Saturday, December 26, 2009

Merry Kuh-lee-suh-mas-suh in Seoul

We spent Christmas naked with strangers. Not a Korean tradition! Well, the naked with strangers part is...

Eemo and Eemoboo took us to a public bath. Awesome. The men went their way and we went ours. After 30 minutes of scrubbing, soaping and soaking with the ajummahs, all four of us met up in the jjimjilbang, which was a first for me.

It's a subterranean hang-out for people old, young and in between. There are jute mats in the main, broad room and you just kind of loll around, having a snack if you feel like, watching the flat-screen TV, too. The main area is surrounded by doors that lead into rooms, dry saunas really, that are hot, hotter, hottest and death-hot, the latter being where Eemoboo liked to hang out most, staying in for at least 30 minutes (I started to become concerned but I guess he's just super-Korean that way).

We were all wearing our cute jailhouse outfits, i.e., they give you shorts and t-shirt to wear, pink for women and blue for men.

In the dry saunas, there are TVs. Why not?

I couldn't take too much of the intense heat. The "chill-out room," as we called it, was my favourite, the walls covered in frost inside, heated bodies cooling off in what is essentially a giant fridge. You perch on little wooden stumps. When there's nothing to do but sit there, your mind wanders, re-calling movies where characters get trapped in meat lockers. Isaac and I tried to guess how long it would take before we would die in there, if for some reason we got stuck. Don't worry - it wouldn't happen - jjimjilbangs are open 24 hours, which is one of the reasons why they're popular. If you're out for a night of drinking and miss the last subway (easy to do since they stop around midnight), you just go into a jjimjilbang for like $5 - $10 and hang out all night, sleeping on the jute mat. Korean slumber party! Just don't get too close to people who are too drunk. Ick.

No drunkenness in the afternoon, just families hanging out on the mats with their babies, like an indoor sauna picnic. After starting in the public bath, then sweating it out in the saunas in the jjimjilbang, you go back to the bath to soak and rinse a bit. We emerged 3 hours later, thoroughly relaxed to the bone.

I caught myself thinking, "I wish we had public baths at home," then thought of what it would be like to run into all of Queen Street, naked. Nightmare. So uh, I guess being naked in public doesn't work unless it's part of the culture.

As for Christmas, if you want to know what Christmas is like for Koreans, it doesn't have the nesting, family-time importance here. That's reserved for New Year's, as well as other occasions. On Christmas, it's about partying with your friends and going on a romantic date. Everyone buys fancy cakes in boxes and carts them around, to bring home, or to a noraebang or a coffee shop or wherever you're having your date. Presents aren't that big a deal except between girl and boyfriends. As for the Christmas mall rush, you can't avoid it because that's basically EVERY DAY IN SEOUL, so, you know.

Isaac and I spent Boxing Day morning packing up our apartment in Yeomchang (sad!) and have schlepped all our stuff to my cousin's house in Ilsan where everyone will get together for dinner tonight. Then my cousin will drive us to the airport for Thailand tomorrow. Sorry no photos - one day I'll have an ethernet umbilical cord through which to upload. Until then, just words.


Monday, December 21, 2009

Bonghwa Bound

Instead of Shanghai, we are taking a bus into the countryside to visit my aunt and uncle who live outside of Bonghwa, a town so small it's not on the map in our Lonely Planet. Time to go!

Cute Alert: 600-Year-Old Fire-Breathing Dog

Koreans can make anything cute! Even a 600-year-old fire-eating dog that looks like a lion, carved in stone and standing guard to protect palaces and important places (think gargoyle!). See below, the haetae at Gwanghwamun.

Now meet the updated version, Haechi. I love.

Clothing Explosion

Whenever we do our laundry, Isaac says it looks like our washing machine threw up. We have a washing machine but no dryer, so we hang our clothes on an extra ethernet cable tied to two open cabinets on opposite sides of the room. Just making do!

