There’s a stereotype in the West that all Koreans are short, and a contrary(ish) presumption among Kdrama watchers that almost all Koreans are dazzlingly handsome. Neither of these ideas were borne out by my personal observation. Plenty of Koreans were taller than me—admittedly few were extraordinarily tall (6’4”+), and these had to duck on the metro cars to avoid hitting their heads (nothing like proper nutrition to promote stature—North Koreans are estimated to be on average a full three inches shorter than their southern counterparts!) Appearance-wise I saw plenty of ordinary people, some that were quite attractive, and few that were dazzling—the same distribution of beauty as everywhere else on earth. However, it is true that most Koreans tended to be trim (as I used to be before I reached 40—some of the photos that Ellie took of me touring and hiking this trip, particularly when I am pictured next to locals, highlight the great width of my hips. And they aren't even childbearing hips!). Tuesday evening I was sitting on a crowded metro car, having adopted my “Russian train face,” unfocused, mostly staring at the ground except for the occasional flick of the eyes around the car when we stopped at a station, and a fat white guy got on the train. I knew his ethnicity without looking above knee level. What is wrong with Americans?! Korean men are so fit. Even this fellow's ankles were fat. I could tell although he was wearing jeans, from the way his tennis shoes bulged. God forbid I gain any more weight. Some Kdrama stereotypes held true. The "couple tee" exists! There were indeed pairs of young Koreans walking around hand in hand wearing matching his and hers outfits. And so many people are wearing what Westerners would think were wedding bands, but which were actually couple rings, indicating a romantic relationship if not a legal one. I had been forewarned about the popularity of short skirts and shorts (plunging necklines are frowned upon, but lots of leg exposure is OK). My ankle-length dress with a scooped neck was apparently risqué.
Wednesday Ellie and I went into Seoul to meet Portia, who was flying in from Jeju Island. Seoul Station, the central train depot, was overwhelmed with people. Standing outside the building the day before Chuseok felt like the incarnation of a Youtube comment I saw on a Psy concert video—“That's a hell of a lot of Koreans!” There were thousands of people streaming in and out of the station, families and individuals traveling for the holiday: grandmothers with tote bags full of kimchi and side dishes, young families with luggage and toddlers, recruits in camouflage and black berets on holiday leave from serving their mandatory military service. Hundreds of the men made a beeline for the smoking shelter outside. Many travelers were carrying satin fabric-swaddled packages of fruits and other edible gifts. We finally met Portia, found a locker for her luggage (there were
hundreds, but most had been rented) and repaired to a coffee shop across the road, passing a cluster of about 20 homeless men, all swarthy from sunburn and filthy, who were lying on newspapers and or playing Go-Stop in a circle. A steady stream of taxis and buses whisked people away from the station.
We stopped at Sungnyemun Gate, one of the four surviving portals of the old walled city (and designated the ROK’s “National Treasure #1”), before wending our way into Namdaemun Market, where many foreign visitors to Seoul go to shop. Maybe it was once a bargain fashion hub, but not any longer, so far as I observed. The narrow, winding streets featured everything from placenta cream (and “Aesthetic Squid” hair dye) to furs, most items grossly overpriced—$250 for a mink scarf?! $10 for a placemat? $8 for a hand fan exactly like those I bought on eBay from China for $1 each including shipping?! We did meet some nice girls in hijab from Malaysia shopping—they had only arrived in Seoul hours before. Their voluble leader was visiting Korea for the fourth time; she was a confessed Kdrama lover whose English was superb. After we’d determined there were no great deals to be had, we decided to go to Namsan Tower, but first we needed to eat. We found a hole-in-the-wall place that advertised dumplings (pot stickers), and the aproned male cook waved us down a narrow hall through the steaming kitchen to a small pinewood-paneled windowless dining room which looked (and felt, a bit) like a sauna. We got odd looks from our fellow diners, all locals—it’s possible we were the first non-Koreans to find our way into the hidden room. The dumplings were delicious,
served in round bamboo steamer baskets. As always, water was free.
We took the metro to near Namsan Tower, riding the small funicular up to the level of the cable car terminus. On that small parking plateau, which was packed with cars, we found the lengthy queue for the cable car, and though it was moving quickly, we looked at the prices and decided that we could forego that particular touristy experience. Instead, we decided to take a bus up to the Tower, but later—first we were meeting some of Ellie’s friends--a Korean girl and her Midwestern American boyfriend--for coffee.
