Friday, February 23, 2007

Miss Korea

What a month. Now I'm back! I'd been home for about 8 hours when I awoke to lightning and thunder and the fattest snowflakes imaginable. I heart Canada!

I thought jetlag wouldn't get the better of me but I wandered the house all day feeling like a deflated balloon. Just getting up to go to another room felt like an effort. In the evening, dinner with Isaac and a film screening at Buddies. It was great to get out but it was waaay too cold for any reasonable human being to be walking outdoors plus I felt like my brain and tummy were turned inside out. I had a great sleep last night and (best part about jetlag) got up nice and early today! We'll see how long that lasts.

Looking forward to getting back into my life at home and seeing friends but first, a little homage of lists to the best January/February ever.

What I Miss About Korea:

- The food. Rice and soup for breakfast, red bean filled pastries on the street, rice cake, green tea infused dumplings...all of it!
- The subway. Clean! Fast! Heated seats! The smart T card was just so handy. You just swipe it on your way in and out of the system and it takes care of the fare. Classical music every time the stops are announced. Plus, great people-watching.
- Bowing. Beats handshaking any day of the week.
- Little kids. In Korea they are so adorable. I think it's something about the way they speak, especially when they use the formal, respectful way of speaking to elders. Too cute.
- Seeing my mom everyday.
- Being a tourist. It's especially nice being a tourist in a place that I've known in a second-hand way my whole life. It's like seeing clearly into a dream that you half remember. Going around with mom to places that she grew up with but are now totally different was a pretty cool exercise in thinking about time and place.
- Public baths. Who knew I would grow to like them so much?

What I Don't Miss About Korea:

- Not being able to communicate myself 100%.
- Weird Perm Smell. I've had plenty of perms so I'm familiar with the eye-burning chemical smell but I've never had a perm that smells like old socks. That's what this perm smelled like and it would come back every time my hair got wet! So that's every time I shampooed, every time I washed my face and my hair got was really weird! I'm happy to report that eau de old has gone away. Evidently, I left it there.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Year of the Pig

My last weekend in Seoul was Sul-Nal, the lunar new year. It's a big holiday here and you spend it with family. I was surrounded with my dad's brothers, who I see very rarely, and their kids (and in some cases, their kids' kids).

On Sul-Nal, children bow to their parents and give them best wishes for the coming year while parents give kids money. Just imagine the excitement level of presents on Christmas morning. That's what it's like. The little girls wore hanbok and got overexcited with their windfall, especially Yujin who went so far as to smell her money until her dad told her to stop it. You put all the cash (newly designed bills this year made the kids even more excited) into little purses. Then, apparently, you run around like crazy and watch Japanese anime with Korean subtitles.

I met some cousins that I never see, which was interesting. One of my cousins went to university in China and just graduated. She's back for a bit of home time before she goes back to Beijing. Another of my cousins has two boys, one of whom was celebrating his 10th birthday. He was impressed that I was reading Harry Potter (if you must know, I'm halfway through number 4 even though I am STILL trying to ration them because I keep having to go back to the bookstore and I've almost finished the one I bought for the plane).

Being around my Korean cousins makes me think about how much my life has been shaped by my parents' decision to live in Canada. It's kind of nuts. Being in Seoul for the month has been really fun, and I totally think I could live here. Seoul is so exciting. But I'd still be an outsider. Is there anyplace that I'm not...?

One place where I really felt out of place (which is a relief, actually) was the club Hannah and I decided to go to on Friday night. We met up after she was done work, had a huge dinner and dropped off some shopping I'd done at her tiny and adorable apartment by GangNam station. Basically, we lolled around drinking for a while and didn't make the decision to go out until 1 am, so our options were kind of limited. We went to a club called the Harlem Club, chosen for its proximity (about 10 steps from Hannah's front door).

Basically it was like I was in a club full of 20-year-old Korean little brothers. They were all really cute and being hiphop. Hoodies, chains and long hair. Too bad the music was horrendous 90s stuff a la Crooklyn Clan. I could barely handle it. Plus the smoke is super disgusting. Still, Hannah and I had a good time just kind of laughing all night.

The next morning was drastically different in the streets. It was totally empty, whereas the night before the streets were filled with fancy-looking Friday night peeps, street food stalls, clothing stands with pumping techno music, et cetera. By the morning, it was holiday time. Everything was closed and the streets were empty. I bid Hannah adieu and took the subway home, buying some New Year's ddeok along the way.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Final Countdown

Only a few days left in Seoul (sniff) and there' s lots to see and do.

