The New York Times calls Seoul “one of the top places to go in 2010,” with “glammed-up cafes” and “immaculate art galleries.” Check.
A blogger calls it "a city studded with parks, temples, and palaces.
Plus it has a great transportation system." Check.
Another traveler calls it an “appallingly repetitive sprawl of freeways and Soviet-style concrete apartment buildings, horribly polluted, with no heart or spirit to it.” Check.
Me? I feel like a dyslexic in downtown Los Angeles–same high-glass and steel office buildings, Burger Kings, Starbucks, traffic, pollution, and neon-encrusted signs.
Except the signs have all those black squiggles...
**Across from our hotel is a temple displaying four immense gilded Buddhas.
**The hotel swimming pool is on the roof, but it's only three feet deep. The reason, I'm told, is that many Koreans can’t swim.
**Runners in the park wear surgical masks. There’s always a haze of pollution in the sky. “Yellow sand” or yellow dust blows over from China causing hazardous air pollution along with acid rain.
**Many Koreans wear long sleeves, pants, hats, scarves and even gloves during the summer. They consider fair skin to be very desirable.
Everyone is kind and helpful. Not once do we meet anyone rude or even abrupt. At the hotel, a woman offers to sit with me at breakfast so I won’t feel lonely (Roger is still asleep). A man gets up and offers me his seat on the subway. When we stroll along Cheonggye stream, a man stops to warn us about sudden floods if the light rain we’re having turns into a typhoon.
I’ve researched Korean customs on the internet, and I’m full of ideas about how things are done here. Koreans bow. I shouldn’t try to shake hands. Koreans don’t point. They concentrate on eating, so I shouldn’t make inane conversation. The oldest person is served first. Yada, yada.
None of this turns out to be true.
We’re here for our son Kyle’s wedding to a Korean girl. When we meet our future in-laws for dinner, everyone grabs our hands and pumps them up and down. Have they researched the strange habits of Americans? There’s laughing and joking and no one waits for Roger, who’s the oldest, to start eating.
“Try this. You’ll like it,” says Mrs. Shin in Korean, heaping food on my plate. I am SO not hungry due to jet lag and a churning stomach. Also, I've suddenly forgotten all my Korean.
Mr. Shin shows us how Koreans eat grapes, by sucking out the inside and discarding the skin. I get it right on the first try and everyone cheers–a tiny ego boost. I follow Mr. Shin’s example and wrap the kalbi (beef, not dog!) in a lettuce leaf, promptly dribbling sauce all over my new pants. It’s pretty tasty–but I’m in no mood to eat.
We go back to the hotel and collapse.
**In Kyle’s apartment, the toilet has a control panel with enough buttons to blast off into outer space. Public restrooms are a hole in the floor that people squat over.
**We visit the school where Kyle teaches. The students are still in class though it’s 7:00 at night. There’s a trophy case near the entrance displaying pictures of Oprah and Bill Gates.
**Kyle's Korean friends tell me that Koreans don’t read for pleasure as much as Americans. Video games and computers are favorite activities. Libraries are not widespread and many are more like reading rooms. But it's also true that some large apartment building are establishing book exchanges for the residents.
**There are 530 restaurants in Seoul that specialize in dog meat. Some Koreans believe that if the dog is flayed before it is killed, it will have a better taste.
There are two wedding ceremonies–one is public and one is just for the family. Although Roger and I’ve been a couple for more than twenty-five years, I’m expected to fade into the background. Roger and his ex-wife are the unit now--for the sake of the ceremony. Nobody is happy about this.
What follows seems more like a photo-op than a real wedding. Every few minutes the action stops as the photographer dictates each pose. Jia, the bride, changes her clothes from a western wedding dress, to a red evening gown, to traditional Korean attire.
During the public ceremony, Roger and Mr. Shin give words of advice to the new couple. Then each in turn reads the vows while the bride and groom repeat their lines. The two mothers are in traditional Korean dress--colorful, tent-like garments.
Roger has a couple of minor wardrobe malfunctions and feels awkward. His pants are about to fall. Robin, Roger's ex-wife, whispers to me that she agreed to wear the Korean dress only because they let her choose her particular costume.
Before dinner, I chat with Jia’s uncle, who murders the English language while I do the same to Korean. I admire this man. He learned English in the military and kept it up by watching American news broadcasts.
Koreans address each other using relationship designators, so Kyle can’t tell me his name. He knows the uncle only as Jia’s mother’s brother. Robin is addressed as “Grandmother.”
One of Kyle’s American friends in Korea wants to talk with me about writing. Thankfully, the private ceremony is about to start, so I get away before he asks me to read his manuscript.
At the private ceremony, there are more photos and more advice. Roger and Robin throw Korean chestnuts at the new bride who tries to catch them in her large skirt. The nuts foretell the number of children the new couple will have. Apparently the happy couple will be blessed with three girls and a boy.
**In Korea, families are close. It’s a given that Jia will be calling her family several times a day when she’s on her honeymoon–in Hawaii.