Tough City Rush Hour

This morning was Day 2 of Shanghai Debacle. We woke up early to head to the Chinese Embassy to try and get same day tourist visas and slip on a flight this evening. We went packed and ready to hit the airport, just in case (ever the optimists!).

We usually avoid rush hour but today couldn't help it. One mental image remains from this morning that depicts the difference between our languorous life in Canada and a city like Seoul, where trains pass you by unless you fight to get on.

The subway platform was packed, with everyone lined up in an orderly fashion. As the train pulled into the station, it was obvious that it was already crammed with more people than you'll ever see on the subway in Toronto, at any hour. The doors opened. Isaac and I just stood there as a wave of people rushed on. They jumped in where there was no room and MADE room.

One older salt-n-pepper gentleman clawed his way in and clung to the doorframe like a spider. A kid in a puffy parka moshed his way onto the train. Everyone ignored an ineffectual, pimply young monitor who politely asked Puffy and Spiderman to step off each time the doors re-opened as it sensed blockage between the doors. The doors opened and closed three times. The monitor had a baton like a short light sabre and wore a sash like a very official pageant-winner. The doors would close then re-open and Monitor would pinch a bit of the thin nylon of Puffy's parka between his thumb and forefinger. "Excuse me," tug, tug, "Please step off and wait for the next train." Puffy pretended not to hear or feel him, steadfastly staring into the sardine can subway car. Doors open, close, open, close. These two held up a lot of people for a very long minute because they could not let the train pass them by.

I was horrified. If getting to work requires athletic feats of genteel yet fierce tenacity, what does it take to get THROUGH a work day here?

We missed two trains this way, getting to the Chinese embassy at the stroke of 9. After visiting the embassy and two travel agencies, it became clear that we weren't going anywhere. At least the second travel agent, a kindly, rumpled older man, was nice. He wore a sweater under a nubbly tweed blazer and reading glasses with just one arm, which wasn't a reflection on how hard he would hustle, calling and faxing around on our behalf. Alas, there was really was no way to salvage our Shanghai itinerary. He suggested we get our money refunded (ha!) and tried to make us feel better about our mistake, saying, "There's no visa requirement between Korea and Canada, so it probably just didn't occur to you," although he did add, "You can't travel to China from anywhere without a visa" (but in a nice way, really).

We schlepped our overnight bag across the street to the Myeong-dong movie theatre and saw Avatar, which took longer than it would have taken to fly to China.

After, I bought some glasses (they took 20 minutes, on the spot) and we stumbled upon the dumpling restaurant I fell in love with three years ago. We devoured a bunch in 5 minutes, tops.

This morning, we were on a high of efficiency and tenacity, trying to make our Shanghai trip work. Then, we were just distracted by James Cameron's flight scenes and accompanying pan flute score. But as the day wore on and I trudged around the city lost and alone, I thought about how tough life is in this city. I've had that thought many times over the past month. But Puffy Parka and Spiderman this morning really clinched it.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Giant Mistake Day

This morning, we got up after a few short hours of sleep and somehow stumbled through our morning routine to get to the airport. The train from Yeomchang to Incheon airport was blissfully easy. We wandered the sprawling, sci-fi cavern of the airport (they have gardens in there! a performance stage! a giant spa!) and found the check-in counter for China Southern Air. We got up to the counter and handed over our passports. The girl asked, "Do you have a visa to travel to China?"

Game over. I knew it right then!

HOW could we not have checked whether we need visas to enter China? What a colossal mistake. We said all the stupid things one might expect in that situation: "You need a visa to travel to China? We're Canadian!"

I turned to Isaac and said, "Oh well, it's just money," because I didn't want him to feel too bad about the flights and hotel. The girl at the counter seemed impatient to get on to the next, properly-documented individual in the long line behind us but it was taking us a second to get our jaws off the floor.

As we silently ascended a long escalator, I thought, "Am I not too old to be making such stupid mistakes?" Is there really no age limit to extremely inconvenient, gigantic oversights? It's so embarrassing.

