Not really updating this badboy any longer, but keeping old posts up so people googling can use the info. Cheers, y’all.

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Renewing Your Passport at the US Embassy in Seoul

So after I returned home from the Philippines, I was graced with a Monday off from work that wasn’t a national holiday. Seizing upon this incredibly rare opportunity in which I was free while government buildings were open, I went to the post office, bank, and–after noticing my passport filling up with stamps–the US Embassy.

The embassy is NOT open on weekends and stops letting folks in at 3PM. You can always submit your passport an application via a courier service, but I happened to have a day off and decided to save myself the extra money.

Before you can even mosey on up there, you have to make an appointment online. If you are running late (like I was because I never learn my lesson when it comes to Seoul traffic), give the embassy a phone call and chances are you’ll still be let in if they’re not busy: 02-397-4114

Next, you’ll use the online passport wizard to fill out an application. Print this out and bring it with you, along with a US 5cm x 5cm passport photo. (This is NOT the same size as Korean passport photos!) If you don’t have one on you, fear not. There’s a machine in the embassy that takes both won and dollars. You need to bring bills in 5 and 1 denomination because it does NOT give change. The cashier behind the plexiglass can help you out if you’ve forgotten and only have a 10, but it’ll waste your time..!

Gwanghwamun on the purple line is the closest subway stop; just go out exit 2 and follow traffic. The embassy is by a fire station. Click for a map of the embassy. Alternatively, you can show this address to a taxi driver:

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Head for the ugly green overhang and follow it to the US Embassy!

Head for the ugly green overhang and follow it to the US Embassy!

Once there, you do not need to stand in line! To the left of the queue there is a special lane you can take. Show your documents and passport (you didn’t forget it, did you!?) to the person behind the window. They’ll unlock the door and you go inside, at which point cell phones, MP3 players, laptops, cameras, etc are confiscated until you leave.
In the waiting area, grab a number from the little machine with a green button. While you wait, be sure to fill out a return postage slip for when your passport is mailed back. These are to the right of the passport photo machine.
Once your number is called, the agent will check your documents, hand you a receipt, and shoosh you to the cashier. You can pay in won, US dollars, or by credit card. I paid $110 for the big 52 extra page passport book. Now to play the waiting game…
If you have kids in tow, there is a nursing station, bathroom, and play area inside too, so don’t fret!
UPDATE August 13,2014
I received my passport via mail 8 business days after I left it at the embassy. I also had to pay 8,000 won to the postman upon receiving it, so make sure you’ll be around when it’s delivered. My old passport was returned as well, with a big ‘CANCELLED’ stamp in the front page and holes punched in the cover.

Boracay Bound

In two hours I’ll hop Seoul Subway’s line 1 and make for Incheon airport, from where I’ll board a flight to Manilla. After a midnight layover of five hours, I’ll find myself in Boracay.

If you’ve not heard of Boracay, chances are you’re not one of the hundreds–thousands–of backpackers and expats who flock to Asia. Boracay is a small island in the Philippines famous for its beaches and laid back culture. Tourists can take advantage of bar crawls, scuba diving, sailing, cliff diving, swimming, etc. So pack some shorts, sunscreen, and–if you’re headed there at the end of July–an umbrella.

My friends and I are taking a gamble on the ‘low-season’ when room rates are cheap ($17/night for a cottage!? Sign me up) and the rain showers intermittent. If you didn’t know, a typhoon swept through the Pacific this week (on the opposite side of the Philippines from Boracay), which should give you a pretty good idea as to the weather situation down south these days. Supposedly on Boracay the rain showers are intermittent, with patches of blue sky and sun peeking through.

When I booked this trip back in April, I was an optimist. Now, looking at the weather report, I wonder what the hell I was thinking. And why we even bother with summer vacations when the entire Pacific is soaked.

In any case, I have a few decks of cards, a bottle opener, and an iPad with a VPN and Netflix. Bring it on, typhoon season. Let’s see what you can do.

Birth Control: What’s in a name?

