Monthly Archives: November 2008

Camera Shopping in Seoul

I have a new toy.

I have a new toy.

I keep collecting hobbies as my list of pursuits continues to grow, and photography is the newest realm of dabbling. My interest in photography actually began in college during my photojournalism classes when I got to play with some fun toys. As part of the class, the college issued me a Nikon D100 for a semester — my first exposure to a digital SLR. It only got better in the higher-level course when we had an arsenal of nicer lenses — such as a 70-300 mm telephoto or an 8 mm fish eye — at our disposal.

While I didn’t develop into a strong photographer, my interest in the visual arts continued to manifest in my graphic design. Photography took a backseat to Illustrator and InDesign, but it never left. Fast forward to now, a time when I’m making a little extra money and DSLRs are a little cheaper abroad — especially after the exchange rate. The little shutterbug whispering in my ear combined with my penchant for expensive things  led me to this question: Where does one go to get a camera in Seoul?

How to get there

It’s impossible to find anything around Seoul at a decent price without knowing where to go. It’s not like the States, where you can peruse the Sunday ads and walk into Best Buy and match the best price you find. The area in Seoul where you can find the best deals on cameras is in the Namdaemun Market. After doing some homework and ultimately deciding on a Canon 40D (but not before also considering the Nikon D80 and Nikon D90), I got directions from friends who had been there before and jumped on the subway to the Hoehyon stop on line 4.

Exit 5 of the Hoehyon subway station put me right into the Namdaemun Market fray.

Exit 5 of the Hoehyon subway station put me right into the Namdaemun Market fray.

After leaving the station via exit 5, I immediately turned right, putting me on a path through the heart of Namdaemun Market — a dizzying array of lights and merchants. Although the street looks like a complete mess on first sight, the storefronts and food stands are rather organized for an open-air market. The straight-line walk through the market is about 200 meters long and ends at a major cross-street. There will be a sign that indicates “Gate 2” of the Namdaemun market. There I turned left toward all the camera stores were — the strip of sidewalk lit by gigantic “Canon” and “Nikon” signs — and began my quest to find my Canon 40D. This is where the fun part begins.

There's a lot of stuff going on here other than cameras.

Namdaemun Market: There is a lot more going on here than camera shopping.

How to find the right price

The best/worst part of shopping in Korea is that — especially in markets like Namdaemun — prices are often subject to haggling. The best rule is to check out as many stores as possible. Not only will prices vary between stores, but some vendors will be more willing to throw in a freebie or two to keep you coming back. On the other side of that coin, there are also vendors looking to cheat a wide-eyed foreigner. Here are some tips on how to get the best deal for your camera:

Know what you want

I knew what camera and lens I wanted long before I arrived at any store. There are several reasons for this. First, while most of the stores speak decent English, any possible language barrier can be overcome with the make and model of the camera and/or the length and brand of the lens. Next, nothing perks the ears of a dishonest vendor more than the sound of an uninformed shopper. The online resources are endless, but sites that proved helpful to me were The Imaging Resource and Digital Photography Review. Along with knowing what I wanted, I also made sure to find prices on sites such as Danawa (a Korean site that can search in English) to use as benchmarks in haggling. Their prices are always negotiable, so they’ll try to sell the novice buyer an expensive price as a good deal — usually by throwing in some useless freebies that cost them nothing. Also, beware of anyone willing to sell you something at an absurdly low price. Odds are that they’re giving you an inferior product, such as a used camera being sold as “new.”

Be patient

Never buy from the first store you walk into. Get quotes from as many stores as time allows. These stores, all crammed on the same street, are competing with each other for your patronage, so they’ll usually match reasonable prices from another store. Some vendors pressured me to buy from them immediately, telling me they were giving me the best price. This shouldn’t happen; the most reputable sellers understand the process behind making a big investment in a DSLR camera and will let you look and leave as much as you need. It will be very apparent which stores are looking for the quick sale. You can use this greed against them if you carry cash and threaten to leave for another store; they’ll often cave to your asking price, but make sure you’re getting the exact product you’re searching for and nothing less. Don’t be afraid to say “no” if you don’t like what you see.