We went to the food area for some overpriced noodles because we hadn't eaten yet. Isaac said, "This will be our secret shame," but of course now I'm blogging it.

We took the train back to our apartment and crawled back into bed before our flight to Shanghai had even climbed into the sky. So sad.

We didn't wake up until the sun had set. What a gross, vampire day. We went to the closest resto in our neighbourhood for dinner. It's always packed. It's the place where the waiter, in our first week, agreed to give us a patio table for the duration of our stay, so I've always felt fond of it but awkward about going in, like I'd have to make small talk to the effect of, "Oh hi, we're the weirdos who dropped in asking to borrow your patio table for a month."

I had been looking forward to some donkatsu. It turns out that despite the Japanese decor, it is not a Japanese restaurant (strike one), instead, it's a smoky bar (strike two) and we ordered the first thing on the menu which turned out to be crazy-spicy odeng (fish cake) and a giant plate of even spicier blood sausage, the exact thing I've been avoiding this entire trip (BLOOD SAUSAGE - YES, this is strike three!).

Blood sausage - I mean, really. Blood sausage is quite popular here on the streets as a quick grab and as a food to eat while you're drinking. It's rice noodles in an intestine casing with blood. It is black. I don't want to eat that! But somehow I ordered a giant plate of it for the two of us even though the menu has photos and English words. How did I manage that?

Sometimes when you're traveling (or NOT as the case may be for us today), it all just comes down to having a good meal. Today we couldn't catch a break.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Party Time Countdown to Shanghai

Everything we do here is fun and exciting, even the boring stuff. Unfortch, I don't have any time to write about it! Especially right this second as it is 4:30 in the morning and I reek of smoke (people smoke indoors here, including in tiny karaoke rooms where Kevin does amazing renditions - again! - of Mariah Carey). I really hate it when my winter coat and hair smell like smoke. I think the people next to me on my FLIGHT IN THE MORNING will hate it more.

Today we went with Eemo and Eemoboo to Nam Han San Seong (which she herself called Ajummah Mountain, which gave me lots of laughs). Also, to a delicious lunch resto. Also, she helped me by calling the hotel I want to stay at in Jeju and booking for me. Also, that is about it for me right this second. Isaac is drinking water upside down trying to get rid of his hiccups which are exactly like the kind of hiccups cartoons get when they are drunk. He is now leaning back and drinking, now looking at me and laughing. This night has gone on way too long. We will regret it in the morning.

Oh and btw, the reason why we were out? Our new friend Irene's 30th birthday party. Vietnamese food, 90s hip hop, international crowd, lots of fun, house party, then to a cool club in Apgujung named Platoon made of recycled shipping containers, then to insane club where a duo that looks like Extreme after 20 years of meth playing their weird throbbing headbanger techno (with an Israeli flag draped in front), then to a noraebang, ending with renditions of Mariah's Touch My Body (lots of awesome syncopation, did R Kelly do that one? Jermaine Dupri?) -- also I realized that We Built This City really split the crowd into 30+ and the twentysomethings.

Good night! Tomorrow - Shanghai!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Date Night in Seoul

Isaac and I once took Mom to see a doc during Hot Docs on a Korean courtship rituals. It included a scene that showed this amazing array of locks in Seoul, all crowded and bunched up in an area that has taken on some sort of romantic significance. Couples write messages neatly onto the padlocks in cute, boxy Korean letters and then lock them onto the fence...FOREVER. Times a gazillion.

The other day, Isaac suggested we walk up Nam San to the N Seoul Tower. We did (huff, huff, 1200 m into the sky later....), then turned a corner...and saw the sea of locks! This is it!

Too bad we didn't bring a lock!

That's ok, because we had a romantic date in a place that so totally appeals to the squealing, Korean teen in me and Tom Cruise was our (tiny, intense) special guest.