**As Jia and Kyle drive us to dinner, Jia is talking on her cell phone to her friends. She’s intermittently playing some kind of computer game between calls.
**At the wedding, Roger and the other parents walk around and thank everyone for coming. There’s a table of Mr. Shin’s high school friends and another table of Jia’s high school friends. There’s a table of Mr. Shin’s college friends and another table of Jia’s college friends. At least 200 people have brought envelopes stuffed with money.
Jia and Kyle are off on their honeymoon, so the next day we hire a guide and proceed to the DMZ. South Koreans are still really frightened that the North might invade again. There are soldiers with machine guns stationed along the highway and walls filled with explosives set to detonate and delay any advancing force.
We stop in an area that has several monuments to peace. One monument is dedicated to the American soldiers who helped defeat the North (well, technically it’s not a defeat as the war ended with an armistice).
Another monument displays a glass covered board with 86 labeled rocks collected from battlefields from all over the world. The battles represented range from the 480 BC Greek Persian War to the 1991 Gulf War. I find this monument very touching.
We ride up a twisting road to an outlook where we can peer over the border into North Korea. The DMZ is four kilometers in width. All along the road are upside-down red triangles that mark the land mines, planted by Americans to keep the North Koreans from invading once again.
Despite being a demilitarized zone the area is also a "nature reserve." Unique plants and animals, such as the Korean Tiger and the Asiatic black bear, thrive here. I can’t understand why these animals don’t activate the land mines, but our guide says the animals can detect their odor.
We enter a building, lock up our belongings, and put on hard hats. Then we head down a low-roofed tunnel that goes under the DMZ. It was the third of four tunnels discovered in the 1970s and was originally dug by North Koreans to attack the South. Now we’re allowed to walk down the steep grade to a place only 170 meters from the North Korean border. It’s cool in the tunnel, a welcome relief from the hot, sultry weather.
Roger has to crouch down in order to move through the tunnel, and this exhausts him. Up the grade, he’s moving slowly–face beet red and sweating.
**No one knows how many people died during the Korean War. Estimates range from 500,000 to ten million people.
**North and South Korea have been playing games with the flagpoles that mark each side of the border. When the South Koreans raised their flagpole, the North Koreans made theirs higher. After the South Koreans raised theirs even higher, the North Koreans surpassed them again and now have the highest flagpole in the world at 160 meters.
**Many families were split when the division occurred and most Koreans long for reunification. To South Koreans, North Koreans have an “old-fashioned” dialect. North Korean spies who reach the country are rehabilitated and shown the new, modern South Korea, which (I’m told) is a shock to them.
Hangul is the Korean phonetic alphabet, and it’s easy to learn. (Trust me, I’m not linguistically gifted.) I’ve learned enough to order food in restaurants and ask for directions. We’ve used it on the subway–I can read the names of our stops, find the exit, and note the “watch your step” warnings on the stairs. Barely.
Hangul was devised in the mid-15th century by King Se-jong and is now the official script of both North Korea and South Korea. Unlike Chinese which has thousands of characters, Hangul is simple and logical. It was a gift to the common people who could not afford difficult Chinese lessons.
**Koreans have borrowed many English words, such as “banana,” “internet,” “computer,” and “sandwich." The last is pronounced sand-which-ee. English and Korean have many similar sounds, and many English words can be written in Hangul, but others like “tooth” (there’s no “th” sound) can’t be.
**An Indonesian tribe with a population of 60,000 was on the verge of losing its native language because it lacked a writing system. The tribe has now adopted Hangul. Linguists hope this will be a stepping stone that helps spread the Korean alphabet globally.
Our quiet hotel is perfect for us. It has a small kitchen, air conditioning, a washer/dryer, and very comfortable beds. The elevator system is byzantine--individual elevators stop at some floors but not others. And the coffee machine in the breakfast room can produce either 1/2 cup of coffee or 2 cups of coffee--but not one cup.
There’s a sandwich shop downstairs and a German restaurant next door. We can walk to Gyeongbok Palace and to Insadong, a block away.
The Insadong district is noted for its shops, restaurants, tea houses, and galleries, which feature artists who are surprisingly good for a tourist area. I might buy a painting here if I didn’t have to haul it home or trust a merchant to mail it. I buy a few souvenirs, but I don’t remember until the end of the day that I’m supposed to bargain.
“Eulmayeyo..?” I ask. “How much is that scarf?”
“Twelve thousand won.”
“Will you take ten?”
“Eleven,” says the man. Roger gives me a high five.
**In the time I've been here, I've almost never seen an overweight Korean--none who are obese.
**I’m in love with the handmade paper. It comes in woody or smooth textures and a rusty rainbow of inky blues, mottled browns, and muted pastels.
**We sit and have a cup of tea–plum and lemon. Delicious. Western food, on the other hand, is expensive and not very good. The food at the German restaurant is glorified Denny’s fare.
**We stroll around the Gyeongbok Palace grounds. Wave after wave of cricket cacophony washes over us. It’s peaceful, green, and lovely.