A Touch of Seoul

5/12/03

Greetings from SRAS central! (There is a little confusion about the English acronym. Actually, we’re all now very concerned about the SRAS crisis in Taiwan, as we seem to be the only country with both SARS and SRAS simultaneously….)

I get my temperature checked an average of three times a day, so I can report with confidence that I’m still quite fine. In fact, to enter the computer lab here on campus, I had to have my temperature checked, have my hands sprayed with disinfectant spray (twice!), don a surgical mask, and sign a log book so that in case anyone in the lab now has SARS, I can be quarantined for 10 days. You know, life as usual. Masks are now required on the subway (and in a handful of other crowded places), with massive fines if you take your mask off. Quarantined individuals are now tracked like people under house arrest with GPS devises. Actually, I have a bit of a cold at the moment (yes, I’m sure it’s not SARS), which earns me pariah status, but also ensures that I always have lots of “personal space.”

Actually, I’m just back from a few day’s vacation from SARS; that is to say, on less than two days notice I ran off to South Korea last week. The official reason for going was that I had to leave Taiwan to renew my visa (my Hong Kong student visa was apparently not acceptable to the Taiwan government, go figure). When I found out that I had to exit Taiwan to renew my visa, I immediately asked what my options were due to SARS and the travel restrictions (and quarantines upon return), and the answer was Korea or Japan, so off I went (incidentally, starting this week Japan in quarantining all passengers from Taiwan for 10 days, so if South Korea soon follows suit I’ll be pretty happy I got out and back when I did). A good friend here arranged my ticket on a direct charter flight for US $176 round-trip, with an “all-in-one” key chain/nail clipper/bottle-cap opener thrown in for free, so it was really quite the deal.

Normally I like to plan all travel, and especially international travel, a few months in advance so that I have plenty of time to fret about the things that could go wrong, but with so little notice I had only time enough for a few hours of high-power worrying before I was on the plane. It takes two hours to fly from Taipei to Seoul – that is, for those keeping track, even shorter than my standard DC to Minneapolis flight. I was on an Asiana Airlines charter flight, which was based out of South Korea. When we had all boarded the plane, it did not escape my notice that the people were packed in elbow to elbow in rows 10 through 19 and then again from row 26 on to the back of the plane. I was in seat 22-C, with 36 empty seats around me. Perhaps this was an acknowledgement of the novelty of having a random American on the flight; I have a hard time believing it was an accident of seating assignments. Everyone else noticed that I had the middle of the plane all to myself, though, and soon after take-off people shuffled around to move into those empty rows. I was pretty amused by the fact that everyone on the plane very cautiously wore a surgical mask, but when dinner was served they all whipped off the masks and chowed down. As soon as dinner was over, the masks went back on, leaving one to wonder exactly what the point of them was anyway. I was unconcerned about mask-less dining, myself, simply because there was (even after the seat switching subsided) absolutely no one in the immediate vicinity.

My friend Lancelot, who teaches English writing at Yonsei University in Seoul, had kindly offered to put me up during my visit (another factor that made the 11th hour travel plans a possibility), so after landing at Incheon International Airport with visions of MacArthur in my head, all I had to do was get myself into town to meet him at the Sinchon McDonald’s (whatever you think about the Golden Arches’ conquest of the world, it is awfully convenient as a meeting place for the uninitiated). (Actually, I need to point out that this is the third country Lancelot and I have met up in – I know him from taking Chinese in Monterey, CA a few years ago, and he came to Taiwan last fall. As my mom pointed out, he is sorta my human version of the terra cotta soldiers.) A handful of elderly Korean businessmen made it their business to see that I got off the airport bus at the right stop, which cemented my earliest perception of Seoulites as very friendly to lost, non-Korean-speaking foreigners.

Actually, before I left Taiwan my friend Kailang, who is Korean, attempted to teach me a few vital phrases in his native language – you know, “hi,” “thank you,” “I’m sorry, I can’t speak Korean,” and so forth. While practicing “excuse me,” I accidentally said “darling.” This so amused Kailang that I was subjected to endless jokes about whether or not “darling” would work just as well to get through a crowd. He joked so extensively about this, in fact, that by the time I left for Seoul “darling” was the only word in Korean I could be counted on to remember. For anything else, I had to whip out the list of phrases he had written out for me, which meant a perpetually delayed reaction.

I had intended to go first thing Thursday to the Taiwan visa office to take care of my visa business, but discovered that all schools and offices in Korea were closed for the celebration of Buddha’s Birthday. (This is a lunar calendar holiday in Korea, and therefore hard to predict, but I’m still surprised that no one thought of it before I left Taiwan. I’m also a little curious about how, exactly, they know when the historical Buddha’s birthday really was, but as one of Lancelot’s friend’s pointed out, it must be at least as accurate as calling December 25th Jesus’ birthday.)