Pay in cash — lots of it

Vendors will give you the best prices when you pay in cash for two reasons. First, cash transactions cannot be tracked like credit card transactions. Some vendors use this to their personal advantage when it comes to tax season — maybe dishonest, but it benefits the buyers. Second, credit card companies charge the vendors a fee for each transaction, and that fee is passed down to the buyer. It usually runs around an extra five percent of the total, but on a 1 millon won purchase, that’s an extra 50,000 won. If you make a large purchase, vendors will usually find creative ways to give you a package discount and/or give you some free stuff. I bought a Canon 40D body with an 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens, lens hood, 4GB SanDisk Compact Flash memory card, extra battery, and bag, totalling nearly 1.1 million won. In addition to that, the vendor gave me two cloth camera wraps, a lens cloth, rubber lens blower, and UV filter as “service.”

Where to buy

If you get a business card that looks like this, beware of that seller.

If you get a business card that looks like this, beware of that seller.

As I’ve said before, there are good shops and there are bad shops. One store immediately agreed to my lowball price (I just wanted to get negotiations going) and tried to sell me a camera that he said was new, even though it was clearly used. The name of the store is Sung Do, and as soon as I asked to see the camera, he asked whether I had cash and tried to pressure me to buy that night. The store from which I eventually bought my 40D, Hyosung Camera, was very helpful from the beginning. The most helpful thing about this store is that there is a fluent English-speaking employee pretty much there to help out any foreigners. His name is Paul, and he studied in Australia for more than seven years. If he doesn’t have the answer, he’ll find someone who does. If you manage to wander into that store, mention that Daniel sent you, and he’ll get a good chuckle out of it. He’ll definitely give you things like blowers and lens cloths if you need them.

I bought my camera at this store.

I bought my camera at this store.

I’m excited to learn more about my new toy, especially since I’ve only shot with Nikons before this. Hopefully dropping a pretty penny will be incentive enough for me to teach myself some photography basics and improve whatever skills I might’ve acquired in college — and eventually add a new dimension to my young blog.

What are your tips/suggestions/experiences?

Author’s note: I’m in no way affiliated with Hyosung Camera or any other camera store in Seoul. My recommendation of Hyosung comes only from my positive experiences there, and I receive no compensation for doing so.

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New (revised?) Plan

For a full-time dabbler, there are and never will be enough hours in a day. The key to dabbling is to flit from project to project while committing fully to none. The lack of commitment results not from lack of desire but from the aforementioned dabbler’s being stretched so thin. Don’t get me wrong: the living is easy here in Seoul. I have classes for about five hours a day and then a couple hours for lesson planning (which can be quite minimal for a native-speaking English teacher in a public school).

Then comes the dabbling. During the past couple weeks, here is the list of my endeavors: hiking mountains, shopping for a camera, seeing the sights, designing logos, learning Hangul, writing blogs, eating delicious food, and finding time for sleep. I’m planning to add to that list: learning photography, planning travel itineraries, learning some sort of Web-designing basics, and figuring out Photoshop. I’m, however, unable to do all of this without catching the latest episodes of 30 Rock, Entourage, and Heroes; or without spending quality time with my PS2 or Nintendo DS, which leaves recreational reading out of this dabbler’s schedule.

The point is I need to learn to prioritize. To prioritize, I need concrete goals. Here are the tips Christine Gilbert (of Almost Fearless and the recently-launched Europe String) gave me to get my blog straight — but they obviously apply to any sort of project:

  1. Set some goals. Traffic levels, number of comments, new subscribers and so on. Something tangible that you can measure.
  2. Write a list of what you can do to reach those goals.
  3. Prioritize the list.
  4. Set specific time a day to work on those items.
  5. Track your progress.

Ok, maybe that seems too much like “work” — this is coming from a former corporate project manager, so take it for what it’s worth. I find by doing those steps, I have more time to be creative and stop worrying about all the “stuff” I haven’t done. Most days it works. Many days I still struggle too. Good luck!

The most counter-intuitive aspect of this whole process to me is that I have to put my impatience aside to slow down and organize myself. I want results, and I want them now, but, simply put, they’ll never materialize without a plan. I made a plan to make sure I see more than the smokey interiors of bars and the pleather futon of my apartment while I’m in Korea. So far it’s been effective because of how easily I can keep myself accountable. As a result, I’ll structure the new plan for my blog similarly to my sight-seeing plan.

