It's difficult to drink apple juice out of a can when one is being shaken like dice in a cup. The first hour or so out of Detroit wasn't wholly smooth, and I wondered if I would be able to sleep at all.
Several of the movies I'd wanted to see in theaters and somehow never found time for were available as in-flight movies: I watched the Coen brothers' Hail Caesar and the latest James Bond outing, Specter. I also liked the Korean film Violent Prosecutor. Three good films at one go! On this rescheduled flight, I was relocated to the middle seats, on the left aisle. The only other person on my row was a young military man on the other aisle, leaving two empty seats between us. What a Godsend! We each had room to relax, and I was able to lean over on my computer knapsack to doze for several hours.
About an hour before we landed in Seoul, another young military fellow (engrossed in a video game of some sort) who was sitting on the aisle opposite me let me step over him and his baggage to sit by the window. I kept consulting the digital map on the seat back screen, but I think I could have determined our location by what I saw from 30,000 feet.
Ribbons of reflective oil extended from the Chinese coast, and clouds collected over treeless flat street-ribbed islands. A toy ship with a thin line of smoke trailing from its stack steamed towards the mainland. Out above the gulf, the giant wing of the plane wobbled in the clear air, and tiny airliners zipped thousands of feet below us at 1000 mph (relative to our speed) in the opposite direction. White cat fur clouds clumped on the blue carpet of the sea. We descended, and I could see more splinter-sized boats, their reflective wakes curved like fingernail clippings. As we took a deep turn for Incheon, the shadow of our plane appeared below on the water.
Most people had their window blinds drawn—only one other shade was up, on the opposite side of the plane. It was dark and cool inside, the plane ten seats across in coach. I pressed my forehead to the plexiglass, absorbing the rattle and roar of the engines and the bright blue and white of the outdoors. Twenty minutes before touchdown, we banked right, and I knew Korea was ahead of us. Our shadow grew and slowed. A tiny, bald island appeared, then a larger one, with broad beaches and mountains. Then another mountainous island, still bigger, forested and farmed. The water was
teal colored. The buildings on the islands were roofed in green and red and blue. Suddenly, we were over the shore, the edge marked by huge factory towers and white windmills, their trios of blades spinning lazily. A child who had been silent all trip started crying, probably awakened from sleep by the changing air pressure. Below were acres of greenhouses. A golf course. Forests. Mountains. And hundreds more greenhouses—I’d never seen so many! Neat fields, and more blue, green and red rooftops.
Incheon airport was the most modern, clean and efficient I’ve ever visited, all glass and steel. It's enormous, and they are in the process of constructing another gargantuan terminal. We were through customs in a matter of minutes with digital scans of my index fingers and an unflattering photograph. At the baggage claim a polite uniformed airport employee assured us individually (in English and Korean) that our luggage would be unloaded momentarily—which again, was in a matter of minutes. Giant HDTV screens in the center of the carousel showed pretty Hallyu stars advertising various products. Ellie met me right outside the claim area, and I exchanged cash at the kiosk. She took me through a cathedral-like atrium to find the metro ticketing machines. i observed that people simply left their luggage parked outside airport restaurants, not fearing that it would be snatched. One of the shops sold metro cards, and soon we were on our way through Seoul and on out to the village where Ellie was staying.
On the pristine metro, the steel doors and escalators were decorated with an assortment of pretty etched patterns. The cars were lined with seats, with most standing passengers clutching short handled hanging straps. The package rack above the seats was actually used for packages. The only raised voices in the system were the few sellers of small items that boarded and hawked their wares. Everybody else seemed locked into a meditative state. Ellie told me that no one laughs out loud in public, nor do most people talk audibly on their phones, preferring instead to text silently, play games or watch dramas while riding—a whole host of people glued to their electronic devices. As in Russia, no one makes eye contact, and the only noises besides the soft exclaiming of the recorded female voice announcing the next stop in Korean and American English (and, irregularly, in Japanese or Chinese--metro stops were also announced visually on digital signs) was a whisper of quiet conversation and a sniff, cough, or sneeze, to which no one responded. It was like a cat sanctuary—every occupant studiously ignored the presence of every other, conscious that they themselves were well groomed.