Once caffeinated (Ellie pointed out that a girl was not only doing her makeup at the café, she had a roller in her bangs!--evidence of her claim that Korean women don't mind doing their makeup in public), we went with Ellie’s friends to Insadong, because she needed to get gifts. As Portia and I perched on pillars on a street corner, waiting for our companions to finish souvenir shopping, a tiny child walked with his mother, who encouraged him to greet us, so he bowed formally from the waist and said “Anyohosayo“ (“hello”). It was adorable. I wanted to pick him up and squeeze him. Incidentally, I think that Koreans developed the "thou shalt not touch the head" cultural prohibition because so many of the men have thick, fluffy hair that just begs to be patted and caressed. Gosh. If I had a Korean boyfriend, there is no way I could keep my hands off his hair.
Down the street, which was thronged with people and lined with shops and vendors of food and souvenirs, a young man was flinging little gyroscopic helicopters into the air. They flashed lights as they whirled down to street level, narrowly missing the heads of unsuspecting pedestrians. Further on, there was a man demonstrating traditional Chinese writing, doing calligraphy with a black inked brush on thin white paper and giving it, free, to spectators after stamping it in red ink with his seal. I’d wanted to have my own unique seal for decades (I blame the romantic image of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s distinctive ring, ancient inscriptions on clay, and of course, Asian art), and when we came upon a seal shop selling multiple sizes and styles in wood and stone, I knew the opportunity had arrived. I settled on a middle-range black jade square and drew my copyrighted
symbol, along with my English initials. The Korean girl with us remarked that, in mirror image (as engraved into the stone), together my symbol and initials formed the Korean word for "freedom." Cool, eh? Wholly circumstantial. While my seal was being cut back at the seal shop, we watched the street calligrapher, and when he asked for someone who wanted the painting of the character for “Love,” I stepped forward. The ink was wet, but I carefully carried the roll of paper with me so it wouldn’t get mussed.
Portia and Ellie also got characters representing other virtues.
We window-shopped, winding up the levels of a boutique mall to the roof, where courting couples could hang little plaques testifying to their mutual devotion. Near the top of the building was a peculiar restaurant—the Poop Café, where the dishes (spaghetti and meatballs, etc.) were all served in toilet-bowl shaped dishes. There was a giant brown velvet stuffed plushy of poop on a table inside. I thought about getting my mother a toilet-bowl coffee mug, but they were unwieldy, probably not microwave safe, and 35,000 KRW (about $35).
More appetizing was the traditional candy that Portia and I watched being made at a shop fronting the street—a man fashioned a “donut” of honey and rice flour, then stretched it into ribbons, doubling and redoubling it, plunging it in a vat of what looked like confectioner’s sugar (fine starch), after each pull. With each doubling, he and his partner chanted the produced number of strands in Korean and English; they reached the thousands in seconds, as the process created a thick skein of white silk-thin strands. The other then grasped this hank of threads from the first man’s gloved hands, spread it over an indented tray, and spooned a finely chopped concoction of seven nuts into the valleys, encasing them in the starched filament. It was fascinating to watch. I wonder if a similar, less starchy result can be achieved with confectioner's sugar, perhaps cut with rice flour? The theatrical appeal of the process cannot be underestimated as a selling point (those guys could probably have done it in their sleep)—and this would be an interesting alternative to fudge candy at an American tourist venue.
We parted from Ellie’s friends and took the metro back to a downtown spot where we could catch a bus to Namsan. As we rode Bus
5 along the skyscraper-lined boulevard, somebody must have called 119 (the fire emergency number in Korea)--five big red trucks screamed by us, sirens wailing. They were followed shortly thereafter by two more from other directions, which implied it must be a bad blaze indeed. Several were ladder trucks, one with mattresses for inflation to catch jumpers.
It was late when we arrived near the top of the mountain, downhill from the tower, which was lit up in green and white. The paved slope to the base of the building was steep, and we were happy (especially given Portia’s sore feet) that we hadn’t tried to hike up the whole mountain. There were tens of thousands of padlocks bolted to the railing around the lower (free) observation platform—layers upon layers, the older ones profoundly rusted, all inscribed with names of lovers who wanted to symbolize their eternal fidelity. The view all around the mountaintop was beautiful, lights twinkling as far as the eye
could see in all directions, the river a dark ribbon.
Thursday was Chuseok, but Ellie was determined that we would find Portia the clothes (and particularly the shoes), that she needed. We metroed to Itaewon, a popular shopping district, but much to our chagrin (but not to my surprise) most of the stores and many of the restaurants were closed for the holiday, with the exception of the Turkish ones. Around noon, since my companions wanted Western fare, we found a nice Canadian restaurant that offered hamburgers. An NFL Jets/Bengals game was being broadcast on a wall of screens, and hockey numbers hung around the edge of the ceiling. An American Army ranger was sharing a table with a fellow camo-clad service member. And a whole multigenerational Korean family was across the restaurant, eating their Chuseok meal away from home. Unfortunately, most of the restaurant’s employees were gone for the holiday, and we were the leaders of a huge rush of people, foreign and local, who flooded the place for lunch. My smoothie was served quickly, but I had to wait almost two hours for my burger. The manager apologized and gave us our meal for 70% off.
