay. Through the group, she met some other female travellers who took her in and gave her a shoulder to cry to get over the shock and from then on, she had a great trip.

So it couldn’t get better than a group that allows you to take a risk and share your passions in a non-judgemental way, right? Well that was my initial reaction.

In the last few weeks however, things took a turn for the nasty. It began with a self-proclaimed “Woman of Colour” (aka WOC)  posting a question about some prejudice that they had encountered on a recent trip and asking for advice and support. All fine. But then she post-fixed the comment saying that she didn’t want any responses from any non WOCs – i.e. white women. And understandably there was some backlash against this – at least, I found it understandable (and I fall into the WOC category.) If a Caucasian women had written about any prejudice, or how stares in certain countries made her uncomfortable (and I have seen this myself with blonde friends in the Middle East for example)  and said that WOC need not respond, everyone would have been up in arms.

All of a sudden, this group became a forum about whether it is OK to preclude one group of people (for any reason – hair colour, height etc) from answering a comment, if the poster of the question didn’t feel that they would have the relevant experience. From my point of view, it is never ok to categorically exclude someone. Even if their experience isn’t identical (and which two people’s are) it remains valuable. My mother taught me that if I don’t have anything nice or useful to say, then to shut up. So when someone asked where the best area to buy shampoo for afro hair in London was, despite being a through and through Londoner, I kept shtum. Likewise, when another girl asked about facing prejudice when travelling in certain countries, I responded that I didn’t feel that the prejudice was due to my being brown, but more just the view of women that was taken there – my brown male pals got things done easily without getting ripped off simply due to the luck that gave gave them a ‘y’ chromosome instead of a second ‘x’. This continues to be the case in certain aspects of my life in Korea. All I have to do is utter the magic words “I have to ask my husband” and anybody trying to sell me something backs deferentially away until the higher power in the house has spoken (little do they know that I have totally manipulated the stereotype to suit my needs and Raj would be perplexed if I started asking permission for, well, anything.. but that is a different story.)

It was a shame to leave the group but there was talk of a women of colour sub-group which I felt was even more divisive and against the spirit of the group as it was intended. Gone was the safe space, as well as the source of valuable travel information, but perhaps my newsfeed just needed a springtime de-clutter too…

Incheon

Incheon is the nearest town to Songdo and easily accesible by bus (the 908 from Homeplus Express) subway (from Central Park you can go to Incheon Bus Terminal. Arts Centre or Town Hall) and taxi – between 7,000 and 10,000 Won.

If you take the bus to Incheon, and get off by the bus station, you’ll find yourself by the Fruit and Veg Market  – keep walking through the veg hall and round to the left, you’ll find fruit, I promise! Here you’ll find most of the same varietals that you find in the supermarket, just a bit cheaper and you can buy things as singles, rather than in the huge familiy packs you find elsewhere. The vendors only take cash and it is quite an experience trying to figure out what you are doing but a lot of people make weekly trips there so grab your granny-trolley and give it a go!

As well as the fruit and veg markets, you have the regular department stores, e-mart, homeplus and some english language book stores, which are always fun to have a browse through. There is a also a CGV cinema in Incheon.

Sidenote on cinemas: Most western films are screened in English with Korean subtitles except animated films – these tend to be dubbed.

What seems super interesting to me are the back streets away from the subway – I’m yet to explore these yet but with the warmer weather here, I’ll get right on it and update ASAP!