We’d stayed up pretty late the night before wrapping gifts (I’d heard gifts in Korea are wrapped beautifully, so trading some sleep for my best effort at wrapping seemed like a good idea). We woke up very tired, but it was Monday…we were finally going to meet our daughter!
In the months before we’d left we’d worked on connecting with support in Seoul…we were especially concerned about having an interpreter work with us while we were with E and her foster family. Through the kindness of near strangers we were able to meet with Mr. C., one of the kindest people you’ll ever meet (Mr. P, an old friend of my friend C, connected us with Mr. C.). We can’t say enough about our gratitude and respect for Mr. C. and all he did for us while we were in Seoul. He was so generous and helpful…and without his assistance, we would have missed so much.
Mr. C. and M:
We met Mr. C at an entrance to the Metro, and he took a look at our directions to the orphanage (where we’d be meeting E and her foster mom in a couple of hours). In no time at all, we were on our way.
One of our favorite parts of our trip was the time we spent on subways and buses with Mr. C. During our two meetings with him, he gave us a lot of insight into Korean culture and customs, and we talked about the difference between old ways and newer ways of thinking.
There’s so much contrast in Seoul (and South Korea, I suspect)…the breakneck speed of modernization and development is unlike anything we’ve experienced in the US in recent history (in the “Ask a Korean” blogI read, for example, he says that South Koreans went from $87 per capita GDP in 1962 to $24,783 per capita GDP in 2007). A whole country going from penniless to rich in less than 50 years…less than 40 years, really. Amazing when you think about it. There seems to be a great deal of difference between older generations (especially war generations) and the younger generations. The strict Confucian beliefs and norms of the past are present everywhere, but handled differently depending on the generation and the individual.
(This is all from a little reading and our short week-long observation, so take it with a grain of salt….) In the contrast of youth and elder, new and old, two of the biggest conflicts seem to arise from issues of morality/decency and the order (or ranking) of relationships. Younger people seem to take all of this less seriously, and older people don’t. It’s more than we’re used to seeing, belief-wise, in the US. It’s not just “those darn kids.” It’s much more fundamental, much more deeply woven.
One of the examples was on the subway ride with Mr. C. We hardly ever saw arguments in Seoul, or heard raised voices, so when you hear an argument it’s kind of a big deal. We were sitting on the train, and two men started arguing. Then one of them, the older businessman, started shouting and berating the younger businessman (both of them were in their 50s or 60s, I’d guess). Everyone seemed startled by the yelling and arguing, and two train cars down the line we could see people craning their necks to see what the fuss was about. People were curious, but seemed uncomfortable.
Mr. C. seemed a little embarrassed about the behavior of the men, and explained it was an argument because the older man didn’t feel the younger man (strangers to each other) was showing him proper respect. Age is important in Korea, and elders are still very respected. One of the first questions a new acquaintance might ask you is your age, because even a slight difference in age (a year or less) will affect social interactions, charting the course of what is proper and what is expected (a few examples here).
The argument went on the whole ride, and we didn’t need translation to understand that the older man was throwing every kind of insult at the younger man (I think Mr. C. translated one as “you act as if you have no mother and father.”). We saw two arguments like this while we were in Seoul, both between older middle-aged men, and both (seemingly) about rank and respect. The other conflicts we saw were smaller…older people giving scolding, disapproving looks for the dress or actions of younger people. Kissing and affection between men and women, for instance, seemed to be something older people (in general) didn’t like to see younger people doing.
The subways were fascinating places to watch interactions between people, and to witness the widening gap between generations.
Another subway ride and a bus later, we were very near the orphanage. Only problem was we had given ourselves too much time–our appointment was an hour away, and we’d all had breakfast already.
Mr. C. suggested taking a little side trip to a cemetery and memorial. It was just a taxi ride away, and we were there in minutes. We stopped at the entryway for photos, got a small drink from the vending machine, and sat down to take in the surroundings.
The 4-19 memorial and cemetary is dedicated to over 100 Korean Students who were killed in a protest against the fraudulent 1960 presidential elections. The Protests and shootings caused President Syngman Rhee’s government to collapse. New parliamentary elections were held, and South Korea’s Second Republic was established. Under growing political and economic instability, General Park Chung Hee took over the government in a military coup in 1961. President Park kept South Korea under his authoritarian rule until his assassination in 1979.
