Rtw Day 67: Comin' Home
I'd like to preface this post with the following statement: I have awesome friends. Seriously, Shawna, Emily-Jane and Jeong-Yeon hadn't seen me in over 2years and in the short time I spent in Korea I was practically treated like the Pope (but in a good way). You were all wonderful to me -- thank you so much for making my time in such a foreign place so amazing.
I'd also like to mention that I have a lot of pictures that I want to include here so this post is likely to be long. If you're committed to reading it all, you've been warned.
So when I left you, I was preparing to leave the little town of Yeosu for the bigger, shinier city of Seoul. I was glad to be getting out of there frankly -- not because I have anything against Yeosu or my superawesome host, but... well... Yeosu's small. It's car dependent and pretty insular. White people are gawked at etc. Actually, it's kinda like a Korean Langley -- it's even got the Christian dominance down ;-)
But I still like Yeosu better than Langley :-)
Oh, and before I forget, I forgot to mention that Shawna and I are internet famous now thanks to one of her co-teachers who writes for an independent paper in Korea. I have no idea what the site says, but there's pictures!
So, after one last day of relaxing in Korea's Turtle Ship capital, Shawna and I boarded the 11pm bus to Seoul which would have us meet up with her friend Charity in Seoul at 4am the following morning. It's a 5hour trip for 30000₩ or a 45min flight for 66000₩ and while I would have rather flown (I don't sleep well in transit) the others couldn't do the same so I bit the bullet and agreed.
Tangent: Systemic Racism
Something that really surprised me was how racist Korea seems to be. I'd read about the problems Emily-Jane had run into but figured that they were isolated incidents but sadly, this appears to not be the case. Koreans are very passionate about how great Korea is, but at the same time, they appear to be deeply distrusting of foreigners. Business often reject non-Korean visitors and something as simple as taking money out of an ATM tends to be restricted to the few key machines available around town.
The simplest form of this exclusionary behaviour would be how we tried to book our bus tickets online. The bus company's website has an English side and Korean side, but only the Korean side allows online bookings. Shawna can understand Korean though, so she just hopped on the useful side of the site and proceeded to order our tix... until she got to the spot where you had to input your Korean citizen card number. A valid credit card was not enough, nor was a residence card. No, you have to be Korean to book your seats ahead of time. Foreigners can find out what's left when they get to the station.
Most of the people I met there either don't know about this (as they're not foreigners, they don't notice these things) or don't think that it's a very big deal. Shawna didn't seem to have a problem with it (maybe she's used to it) and Emily-Jane has come to bitterly expect it. I however was furious. This kind of thing would never fly in Canada. It'd be called for what it is: racist and exclusionary. Yes, I'm bitter.
Back to the Story: Seoul Day 1
Mentally foggy and weighed down by my heavy pack, I hobbled through the Seoul bus station behind a reasonably well-rested Shawna. We met up with Charity, hopped on the subway, and made our way through Seoul's subway system to Emily-Jane's house where we were met with smiles, coffee, bacon and eggs... at 6am. That Emily-Jane is frickin' awesome.
They let me get an hour or two of sleep before we headed out to see the city. Shawna and Charity were only here for the weekend and there was a lot to see.
After meeting up with Shawna's cousin (totally green at teaching English in Korea), we toured the city, hitting a series of temples complete with nifty statues and burial sites. As is the case with most old stuff in this country, the Japanese invaded and burned the majority of these buildings to the ground years ago, so what we were looking at were recreations, but pretty nonetheless. I'll have more pics in my imager soon.
We rounded out the day with dinner in a western bar (I had a burger! After 2 burger-free months, it tasted amazing) where we met a friend of Charity's. Then, on to a boat cruise up the river that divides Seoul. The city of roughly 10million is split evenly on either side of this river and as such there are a number of bridges cris-crossing it's banks making for an interesting tour. We got some nice sights which unfortunately don't come out well on my camera so you'll just have to take my word for it.
Shawna / Emily-Jane handoff
All four of us crashed at Emily-Jane's that night, but Shawna and Charity had to get back to their respective towns so the following day, Shawna left me for home and I started on the final leg of my trip: the big scary city of Seoul.
Emily-Jane gave me a mini tour my first day, and over the days that followed, we showed each other around the city. I'd heard of the Cheonggyecheon, a river here in Seoul that had been daylighted and so Emily-Jane talked to a few information booths for me until we got what we needed. There's a picture here for you, and I've got some more ready for my imager, but seriously, you've gotta see it for yourself. They've really done a great job cutting nature into the city like that. The river is a few kilometres long, includes trees, brush and yes, fish. It's the original river, dug up from under the city and prettied-up to make it a great place to hang out at night.