June has been a somewhat shitty month for me, and–bear with me here–the bullshit the US Supreme Court just pulled made me kind of think that I might know the reason why I’ve been in such a funk. I have really had no desire to do shit–not even the desire to waste time, even. That’s understandable for one or two days, but, like, three weeks in a row? At this point I’m so lethargic that I just cannot be fucked about anything.

So what gives? Why was my June so shit?

Sure, I got a terrible case of strep throat the first week in, resulting in a fever so bad that I got a sick day off work. (I work in South Korea and that is, patently, something One Does Not Do Unless Absolutely Necessary and Even Then You’re Still Going to Get an Evil Eye, Depending on Your Boss.) I also lost my phone and had to shell out a couple hundred for a new one, just as I thought I was going to have extra for savings. USA gave me a heart attack when we played Portugal and my neighbors did not appreciate my cries of anguish. Yeah, okay, some crappy stuff happens. But crappy stuff happened in May and April and March and…

But I think it’s the fact I’ve been off birth control for a month. I stopped taking them when I went on antibiotics for strep because I’ve found the combination just puts my stomach through hell. I figured I’d just take a break this month, seeing as how I’m not getting any action from the gentleman contingent at present.

Apparently that was a Dumb Idea.

Primarily I use the pills to help control my estrogen levels to keep my emotions (and ovarian cysts, but forget about that can of worms) at a well-balanced level. I wish someone would start calling these pills what they really are–they’re hormone therapy. Yeah, they help prevent pregnancy, but there’s so much more that they do. When you find the right pill for your body, they can help lessen cramps, clear up your skin, and–if you’re like me–keep you balanced enough to actually find the energy to get up and go to a museum with a friend or even just go deal with work for 8 hours without wanting to snap a neck.

When you tell people you’re on birth control, how many times has an eyebrow been raised? “Mmmmmhm, I’m sure you are.” Well, dear stranger, I’m happy to inform you that I’m not getting actively laid every night of the week. I’m just an estrogen-deficient gal who wants to get some pills without being judged, harassed, or denied my right to healthcare.

When I think about how expensive birth control is back home ($35+ compared to $9 OTC in Korea) and how difficult it can be to get for some women, I feel less crappy about my June but crappier about the state of the world in general, so that’s quite the trade off.

$35 for pills that do so much for so many women! If you work minimum wage in most American cities, that’s 5 hours of work at least. For one year (plus let’s say an extra pack because sometimes you lose one in airplane luggage or something) that’s… $455. And this is for the bare bones stuff, not even as much as some gals have to pay for the more cocktailed up formulas because their physiology is different. Paying $60 for a monthly pack is not unheard of in the States.

If you go to Korea or China, birth control pills are available over the counter for stupidly cheap compared the the USA. The brand Marvelon is used in Canada and other first world countries, and you can get as many boxes as you need in one trip. Shit, stock up before you head home to the States, ladies. It looks like it’s going to be a long time before we have affordable and easy access to hormone therapy, at this rate.

24 Hour Medical Care in Bundang, Seoul

Just in case anyone is awake in the middle of the night, frantically Googling for this answer… As of the time of this posting, the St. Marie clinic used to be a 24/7 clinic in Jeongja that expats frequented for emergency care. If you saw my previous post about getting ill in Korea, you know that it can be a bit difficult to find a doctor on a Sunday or after 6PM.

Unfortunately, it just got harder:

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From the time of this posting, the clinic is only open from 7AM to 1AM. And if you arrive at 12:50 AM like I did, you’l likely find the front door locked.

However, it is still open 365 days a year, which means that you can get examined on Christmas or a Sunday. Still better than most places in Bundang, if not Seoul. You’d even be hard pressed to find a hospital open on a Sunday.

As far as money is concerned, I cannot comment directly as I wasn’t seen. On different forums I’ve heard of people saying it was expensive, others saying it was on par with normal offices. In the grand scheme of things, if you’re desperate enough to see a doctor at midnight, chances are you shouldn’t be worried about how much money it will cost. (Yes, this American still struggles with even thinking such a thing!)