Everyone wore properly fitting trousers or skirts, most had sensible shoes, no one with flashy jewelry or bright colors. Relentlessly conventional seemed the common sartorial motif. The only ripped trousers were artfully slashed jeans. Everyone's backpacks were positioned correctly, shoes neatly laced. Hair was combed and clipped, particularly that of the occasional young soldier in camouflage (all males are required to serve two years in the military). It was a preppy atmosphere. There was no aroma of body odor whatsoever, and I saw many younger people wearing braces on their teeth, but only two tattoos. In the entire period I was in Korea, I would see only one case of multiple ear piercing, on a middle-aged man who in bright red pants and matching glasses with shiny alligator shoes. He stood out from the crowd.
Except for in downtown Seoul, the trains ran above ground, and I was busy staring out the gently green-tinted windows. Ellie told me that “yellow dust” from China was blamed for the city's smog. Advertising signs were everywhere. Foreigners were not. If my peculiarly Caucasian face was being stared at, it was too subtle to notice, outside my peripheral vision. Highrises paraded along the Han River, filling up the valleys with tall white columns. A paved bike path ran the entire length of the Han. Every unbuilt and unforested square inch of space was used as a garden, and trees covered the rock-ledged mountains.
We changed trains several times, guided by an app on Ellie’s phone that told us precisely which door on the trains to use in order to position ourselves properly for a quick transfer at the next station. Everything in the stations was handicapped accessible. Even the stairs in older stations had been retrofitted with wheelchair lifts, and textured rubber matting had been installed to guide the visually impaired. All the elevators worked. There was no graffiti. I would eventually see three blind people navigating the metro maze with canes (one was a uniformed student carrying a musical instrument case), and watch several deaf people signing on trains. The stations were full of clothing and coffee shops, all of which took credit cards—many would be shuttered the following week for the Thanksgiving celebration of Chuseok. Every stop had a mirror where people could check their appearance (women frequently touched up their makeup at such points, but almost practically everywhere else)—in Ellie’s town, the big wood-framed cheval glass was sponsored by the local interdenominational divinity school.
Ellie’s village was an hour from Seoul, on the river. Her four-story apartment building stood near a small grocery store and a 7-11, and the single room, which she was subletting while the regular occupant is away for several months, measured approximately 10x10. The washing machine and the heating/ac unit sat opposite ends of the 3x10 enclosed porch, and the relatively spacious bathroom was approximately 3x6. Cozy, with a single eye on the stove in the kitchenette, and a cabinet for shoes next to the door that doubled as a small pantry. In the garden of the house next door, an obstreperous little dog lunged on a chain underneath a fruit-laden grape trellis, wearing a gully into the dirt with his claws as he barked warnings at every passerby.
After plying me with melatonin (a practice she discontinued after the third night), poor Ellie had to listen to me narrate all my dreams. The first night I woke myself up pleading, “No, Mums, please don’t send my cat to Japan!”
Saturday, the two of us went in to Seoul, where we walked around the Buckchon Hankok Village neighborhood, where a bunch of Joseon-era tile-roofed houses are preserved (many still private dwellings), and then took a free tour of the area. We ended up in a shopping district, where I bought an apron embroidered with cats, and we providentially got a just-vacated table at a popular restaurant, where we ate delicious fried pork cutlets along with the usual side dishes of kimchi, pickled radishes, and other assorted piquant concoctions. Prices include tax and tip, which makes splitting the bill awfully easy. The traditional metal chopsticks weren’t as stiletto-skinny as I’d been led to believe, so I was able to eat properly and not embarrass myself.