There will be at least two new posts per week. One should come very easily since I’m seeing a new sight each week, and the other should come just as easily because everyday life in Seoul is never dull. Two is the magic number, and I’m sure I can count that high in five languages! It’s not a lot, but having a deadline (thanks journalism degree!) will help push me to be more efficient. Once I get into this routine, I can move on to sorting out my other projects without a hitch.

First: Life in Flight. Next: the world. That’s how it works, right?

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A Peek From the Mountains

A view of the mountains in the mist.

A view of the mountains in the mist.

I’ve taken a new approach to my time in Seoul. I’ve promised myself to see at least one new thing each week. It doesn’t have to be anything extraordinary, just something I haven’t seen before. This past weekend, I made a trip to Seoraksan National Park, located on the east coast of Korea and regarded as one of the country’s most popular sights.

I’ve been hiking two other times in Korea, and my experience in Seoraksan completely eclipsed those. After our four-hour bus ride from Seoul, we stayed in a traditional Korean house in Sokcho, the coastal town only 10 minutes from the national park. The area was filled with traditional motels like ours, in which we slept on mats on the heated floors. It was actually very efficient; even in close-to-freezing overnight temperatures, I was sweating in my sleep.

Saturday’s weather wasn’t ideal hiking weather: chilly and overcast with a good chance of rain. We didn’t come this far to mope in a motel. We came to hike, and we did. Saturday’s victim was Ulsanbawi, possibly the most popular peak in the park. The trail had its difficult spots, then we came to this:

The staircase of near death.

The staircase of near death.

This is a lot of stairs to get to the top. The rain that fell as we approached the metal staircase didn’t help matters, either. After some moans and groans and a lot of trudging, we finally made it to the top — and our efforts were completely rewarded. Despite the cloudy skies and walking two hours in unfortunate weather, the view was amazing.

Falling off Ulsanbawi would not have been pleasant. Looking from there, however, was quite nice.

Falling off Ulsanbawi would not have been pleasant. Looking from there, however, was quite nice.

We had lunch and did the usual foreigner/tourist things (read: take an endless amount of photos) before zooming back down the mountain (read: avoiding death on the stairs). Walking a couple hours and miles in the rain only called for one thing: a trip to a Korean sauna, called a 찜질방 (pronounced “jim-jil-bang”). These places are more than just saunas: along with saunas, they have dry rooms, spas, and cold pools along with many other relaxing services.

This was my first 찜질방 experience, and it was nice. The problem, however, was that there five guys and five girls. The guys were done with the place in less than an hour; the girls not surprisingly took their time and fully enjoyed all the place had to offer. We guys then sat around and talked about who-knows-what for an hour before we could head off to the fish market for dinner.

There we found what seemed to be everything that could be taken from the east coast of Korea. Restaurants upon restaurants displayed their menus in aquariums in front of their buildings while smaller ventures — restaurants set up under tents — had smaller tanks in which they usually separated their servings by baskets.

After stopping in a tent for two plates of various and delicious shellfish, we moved on to another that offered us a basket of good-sized fish and two-squid for 40,000 won. With five of us in tow, we figured that 8,000 won a head was a bargain for this much food. Little did we know, however, that the only difference between the fish being sold to us and the fish we would eat was the way it looked.

We were brought one large plate of diced fish and a large basket of sliced squid — none of which was cooked.

We saw this fish and squid when it was still alive.

We saw this fish and squid when it was still alive.

We had our share of the fresh fish, but enough was enough. We bought the boiling soup to cook the rest of our dinner and called it good. Two plates of shellfish and an excessive amount of raw fish (along with the requisite beers and soju) only cost each of us 22,000 won for the night. We’ll chalk that night up as a success.

The next morning, we walked around the park for a little while before taking the cable car up to one of the higher and more dangerous peaks. After getting up to the top, there was still a little more to climb to really see everything. After fighting off old Korean men and women to get up to the top, we had to fight off old Korean men and women to get back down, which really isn’t much fun considering the steep and tricky decent.

img_1838_touch

It's scary how pushy these people can get, even on a steep rock face.