The memorial has a lovely open plaza, fountains, a small temple and many outdoor sculptures. The beauty of the landscape is striking, with the rocky peaks of Bukhansan National Park rising behind the cemetery and shrine. It was a quiet and peaceful place. There were several people sitting on park benches, taking in the morning, and the solemn but graceful surroundings were so still compared to the bustle of Seoul. It’s a fitting tribute and resting place to the students who showed such bravery.
The graves of the students were in rows just below the temple and the view of the mountain. Each grave has a burial mound (traditional in Korea) and a headstone, and on every headstone was a student’s picture. I’d thought they’d have been college students, but some of them looked much younger.
Walking away from the graves, we went past long walls of sculpture and poetry. It’s not in this photo, but Mr. C translated another poem wall for us, and one phrase captured the feeling of the entire memorial:
Your voices turned to echoes that shook mountains.
Before we knew it an hour had passed, and it was time to return for our appointment at the orphanage. In order to keep the details of the orphanage private, our photos and experiences there will be in a private post below. I will say, though, that it was a memorable, happy visit. E, who was described to us as frightened of strangers, seemed to recognize us immediately. I can only credit that to her wonderful foster mother, who had repeatedly shown E the books of photos we sent with our earlier care package. We had a good, long (!) conversation and Q&A with E’s foster mom (thanks for your patience, Mr. C!), and we finally had the joy of holding E, and enjoying her darling personality, and (best of all) seeing her smile. M gets the credit for that first smile…he went into fully goofy-daddy mode, and E couldn’t resist.
After an hour or so of conversation, we made arrangements to meet twice more–two days from then at E’s foster family’s home, and four days from then at the orphanage. Mr. C, bless his heart, said he would return to Seoul to travel with us to E’s foster family’s home. I don’t think we could have had the opportunity to visit E at her home without Mr. C.’s help. Again, we are so grateful. We took the bus and subway back to Seoul together, said goodbye to Mr. C., and landed back in our hotel room. We had met our daughter! What an incredible day!
We journaled a little, trying to capture our first impressions and memories of our little girl, then decided to venture out to our nearest attraction…Insadong. Insadong-gil (gilmeans street) is a long, narrow angular street behind our hotel, filled withgalleries, shops, antique stores, and tea houses. Off the main street are several smaller streets and even smaller alleyways, and they’re all filled with galleries, shops, antiques, and tea houses too. It’s so multi-layered, so impossible to explore completely, that you have to dive into a few spots and just see what happens.
In our guide books (LP ’06 and Frommer’s’08), and from P and J, we knew to seek out Sanchon. It’s a very well-known restaurant run by an ex-monk, Kim Yun-sik. Dinners there are genuine vegetarian Buddhist temple food, and after a 20-course dinner there’s a small center stage where traditional dancers perform.
Sanchon (like every other gem of a restaurant, it seems) is down a long alley, tucked in after a few other restaurants and a traditional tea house. We took a peek inside, reserved a table for the night, and went back out to Insadong-gil to find our lunch destination (also down an alley)–Sadong Myeonok:
Remember those 12 hours on the airplane? There wasn’t much else to do, so I read our guidebooks from cover to cover. I’d already anticipated enjoying Korean cuisine, but after reading about the specifics of this or that restaurant in Seoul, there were a few places I considered must-sees. Sadong Myeonok, even though it’s “a busy, no-frills restaurant,” was one of them. What was I after?
These! (mandu, or Korean dumplings):
We were the only tourists in the restaurant (always a good sign). Last night with P and J we ordered a Cass beer (not bad), so this time we tried Hite (not good). Then the food came! And it was fantastic!