Throughout the rest of the week Emily-Jane took me from landmarks to malls, all the while getting me used to the crazy-sized subway system (300+ stations! To give you some concept of scale, Toronto has about 43). We saw a movie (Beowulf -- it was horrible), had some tasty food (Coldstone!) and some less-than-tasty, yet more cultured food (Shabu-shabu). I even ate octopus! Or rather I tried, but it burned my lip so bad, I still have the sores as I write this.
To give Emily-Jane a break (and to let her go to work as she'd called in sick to spend time with me once already) I met up with Jeong-Yeon for two of my days in Seoul. She took me to a photo shoot (she needs professional pics for her career), where I was introduced to "doctor fish". These fish live in a tank where people put their bare feet and the fish nibble at the dead skin etc. Apparently, it's pretty big in Turkey and it's gaining ground Korea. How does it feel? Kinda like there's a hundred little fish chewing on your feet actually: ticklish ;-)
Jeong-Yeon also introduced me to her jazz friends (big band) and I got to see them perform for a paying gig. I took some more pictures there of her and her friends but only a few came out due to the low light. After that, Emily-Jane met up with us and after some fooding, I returned to Emily-Jane's. We sorta developed a pattern for my time there. The day was her working and my sightseeing, the evenings something simple like karaoke (Emily-Jane is frickin' high-larious in the mic), then a late-night movie (purchased from a fake-DVD vendor on the street for 2000₩). Dude, I bought so many DVDs on this trip. Most of them anime! It was really wonderful to spend time with Emily-Jane this time around. Back when we lived in Toronto, I don't think we spent nearly enough one-on-one time and now I feel like we're closer because of it. ...and she's so damned pretty! It's tough not to be in a good mood in the morning when you wake up to that smile :-)
I ended up extending my trip by a couple days thanks to Jeong-Yeon and Emily-Jane's coaxing and used that time in much the same way the rest of the week had unfolded. I managed to navigate the subway labyrinth flawlessly to make the 120min trip to Jeong-Yeon's side of the city and visit the hospital where she's doing her post-accident physio, and then get all the way back to Gunpo (Emily-Jane's neighbourhood) in time for a dinner party at a home of one of Emily-Jane's friends watching (wait for it) Project Runway Canada. Of course I was only told that I was going to her friend's house for a dinner shindig (nice one Emily-Jane!) but despite the lameness inherent in such a trivial show, it was still fun. Her friends are super cool.
I wrapped up my final day with the intention of going to Youngsan electronics market to buy a new media player (Cowan D2 8GB baby!) but halfway there I realised that I didn't have enough time in my day to do everything I wanted so I abandoned the toy in favour of ordering one online later. I did some shopping at E-mart (Walmart for Koreans as Walmart FAILED there), cleaned up Emily-Jane's place some, packed up my stuff and headed to the airport... where my flight was delayed for four hours.
So that's pretty much my whole trip. I thought that I would finish this post off with a big list of observations about Korea as I was compiling a multi-page booklet based on the weirdness I ran into day to day there. It should be noted though that these are just that: observations so it's entirely possible that I don't have my facts straight. I only write what I see. It should also be noted that as cracked-out as I think the country is, I still love Korea.
- Korea appears to suffer from a small cartel of companies running the whole country behind the scenes. Everywhere you look, the buildings you're in, the escalator you're on, the phone you're using, the gas you're pumping, the car you're driving, the bank you're visiting... it's all owned by one of a few brands: Samsung, LG, KT, SK, Hyundai.
- Fish cookies do indeed exist, and they're sold on the streets of both Yeosu and Seoul.
- Commercial business on multiple floors of a building is a common sight in Korea. While the ground floor may play host to a shoe shop and convenience store, the second floor could be a bar, the third a karaoke room, the fourth, a DVD room, the fifth floor host to a Gumdo gym.
- DVD rooms are cool. Instead of renting a flick and taking it home to your crappy system, check out a DVD room and for 10000₩ you get a small theatre for two on leather couches.
- Yeosu, and to a lesser extent Seoul, suffers from a skilled labour surplus. Kids go to school, work their asses off for 16hours/day, get into university and emerge with impressive degrees... and they pick up garbage because that's the only job available.
- Koreans still burn garbage. They don't appear to see this as a problem.
- In Yeosu especially, it's tough to find a local restaurant with chairs. Sitting cross-legged is the norm, and if you're 180cm tall with knees that don't like to be crossed, tough luck.
- The streets are chaotic. Drivers regularly run red lights and speed in Yeosu. Pedestrians are not afforded much.
- Due to a parking shortage, all cars must have a phone number available on the dash so that when you double-park, you can be easily contacted to move your vehicle.