We were wandering, looking for a coffee in Hongdae. I looked up into the sky and saw a sign that said, "Cafe Bang Bang." Isaac likes to make fun of the name but I just knew from the cute quotient of the sign that it would be great. And I was right.

The place was EXTREMELY CUTE. When you walk in, teenage attendants take your shoes and put them in a locker. Then they take you to your private cubbyhole. It has a floor-to-ceiling window and is swathed in rose wallpaper with faux Victorian sconces on the wall and a floor cushioned with the kind of vinyl mat you use in grade school gym class. There's a wee table and a flat-screen TV, on which we watched bits of Mission Impossible 3. You can pay 6000W ($6) for "self-serve" treats (popcorn, juice bar, coffee) or order from the menu, which I did, getting a gigantic frozen yogurt pat bing soo (the main ingredient to the BEST DATE EVER).

I keep talking about Cafe Bang Bang wistfully, like, "Wasn't it the best?" Isaac doesn't entirely agree. I think being shut into a miniscule, frou-frou room with tons of sugar, instant coffee and a giant TV is actually pretty close to being his biggest nightmare. But look at the view! I loved it.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Black Hanbok and White Chrysanthemums - A Funeral

Today was a very sad day. We went to my uncle's funeral this morning. The funeral home was in the basement of the hospital. Cancer is so cruel. It isn't fair to spend your last days in pain.

We bowed to his portrait surrounded by white chrysanthemums. All the women wore black hanbok. They also pinned tiny, white ribbons in their hair. It reminded me that Mom didn't allow me to wear white barrettes when I was younger because she said it meant someone had died.

How do people remain so composed at funerals and not simply crumble into tears? I guess there's nothing but the company of others to hold the grief at bay.

We ate lots of food and the soju started flowing around noon, which helped (although I couldn't bring myself to drink it that early - Isaac let himself be goaded into three shots). All our family was there, including people I've never seen, like two of Dad's cousins. It was a nice thing to see so much of our family again, especially when we're told funny stories, like my father's uncle did (he loves telling stories).

One lasting image from today is from when everyone gathered to say goodbye to me and Isaac, everyone who knew us, anyway - all the women, my cousins and their husbands, my uncles and my father's uncle. We had bowed to everyone individually already. They all gathered and followed us to the brink of the doorway as put our shoes back on, a row of black hanbok, a sea of kind faces. I gave one last wave and the sea waved back.

As soon as I hit the hallway, the tears really started flowing. It's hard to say goodbye when you didn't feel you had the language to know them well enough in life. I'm so afraid of losing the older generation that way, each a locked box of treasures I'll never hear.

I'll remember my uncle as a gentle grandfather with an easy smile, putting on his newsboy cap whenever he headed out to teach his calligraphy class. I count myself lucky when I think back to the times I was able to watch him practicing his brush strokes diligently at home.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Noraebang at the Dollhouse

Friday night we went out with our new friends Kevin and Irene. They're from Toronto but Irene lives here and DJs at this amazing bar that is built like the inside of a fairy tale mushroom (except that it's all made of concrete so don't wipe out, a genuine concern while creeping up and down the narrow, winding stairs).

You take off your shoes before you go in and put them in a bag that you carry around with you. They have hookah pipes there for 10 000 W, too ($10). The place was designed by the owner, whom we met. He must be Seoul's only goth (and he is committed to it!) from his laced tails to his fur stole and top hat.

After a drink at the bar, we went to Luxury noraebang ("karaoke"), which is what it's called (it lives up to the name). It has three levels (plus a lower level, invisible to the street) - the wall facing the street is all glass, which makes it look like a dollhouse. All the adorable decor doesn't hurt, either.