It was Valentine's Day this past week and here, girls give their boyfriends chocolate. Boys reciprocate next month on the 14th with "White Day" and bitter singles can drown their sorrows on the 14th of April with "Black Day." On Black Day, you eat black noodles with your other single friends (not like I'd need that excuse - I eat them all the time - yum!).

Anywho, the two male cousins I'm staying with were showered with tons of chocolate. I reap the benefits. I almost never see my cousins because they, like other young professional men in Seoul, work crazy long hours, augmented by nights when they are supposed to go out with colleagues to drink and sing karaoke. They fit in hobbies and girlfriends around that which means that they literally come home just to sleep, usually after I'm in bed, and they leave early in the morning in their suits and ties to go to work.

They had their fill of their Valentine's chocolates and left the rest on the kitchen table. I have a few every morning with breakfast. I'm on vacation!

Yesterday I met up with Hannah, a friend of Isaac's from art school in Vancouver. I like Hannah so much. She is hilar. AND she has a scooter! Scooters rule! I felt like all the middle-aged ajuhsee's (the male equivalent of "ajummah") who drive around on scooters delivering black noodles (you don't just eat them on April 14!). Food home delivery is always brought on scooters and the drivers zip up on the sidewalk and basically drive like crazy. I told Hannah we should find an ajuhsee delivery guy and drag race him. We just laughed and gently scooted down the street to a restaurant where we had octopus in spicy red sauce, cooked on our table. I love everything I eat here, generally, but this wasn't my favourite lunch on earth. It was a little too chewy.

Anyway, after a lovely lunchtime chat, we parted ways and my aunt, uncle and mom pulled up in their car to scoop me up. We were going on a tour of MBC which my uncle arranged. I guess the feeling was that I would enjoy a tour of a television station since I work in TV, but at around the time that the tour brought us to the news team's editing suites, I started to feel panicky and tense. You know, the feelings you get at work. NO THANKS!

The tour, for me, was like touring my own workplace but with better equipment. However, my aunt was having a field day as she spotted a zillion celebrities that she knows and loves. Because I don't watch Korean tv, nobody really meant anything to me but young women celebrities are the same the world over - way skinny!

In the evening, I met my mom's cousin for the first time. He's cool. He's a nuclear physicist and his English is really good because he used to live and work in the U.S. We talked a little about hobbies and politics over a 10-course fancy Chinese dinner. Afterward, he invited us all for karaoke at his house (karaoke is just what you do here - it's not a big deal - it's everyday). We tried to keep it down for the elderly neighbour upstairs.

He sang songs in Korean, English, French (he used to live in Paris, too) and Chinese (he studies it). Mom said that I wasn't allowed to just listen and that I had to sing a song. They were choosing songs by John Denver, Patti Page, Engelbert Humperdinck...I didn't know what to do. Looking over the song list, I realized that I don't know any songs all the way through - just choruses. Cornered, I picked Green Day's "Basketcase" because I figured that I'd recognize the tune once I heard the dulcet, elevator-music version of the intro. I did. But I had to laugh when the lyrics became: "I went to a shrink to analyze my dreams, she says it's lack of sex that's bringing me down/I went to a whore..." - I started to think, Darn, where does this story go again? Anywho, that was as risque as it got. And I ended up getting the karaoke "bug" and sang another song. I realized I know the tune to lots of Top 40 songs from the last 4.5 years (I wonder why). I sang "Wake Up" by Hilary Duff and scored a 90, thank you very much.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


I took a USO tour of the JSA and DMZ the other day. I had to be at the pick-up point by 7 am which meant I was groggily wandering around pre-dawn Seoul, lost, when I saw a foreigner and said, "Excuse me, do you know where the USO is?" and she said, "Didn't you used to work for MuchMusic?"

Turns out Heather worked at CHUM, too, a long time ago. Small world (it always is, for tourists). And it's a good thing I ran into her because she took me straight to where we needed to be.

I have mixed feelings about our day-long visit to the 38th parallel. I don't like being overly dramatic, but it kind of feels like a big deal to visit the living result of a war that affected both my mom and my dad's families. It also devastated the entire country (countries). On the other hand, I realize that I paid $42 USD to get on a big tour bus (you can only visit the DMZ with an organized tour) for a day-long visit that 150 000 people do every year. It's a tourist pit stop, a curiosity.