Sunday we returned to Seoul with a divinity student friend of Ellie’s, this time to the popular Gangnam area, which because of its reputation for good cram schools, has extremely high rental costs. We went to a Presbyterian church’s English service, a floor below the main sanctuary, and then took an elevator up six floors to the church cafeteria, where ladies were dispensing industrial quantities of soup and rice to a packed hall of parishioners who were eating at long lines of tables. Ellie and I changed into the trousers and tshirts we had brought with us and set out for Bukhansan National Park, a small mountain range where we planned to hike. It took longer than expected via public transportation to get to the park, and most of the local hikers—all nattily kitted out in brand-named hiking gear, looking like models from REI and LL Bean catalogs—were coming down the slopes as we set off into the woods. The trails were well-marked, and many featured stairs constructed over steep stretches of bare rock. As we went up the mountain to stop next to the bell house of a brightly-painted Buddhist monastery, I felt increasing sympathy for the hundreds of thousands of Koreans and Americans who had had to fight on similar, unimproved terrain. It was tropically humid, and carrying more than the small water pack I wore would have been torture. A grey-garbed monk was ringing another enormous bronze bell as we walked down the mountain in the twilight; he struck the embossed side of the immobile instrument with a wooden ram, and it clanged discordantly. A flock of orange and white cats roamed at the bottom of the trail, and the many brand-named outdoor equipment shops in the village below were now closed—all displayed huge posters or cardboard cutouts of particular Kdrama stars wearing their parkas and boots. We ate supper at chicken and beer (we had Coke) restaurant and then rode the bus back to the metro, where we picked up our church clothes from a rental locker where we’d stashed them.
Ellie was tired the next day from my repeated somnolent soliloquizing, and so we stayed in and watched Kdramas, then walked via the bike path to a nearby hole-in-the-wall eatery which served fried tuna patties. I had no idea one of my favorite childhood meals was traditionally Korean—they tasted very similar to my mother’s, although hers were less greasy, and she didn’t serve them with radish kimchi, only ketchup. Most Korean restaurants don’t do take away for dine-in customers (many if not all regular and fast-food restaurants regularly deliver, even McDonalds), but we were happy to find that this place anticipated our not being able to consume the huge stack of patties they served us, and bagged the leftovers for us to take home. Most Korean meal portions are sized and priced to be shared between two or more. There were sorghum plants on the verge of the parking lot outside, and fishing shacks sat along the river that Ellie explained can’t be newly-built—legislation now prohibits construction within a certain distance of the water’s edge—but have been grandfathered in as the legacy of generations. Out on the river, water skiers were being pulled by rental speedboats.
Afterwards, Ellie and I went to a curiously angular coffee shop (owned by a funny world-travelling photographer who mistook me for every other white American he'd ever met, greeting me with a cheerful “nice to see you again”) to meet some folks she knew from the divinity school. One, a middle-aged former missionary to Nigeria, told me that after the Korean War, the whole country was denuded of trees—either torn down by battle or cut down by civilians desperate for fuel. In evidence of good forward-thinking, in the 1950s the government sent out platoons of students to plant trees, which restored the devastated forests of the peninsula. I had a major hot flash while we were talking, and would have doused myself in ice water if it had been available, but I was sipping a tall glass of freshly made golden kiwi juice, and that would just have made me sticky.
The ex-missionary told me that while Koreans may seem German in many respects, their church services tend towards the charismatic. Furthermore, there are more than 100 types of Presbyterianism in the ROK—churches split all the time. Confucian values have transferred into Christian practice, with the scholars at the top of the social hierarchy, which has contributed to a phenomenon of well-paid, but dictatorial senior pastors. This has also affected the appeal of nondenominationalism—if a divinity school, for instance, isn’t affiliated with a particular church, it has difficulty finding funding.
While I was lying on my air mattress that evening, mulling the day, the clothes on the drying rack between Ellie and me began to sway gently. The sensation from the earthquake was a pleasant rumbling, given I was comfortably supine on the floor (rather than standing next to breakables). A second, stronger earthquake shook the building half an hour later, but there wasn’t any
subsequent trembling. This was good, because I didn’t know where my anti-nausea wristbands, which I had worn on the plane, were in my suitcase. Despite its most recent nuclear machinations, North Korea wasn’t to blame; the tremors were emanating from around Busan.