When we were shown to our room, we had a collective OMG fit. The room is so cute, with a depressed seating area covered in frilly cushions, giant screen plus one on each side of the room, and a mirrored wall for checking yourselves out while dancing to Rhythm Nation (which pleased this crowd of four). You know what else is a crowd-pleaser? Kevin doing Mariah. He was also quite good at that Antichrist song by Marilyn Manson which kept Isaac and I giggling all the way home. We just had one thing to do before we left Luxury, shutting the place down - we all took turns lyring down on the see-through floor for a photo shoot - irresistible, right?
Noraebang - too much fun!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

"Hi Seoul!"

"Would You Mind Taking A Photo?"

Isaac takes pictures of me and I take pictures of him. When you ask a passerby to take a picture of the both of you, this happens:

Honestly, now. Really? It's merely mildly exasperating now - the humour has kinda worn off although I do remember laughing myself silly at the top of the Eiffel Tower with Mom a few years ago. That was RIDICULOUS. The above photo is merely, "Are you on a boat?"

Then there's asking Dad when there's only room for one flick left on your memory card and the fake wedding procession at Korea Folk Village, at a standstill for photo ops, hasn't noticed you getting reeeally close to the horse and so they've started up their music again, making you go, "WHOA!" because the horse you put your face next to is now snuffling and huffling and it startled you and...*SNAP!*. I wish you guys could zoom in on my face. We laughed about it for a long time ("And Dad, please make sure you get the big guy with the Beta cam in the background, he is a good buddy" - NOT).

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

What, This Old Thing?

Mom is a crafty lady.

Today she told us to meet her at Namdaemun, the ginormous market. Great! No need to discuss any further. It's obvious we're going shopping, right?

We got to the subway exit and found Eemo there. Whee! Eemo was taking us to Mom who was in the market...buying...hanbok?! Uh oh.

Hanbok are the traditional Korean outfits, brightly coloured, silken, flowing robes. Mom had suggested buying hanbok for me and for Isaac earlier in the trip but I had gently declined.

"Mom - when will we ever wear it? It's a nice idea, but really - it's ok." I thought we were agreed. That's what it seemed like, anyway. Not the case.

Eemo led us through teeming streets filled with carts piled high with winter coats, people yelling their prices, ("Man won! Man won ja li!") storefronts blaring K-pop. I was protesting the whole way, telling Eemo I'd already TOLD Mom that we don't need hanbok. Eemo nodded and made sympathetic faces, which I love about her, and said, "But I think your Mom just really wants to buy these for you because it's tradition and you just got married."

We went up a stairwell where a young market worker was smoking a cigarette, turned a corner and popped into a 3rd floor sea of fabrics where I saw Mom's face lean out from inside a booth.

I smiled and waved, thinking, "What on earth is she doing?" Mom indicated to the lady in the stall that we were approaching. Within 5 seconds of saying, "Hey Mom," I was being unburdened of my winter coat and having a chartreuse floor-length outfit put onto me, princess-style, like a paper doll with arms outstretched. This little hanbok-selling grandma was all over me and she was fast.

As she was tying me in tightly, over my bulky sweater, I looked over at Mom. "Uh Mom? Remember I said that I don't think Isaac and I need hanbok?"

On goes the little bolero jacket with wide sleeves. And it is snapped shut. It is electric lime green. I ask if there's anything else, knowing that this means I am now complicit (well, I couldn't let that lime green just happen to me, you know?). Less than one minute in the store and here I was sweating in my boots, sweater and a gigantic, floor-length gown.

The clothes are deemed a perfect fit, whipped off me and the little halmuni with the satoori accent goes spinning over in Isaac's direction. All the halmuni's in the area are saying things like, "He is handsome," "He is tall," "That is a grrreat colour on him," "His Korean is so good!" (This last one is in response to his saying, "Thank you," or "Kamsa hamnida" - Koreans are very easily impressed).

By this time, seeing Isaac in a shimmering pink confection from head-to-toe, I was beginning to enjoy myself. Mom told me later she had chosen this vendor because she said she had extra large sizes for foreigners. Standing there, swimming in fabric, Isaac asked for a little hat. I told him those black hats are just for babies and kings. "I am a King!" Yes, Isaac, you are a King.