Anyone else know of any other healthcare facilities open on Sundays and holidays?

St. Marie clinic is located between the entrances of exits 4 and 5 at Jeongja Station.

Seoul Wine & Spirits Show

Did you know there’s an annual wine expo in Seoul? Did you know that at w25,000 for a badge that’s good for five hours of wine tasting, it’s the cheapest glass of wine you’ll find in the whole friggin’ city? Now you do.

Asia is the new hot shit in terms of emerging wine markets. If you find yourself in Seoul during the annual Wine & Spirit show, be sure to buy a badge and treat yourself to a few hours of wine tasting! Wines from all over the world are showcased alongside sake, whiskey, and Korea’s own soju. Surprisingly, I didn’t see any New Zealand wineries represented. New Zealand–what gives!?

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Suck it up, waygook!

One thing that happens, no matter who you are, no matter what new country you decide to live in or how many vitamins you take, is that you are going to get sick in your new home. And in the first months of settling in, as you’re exposed to a slew of germs your body has never experienced, you’re going to be ill for weeks. Anyone who says they moved to China or Korea or Germany and didn’t almost immediately get the cold to end all colds is either a liar or a robot or—worst of all—a lying robot.

I’m sick. Again.

I’ve been fairly lucky by this point, only getting sick maybe once every other month after surviving that initial three week cold when I moved to Seoul. But this time I have strep throat, and I can’t really mess around with that.

Typically what I would do in the USA is head to the doctors or—if it was a Sunday—the small clinic in a grocery store down the street. If it was an excruciating pain, I’d head to the hospital, but as an American I need to be either in need of an amputation or have suddenly grown gills to go to a bonafide hospital. (Yeah, I didn’t have health insurance back home. One of the perks of unemployment.)

Then, if I was unable to move my sweaty, feverish body, I’d skip class or call in sick to work. In terms of work I’ve only done that four times in my life, and once was when I had such a high fever that I started talking to a loaf of bread. (Again, from strep.)

Things are a little different in Korea.

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Fan Death

Picture from the instruction manual of a fan I bought a few months ago.
It’s a widely held belief in South Korea that sleeping with a fan on could kill you, but this has generally been debunked: http://www.snopes.com/medical/freakish/fandeath.asp

It’s a belief also held in Japan and I have young friends in Asia who believe in it. The long and short of it is, in this Junior Scientist’s opinion from reading about fan death and sleeping with her fan on many a night, it’s not true. Unless! You have a plain ol’ fan in a room that doesn’t have any windows open and it is excruciatingly hot that night. Because there’s no breeze, you can cook yourself. Maybe. Possibly. If you have the worst luck in the universe. 

More and more, younger Koreans don’t really believe in fan death, but I do, on occasion, meet someone who will defend the theory. Whether or not they really believe it or they’re just defending a cultural aspect is another thing. Korea has a lot of national pride that can extend into many, many other aspects of life (sports, art, testing, etc) including urban legends! 

Typically if someone believes in fan death I just kind of shrug and change the subject. It’s so often an ingrained belief from childhood that they’re not going to change their mind any time soon. And, frankly, you can come off as quite the douche who is trying to ‘educate’ the poor, misguided Korean, adding further insult.

Besides, every culture has these little quirks. As far as I know, I never went cross-eyed from sitting too close to the TV or caught a cold from going out in the winter with damp hair..!

Season of Change

Long time no see. March is the season of change for many expats in South Korea. It marks the beginning of a new school year and the ending of many teaching contracts. The bars are doubly packed with both freshman teachers fresh off a plane and veterans vying for one last beer before taking off to parts unknown. Compound this with the usual influx of military recruits and Samsung workers, you’ll likely be meeting three new people for every one you say goodbye to.
March is the season of change and it hits hard. It hits you in your wallet after your seventh going-away party, hits you in your stress receptors as new students grace your classroom (heaven help you if they are three-year-olds who have never seen a foreigner before), and it shrinks your social network. Even for those of us staying, March can be rough.
I’ve had several classes and responsibilities added to my workload this semester since, I was told, the director was beyond pleased with my work teaching English. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean my salary has increased. Only my downtime has decreased, by quite a bit, as has my sanity some days. Also, one of my side jobs has been scaled back quite a bit and I’ve lost a source of income, adding to my stress as I count pennies (Wonnies?) and refresh my student loan statements online. But then a warm day comes, one where I don’t need to even wear a jacket, and I just kind of forget about it.
I’m hoping that April will be back to business as usual and I can re-establish a daily routine. Maybe I’ll even update this blog once a week! (…maybe.)
Happy season of change to you and yours, wherever they may have gone.