The next day, Ellie had to teach, but I went off on my own, sans metro app (it was only available on Android) to find the Korean Folk Village, which some American friends had recommended. The bike path was less traveled than it had been on the weekend, when dozens of cyclists had whipped around the curves in tight pelotons. Is there an unspoken rule in Korea that one’s activities must be clothes-obvious? The bikers were all dressed as bikers (jerseys, spandex shorts, and helmets), just as the hikers had been togged out as hikers (in full mountaineering kit, wearing high-tech backpacks, boots, sporty active jackets, and sweat-wicking trousers, and carrying treking poles, like they intended to scale Everest), and the businessmen were wearing ties and the adjummas were clad comfortably frumpy. When I walked by the minihouse construction site (you can buy prefabricated tiny houses in Korea!) a middle aged employee unzipped his trousers and proceeded to pee off the side of the hill—apparently guys do this everywhere. Must be convenient. But there were restrooms all over the place, and without exception, every one was stocked with toilet paper and soap, which I consider a mark of high civilization. I joined a handful of locals waiting for the train on the open platform, where I sat and listened to a chorus of enthusiastic roosters from the surrounding gardens. The profound humidity had finally broken. A KoRail train of oil cars rushed past us toward the city. Minutes later, a short musical fanfare indicated the arrival of the passenger train.
On the car, where I was relieved to find a seat (being that far out in the country has its perks), a jolly tune on a traditional instrument announced upcoming transfer stations. At the end of each car was an area reserved for the aged, infirm, or pregnant, but if those seats were occupied, people in those conditions had no expectation of seating. Hale and hearty young men remained engrossed in their smartphones while older women stood. Ellie later explained to me that offering one’s seat to and holding a door for someone isn’t done in Korea, because it is perceived to create an obligation on the part of the recipient. Some people were wearing surgical masks—an increasing number had started to cough and sniff. (I kept having to catch myself from saying "bless you" every time someone near me sneezed.) Some of the bikers on the path also had worn masks or bandannas over their faces; the bankrobber-bandanna-with-sunglasses look is more than a little creepy when viewed at velocity—a faceless figure rockets toward you, and it’s hard to merely step out of his right of way and not to run screaming. There were three beggars, at separate points, on the train—the first of the remarkably few I was to see in the city. The first two were dirty middle-aged men carrying hats. Each looked to be suffering from alcohol abuse. One sang an old song, but I didn’t see anyone giving him or the other money. Later, another chanting beggar boarded, this guy a younger man missing most of his fingers, who seemed more professional than the drunks. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed another young man seemed to slip him a bill.
Getting to the Folk Village was an odyssey. It turned out to be clear on the other side of Seoul, and although I changed trains without incident, it took hours to travel the distance. And at the final station I couldn’t find the exit which the website had recommended—it was as if that number didn’t exist. I walked in and out of several other exits and stopped at an upmarket boulangerie for some fresh pastry before I eventually spotted a young couple from another Asian country who looked vaguely confused, and followed them to the correct bus. The bus was a regular city bus, and it paused at every possible point before it finally turned in to the village parking lot. This gave me an impromptu tour of that part of Seoul, which appeared to be an area into which foreigners seldom venture. It wasn’t as gentrified as the tourist sections, but chaotic and colorful with thousands of people in the middle of ordinary life—women climbed on the bus carrying shopping bags redolent of fish and soybean paste, there were tiny restaurants and businesses everywhere along the streets, all bearing large signs, stacked on top of one another—is there anyone in Seoul that doesn’t own a business of some sort?!—creating a messy, busy shopping district jammed with traffic and noise. Stores were dedicated to electronics and hanboks (for both adults and children) and street clothes and vegetables and everything else. There were battered older twentieth-century two-story structures and shiny new taller twenty-first century construction (mostly medical centers) on tiny plots of land. Gas stations sat near auto-repair shops, half-finished highways lunged up, and new posh apartment buildings were gradually replacing older dilapidated dwellings.
