2.5 months in Seoul, South Korea
Tuesday, July 31, 2007
SEOUL IN A WEEK: the whirlwind tour - part 3 of 3
Kelly (McLaughlin) asked me what my friends thought of Korea, which is a more complicated question than it seems. The simple answer would be that they loved it, which they wholeheartedly did, but their impressions of Korea were pretty interesting.

While my friends were packing to come to Seoul, I had warned them that people here are very dressed up. They wanted to fit in (as much as a foreign-looking person can), and fight the stereotype of the "slobby, slutty American" (in the style of Brittany Spears, who recently scandalized store clerks by wiping grease on a designer dress and leaving the bathroom door open while peeing), so they packed things like dressy shirts, nice shorts, coverups, and skirts, which they were really glad to have once they arrived. At the end of the week, they commented that they hadn't seen one person wearing sweatpants since they'd come. Of course, as soon as they'd said that, a lady wearing a pair of designer sweatpants coupled with silver HIGH HEELED STILETTOS came to stand in front of us in the subway.

They were also struck by how even guys took such pains with their appearance--while at Baskin Robbins, we watched the male clerk unabashedly fixing his hair under his visor in front of a huge mirror on the side of the register about fifteen different times (between ringing up customers), while we ate our sour yogurt ice cream. Of course, it was great for all of us to be surrounded by attractive, well-groomed people. However, we couldn't help but wonder--how much of Korea's time, energy, and brainpower that could go into scientific research or building up the country's infrastructure is instead funneled into looking good? And also, what is it that allows Koreans like the Baskin Robbins clerk to blatantly and unashamedly primp in front of the mirror in public, while Americans, I believe, would die of embarrassment if caught in such an act?

Neither of my friends had ever visited Korea before, and it was Maddy's first time ever being in Asia. Marian, who'd been to China last year to visit her brother who teaches English there, was really surprised by the difference between Seoul and China. She described spending a day in China and having her white shirt be black with smog at the end of the day, or being called a whore by people on the street because she was foreign. She confessed that she'd expected Korea to be similar. In reality, she said that being in Seoul was almost like being in New York City, except that everyone was Korean. Facilities were clean, and anything she wanted or needed was within easy accessibility--she said she actually could imagine living here without too much hardship. Anyway, she said that her trip made her much more curious about Asia, now that she realized that the countries in Asia were vastly different. The "China represents all of Asia" fallacy is a pretty common one, especially in my hometown, where I sometimes get asked, "Are you Chinese or Filipino?" with no other racial options well-known enough to be presented to me. Hopefully the assumption will become less prevalent once the unique characteristics of countries such as Korea, Japan, Singapore, etc. become more well-known to the rest of the world.

I was also surprised by the popularity of my two white friends in Seoul. People kept giving us smiles, or commenting on how "beautiful" or "nice" my friends were. At clubs and bars, Korean guys would continuously try and hit on the 'exotic' foreigners. At restaurants, the waiters would sometimes tell us that they were giving us extra-good service because it was my friends' first times trying the food. I'm sure that part of this friendliness was an effort to give a good impression of Korea to foreign tourists, but it's something that I rarely experienced when going around with white male friends last summer or this summer. Suspicion towards foreign males "taking our women" is something present in every country, and as much as we'd like to believe otherwise, is a strong feeling even in America (look at the obstacles that interrace couples still have--black men and white women, Asian men and white women, etc.). However it seems that although some Koreans might look with disapproval upon a Korean woman with a foreign male, they are more likely to take a quick glance and look away, or whisper to each other, than actually make a cutting insult.

Another thing that my friends were surprised with was the comparative lack of laws in Korea versus America. They didn't see a single policeman the whole time they were here, and were a bit amused/scared by taxi drivers' disregard for traffic rules. At the Seoul Zoo, we were delighted when the kangaroo keepers let us in directly into the kangaroos' pen to feed them pieces of food. This would never fly in America, where we love to sue the pants off of companies. If someone were to be kicked by a kangaroo, the zoo would be sued into bankruptcy!
Anyway, here's our the second half of the week--

Wednesday, July 25
On Wednesday we went biking on Yeoido Island along the Han River, the river that runs through the middle of Seoul. We rented bikes from a stand right outside the subway station (paid 3,000 won each per hour) and explored the island for a few hours, stopping for a few ice cream cones. We ended up eating the ice cream cones under the shade of a wide bridge--there were public benches and mats spread out for people to lay down and relax with their kids.