 

Opening up a bank account in South Korea

Let me tell you why I’m drinking beer out of a measuring cup at 5:30 PM so you don’t judge me if you see misspelled status updates later.Firstly, I’m out of clean glasses.

Secondly, I have had the worst luck with opening a bank account in South Korea.

I assume that not everyone has had this type of experience because the entire peninsula would have been burned to the ground if even fifty percent of the population is as frustrated as I feel right now. For the first time in a long time, I have money to pay off credit card and student debt. Getting those moneys into my USA bank account is proving difficult.

Did you see Star Trek, when Kirk and Spock were seperated by a pane of glass? So close, so raw and open, but ultimately unable to bridge that final distance, reach out and touch?

Those are my bank accounts. I’m not sure which one is Kirk and which one is Spock. I’ll let you, the reader, decide.

Let’s break down the basics.

HOW TO BANK IN KOREA

(I’m with Citibank at the moment, so your mileage may vary. Also? I do not recommend it.)

1. If at all possible, get a Korean to go with you. If that’s not possible, get their phone number so the confused bank attendant can call and harass them for sending you by yourself. If you lack the phone number, for god’s sake, have them pin a hand-written note to your mittens saying that you want to open an account and any other possible thing you could need.

2. Banks are only open on weekdays 9am-4pm as a general rule. What if you work 8-6? Your boss will have to let you have an hour or two off. ‘But,’ you say, ‘that’s kind of crazy!’ Yeah? Well you’re preaching to the choir. And this is coming from an American who was used to bitching about banks closing at 6PM on the weekdays and only being open for four hours on Saturday. You know what I’m going to do as soon as I get back to America? Go to every damned bank I can on a Saturday and roll around on the floor like a cat on a new sweater.

3. Items you need to take with you to open a bank account; your address (use your school’s), your foreigner card, your passport, cash money as an initial deposit (I paid 10k won/$10, take 50k to be safe), a good luck charm, and a phone number. ‘But, Kris,’ you say to me with your big doe-eyes. ‘I don’t have a cell phone yet because I don’t have a bank account to use to sign up for a phone contract!’ Yeah? That right? Tough. Use your school’s phone number or a Korean friend’s. And don’t forget it, because you’re going to need to change it later once you get your own phone.*

4. So you go to the bank, fill out a stupid amount of paperwork, write down your passport and ARC numbers several times, enter your new pin number into a key pad and get your debit card. Sweet! All set! Unless if you want internet banking, you better sit your butt back down in that chair. If you want internet banking, you have to ask for it at the bank branch. ‘But,’ you wimper, a single tear rolling down your cheek, ‘in America I just sign up for it on the internet whenever I want and don’t have to–‘ ablahblahblah, can it. We’re in Korea now.

Back in the olden days (1990s) someone somewhere in Korea saw online commerce taking off and, with the best of intentions, decreed that shoppers should feel as safe buying fabrige eggs online as they do in the Fabrige Egg and Sad Sweaters Emporium down the street. That means that, these days, doing banking and commerce online in Korea–while totally safe–is, for us Americans who are used to throwing around credit card numbers willy nilly, an utter pain in the ass. Don’t get me wrong, my Korean checking account is locked down better than Fort Knox. Unfortunately it’s just locked down from me, too. And while I’m not the most savory of characters, I do deserve to get my grubby little hands on my own cash.