My manduguk (dumpling soup):
M’s sweet bulgogi jeongsik:
jap chae (glass noodles and veggies), one of my favorite side dishes:
pan-fried mung bean pancake:
A word (or several) on Korean food. If you haven’t tried it, you’re missing out. Not only is it delicious (rich, multi-layered flavors, spicy but not too spicy, etc.) but it’s incredibly healthy. There’s not much oil or fat, dairy seems to be completely absent, and other than rice and noodles (which don’t seem to make up the majority of the meal) it’s all just fresh veggies and meat. Really beautifully seasoned/prepared veggies and meat. And delicious broths. Imagine fresh food seasoned with sesame oil, red chili paste (gochujang), garlic, ginger, soy sauce, and something called doenjang (fermented soybean paste). Ohmygoodnessitistoogoodtodescribe.
I’m really no expert (though I’d love to be!), but I can describe what most meals were like for us. We sat down at the table, ordered, and got our own utensils ready (usually from a container sitting on a table, filled with metal chopsticks and spoons). Koreans use metal chopsticks…tricky at first…but for anything that’s mixed with rice or has broth you can use great long-handled spoons.
Before your food arrives, the server brings several small side dishes (banchan). One or more kinds of kimchi (Korean pickled/spiced cabbage), often jap chae, other fresh and seasoned veggies, dipping sauces etc. Really yummy stuff. Then your food comes, and you dive in. Dishes are often shared, so it’s not uncommon to see people using their chopsticks to take food out of a centrally-placed entree.
Water (muhl) and drinks are served in small cups. To our eyes, strangely small. We asked about this (thanks, S!), and we were told that many Koreans believe that drinking too much liquid during a meal is poor for digestion. As you’d expect, there’s a whole host of etiquette that goes along with eating in Korea. If you’re curious, you can read about it here.
Restaurants (most of the ones we went to, anyway) seemed to have two sections…one with floor/cushion seating, and one with chair seating. We tried out both, but our Western legs and backs weren’t up to the challenge of long meals sitting cross-legged on the floor. You’d be surprised…wow that’s tiring!
After your meal, you pay for your dinner and leave. There’s no tipping.
Our meal at Sadong Myeonok was great, and so was the atmosphere (lots of local people came in to eat, including large groups of women and men lunching together). We made plans to come back for their mushroom hotpot (beosut jeongol), then went out to explore the shops of Insadong.
There are so many different kinds of shops…from the super-touristy to high-end galleries and everything in between. If you like touristy/art shopping, it’s wonderful. Here are some of the sights (more later):
We went back to the little three-story shopping/gallery center that we saw with P and J. There was a baby dress made of the most beautiful moss-colored material with little pink highlights, but at close to $200 (whoa!) it wasn’t even an option. The galleries there were full of beautifully-made things priced out of our reach, but looking was nice.
Something we could afford….green tea ice cream. Yum!
There were a few pieces of public art we wanted to capture for our sons back at home (one of whom is robot-obsessed). Public art is everywhere in Seoul. Every business building has at least one sculpture or fountain outside, the subways have art, public areas have art…it’s everywhere. In Insadong, though, there were a couple that seemed especially kid-focused:
We also enjoyed looking at some Seoul graffiti. Seoul is a really clean/safe city, at least the parts we saw, and you hardly ever seen vandalism or graffiti. When you do, it tends to be in places where people do it together, seemingly with approval (like the padlock thing at Seoul tower). In the art gallery plaza/center, the stair wells were filled with tiny, neat graffiti:
We spent some time watching a man plaster the side of a building (fascinating, I know, but his balance was something to behold)…
…then went out in search of celadon. Found what we liked here:
The first floor was nice, but upstairs…even more! I would have loved, loved, loved to have bought a Korean chest or cabinet, but 1) the prices were way beyond us and 2) we would have had to deal with shipping it. *sigh* In the end, we bought a pretty vase-shaped piece of celadon withcranes, and a short round piece with patterned with flowers. There was a lot of bargaining talk (combined price, single price, credit card vs. cash), and in the end we ended up getting about 10 or 15% off. A lot of stores in this area (and in the markets) seem to expect some bargaining. A word of advice…visit several stores and find out what the going prices are before you start bargaining. It’s no fun to bargain, think you’ve gotten a good deal, then to into the next shop and see the prices marked lower than what you just paid for a similar item.
The owner of the store packaged our celadon and made sure to show us recent publications about the maker of our pieces, as well as a lengthy resume of his awards and exhibitions.