Our volunteer Korean tour guide who prepped us on the bus ride was a retired bank manager. His name is Young ("Look at me. Guess my age. You'll never guess. Always remember my name."). He was being kind of funny which dispelled some tension anyone may have been feeling through their sleepy haze. There's a dress code - no words, photos or logos on your clothes. There are photography bans in certain areas. We signed a waiver saying that the UN and the military officials who take us around are not responsible for bodily harm in the case of hostile enemy aggression. Plus, when we got there we clipped a little tag on our jackets TO BE WORN AT ALL TIMES (the American army sargeant who greeted us ONLY HAD ONE TONE OF VOICE - ARMY). All these things serve to build up the tension...

...but our JSA tour guide, an baby-faced American army sargeant with a penchant for bad jokes (he was actually pretty funny while riffing) had us laughing and really, after a few hours with him, I felt like we were just being driven through a theme park where people wear army uniforms instead of plush animal suits. That's not the way that I want to feel about the DMZ but that's what it started to feel like. It's also not like I wanted to be heart-thumping nervous, skittering around, wondering if a bullet would whiz by, but I'm not sure I liked the mood of our tour being so flippant. What would I want it to be like? What should it be like? I guess there's no real answer for that. North Korea, South Korea, the war, the DMZ. There is plenty of tragedy involved but also plenty of the absurd and I guess I wasn't prepared for the latter.

The ROK (South Korean) army guys we saw up close were intimidating. They wear dark Ray Bans and stand in a taekwondo pose that does not look comfy. They do not move. They stand partially obstructed by the buildings of Conference Road as to not be targets. They put their arm up behind the building any time they see movement on the North Korean side.

We didn't see a North Korean soldier up close, only in the distance, standing in the entrance to a North Korean building. Beside him, in an open window, there was a soldier taking photos of us for security. Creepy.

Because it was a foggy day, we couldn't see well in the binoculars over to Propaganda Village. Still, you get the point. The North Korean flag that flies there has a dry weight of 600 pounds. Once, a soldier who was holding part of it dropped it while they were mounting it and he was shot dead on the spot. That's a tidbit from our American tour guide, but again, you just get the feeling of "Is that true? What's real?"

We also went down to the 3rd tunnel, which is a tunnel that the North Koreans dug (discovered in the late 1970s) which could move 30 000 soldiers per hour in the event of attacking South Korea. The tunnel leads directly to Seoul. North Korea denies they dug it. Yipe! You wear a little yellow hardhat (useful) and descend 70+ m below the earth. I felt claustrophobic, especially as we just continued down a long, monotonous, drippy, rocky tunnel. Tall people had it bad. Even I had to duck most of the time.

Apparently you can youtube a tour of the DMZ that the North Korean side gives. Also, you can Google Earth all the sensitive areas that we were not allowed to photograph in the DMZ. Computers!

After we returned from the trip to the DMZ, I crossed the street to the War Memorial Museum since I'd been meaning to visit and it was right there. It was a little much for one day but I was glad to do it. After the tour of the DMZ feeling so absurd, I liked being by myself in the museum, wandering and watching footage from the Korean War, to remind me what was real.

Then my cousin Jungjoon took some rare time off from work to take me to Apgujeong for a fancy sashimi dinner. A nice way to end a day that included a visit to North Korea. What a day.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Lost and Found

Update: Remember when I said yesterday that the only thing this city lacks is serenity? I said it one day shy of finding out that in fact, Seoul does have an incredibly serene location and has had it for about, oh, 1300 years.

I was wandering around COEX, a giant underground mall and aquarium complex when I came up onto street level, wondering about Bongeunsa, the oldest temple in Seoul. A lady this morning on the bus suggested that I go there when I mentioned that I was heading to COEX - she knew it was right across the street. But I couldn't see a temple anywhere. I was lost in among garage parking ramps and glass skyscrapers and thought, "Where could there be a temple around here?" And then I turned my head. And there it was.

Inside the grounds, it's so hush, the only sound is a trio of moaning cats and, when I got close enough, a lone woman chanting at a giant smiling Buddha in the sky.

When I went inside the main temple, it was so gorgeous that I wanted to take a photo but I didn't feel right. I was the only tourist there and I kind of felt, uh, plucky even going inside. The walls and ceilings were covered in paintings of Buddha in different scenarios as well as the most ornate pattern and flower paintings. Six giant thick-necked dragons baring their teeth with forked tongues were suspended up high on the walls. Three smiling golden Buddhas were at the front. Giant lotus lamps hung from the ceiling. It was amazing!