On our bike ride along Yeoido Island, we passed the 69 building, formerly the tallest point in Seoul (prior to the completion of Namsan, N Seoul Tower), and also the National Assembly Building:


National Assembly Building

Then we were off to Bau House, an 애경, or pet, cafe a highlight for my friend Marian, who's studying to become a veterinarian.

It was an ordeal to find (like many destinations in Seoul), and eventually we realized that the map I'd gotten online was wrong. By luck, I heard a passing Korean girl mentioning 애경카페 (pet cafe) to her boyfriend. I whirled around, asked her whether she knew of Bau house (it turned out to be the cafe that she'd been talking about), and we got directions from her:
Living in apartments and working a busy schedule makes it hard for most Koreans to have a pet. Thus the popularity of dog cafe--you can come and enjoy a few hours with incredibly well-behaved and well-groomed dogs and cats, without the hassle of walking, feeding, or grooming. If you do have a pet, you can bring it to the dog cafe with you.

Upon our arrival, we were dismayed to see that a huge group of elementary school children had arrived before us and were terrorizing the dogs and cats. As soon as we sat down, a fluffy Chihuahau, that had been being zoomed around in the arms of a hyperactive little boy, actually dove into our lap shaking. We tried to shelter it for the rest of our stay (as it was the only pet in the cafe that would fit into the boy's arms, it was in high demand with him), but as a consequence were continuously pestered by the boy who kept asking us, "강아지 주세요!! 언제 갈거에요?" ("Give me the dog please!! When are you guys going to leave?"). When he eventually realized that we weren't going to hand him over the dog, which kept burrowing deeper into our laps, he started giving us treats to give to the dog. I guess he actually was an okay kid, but was just really really bad at handling pets--unfortunate.

At night we went to Chongdong Theatre to see a traditional music performance--Maddy, a music major, was especially interested in this, and ended up enjoying the performance so much that she bought a DVD of the performance after the show.

We dressed up in hanboks, traditional Korean dresses, and took photos. Marian and Maddy are wearing the princess's dresses, and I'm wearing the colorful marriage ceremony one (I swear I didn't know, I just liked the rainbow sleeves). After we took our hanboks off, the attendants directed our attention to a big sign that we'd missed---5,000 won each to take photos with the hanboks on. Oh.

The show consisted of samulnori, a "4 instrument" percussion performance, pansori, and more-

Here we are taking a photo with the orchestral instrument players-- the woman played the Kayagum, or Korean harp, and was an amazing musician--
Here we are with the pansori singer--she performed the famous Korean folktale "Shimcheong", the blind man's daughter who sacrifices herself for her father. Unfortunately the audience, which was mainly foreign, couldn't understand the singer's Korean lyrics (resulting in some people sniggering in the row behind us, and Maddy giving them a dirty look)--- subtitles to the lyrics would have been really nice!!!
Sameulnori players: they have white streamers on their heads which they swirl in time to the music. These guys were without question some of the most intense musicians I've ever heard perform. They got so into their performance that they were sweating like mad, and had some really primeval expressions on their faces. I couldn't even see the one guy's drumstick (just a blur) because it was beating the drum so quickly!

Afterwards, back to Sinchon for some KOREAN gelato at Gusttimo. The flavors here include some delicious Korean-inspired ones--my personal favorite is the sour yogurt gelato.You get 3 flavors each-- I had the spicy chocolate (chocolate with a kick), yogurt, berry yogurt. Marian--white wine, berry yogurt, red bean in green tea. Maddy--red bean, mango, melon.

We kind of got a lot of spoons... (corresponding to a lot of pre-ordering sampling). Oh, and ate our cups clean as well.

Thursday, July 26

On Thursday, we took a bus from Gangnam all the way down to the traditional Korean folk village (Minsokchon) right outside of Seoul:

Korean being a Korean ajummah in bright pink visor that we found sold at the gift shop. All she needs now is a flowered silk shirt, some linen pants, and some flesh-colored 4-inch platform sandals:

Korean traditional roof, called 기와 (ki-wa):
The Jindo-geh, native dog of Korea, designated a national treasure. It is extremely pure-bred and is guarded in the island of Jindo in South Korea. I'll be going there next week!!