The traditional village—to which many of the houses had been imported from their original locations—reminded me a lot of an American “medieval renaissance faire.” The landscaping wasn't dissimilar from the Maryland Faire, with leafy trees fluttering above the streets and old-fashioned houses and people in traditional costume and games for the kids. The historical depth wasn't great—about the level to be expected at a jousting match or archery demonstration. There were few visitors at the village (probably because of the impending holiday) and fewer costumed staff, who were mostly engaged in cleaning or weeding the garden patches. The colorfully clad "magistrate" was sitting in his seat of office on a dias above replicas of traditional interrogation devices and texting on his phone. It would have been interesting to know the history of each house, how much of it was original, how it was disassembled and reconstructed. The wooden beams in them were awesome—hand cut from huge ancient trees. It would also have been interesting to learn what sort of wood was used. Too, how often did thatch have to be replaced? Was there a particular manufacturer of the aristocrats’ decorative roof tiles, or like southern American plantations and their bricks, were these all usually manufactured on site? And there was one persistent puzzle: I was awed by the sizes of the earthenware fermentation jars which sat by every house (from peasant to lord, there doesn’t seem to have been that much fundamental difference in diet or the basic layout of accommodation—the dwellings for those higher up the social scale were just bigger and somewhat finer in construction materials). These jars were too large for a single person to throw--many reached my chest. Were they coil built? How were they fired? Were they imported? They looked like rough domestic ware, certainly far removed from the fine porcelains of China. Although the village usually featured small demonstrations of crafts from metalworking to silk-spinning, pottery making wasn’t among them.
There were signs at intervals in the village listing (in Korean) what Kdramas had been filmed on site. I got my picture taken with a cardboard cutout of the four friends from Sungkyunkwan Scandal (which I liked a lot, despite the fact that one of the lead actors has since proven himself to possess the sexual hubris of many others in his profession). One large circular clearing was dedicated to a display about locally-filmed dramas: gilded casts of the actors’ hands filled two cases, there were examples of costumes, and a set of cutouts and then huge reproductions of posters from famous shows recorded at least partly on site curved around the circumference. Yes, I recognized almost every drama. I hope that I don’t experience the Chicago problem henceforth: I may be failing in all other mental areas, but I have an almost photographic memory for places and objects, and so didn’t much enjoy the Batman movies filmed in Chicago after my visit to that city, as the director played fast and loose with the geography, relocating bridges I knew well and creating a tossed salad of the downtown layout.
Throughout the village there was no mention of slavery or the feudal system, though there was a folkways museum with elderly animatronics and minimal English captions which discussed varieties of kimchi, the multiple festivals which dotted the lunar calendar, the communal building and communal farming practiced by the peasantry, and the worship of ancestors as a key part of life. Domestic cooking and the innovative Korean floor-heating systems were depicted as relatively static, with everybody having an identical buried iron cookpot. Truly? Who made these pots? How often did they need replacement? How much did they cost? On the porch of one house was a small display about the woven straw shoes of the peasantry--how often did they wear out? And who made those impressive black scholarly hats, and how did their shapes evolve? What jewelry makers were there? Were there cobblers who traveled as in frontier America, or did they live in particular communities? Since last year, the traditional stepping-stone bridge across the village's small river has been closed for safety reasons—I guess they got tired of clumsy tourists falling on the rocks or into the water and threatening to sue. Besides cooped chickens, a lonely cow with a large wooden ring in its nose and a pungent and anti-social donkey in a pen, there were two depressed looking dogs (examples of native Korean canines) were chained in a small concrete enclosure, where they had relieved themselves. On the other side of the folkways museum was a courtyard with a collection of more than a hundred fermentation jars, all tagged with their contents and thankfully capped with modern tops, which minimized the pungent aroma. I didn't eat at the food court, though I'm sure they had some tasty offerings--I was happy with my previously-purchased pastry.
I had found there was a free shuttle from the village to a much closer metro station, but I missed it. Meanwhile, my phone charge had dropped to 7%, which was certainly not enough to get home. So I wandered along the road until I spotted a café with an open electric outlet and stopped in to buy a tiny bottle of apple juice for $4 (and juice up my electronics). Then I found a bus stop and started homeward. Which trip took even longer than the outbound journey, because I found myself on the wrong train, twice. The first time, a nice Korean infantry officer who had been to Fort Benning and visited Atlanta got me turned back in the proper direction—he told me all about his trip with his wife and daughter to New Zealand), and the second time I accidentally boarded an express train for the end of my metro line, so a sweet family at the station got the local officer to point me to the platform for the all-stops train heading back in the opposite direction. I was dead tired by the time I got home, and so infinitely grateful that I’d had a chance to recharge my phone, as by that time in the evening, Ellie had begun to message me, asking where I was!