I had recently gotten back in touch with an old friend from college, who happens to be Korean and returned to Seoul right after we graduated five years ago, and because of the big birthday excitement she had the day off. It was wild to meet up with Jaeeun after so much time and distance, but after a few minutes of rather formal, awkward compliments we both relaxed and it was like old times. She confessed that she has not had many opportunities to chat with native English speakers since leaving Charlotte, so she was nervous to meet me again. Still, she is employed as a middle school English teacher, so as I pointed out, there are limits to how rusty she could be. Jaeeun took me around to the imperial palaces (well, some of them anyway; there are at least a half a dozen imperial palaces in Seoul, all related to different kings and dynasties. Some are composed of old original buildings, but most are 19th century recreations, after being burnt down by one of the many Japanese invasions. Surprisingly, most did survive the Korean War, although the rest of Seoul didn’t – walking around it is obvious that most of the city sprang up after 1953).

After taking the Korean tour of a palace complex (which Jaeeun tried to translate as much as possible, but the real reason for the tour group was that the palace complex was so big tourists have been known to get lost inside and reemerge days later… or so the rumors have it), we went over to Insadong for lunch and a little browsing. Jaeeun brought me to a traditional Korean restaurant, just “plain everyday fare” as she had it. Being traditional, though, we had to take off our shoes at the door and sit on cushions on the floor before the low table. We ordered rice and vegetables, which came with so many little “side dishes” that the table had – I’m not kidding – 25 little bowls with different things inside before we were through.

I kidded with Jaeeun that if this was the plain fare, I can’t imagine what an elaborate meal would be like, and she answered, in all seriousness, that we’d simply need a bigger table. Most of the dishes were some variation on kimchi, the staple of the Korean diet. Kimchi is a sort of pickled white cabbage with lots and lots of spicy red pepper mixed in (though variations use cucumber or radishes). It can take a little getting used to (though we go out for Korean food often enough here in Taipei that I’m already a big fan), and a lot of water (“spicy” generally doesn’t begin to describe it), but the Koreans claim its health benefits are endless; most Koreans I know believe kimchi consumption to be the major reason Korea has no SARS (not to mention SRAS) cases to date. Naturally, I stocked up on duty-free kimchi at the airport to safeguard my health back in Taiwan.

After arriving massively late to meet up with Lancelot and his friends (again, a thousand apologies…), we headed up to “the temple behind his house” (what Lancelot claims is the official title) to view the celebrations of Buddha’s birthday. Actually, I felt a little out of place out at the temple, wearing a Christian cross, being a foreigner, and therefore obviously not actually Buddhist, but only until I noticed a handful of Catholic nuns weaving in and out of the crowds. At that point I decided that it was likely more an excuse to party than a deep religious experience, and didn’t worry about it. And in general, as many people pointed out that day, the generally conservative Republic of Korea can use as many excuses to party as it can find. We wove in and out of rather elderly, quite drunk Korean men (one of whom pulled me out into a crowd of dancers and tried to teach me some kind of traditional dance, then kissed my cheek when the number was over); had strange and unintelligible conversations with the rather elderly, quite drunk Korean men who were largely undeterred by their own lack of knowledge of English and our inability to speak Korean; and ultimately ended up sitting at a table chatting, drinking, and munching on kimchi and cotton candy kindly supplied by the rather elderly, quite drunk Korean men at the next table.

When Friday dawned my first thoughts were of Taiwan and visas. I anxiously showed up at the visa office at the stroke of nine when they opened and presented my case: why I needed to change my visa, and how I needed it that very day. The “rush order” turned out to be no problem, as it seems that pretty much no one is anxious to get a visa to go to Taiwan these days (see, SARS has its up-side). They told me to return for my visa at 2:30, so I took off to kill a few hours downtown. I began with a visit to the Seoul Museum of History. The museum kindly supplied me with a free audio guide to it’s permanent exhibition, which was great but sort of difficult to use. Ideally, one would start with number one and listen to all the explanations in order through number eighty; each comment seemed to build off the last, so listening out of order created some confusion.

The problem was that number 12 would be on one end of the gallery, 13 would be on the other end, and then 14 would be somewhere in the middle. I was running from one end to the other, and several times had trouble locating the exhibit that went with the guide. I never actually found most of the 60s, though I swear I went all the way through that gallery. When I started to get frustrated with the guide, I changed the language to Chinese thinking that I could at least make it into a bit of Listening Comprehension Practice, but every time I changed it a handful of guards would helpfully rush over to put it back into English, thinking I had accidentally hit the wrong button and didn’t know how to fix it. Being unable to explain myself in Korean (and I figured a heartfelt “darling!” wouldn’t quite cut it), I eventually gave up on the audio guide altogether.