A bit more meandering and I decided to head back across the street to COEX. I crossed the street and went down the steps to where they were pumping Rihanna and teens with cool haircuts were yelping and ice skating while they talked on their cell phones. One, lone shaven monk in grey slowly ascended the steps, going back to Bongeunsa.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Back In Action!

Back in Seoul! Super thrilled. I went for a long walk last night and realized that with a lake in our Jamsil neighbourhood (albeit, man-made) and the Lotte World raccoon, it's really not that different from being in the country...?! I mean, this is just like a carnival lit-up version of this, right?

The only thing the city lacks is the serenity. The last thing we did on our country road trip was climb a mountain (surprise!) to a meditation spot. The view was great and the clay hut even had a little hutch with cushions in it that we took out and sat on. The only sound was a monk hitting a wooden bell with metronomic precision. I later saw where the temple was. It was two mountains over! Incredible.

Oh well, the countryside doesn't have a giant Converse shoe on a flatbed.

Now that I'm back, I've spent the morning making lots of plans for this coming week. Soon, you will read all about it.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Korea - Getting To Know You

I have spent the last 5 days in a silver Lexus zigzagging the ancient Korean countryside. I was rolling with the ajummah crew: my mom, my aunt, my great aunt. Median age in the vehicle? 51. Just to preface any further description, I did not ask to be taken on this trip but in Korea, you don’t really get to say no to an elder, especially if they’re family. Years of living with me and adapting during my adolescence (“Mo-om!”) has cured my mom of that particular concept but not the people of Korea, including my great-aunt who is really into planning road trips. Apparently. I didn’t know this about her but I’ve gotten to know all about it.

There’s nothing wrong with being taken around, seeing the coast and rugged rural sights. Some are breathtaking, some educational, most just kind of landscape-y. Lots of fishing boats, rice paddies, traditional rooftops, mountains (we’re like Wile E. Coyote, constantly speeding in and out of tunnels that go through these mountains). BUT imagine being in a car, in the same room, at the same table all day, every day with three elderly lady relatives who can have wall-to-wall week-long conversation about the relationships of the younger set in our extended family (why so-and-so have broken up, etc) and side dishes (better known as “banchan” around here).

Considering that they are three life-long practitioners of banchan preparation, I guess there might be a thing or two to discuss. But it never ends! My mom learns new stuff every day! Every meal we have a conversation about kimchi! We even made a special stop at a beachside anchovy shop and they raved about the flavour (my mom liked them so much she took a bunch in her hand to snack on, and I did too because I was bored – they were actually pretty good but it’s hard to eat things with faces).

What can I tell you about this trip? I’m kind of like a fourth, useless but omnipotent appendage. I don’t contribute to conversation in any way but the whole reason why we’re doing this tour is for me, to show me some history. My great-aunt will joke with the server at restaurants and say that I’m the boss, but uh, last I heard, bosses get to have a say. I did enjoy the boat ride to the island where a historic battle against the Japanese took place in 1592 but if I had planned our itinerary in the grand, road-trip movie tradition, I would have less mountain climbing towards “views” and more wild goose-chase, mistaken identity, half-baked sight gags that involve keggers with Korean farmers. Just to break it up a little.

I also literally don’t say much. There’s a language barrier and I don’t feel like having my great-aunt (who btw, is not that “great” as in old, she is a spry 62 and can bound up mountains and walk a seawall like nobody’s business) laugh at me in her Korean lady way. The concept of “polite” and “rude” isn’t really the same across our cultures. Like, laughing at me because I bungle my words is totally acceptable, as is directing my photos (she will actually point out a photo and tell me to take it) but when I say the wrong version of “thank you” (I know three) it’s like I stopped, dropped and rolled in the dirt and then kicked some up in her face.

How am I staying sane? Yes. Well, I grabbed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone from my cousin’s paltry collection of English language books on my way out the door in Seoul. I desperately tried to ration HP but still finished it in about 48 hours. So now I’m kind of depressed without Harry, Hermione and the gang AND I need to read all the subsequent books in the series.