5. Once you ask for your internet banking, you are given a set number of days to actually create the account. After this window closes, you’ll have to go into the branch again. Easy, right? Are you out of your fucking mind? You need to have a computer running IE or install a special security program to use Chrome and maybe some other browsers that I’ve forgotten after my third measuring cup of beer. You’re also given, at the branch, a little card that looks like a decoder ring with sets of numbers. Don’t you ever. EVER. EV. ER. Lose this thing. You’ll need it as an extra security measure and will be asked to enter random numbers from it when making transactions, setting up your account, and probably using the bathroom at certain locations. Someone? Is going to break into your apartment at night, shake you awake, tie you to a chair, slap you, and ask for those numbers. Additionally, you have to install a security certificate onto your computer to use it as the one and only computer that can access your account after you go through the aforementioned blood ritual. Or, put it on a USB and tote it around with you to use on whatever computer you please. I think.

6. ‘How about mobile banking,’ you ask me, chin trembling like a newborn rabbit. Seriously? SERIOUSLY? After all that crap you just went through, you want to try and do it AGAIN on a smaller object that is deliciously aerodynamic and manages to find any diamond-hard surface within 100 yards? Fine man, fucking do it, I don’t even care. It’s not just downloading the app and putting in your web login ID. I don’t think. And they can’t do it at the branch. I was told. Honestly? I have no clue.

7. Once you get your shit together, you can use ATMs to transfer money directly to bank accounts. (And as soon as you get your debit card, you can transfer money to Korean accounts to pay bills. People don’t really write checks here.) It’s nice. They have an ‘English’ button. If you got through the mobile and internet banking steps, the ATM is going to be childsplay.

8. Just a note… Americans, the SWIFT number is NOT the same as the routing numbers we know and love and use. You’ll have to contact your US bank to find that shit if you want to transfer money internationally.

9. Lastly, Citibank has global transfers. You, in theory, can transfer your money for free between two international Citibank accounts. Unless your Korean branch insists that your American account doesn’t exist. Even after you log into your American account, and call the service rep in Dallas. This? This is why I’m… six cups of beer deep before 7PM. If you have an American Citibank account, the only thing I can suggest is to transfer a dollar to your Korean account and hope they can look up the info and help you out via reverse money osmosis because I am frankly out of ideas beyond drinking.

In any case, once you get it all set up, the Korean banking system is efficient and nice. English-speaking hotlines are available and will be given to you and enthusiastically highlighted by the banker who does not want to deal with your waygook ass again. And if you are someone who doesn’t have student and credit card loans to pay back home and can just keep your money in the Korean account… you’ll probably have a lot less stress in your life when you arrive here.

*The bank will send SMS confirmation numbers to you to send money overseas. This is why you need to change that phone number. And they hide parts of the old number from you, so you better recall all the digits. Also, your name on your bank account better match the one on your phone contract. ‘But, Kris,’ you sigh, rolling your eyes, ‘why would my name change? I’m not a scam artist or Cher.’ First off? Shut your mouth. Second? In America, some of us have middle names. In America, middle names are like second cousins. You know you have them, but you only remember them once in a while. My middle name is on my passport but not my credit card. My middle initial is on my diploma. Guess what–this is really fucking confusing to people in some other countries, namely South Korea. (And franky it should be because it’s my name like why would I possibly be so durrrrrrrrr about it unless I was from a country where middle initials and names were slapped onto presidential candidates to make them sound classy is where I’m guessing we got these from, etc.) So you decide the moment you get off the plane that you are going to ALWAYS follow whatever it says on your passport and I don’t even care if your middle name is ‘Sunbeam’ just go with it and save yourself the trouble.

Frankly, when it’s all said and done, Korea’s way of banking is probably safer and, in the long term, better. You know what else is? Exercise. And that sucks at first too. Also, watching curling. Then you get really into it.

I’m done.

 

UPDATE June 2014: After this trial by fire, I’m happy to say that I’ve been having a fine time with Citibank. If you can grit your teeth and get through the above, you’ll not only have a bank account that transfers your money home (to your other Citibank account) for free, you’ll also have passed a rigorous test that many ancient tribes believed initiated you into the warrior caste.