Saturday, January 27, 2007

Free To Be Song-Ei and Me

Saturday I broke out of the Freedom55 set in a big way. Song-Ei, who I met through Oliver in Vancouver, took me out on a 12-hour day. Manseh! (“Hooray and lift your arms!”).

We ate budaechigae which bubbles away on the table (it’s already cooked but the gas element in the table keeps it cooking). Spicy. Yum. Afterward, Song-Ei grabbed a few toothpicks on the way out and gave me one. It looks like green plastic but it’s not! It’s potato starch!

We poked our heads into shops filled with cute Korean things. I admired the stationary and laughed when Song-Ei said that Canadians use ugly notebooks. I told her that it’s just that really cute things seem baby-ish. But yes, we use ugly notebooks.

We had tea in what Song-Ei says is a cool hangout. It mainly looks like someone stuffed Laura Ashley fabric samples into Homer’s make-up gun. The hostess wears a little red cape with pompoms. It was very “the hills are alive.”

By early evening, Song-Ei knew of my penchant for all things adorable so she took me into a capsule toy shop. I went nuts at one of these in Tokyo a few years ago. It’s a whole shop filled with coin-operated machines which are in turn filled with the coolest, cutest little quirky toys. I found an iloveegg circus set! And there were funny little Japanese radishes doing household chores. I filled my purse with them.

Then Song-Ei took me to a nearby club called Soundholic to see some bands. The show had started at 6 pm but by 8:30 there was only half an hour left so the nice guy at the door stamped our hands for free. The band was called “Romantic Couch” and they were actually pretty good. Grown-up club music with a pretty girl singer a la Cardigans and a guy with retro-kitsch facial hair and tinted glasses working the laptop. When everyone yelled “encore” after, they pronounced it “enn-core” not “on-core.” Adorable.

After that, a late dinner of noodles. I was taking the subway home at midnight. Wowee! Every other night I’ve been in my pyjamas by 9. Whew. Song-Ei rules.

Museum Field Trip

Friday was my first day by myself. I decided to take the subway to Itaewon because my cousin Jungjoon said that the new Seoul National Museum is “around there.” Itaewon is also near the American army base and there’s lots of a) English-speakers and b) shopping.

Getting around on the subway is exceedingly easy. Everything is so clean and efficient and there is signage in English.

I got off at Itaewon, planning to go for a nice, long stroll to the museum. The shopping didn’t interest me, just gift shops filled with the kind of stuff we’ve always had at home. A t-shirt vendor on the street was selling a shirt that said, “Fuck this shit.” Maybe if I were in the army I’d feel that way too.

I wandered away from Itaewon in what I thought was the museum’s general direction but Seoul isn’t exactly a walking city. There are pedestrian-filled areas and sidewalks (in Jakarta there were NO sidewalks!) but people don’t really walk long distances. And just a simple act like crossing the street seems dangerous. I can't figure it out but when I’m crossing with my green light, buses can still go through the other way. So I won’t get hit by a car but a bus? Maybe!

Anywho, long story short, I got lost. I bypassed crossing the street by taking an underground passageway. When I came up the other side I was flanked by a soldier in camouflage with a huge gun and a police officer in black with a long baton.

I hailed a cab. Once I got in I realized that I didn’t know how to say the words “national museum” in Korean. I knew it was close but I had no idea where. I said, “Can you take me to where…all the really old things are?” Finally, my useless Lonely Planet redeemed itself by helping me piece together where it was and we got there. Kind driver.

At the museum, there were tons of school groups. Korean kids are so super cute. I ate my lunch outside with them at a picnic area, all of us in our winter coats. My kimchi kimbap (maki) cost 1000 won, about $1.20.

I spent the afternoon wandering a beautiful new building looking at Paleolithic hand tools, rocks used to kill things for food. It was interesting to see artist renderings of Korean cavemen. I’ve never seen Korean cavemen before.

The $6 D.I.Y. Spa

During my first week of being a Korean lady of leisure, I went to a public bath for the first time. It was a bit “ew” but mostly amazing. Mom says it’s her favourite thing to do here. She suggested I might be uncomfortable being naked and that I didn’t have to go with her but there was no way I was going to chicken out of my first public bath experience just because you have to be naked. I mean, there’s really no other way, is there?

Anyway, when you’re around a bunch of naked people it isn’t a big deal. I thought it was cute when two ladies who knew each other greeted each other by bowing. Naked!

No one looks at you but I did have to do some surreptitious staring of my own (couldn’t help it!). First of all, I realized that the only naked bodies I see at home are fake (i.e. lit for photos, film, airbrushed). It’s refreshing to see people’s real bodies. Secondly, older people in Korea are thin. Most of the women there were older ladies and there wasn’t a roll of backfat or big belly in the room.

The place is underground in a tall office building. It’s like walking into a gym. There's a locker room where you disrobe and then you enter the shower/bathe area which is clean, cool marble.

The first thing you do is hit the shower. This was an “ew” moment because you sit on a little plastic stool (that other people have sat on!). I just tried not to think about it.

You bring all your own supplies (shampoo, facial stuff, little scrubby) but they have soap at the shower. It was great, smelled like melon.

After the initial shower, you’re ready for the pools. There are digital temperatures displayed above each. I went straight for the hottest – 42 degrees. Less than ten minutes made me feel like a soft-boiled egg. I hauled myself out and hit a slightly cooler Jacuzzi. Comfy. After that I braved the cold pool. Yipe! Next, the hottest steam sauna on earth. Last stop was full-circle - back to where I started for my second shower.