After the museum I went back to Insadon for lunch and shopping. On Kailang’s recommendation, I looked for a place serving traditional Korean cold noodles. Because I couldn’t read the menu, my helpful waiter brought me outside to point at one of the pictures of noodles posted near the door of the restaurant as an advertisement (this is, incidentally, the same method to order food I used early in my Tokyo trip, but in Tokyo, there are not simply pictures of the dishes, but life-size wax models of all your options in a display case). After they served me, everyone in the restaurant watched me eat with a fair amount of concern. Korean food is generally very, very spicy – liberal amounts of red pepper paste in everything – and these noodles were no exception. Lacking other options, I smiled a lot and gave the room a few “thumbs up” signs, but that didn’t stop me from being thankful when my waiter supplied me with a full jug of water (everyone else was content with a glass).

Korea is known for its hand-made paper (China, of course, is known for writing on it and Japan for folding it, which makes for a rather nice division of labor between the three oldest cultures of East Asia), so I went into a shop in Isadong to buy some to take back with me. When I went in, the shop owner was practicing his calligraphy. He chatted at me quite a bit in Korean, perfectly aware that I didn’t understand him, and then pulled out two sheets of the paper I had just purchased from him (at a whopping US ten cents a page) and painted the word “love,” a short couplet, and his name in Chinese on one page, and the same thing in Korean on the second page. He stamped his seal (or chop, a signature system used in both China and Korea) on each page and handed them to me along with a booklet about an art exhibition in Seoul last year. Opening the booklet, I found his picture and noticed that his calligraphy had been a part of the display. I tried to thank him, but again, could not come up with the word at the time without whipping out my cheat sheet, so I settled for English, broad grins, and a few deep bows. Essentially, by Friday afternoon I wanted to move to Seoul and take up Korean.

Saturday Lancelot joined me for a venture through the War Memorial of Korea (actually a pretty fabulous museum dedicated to Koreans at War from the stone age to the present), where I got engrossed in the history of the Korean War and Lancelot did battle on the war experience simulators. In the afternoon I went over to Jaeeun’s apartment to meet her husband and look at her wedding photos and video (she just got married last year). She had both a “western style” ceremony and a traditional Korean one, so I was fascinated by all the traditions (Jaeeun noted that her clearest memory of the day was the exhaustion that came after an hour of kowtowing to members of her husband’s family in her heavy hanbok; she complained that he has way too many relatives). Watching the tape of the ceremony, Jaeeun lamented that she smiled too much – a bride who smiles is believed to bear only daughters, which in Confucian East Asia is a curse indeed, but as she noted (with a sigh), she was so happy she couldn’t help herself.

One interesting variation on a tradition familiar to us is the bouquet toss. By Korean traditions, Jaeeun designated one girl to catch the bouquet and threw it to just that girl alone – a symbolic toss. Then, that girl must get married within six months or risk a cursed marriage when she finally does marry. Jaeeun had, appropriately, picked out a girl that had a steady boyfriend and was about to get engaged, but unfortunately they broke up after the wedding. In order to buy time to find a new potential husband, she had to go catch another bouquet before the six month deadline was up. Then, six months later, she’ll have to go catch another bouquet… and so forth, until she actually gets married. Jaeeun says everyone is aware of the situation and uses their family networks to find weddings she can go to and bouquets for her to catch.

Jaeeun’s husband was adorable – very nice indeed, which was pretty good since they got married 100 days after they met. There wasn’t a matchmaker involved – just mutual friends – but the family is using one to find a wife for her eldest brother (age 34), who has “responsibilities to the family” that it is time he stopped evading. There are reasons many people claim that Korea is not only the most conservative country in Northeast Asia, but also far more Confucian than Confucius’ native land of China.

After meeting the whole family – Jaeeun’s parents came in specially to meet her American Friend – and risking offending everyone by being unable to stay for dinner, I was late again to meet up with Lancelot (did I mention I was sorry?). Saturday evening I joined a group of Lancelot’s fellow teachers and friends for a girl’s night of wine and cheese (Lancelot was not invited, but had plenty of other people to keep him busy) …mmmm, cheese. Around midnight we went dancing at a bar largely populated by American GI’s. There were so many crew cuts, in fact, that aside from the stern-looking Korean men in three piece suits walking around as “security,” it looked like the Mucky Duck bar in Monterey (favorite hang-out of Defense Language Institute marines). Normally I am slightly self conscious on the dance floor – and I’m afraid I don’t go often enough to shake this – but there is a certain lack of inhibitions that comes with the knowledge that you are leaving the country the next day. Essentially, I had way too much fun and got too little sleep, so when I got back here I was forced to skip part of class this morning in an effort to delay a test I had little prepared for.

So, now I’m back in plague-country, and have about exhausted the amount of time I can stand to wear a surgical mask in one sitting, so I’m off to do all the studying I’ve ignored for the last week. Tomorrow I’m going to try to break my previous records for the Greatest Number of Times I Have Had My Temperature Taken in One Day. See, the thrills are endless.

Copyright 2004 by Meredith Oyen

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