Maddy petting a donkey:

Fire to keep mosquitos away:
A press to make Korean paper. We missed the korean papermaking workshop :-(

Two girls of exactly equal weight stand on a seesaw and catapult each other straight up into the air (please do not try at home)

Rope walking- Impressive, because not only does the guy walk the rope and do tricks, but after walking every length of the rope, he leans on the wood and proceeds to make rowdy jokes to the audience~ (this is featured in the famous Korean movie 왕의 남자, or The King and the Clown)
Traditional Korean wedding. I couldn't catch the meaning of everything, but the bride and groom are presented a pair of wooden wild geese, 기러기--the birds mate once and stay together for their entire life and symbolize the enduring nature of marriage. They also drink alcohol from two halves of the same gourd and eat certain foods like chestnuts (to symbolize longevity).

Thursday night, somewhat broke after all of our touring, we decided to take advantage of free drinks all night at Helios Club in Itaewon for Ladies Night.
We paid zero won to hang out, drink a variety of cocktails, and dance the night away~~great deal!

It was neat to have so many people from different countries rubbing shoulders in Itaewon. Neat, but volatile. Sometimes interracial fights break out in Itaewon, and Helios that night made me see why.

The dance floor at Helios is pretty tiny, and was full that night-- the DJ puts "Walk it Out" on.. and four girls dressed in ghetto hip-hop apparel from head to toe try to push EVERYONE off the floor and start screaming, shoving, and hopping up and down on top of peoples' sandal-clad feet so that they can take up the middle third of the dance floor to "walk it out". They were getting in peoples' faces, were about twice as big and muscular as everyone else, cursed my friend out, and were the only black girls on the dance floor. The Korean girls just gave black girls a frightened look and scuttled away. Really, I was ashamed FOR those girls.. they're just making even more Koreans believe that all blacks are "scary" (a sentiment that I've heard from many Koreans considering studying abroad in America) or violent or ill-mannered--all so untrue. But you really can't blame Koreans if this is what they witness.

Of course, this is only 4 girls, but it's a sad truth that one bad incident sticks in peoples' memory more than many, many unremarkable ones...

Friday, July 27

We spent the day at the COEX mall window shopping and walking around, and afterwards went to O'Sullocs Cafe in Daehangro, which serves a variety of different green tea drinks and desserts.
I especially like the dark-wood and light green decorations, with a waterfall on one side of the restaurant:
We pored over the menu for awhile (the waitress had to come and go a few times) until we decided what we wanted:
Green tea walnut cheesecake and green tea tiramisu:
We also got a cold pear green-tea drink, which was amazing, refreshing, and not too sweet with bits of pear in it.

Dinner was one of the specialties of my area (Sinchon), dak galbi, or spicy chicken and vegetables barbecued at your table. We ordered it with a seafood mix-in (해물 사리) and a mix-in of rice that gets fried into a flat pancake with the rest of your sauce at the end of the meal:

Afterwards we went to Hongdae Club Night (by chance, my friends came to visit me on the last Friday of the month!), paying 15,000 won to get into all of the area clubs and a free drink coupon. We stayed pretty much around NB and club hooper, which was slightly less crowded than the ever-popular NB. No photos because I didn't, as usual, bring my camera clubbing, but we had a great time~ guys, see you over Thanksgiving break!
posted by Jane @ 5:32 AM  
  • At 5:59 AM, Blogger Kaila said…

    I would like to point out to the world that Jane forcefully put that visor on my head, and that I didn't actually buy it.
    It is a pretty slimming picture, though ... :p

  • At 10:14 AM, Blogger Kelly McLaughlin said…

    Well, Kaila, I did wonder for a moment "Why are they taking a picture of that Ajumma?" -- but then I took a closer look under the visor and saw it was that Kaila Smile made famous in many pictures by now. =)

    Jane, thanks for the answer. It's always fascinating to see a place like Korea through friends' eyes. My mother once asked me "Are there tall buildings in Korea?," so it was then and there that I bought her a ticket to visit me. Over Korean barbecue and Soju she said: "Wow, you live better Korea than I do in the States!"

    Of course, seeing all your pictures reminds me of how true that was in some ways. The excitement and variety. Then again, I'm a family man now with a 4 year-old and an 8 year-old, so I can't complain about the relatively slow pace back in New Haven. Still, your posts (the whole Korea groups' posts, actually) have really brought me back to some great memories.

    I'm sure your posts will encourage many future applicants! Thanks.

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Name: Jane
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