This is where the scrubbing comes in. You take a little scratchy fabric pouch not unlike what you scrub your dishes with and go crazy on your skin. There’s a Korean word (“ddeh”) for the grey bits that rub off your skin like a pilly sweater. This is where my second “ew” comes in. It’s not that bad, though. In fact, it is just so Korean in that there is a little bit of pain for a whole lot of pay-off.

I have literally never been so clean before in my whole life. When else would you ever shower and bathe continuously for an hour and a half? I was seriously starting to run out of ideas after the 60 minute mark but every other lady in there seemed to still know what to do. I have also never had such smooth skin. It’s a D.I.Y. whole-body exfoliation (although if you want to pay extra, you can lie down in a sectioned off area and have someone do the “ddeh” part for you – no thanks!).

Afterward I was so relaxed I was almost tired. It ruled. I would say it’s the best $6 I’ve spent in a long time.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Ahjummah Mountain

An “ahjummah” is a middle-aged lady, like your mom. Not a grandma, not a young miss. We spent the morning and early afternoon hiking Nam Han Mountain, which is “Ahjummah” Mountain to me because that’s who was on it. We three ladies (me, my mom, her sister) plus swarms of other ladies of leisure, their men all at work on a weekday afternoon. The hiking ladies wear huge black visors and face masks so that they won’t freckle or tan. They’re all decked out in Goretex and have at least one walking stick, or ski pole, sometimes two. To see one marching towards you from afar is to lay eyes on the most alienesque non-fashion outfit ever.

The few men who were on the mountain were obviously retirees. They had radios in their backpacks. Traditional Korean folk, a drama, pop music. You can hear it coming and then retreat down the trail.

Koreans are crazy for mountains and fitness. There are stations throughout the trails where you can stop, lift some weights (no thank you) or my fave, use a weighted hula hoop. This ain’t no Beyonce move. These hoops are heavy and at first, it feels like you’re mangling your insides. It gets easier. Mom and I killed ourselves laughing over the photos I took of her trying to keep the hoop up although my personal favourite photo of the day is one that I call Jack Nicholson Mom.

At least fresh air, trampling around and funny photos can make you feel better about an argument the day before since our only other recourse is good old-fashioned Korean repression.

It took a few hours to get to the very top of the mountain where there’s a fortress. Walls on these things look the same the world over – laboriously piled rocks with lookout holes for spying the enemy and slinging arrows. History is so crazy. This thing is more than 1000 years old but has been rebuilt a lot over the centuries. They hid the king here whenever Korea was invaded. We had a mini photo shoot and I took the opportunity to show my mom how you should position your face when someone’s shooting from below. My aunt was impressed with how much I seem to know about posing.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Mom, You're Like Sumoooo Embarassing

Our one day in Tokyo and we were slightly stymied by Mom’s bathroom problems. I have a whole collection of photos I took, bored, waiting for her outside of public restrooms (they are so clean in Tokyo!). She would be mortified if she knew I was writing this. Good thing I’m pretty sure she doesn’t know that such a thing as “blogs” exist in this world. She is, however, with it enough to have downloaded her own tunes onto an MP3 player for the long flight. I reserved comment when she showed me how she printed out the lyrics to Abba’s “Mamma Mia” although when she started singing along softly to John Denver I gently reminded her that maybe the others in the darkened plane weren’t necessarily fans.

Anyway, because we got off to a slightly later start in the day, due to Mom’s aforementioned affliction (poor Mom, total trooper), we didn’t get same-day tickets to the last day of the January sumo tournament like I was hoping. I still suggested that as part of our day of wandering we make our way over to Ryogoku just to see if we’d glimpse any sumo wrestlers outside. The presence of one paparazzo guy with a long lens gave me the nerve to snap away like crazy, politesse thrown to the wind. There’s something about these sumo dudes shuffling by, with their perfectly flipped ponytails and all that fabric, that kind of makes you feel celeb-crazed. It’s like big sunglasses, a fancy handbag and no underwear in our world.

After the gawking session, we got on the train and a sumo wrestler got on next to me. He still had massive beads of sweat on his forehead. He was listening to music in his little earbuds and had a cute, plastic umbrella tucked into his obi. I stared at his hair. It was done with twist-ties.

But it was disembarking from our flight to Seoul where mom really got to shine. There was a Korean sumo wrestler on the flight. Mom said she’d read about him on the internet and insisted on stopping him to take a photo of him with me. It’s like he was Santa. I said, “No Mom, that’s embarrassing,” and it at that precise moment (stretching into the many moments thereafter that she kept him in conversation on the never-ending movator) that I stopped wondering how long it would take for me to revert into my petulant, adolescent self on this trip.

It was about at the moment where she said in Korean “She is a really big sumo fan,” that my inner will to fight being infantilized just kind of died. I just looked at him and smiled.

Later, I saw him shuffle by as Mom and I were having our first argument of this trip, just having collected our luggage. We were so mad that Mom didn’t even care that we were visibly arguing which would normally never fly (there’s something about being away from home that makes you feel anonymous and invisible like, I’m not from here). Sumo must have thought we were totally kuckoo and I saw him in my perpipheral vision, taking his own long moment to stare.