Random Notes from Seoul, Korea
Kate and I recently taught at a Balboa weekend in Korea, and with our event’s host, were able to dive into–uh, cannonball haphazardly into would probably be more accurate–Korean culture a little before we left. Photos by Kate Hedin.
I have recently taken to reading the Wikipedia articles on the cities we’re traveling to, if only to make me more annoying to our host. Here are a few of the random facts I picked up from Wikipedia’s articles on South Korea and Seoul:
1. The educational system in Korea is one of the best in the world. By a Worldwide Study of Very Specific Educational Facts, Korean students were first in the world in Problem-Solving, which means, ideally, that they can easily become second in anything else they want.
2. Half the Korean population has “no religious preference.” Of the rest, most are Christian or Buddhist.
3. The strategy computer game Starcraft is so popular in South Korea that it is more or less a sport, broadcast on television, with video gamers becoming celebrities and endorsing sport drinks. BTW, Seoul is one of the most “wired” places on earth. And 90% of South Koreans have a cell phone.
4. The greater Seoul capital area has over 24.5 million residents. This isn’t surprising once you look out of the North Seoul Tower, which is at the top of the mountain in the middle of the city.
5. Korea is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries–more than 99% of it’s population is Korean.
6. South Korea, what with being next door to the DMZ and a rather hostile neighbor, still has mandatory draft for all males. It was strange to look at our class of students and realize ALL of the leaders had been through military service of some sort.
The first thing I noticed about Korea is how nice everyone is dressed. Almost everyone I saw, in work or leisure clothes. The women wore well-fitted and often form-fitting garments that were very modest in terms of coverage. If a man had a suit, it looked tailor-made. This is probably because tailors in Korea can make a great suit for $300, which is at least $500 cheaper than a designer Western suit that would look as good. Even those sporting the mismatched hipster USA fashion pull it off with being not much of an eye-sore.
Everyone cared about the way they looked in Korea, and I mean that as a compliment. For me personally, it was oddly refreshing to see that everyone matched, in the way that an OCD person is probably very calm in a BoConcept store. In fact, it sort of gave Korea a movie-like quality–the way people in your basic action or rom/com movies are often pretty inoffensively dressed. Also, I found my brethren in Korean men, who often spent a few minutes in the bathroom making sure their hair was alright–wetting it, restyling it, taming the beast.
There was also the extreme politeness and shyness that almost everyone shows. Everyone was very welcoming, and had an genuine smile and nod when they understood you, and an emergency back-up smile and nod when they didn’t. But I quickly picked up the differences, and was able to communicate pretty easily with everyone I met. And, getting to know many of the dancers better, I felt secure in how sincere they were in their politeness.
The first day we visited the palace Changdeokgung, one of the few traditional buildings left in Seoul. This is the other strange thing I noticed about Seoul; almost all the buildings were built in post 1960s American styles. This is because, well, Korea had a tough time in the 40s and 50s, and Seoul was rather close to North Korea, where the trouble was coming from. More than 2.5 million people died in the Korean War. After the war, the city had to be rebuilt, and only a few traditional buildings survived (My grandfather flew bombers in the Korean War, making me the second White my family knows of that has ever set foot on Korean soil. Kinda neat feeling, especially since I came in complete peace, to teach swing dancing, something my Grandfather’s generation invented. Kind of a weird, full circle thing, linked to my identity as an American.)
The palace made me feel I could be extremely content living in an ancient Korean palace. Wide open spaces, natural surroundings, very calming rooms next to creeks and naturally air conditioned by breezes and so forth. No clutter around, and lots of gazebos next to ponds.
Every time we go to a tourist destination, I hope that, this time, we won’t run into an obnoxious American who will make me embarrassed for my country. And almost every damn time it happens. The stereotype is that they’re loud, ignorant and entitled, and the loud part is a particularly bad characteristic to have, because it means it only takes one American out of a hundred to call attention to how obnoxious Americans can be. And in an Asian culture of public quietness and politeness, it sticks out like even more of a soar thumb.
For our tour of the palace, we had one American woman who was there with her pregnant daughter and a few other family members, who fit the bill. She had been there before, and apparently they had changed some of the tours since the last time she had come. Long story short, she flipped out in a very loud and passive aggressive way, and it made me long for the days when intruders walking into the secret garden were speared on sight.
In the middle of the secret garden (which was really just a beautiful forest with a few buildings), there was a structure that didn’t have any paint on it, which was the sign of a non-royal establishment. This was apparently where the king would go to see what life was like as an aristocrat. I didn’t understand exactly what that entailed, but I imagine it was about more than living with unpainted walls.
“One thing about Americans, they never try to eat any of our food,” one Korean dancer told me when I asked what stereotypes they had of Americans. At this point I sank slightly in my seat and tried to draw attention away from my fried chicken stick. Before going to Korea I had heard stories about how strange the food was in Korea, but when I got there, I was more surprised by how the restaurant system worked.