I was tired of fruitless shopping, Ellie was coming down with a cold. So she decided to go home to rest on condition that Portia and I seek out a shoe shop said to be located near a metro stop on our way home. Having sworn that we would do our best to find the elusive arch-supporting sneakers before bedtime, Portia and I went to Gyeongbokgung Palace (the oldest in the Joseon Dynasty), where admission was free because of the holiday.
First we skimmed through the first level of the neighboring museum, admiring the portraits of past monarchs, and the kings’ huge square gold or jade seals surmounted with turtles. There were also some ungodly heavy hair ornaments and jade belt fobs in the cases—Portia said that probably contributed to a stately gait, as one had to move carefully and slowly to avoid falling over from the weight—and one vitrine where a caption explained that when the king decided to honor someone, he would present the person with a new seal on
which a new name, befitting his new position, was engraved (a delightful prefiguration of Revelatory rewards). Simultaneously horrifying and amusing was when a young Korean couple came up to us to talk in English and assumed I was Portia’s mother, when I am only her senior by seven years. I just accepted this sudden parenthood, not wanting to indulge in conversation with folks
who seemed too eager to ask personal questions.
We excused ourselves and made it into the gates of the palace just before they were shut to new entrants. Again, there were thousands of people crowding every inch of the courtyards, which continued for acres. Girls and young ladies were wearing hanboks, and many were posing for pictures by walls and other period architectural details, either or professional photographs or for selcas on their handphones (selfies on their smartphones). We peeked into the throne room, where a pair of sky blue cloisonné censers, each a meter tall, sat at the two front corners. Poetic observations and exhortations in Chinese script were painted on signs that were tacked to the pillars of other buildings. A two story pavilion the size of an American high school gymnasium sat next to a pond, providing a pleasant retreat for royal relaxation and entertainment.
Outside the palace was the modern fountain-studded plaza (overlooked by the American Embassy, a building heavily fortified and hilariously retrofitted with external air conditioning units) flanked by statues of the standing Admiral Lee Sun Shin and the sitting King Sejong the Great. Underneath the plaza was a museum dedicated to the men’s achievements. I only had time to visit the King’s section, where he was not only praised for his innovation of Hangul (the Korean alphabet), but also for many other novel ideas only adopted by countries elsewhere generations—or even centuries—later [including maternity leave!—he decreed
that female government-owned slaves should be given up to four months of maternity leave (they’d previously been allowed a week), and subsequently ruled that their husbands should get 1 month paternity leave].
When we emerged from the museum, it was almost dark, but we saw an illuminated encampment of yellow tents on the square. They housed a memorial to, and advocates on behalf of the families of, the victims lost in the Sewol Ferry disaster. Two years on, family members and their supporters are still protesting the closure of the government investigation into the ship's sinking. A young woman who tried to gather our signatures on a petition said that the government did not fund the investigation for the first third of what was to be an eighteen-month process, but counted that time as part of the investigation when the inquiry was deemed complete this past June. The ship has not been raised—the protesters claim that evidence was destroyed meantime by
divers—and nine bodies are still unaccounted for. The protesters say that government corruption which may reach to the highest levels was to blame for the sinking, and that charging the captain alone with crimes is insufficient. There was some sort of small religious service in progress when we were there, and a traditional memorial table was heaped with food in front of the
photographs of all of the hundreds lost--mostly high school students pictured in their uniforms. The signature-gatherer told us that more than half the families had refused the compensation the government offered because it would have voided their right to protest. Orderly protests in front of the gates of power have a long history in Korea.
Portia and I didn’t forget our shoe-hunting vow. We went to the right metro stop, but we couldn’t find the store of which Ellie had told us, though we walked the neighboring streets searching for it. We did find some shoes that would serve the purpose, thank God! This was a less-glamorous part of the city, with tents selling food, and tarp-covered market stalls, and salarymen and laborers staggering along a little worse for drink. But we weren’t bothered, and briefly overheard a blond Russian couple talking on the street, saw an older Korean man with a beard so richly grey and elegantly sculpted that it looked artificial, and spotted a slender calico cat who was wearing a dogtag on her collar. I wonder if they are called “dogtags” in Korean?