Back to our hotel to drop off our prints and celadon (less than a five-minute walk, yay Hotel the Sun Bee!).
We wanted to see Tapgol Park, so we headed back down Insadong-gil. Tapgol Park is at the end of the street. On our walk we saw Seoul tower in the distance, and a t-shirt vendor. T-shirts were a fun part of our trip, and we enjoyed looking through the collections of t-shirt vendors every chance we got.
The outer walls of Tapgol Park:
Seoul Tower in the distance:
T-shirt vendor (this one specialized in imported used US tees). That old “Camp Wilderness 1988″ t-shirt you gave to goodwill a few years back? It’s here. Vintage, baby!
This vendor didn’t have what we were after…for a couple of days now we’d been seeing some t-shirts with odd English phrases and sentences on them (my favorite, and most extreme, example: here). I guess English phrases look cool to Koreans, so they’re often on t-shirts (much like Chinese characters on US graphic t-shirts). I don’t know what the Chinese characters on my t-shirts say, and it seems many people in Seoul don’t know what their t-shirts say, either. Sometimes the words, spelling, and grammar are a little off, sometimes they’re comical, and sometimes they’re just plain strange. It’s given me second thoughts about wearing the “cool” black koi/Chinese graphic t-shirt I bought last summer.
When we got to Tapgol Park the gates were closed. We took a few photos through the gate and made plans to come back another day. Tapgol Park is such an important place in Seoul (the independence movement started there in 1919, and was brutally crushed by the Japanese occupiers), we were eager to visit and see what the monuments were all about. We could see this much through the gates:
On the way home we paused to watch people move by the gates of Tapgol. It was an interesting contrast of new and old, and over the next several days we saw that contrast again and again in Seoul. The rapid modernization of a city and culture like Seoul’s makes for some interesting visuals. Pre-modern and post-modern, in some wonderful mix that sometimes catches your eye and makes you do a double-take. These businessmen in front of the Tapgol gates are a pretty mild example, but maybe it expresses a little of what I mean:
[Side trivia: these little discs were markers on the streets and sidewalks of Seoul. Some had one arrow, some had three, some had two. Utility line markers, maybe? We thought M’s family would enjoy them, as a reminder of a family vacation from a few years ago.]
So…back on Insadong-gil. We passed the Starbucks, which if I was told correctly, is the only Starbucks in the world with the name written in a different language. I didn’t want to support Starbucks on a street of great local tea shops, but I figured a photo wouldn’t hurt.
A few steps past Starbucks we were approached by a young college student. She was majoring in English, and wanted to record an interview withus for a class assignment. She asked us about our home state and our impressions of Seoul, then asked for a picture with us. Her three friends were standing nearby, giggling, and she was very shy about her English (even though it was darn near perfect). We had a nice conversation and said goodbye, but a minute later she came running up the street carrying a little gift for us…two little fans to bring home for our kids. Aww!
Our shopping done, we spent time just exploring the shops of Insadong…everything from alley antique shops to the 7-11 around the corner. It was all interesting.
A streetside vendor (note the t-shirt: Natural Real Master” in the background):
Some antique books in a window:
7-11 time! Convenience store triangle kimbap (a Korean sushi-like snack, incredibly inexpensive):
flavored milks (including banana and coffee):
several kinds of meat-on-a-stick:
The end rack, with a curious amount of Halls lozenges and gum labeled “Xylitol”:
More 2% (peach flavored this time):
In a small building of shops, there were several interesting sights… A whole room full of chests so beautifully made, it was treat just to walk down the aisle and see each piece:
Traditionally dyed and sewn fabrics (I really wish we had brought one of these home with us):
Korean ginseng and other roots/herbs preserved in tall glass containers:
A poster that made M laugh:
And finally, it was time for Sanchon. We wandered back down the alley, past the tea shops and the stand of bamboo, to the entrance of the restaurant. Sanchonhas great atmosphere…it’s a cozy place, with lotus lanterns, exposed wood beams, Korean artwork, and gentle music (when we arrived, the ex-monk/owner was playing beautiful classical piano pieces).