It took all of 10 minutes to become the proud new owners of two beautiful hanbok. Feel free to book us for New Year's bowing ceremonies and children's parties.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Samulnori and A Gang of Tough, Cute Jockeys

I wanted to post a few clips of the performances at Korea Folk Village last week. I love all the clanging rhythms of samulnori (I'm pretty sure it's single-handedly responsible for why I wanted to get into the pots and bang them as a kid).

I'd been here once before when I was five and remember watching this farmer's dance. The ribbons! The pompoms! The feather-duster guy in the center and the funny, squealing horn! (Sorry, but the horn-blower was out of the frame the whole time).

And check out the guy in the video above. He is so OG. An incarnation of a long-ago, living and breathing rural farmhand and b-boy, at the center of a pompom 'n' percussion cypher.

The highlight of the day were these guys on horses. They would do tricks like flipping around the horse, gymnastics-style, or standing up with no hands as the animals galloped full-speed. I loved it. All the galloping was exciting, plus the little jockeys were ADORABLE, like anime come to life. One guy repeatedly exclaimed something that sounded like, "West side!" which we still say to each other once in a while during a lull in conversation.

What We Did in Gyeung Ju

The first weekend after we arrived in Korea, my Eemo and Eemoboo (aunt and uncle) took us on a road trip to GyeungJu. It's where Koreans go on holiday to sightsee, a main attraction being all the royal tombs from the Silla dynasty.

These tombs, large humps of grass that rise out of the land, are up to 1600 years old, surviving centuries of clashes and wars and occupation and dynastic change.

They buried royalty by placing each king, along with precious items like jewelry and weapons, into a wooden coffin in the ground. Then, it was covered with a giant mound of rocks, then a layer of dirt. It becomes a grassy hill. Some of them still have tombstones, statues of tortoises or carved Chinese zodiac animals, but lots of them are now anonymous tombs.

Isaac and I wandered all day, chauffered by Eemoboo and his nephew. Eemobo was on a crutch because of a bad bike accident he was in this summer (we saw the x-ray of the giant hunk of metal he has screwed into his thigh bone!) but he still managed to lead the charge at every location. Even with a hobble, he's really fast.

Isaac and I went by ourselves to visit an ancient temple named Bulguksa, and then a newer temple with a Buddhist restaurant on site. Eemoboo and his nephew had scoped it out as the best restaurant in town and swooped in to pick us up and take us for lunch. All the food revolved around the lotus root and was delicate and delicious. It was almost too pretty to eat. Almost.

At night, on our own, we wandered into a fish market, with long corridors lined with tanks filled to overflowing, silver fish on ice, whitish pink squids hanging like glistening mopheads, and the most disturbing bowl of sea creatures I have ever seen (we later Googled it and found that the way to look it up is to Google "Korean penis fish" - really, try it).

At the market, we had a very modest dinner of ddeokbokgi and kimbap and pumpkin juk. We'd been having delish dinners with our family around the clock and having escaped for a few hours on our own, eating a cheap little meal in a fluorescent-lit corner of a fish market with wet floors was really nice and cozy, actually. The soju helped.

As we left Gyeung Ju, we stopped by a farm for the real reason why Eemo tagged along on our trip - to pick up 30 washed cabbages to take home and make into kimchi. The farmers were quite taken by Isaac's charm, even without any language in common, and insisted we have some baechu jun (cabbage lightly breaded and fried) with maeshil (umeboshi) moonshine. Actually, we took a bottle home and I'm drinking it right now. It's really fruity, syrupy and thick. Tastes like the Korean countryside!

Friday, December 04, 2009

How To Drink Like A Korean Businessman, or Don't Be A Nerd

My cousins Bumjun and Jungjoon work hard and play harder. Jungjoon works in marketing. Bumjun is an investment banker who regularly entertains international clients. They decided to teach us the rules on how to drink like Korean businessmen.