Fitting that climbing to that peak was the last event of my first weekend out of Seoul. The clean air and fresh food really set the mood right. I’m sure I’ll be back to Seorak-san at some point — probably after I run out of new things to see.

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Welcome to Korea

Today is November 11, and the winter break begins December 24. In Korea, the school year is the opposite of Western nations: the school year starts in March and ends in December (except for a seemingly random two-weeks in February during which the sixth graders take exams and graduate to middle school). As a result, the winter break is the longer of the two holidays.

While having essentially 2.5 months off in Asia sounds fantastic, it’s not such a dreamy gig for the native-speaking English teachers, or NSETs. While some principals let the NSET have the entire break off, most English teachers will have to do some sort of winter camp. The duration of these camps vary from district to district and even from school to school, depending on who organizes these camps. Camps can last from two weeks to five weeks, but often the point is moot. During the time there isn’t a camp, many schools require the teacher to come into the office and do literally nothing. There may be only one other teacher in the school at the same time.

We NSETs working for the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education have 21 paid vacation days in our contracts, which they prefer for us to use during these long breaks. My problem, though, is the complete lack of communication from the district down to my school to me. I was told, in early October by my liaison teacher, that the school doesn’t have money in its budget to run a camp, that the district usually does one each year, and the district would have these dates set sometime in late October to early November. I was also told by a less official source — my English co-teacher — that I wouldn’t have to come into school during the days without camp, but that decision is usually left to the principal.

Today is November 11, and the winter break begins December 24 — and I still have no word from anyone on whether I have to work a district camp or whether I have to come into school during the off days. Even though this camp is an annual event, the district hasn’t figured out if or when it’s going to happen, yet. As a result, I will summarize my winter break plans with the following word:

Umm.

I can only watch flight prices continue to rise as I’m stuck in this red-tape limbo. I can’t even begin to plan my trip since I don’t even know how much time I have off. Two weeks? Three weeks? Five weeks? If push comes to shove, I will decide my two weeks’ worth of vacation dates, and the district can have a camp without me. This is Korean efficiency at its finest.

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It’s Finally Over

Twenty months later, we’ve finally figured out who the 44th president of the United States will be. On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the next commander-in-chief. It has been a long process, and whether it should be so arduous is neither here nor there. The point is that, according to President-elect Obama, “change has come to America.”

Indeed, there will be change. Along with taking the White House, the Democratic Party continued its 2006 surge in this election as it gained seats in both the Senate and the House. This election has also been historic in many aspects. In addition to electing the first black POTUS, women came closer than ever to reaching the Oval Office while John McCain would’ve been the oldest president had he won. Campaigning tactics have been changed forever with the use of new media (read: the Internet), which resulted in a record turnout of voters.

But I watched the tail end of this from 6,000 miles away, discussing with new friends from various parts of the world. This made the importance of this election very real. I’ve heard conversations about our presidential election between people from Canada and Ireland. Koreans often ask me whether I like McCain or Obama. Even today, my fifth graders greeted me with chants of “Obama!” as I walked into the classroom.

Now that the election is over and that change is here, so many Americans are finally proud of America — which is a completely strange notion to me. Americans generally worry about the world’s opinion of them and try hard to separate themselves from what they think are the mistakes of the Bush administration; however, when it comes to looking at their own nation, they’re ashamed of the past eight years. Why?

The government is a poor representation of the United States, and I’ve been upset with some of the government’s decisions. I’m not going to drape myself in the good ol’ Stars and Stripes and belt the national anthem, but I’ve never been disappointed in America. To say that I’m proud now because of the new president would only imply that the United States — its people, its landscapes, its opportunities — hasn’t been good enough.

It’s not perfect, and how can it be with 300 million people and 50 states? It’s that diversity that makes the country special, and it can get better. That glimmer of hope is the most important thing Barack Obama brings to the table. The American people, in the midst of two drawn-out wars and an economic crisis that might end up rivaling the Great Depression, need something new, something to believe in. Will Barack Obama fix everything? I couldn’t tell you and won’t pretend to have any idea, but it’s a good start when people are proud to be Americans again.

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