Currently, I am in a Smurf house, well, Smurf villa condo (I’ve seen a few actual Korean Smurfy houses plus, the inside of this place is tres Smurfy, a la forest-dwellers) and I inexplicably, miraculously attained wireless internet connection for 10 minutes tonight. It was like the heavens opened up and sent me an English-speaking friend. I quickly opened up windows with my email, the Toronto Star and the New York Times because I was afraid that the elusive and great gift would disappear from whence it came. It did. So this blog will have to wait until it decides to visit again. Back to Seoul in two days.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Qu'est-ce que tu as fait le weekend?

Saw lots of public art this weekend in Seoul including these beautiful flowers in the sky (they're actually floating hanbok, silk traditional dresses) and a show in memory of video artist Nam June Paik.

Song-Ei and I also had a long sit in a gorgeous tea house called, appropriately enough, The Beautiful Tea Museum. We ordered a new variation on a fave of mine, pat bing su, but this one is green tea bing su. A giant, pale green puffball of shaved ice with sweet red beans, cashews and almonds inside. Yow! Song-Ei ordered a slice of sweet potato cake which tastes like regular cake with bits of starchy potato in it for in case you want to get berserkers with the carbs.

We walked along Cheunggyecheun, a riverside pedestrian area below street-level. As we walked, we heard the old bell toll twelve times at noon, a plaintive, reverberating Korean-sounding bell. The river is a nice respite from the street and to cross it you walk along stones. That is SO Korean! No North American city would have a bridge without a handrail. Liability!

When we got to Insa-dong we saw an old couple in traditional dress making ddeok the traditional way, which is apparently, the giant way. A giant mortar, a giant hammer/pestle that he swung overhead, giant clay pots to steam rice. Right next to it, there was a street-level karaoke contest going on, a la "Insa-dong Idol". I love the seamless, surreal transition from old to new. Earlier in the day, I saw a super modern glass and steel building (the kind that is meant to impress but actually might be pretty ugly) right next to the bell tower that houses the bell that rang at noon. It's been there since 1392!

For dinner, we went to a place that's famous for its mandu (dumplings) and kalguksu (noodle soup). Song-Ei warned me but still, when I walked in the garlic hit me in the face. It was the garlickiest meal of my entire life and it was the first time I've been able to enjoy a meal since getting sick last week - loved it!

Everything here cost 6000 won (about $7). The line-up went down 3 flights of stairs and out onto the street but we were still seated within 10 minutes. Once we sat, I realized why. Our table was set with our after dinner mints already in place. The lady took our order before I had my coat off. I paid when she took the order. The food was in front of our face within 30 seconds and a lady in an apron with tongs went around replenishing the kimchi plates before the last piece was gone. That was her sole job. She was the kimchi lady.

Today I will complete my transformation into a fully-fledged Korean person rather than being just a kyopo (a foreign-born ethnic Korean). Not only do I eat alarming amounts of garlic and yukgaejang for breakfast (super spicy red soup) but today I will be getting a perm. Now I just have to add cute charms to my cell phone (well, first I have to get one and then start calling it a "handphone") and my transformation will be complete.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Subterranean Seoul

I've been really sick for days. I blame the subway! The dangling hand grips are germ city! Still, riding the subway here is much nicer than back home. They have a nice voice announce each station as you arrive and there's even a little bird chirping in the background.

Every time you ride the subway, people pass through the cars begging or selling something. People begging always have a visible disability and wear a portable stereo playing a song like "Amazing Grace" on bagpipes. Sometimes, if they are able, they'll hand out laminated cards with their story on it and place it on everyone's laps and then come back around to collect them with, hopefully, a little bit of a handout. It's hard to watch because it's so sad.

On the other hand, these guys who come through selling things are like watching a live infomercial. They are really good. Usually they make a sale and if they make one sale per subway car, they're probably doing ok (I hope). Well, I've been conned before and I should be wary of people who talk too fast but Mom was dazzled by a guy who was selling bags on wheels. We happened to be carrying lots of bags that day and he was sweet-talking everyone with his 5000 won price (about $6).

We bought one! We thought it was the best. For the rest of the subway ride, we talked about how we should have gotten another one! And then we exited the subway car. And a wheel fell off. We laughed and laughed until we had to carry this stupid bag with one wheel up the millions of steps to get to street level.

We were headed to my cousin MoonGyung's house and he quickly set about fixing our bag. His daughter Yuri entertained us with her ballet moves. Once Yuri's sister Yujin got home from kindergarten, it was a madhouse. Yujin is really into blocks, princesses and she's also a farting machine, which is weird but also cute and hilarious.