We put our shoes in a little cubby, and were guided across a central performance area to a floor/cushion table where tea was waiting for us.
The menu was also waiting for us. 20 small courses, all of traditional Buddhist temple food. It’s seasonal, vegetarian, and not nearly as spicy or varied in flavor as most Korean food. Click on the menu to see what what was served…it’ll give you an idea of what’s meant by temple food.
Because the foods change with the seasons, often we weren’t sure what we were eating…even using the menu as a guide. I think this was the watery kimchi, maybe?
another course (of many mini courses):
garlic, crunchy sea veggies, and other side dishes:
soooooo many seasonal veggies:
whatever this was, it was yummy:
glass noodles and more:
mushroom soup (maybe it was the soybean stew?):
seasonal vegetable fritters:
I’d love to be able to say we ate it all, loved it all, but… I have to be honest. After a while, it all started tasting the same. I wanted to love it. I started out really enjoying it. But on my 12th bowl of seasonal mountain vegetables with a slight sprinkling of sesame seeds, I finally had to laugh and admit it wasn’t my thing.
M knew it wasn’t his thing about three dishes in (that’s his “I told you so” look below). We tried everything, and had a good laugh at ourselves, but there was no way we could have eaten that much food even if we thought it was the greatest stuff ever made.
(See that guy behind M, though? He was there by himself, and was served as much food as we were given as a couple. I watched him eat it all. HOW?!?)
The last course, a dessert of chewy rice cookies (yum):
After dinner the lights dimmed and a large bell was sounded. The monk (ex-monk?) chanted and rang the bell, and the whole restaurant quieted.
Then the dancing started.
I wish I knew more about the dances. All but the last dance was done by a single individual. There was a fan dance, a cymbals (barachum) dance, and several different drumming dances. All were beautiful, and very distinctive in their movements and sounds.
cymbals (barachum) dance:
one of the drumming dances:
a drumming trio (the largest drum is a janggu, and I believe the man danced the Jangguchum):
The most striking dance, by far, was the Seungmu dance, a solo drum dance done in Buddhist attire. The man was wearing a peaked hat, a red sash, and a white outer garment with very long sleeves. Inside the sleeves he held the drumsticks so that his arms seemed to stretch out almost to the floor. From An Illustrated Guide to Korean Culture:
“The dance is composed of seven episodes following the beat of the music. The way to the stage of enlightenment is expressed by twisting with anguish and violent dance movements which change over time. The big drum in one corner is beat whenever the beat of the accompaniment is changed during the performance.
The dancing movements with the sleeves is the most important part of seungmu. When crossed together, the sleeves show the afflictions of life and when spread out, they express the rise to another stage after all affliction is forgotten. The quietly concealed face of the dancer and the soft quiet steps of the dancer’s white socks harmonized with the quiet movements of the dance all show the immense beauty of the seungmu.”
The dancing went on for an hour or so, with at least six different dance performed. It was strange to be so close to the performance, or to witness such spectacular dancing in the company of so few people (Sanchon is a small, private restaurant). After the dancing, everyone was quiet. Getting up to leave felt very odd.
M, however, found a way to break the spell….with a laugh, he came and asked for the camera, only to return with a picture of the ex-monk’s deluxe bidet. I think there are more buttons on the bidet’s control than there are on our DVD player’s remote.
It was still fairly early, and I was eager to revisit Joygesa while the weather was still so pleasant (rain was forcast for later in the week). We walked up Insadong-gil at night, past late-night galleries, and street side calligraphy artists, to Jogyesa. Again, there was streaming gold light and chanting coming from the main temple. As we approached, we paused at the main gate to appreciate the fine detailing of the dancheong, or the patterned painting on temples and royal palaces. The colors of these gates and temples are so distinctive.
More pictures of Jogyesa that night…the large tree in front of the temple on the last picture is a Chinese scholar’s tree, and is thought to be over 500 years old.
We sat and listened for a long while, got some of the sounds on tape, and talked about the first time meeting E…about her little quirks and the advice we’d been given by her (obviously doting) foster mother. We felt really lucky to have this chance to be in Korea, to meet the people we did, and to see everything we could of Seoul.
Back at Hotel the Sun Bee. G’night.