We’d be walking down the street, and our host would say “Do you want Chicken, Beef, or Tofu for dinner?” And I would think “Well, we can probably order whichever we want when we get to the restaurant, right?” But that’s not really the way things work in Korea. Each restaurant specializes in a meat, and many of them, in just a few dishes. For instance, we went to Sushi one night, one that only served Tuna. No other fish. Our final meal with the Korean dancers was a place that only served fried chicken in several different sauces, and beer. (I strongly approve of this restaurant.)
Thinking back on it, this is a perfectly logical way for a big city to work. Since there’s no lack of restaurants in a given area, there’s no need for each restaurant to have a large menu. In fact, this is totally the way I work. I don’t go to Chili’s so much as I go to my preferred Fajita dish restaurant. I don’t go to an Indian restaurant so much as I get a hankering for Chicken Tikka Masala (okay, that’s not the best analogy, because I like a whole lot of Indian dishes. But I guess I am usually in the mood for only one at a time).
Kate had done a great job trying many different things, but by the end of the weekend, I had lived off of Bulgogi (Korean BBQ) and had been terrified to find a can of silkworm pupae next to the canned chicken in the grocery store. (Apparently, a common snack. Street vendors sell it, sort of like NY vendors sell candied nuts.) When the last meal came, and they told me to try something flat, rubbery and brown on a plate, and not wanting to offend, I peeled off a piece. Before eating it, I asked what it was, and they said they would tell me afterwards, which I decided was probably best for everyone involved, and I put it in my mouth and chewed.
They then told me the words “fish” and put their hands together in a motion that clearly demonstrated the flattening of an object by heavy machinery. And it was pretty good.
Our flight back to America began with the captain apologizing that the in-flight entertainment system was not working–at least, for economy class. You never know how much you were looking forward to watching a mediocre four-month-old movie until you find out that you can’t, you’ll just have to sit in your cramped seat for 11 hours with nothing to look at but the altitude graphic.
It wouldn’t be as bad if I wasn’t a slightly claustrophobic 6’2” man being forced into a seat obviously designed for people the size of Victorian women. And, I was the middle seat, because somehow, even when I get the window seat, Kate seems to end up in it when I’m not looking. It’s all “could you help me with my bag?” and by the time I cram it into the overhead, she’s asleep against the window, complete with eye covering and blanket.
About three hours into the flight, there was suddenly the definitive sound of a scared, small, yippy-type dog. The dog was scared to death, barking a very shrill, whimpering bark, and this set off a baby crying. The baby crying added even more stress to the yippy dog, which barked more, literally, for HOURS. The very hours that the entire cabin was trying to sleep. I imagine I heard “Please shut your damn dog up” in several languages and people quickly stopped being nice and started yelling at the woman.
I meanwhile, was continuing my fight for the arm rest.** This always happens when I sit next to alpha males, who don’t realize that when it comes to claustrophobic airplane seats, I’m an alpha male who spent years in theater, where personal boundaries are considered a weakness. So, when I fight for an armrest, I don’t mind having my arm against the other guy’s, having my arm hairs tickling his flesh, having him feel how soft my skin is, and otherwise pretending, forearm-wise, that he’s Kate. This usually gets the trick done rather quickly–the guy will go to turn a page of a magazine, and then his arm will noticeably not return, or he’ll be fine just propping an elbow on the side of the arm rest. This time, however, the guy was being stubborn, and we had basically shared the arm rest most of the flight, except when we ate, when still neither of us would give up elbow space. It felt incredibly awkward, sort of like two Pterodactyl’s trying to eat the same carrion, in a civilized manor, despite it having fallen down between some tight boulders.
Throughout most of my career, this sort of flight experience would have completely stressed me out. But, I have since learned a few things. And I successfully got through this flight with little anxiety.
(1) A little bit of status goes a long way. By simply being a premier member of United Airlines, I get economy plus seats, which is, like, five extra inches of leg room. That five inches seems like three feet when you’re 6 foot tall. For long flights, I highly recommend paying a little bit extra for the plus seats.
(2) Be prepared for no flight entertainment. Before each flight, I loaded up my computer laptop, ipod, and DVD case with movies and shows, and brought a book I knew I wanted to read. I made-sure everything was fully charged.
(3) Don’t be afraid to look like an idiot on a flight. I had my giant noise canceling earphones, my wrap around neck pillow, and even brought a large pillow from home.
(4) I was going from one great dancing event and going to another, so, in light of that, how bad can life be?
**–(You see, my shoulders are about the width of an airplane seat, so, when I put my arms down naturally, they fall on the arm rest. To not use the arm rest, I have to pull my elbows into my sides, which isn’t too comfortable, especially for multiple hours. I understand of course, that this guy had a similar problem, though his was weight-influenced. Just pointing this out, so you know there’s layers to my cause.)