1. You must drink or else you are a nerd.
2. You've got to match everyone glass for glass.
3. After your host does a shot, they'll pass the glass to you and you're supposed to use it. Sharing the cup is important. When it comes to germs, again - don't be a nerd.
4. When you "cheers" ("gunbae!" or "weehayo!"), watch the other person's glass. If they "do bottoms up," you should do the same.
5. When someone pours you some booze, you must lift your cup with two hands to accept respectfully. You can do the physical abbreviation, which is holding the cup with one hand and putting the other hand to your elbow. This sign of respect and is a rule for absolutely anything, not just getting wrecked with Korean bankers - you cannot give or receive anything from someone with just one hand. That's ruuude.
6. When someone pours you a drink, accept, then reciprocate and pour one for them.
7. Bonus: "Poktanju" or "The Bomb" is something these guys all do. You start by mixing a shot of soju into a beer (which we did, and it's actually pretty good) but then gets crazier and crazier until it involves whiskey and RED WINE, too.

The drinks were flowing so fast I had to pretend I was drinking by the end of it. Everything was downed like a shot, including our soju-fortified glasses of beer. For someone who is silly at half a glass, I really should have stopped drinking around, oh, 7:30 pm.

After a kalbi restaurant with soju and beer, we went for more food and sake at an izakaya. We didn't go for the "third car" ( like in a train) which would have been noraebang, or karaoke. We wisely called it a night. Well, we didn't have a choice. Jungjoon fell asleep at the table and had to work in the morning. And I just couldn't drink any more.

Subway Diversions

Every day we ride the subway. I love the subway in Seoul (except when it's rush hour although there was that time, squeezed in like crazy, that Isaac was making me burst out laughing by giving me a quiet play-by-play on how "a businessman's bum" was "touching" his bum and that he was very uncomfortable about it). (He later demonstrated for me when we got home, saying, "See? That doesn't feel good, does it?").

Because we don't have smartphones and watch TV shows and movies on them like everyone else on the subway, we zone out by watching the monitors above the subway doors. Question: Do you find this ad as disturbing as we do? We both had the same initial reaction to it, which goes something like this: Euh? Unnhhhhewww.

Tell me, though, that this isn't the coolest thing ever. Who needs an iPhone?

Visiting Family, Alive and in the Afterlife

It's really important to go around and greet all your family members, especially when the whole point of the trip is to celebrate your matrimonial union.

One thing you should do is bow. Like, really bow. It's called "jul" and Isaac already knows how to do it because my parents taught him to do it for them on New Year's Day. You slowly float down to the ground and then bend over, your head to your hands on the ground, pause, then slowly get back up. Usually you say a greeting.

When we saw my halmuni (grandma), we were to do this.

"What are we supposed to say?" Isaac asked.

"Oh don't say anything," I responded. "I'll do the talking." I was hurriedly trying to practice, "Halmuni, live a healthy and happy long life," in my head in Korean.

Isaac wanted to say something, too. "Should I say....Yeobosayo?"

Just as an example of humour that doesn't cross languages and cultures, this was the FUNNIEST THING HE HAS SAID TO ME in many, many months. I told Mom and we shrieked with laughter and my whole family bust up giggling. Oh, poor Isaac *hand squeeze*. It's ok.

"Yeobosayo" is how you say "hello" when you pick up the phone. It's not what you say when you bow deeply to your elders, although it's easy to see why Isaac might think it could be. A greeting's a greeting, right? Not in Korean!

On another day, there was some confusion as to whether we should bow to my uncle, who is in the last stages of life, dying of cancer. I didn't know why we shouldn't but learned later that it was a bit superstitious - it's as if deeply bowing to him might invite his death to come around earlier. We greeted him as we usually would, with a bow standing up. Even though he is in considerable pain, and on lots of painkillers, his eyes were bright and he greeted us with scattered thoughts from a deep and fundamental place in his being.

He told Isaac that we are a "yangban" family (noble, aristocratic), which I hadn't ever known or even thought about. At first, I thought it was a strange thing to say in your first greeting to a new member of the family, but given the context, it actually makes perfect sense. When every little scrap of info I learn about my family is a revelation, this was a big one.

Later, when Dad took me and Isaac to Korea Folk Village, we stood inside a genuine yangban household and he told me that his grandfather had a house just like it in a village that is now in North Korea. I guess I hadn't thought back any further than my Dad's own immigrant, hardscrabble experience and his war-torn childhood before that. I hadn't thought of a richer time and what it's like to lose so much status. My uncle was able to whisper that bit of information to us before we were ushered out to let him rest.

We've also visited many graves. My father's parents are in a cemetary 30 minutes from the North Korean border in a cemetary loosely translated as, "For Those Who Miss Their Homeland." It is a cemetary for North Korean refugees who came south before the border clanged shut with the end of the war.

You bow down to the ground here, too, twice for the dead. You make offerings of food for their spirits. Fruit is cut off at the top and dried fish had chopsticks placed right next to it to make it easier for their spirits to partake. Soju is poured into little cups.

We all stood in a row. My father's uncle, the eldest generation present, announced that we'd come from Canada to greet them. Then we bowed, slowly, twice in a row. Then we took the soju and poured it on their grave. We did this separately for every grave site we visited.

It was a pared-down version of the entire ritual. I know about it because we've done it many times for my uncle in Toronto. My parents hardly remember all the little details of how to do it. I've always been a tag-along participant. How will these rituals live on through me and into the future? I guess they're not mine - they're of the people who still live here...

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Pop that Makkgeoli, It's a Housewarming for Two

This is our home in Seoul. It's a tiny box, three floors up, in a building so new they had to turn on the heat just for us (the first night was a cold one - indoor camping!).

I'm in love with the place and its simplicity. What you're seeing in this pic is literally the entire thing. If you turned around, you would see the red plastic patio table we borrowed from a restaurant down the street. And that's it. On the ondol floor, to the right in the photo, is our sleeping stuff - borrowed blankets and pillows, unfurled every night for bedtime. I love living out of a suitcase, especially when we actually have a tiny washing machine (whether I'll be able to figure it out remains to be seen).
Really, the best part of the apartment, though, is the bathroom. The entire thing is tiled and the drain is in the center of the floor. The tap on the sink has a handy little switch that takes the flow of water from the tap to the shower. Spot a hair or a smidge of dust? Just BLAST IT with the shower head. I did that. It feels good to go a little crazy and just take that shower head and aim it all around the room. I'm all for a system where you can clean the bathroom with two seconds of high water pressure.
We don't have too much in the house. One pot, some chopsticks, some soap, our clothes, books and laptops. My iPod in a tiny, circular speaker. Oh and TONS OF BOOZE.

We picked up three bottles of wine at Home Plus, a labyrinthine store lit like the entire thing is at the center of a hot lightbulb. Home Plus is what would happen if a Wal-Mart and a carnival had a baby then let an army of apron-wearing Koreans raise it, dutifully broadcasting sale prices into megaphones all the while.

We didn't even pop those bottles before we went on a road trip to GyeungJu (more on that later) and came home with a giant bottle of maeshil moonshine, a gift from farmers we met.

Being showered in alcohol is a function of being within drinking radius of Isaac. Today, when Isaac gave his thumbs up to the makggeoli my father's uncle ordered at lunch, he was given a bottle. Whenever Isaac says he likes something (usually mimed with a thumbs up and smile which are in turn greeted by raucous Korean approval), he is bestowed with tons of it.
We're living without the basics of civility i.e. proper utensils (we have take-out chopsticks and a few plastic spoons, oh the shame) yet we've got enough booze to open our own HOF. We are such raging party animals. At this very moment, you can hear every click of my keyboard as I tippity tap away and Isaac silently draws on his computer at our plastic patio table.

Wee-ha-yo! ("Cheers!")