- Most of the cars you see are riddled with add-ons and upgrades. From the simplest (a wider rearview mirror) to the more elaborate talking GPS navigators and sensors at the back to tell you how far you are from the curb, there is a considerable amount of money and technology in these things.
- Cars are very much a mainstay of transportation. Even in a city like Seoul, with a subway system as impressive as theirs, a massive number of people commute by car.
- No one pulls over for ambulances. If you're dying, you might wanna call a cab instead. They might have better luck getting through the city quickly.
- Yeosu is host to a series of obnoxious night clubs that advertise themselves by driving trucks sporting golden mascots around town blasting music.
- The vast majority of commercial stores sell mobile phones. Seriously, it's pretty much cell phones, convenience store, hair salon, cell phones, convenience store, hair salon... etc.
- Txting is preferred over actually calling someone.
- Mobile phones are WAY cooler. Emily-Jane's sports an interactive subway map, English/Korean translator and unit converter. Shawna's talks when you open it, and Jeong-Yeon's actually does video conferencing.
- You can sign up for a service there that sends your cellphone a text message whenever your credit card is used. How cool is that?
- The Mobile network is not world-friendly. That is to say, phones you buy in Korea work in Korea... and only Korea.
- Boiling tap water is far and away the norm.
- Food is shared from a common plate. That is to say, you don't have a plate of your own and so everyone's saliva-coated chopsticks are jabbed into the common food bowls. This, from a nation so afraid of germs that its citizens often walk around outside in face masks.
- There is a definite culture of service. People serve others at the table as a matter of course, and the service sector is really wonderful. Everywhere you go, someone is bowing at you.
- $1 = 1000₩. This means that there is no such thing as fractional prices. Also, taxes (VAT) is always included so your bill is usually a very round number.
- Systemic Racism (see above)
- While people drive on the right side of the road, they walk on the left side of the hall.
- Respect for your elders is built right into the language. Instead of addressing an old man with a friendly "hello", Koreans say "adge-i-shee" (old man) or "adge-i-ma" (old woman), a term of respect.
- Fan Death, that is, being suffocated to death by running a fan in a closed room is a common fear among Koreans. Many people won't run a fan, or even an air conditioner (!!) in a closed room. As a result, all fans in Korea come equipped with a timer to prevent such a horrific occurrence.
- Emily-Jane gets a secret discount for being cute in the open market from time to time.
- Buildings new and old are often equipped with various energy-saving technologies like auto-on lights, heated flooring, and manual/instant water heating. Other nifty things include convenience store refrigerators that play classical music when you forget to close the door all the way.
- Individually wrapping things that have already been group wrapped is common.
- Some of Seoul's subways sport a cool light-up map that shows you where on the subway line you are.
- Christians are everywhere. In what used to be a predominantly Buddhist country, you see little red neon crosses absolutely everywhere. They're aggressively attacking the population, with missionaries in the streets trying even to convert foreigners with their pamphlets of propaganda.
- Seoul shares it's subway system with freight trains that use the tracks to deliver stuff throughout the city.
- Seoul has made available online a downloadable, updateable transit map that you can install on your cellphone, PDA or laptop.
- Since most phones in Korea use the same power adaptor, public charging stations are available in train stations and on the trains themselves. There are also numerous commercial stores that offer a charging service for a fee.
- Seoul's transit system is managed by an in and out turnstyle system. You use your ticket to get on and off the train. Costs are based on distance, so if you pay 1300₩ for a trip that should cost 1500₩, you can't leave the station without paying more.
- Korean tallying notation is different. I can't reproduce it in this format, but trust me, it's nifty.
- Number pads at ATMs are inconsistent. That is to say, some pads run 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 and others run 7 8 9 4 5 6 1 2 3. This proposes a problem if you haven't memorised your pin code, so much as the pattern which it makes on said number pad.
- They love Anne of Green Gables but many have no idea where in Canada it actually is.
- Korean hospitality is awesome. So long as they know that you love Korea, they buy/serve you food, give you money and will talk your ear off about Korean history.
- Advertising often features white models when anyone who's tried to shop there knows that a white person would never fit the clothes advertised.
- You don't wait for waiters in restaurants. Instead you call them over or in some cases, there's a button on the table to summon the wait staff.
- There are large barriers at the edges of streets and subway platforms to help the blind find their way and not get hurt.
- The Seoul subway has designated door-opening spots where the subway always stops. This, when the trains are human-driven.
Closing and Future
So yeah, that's my take on Korea. The next 50years will probably be pretty exciting over there. On the one hand you have this time-hardened culture of geritocracy and service plagued with insular racism, and on the other you have fanatical Christian missionaries trying to fuck up I mean, fix a culture that isn't broken. Along with that you're getting Western influences like everyone-for-themselves capitalism and a massive influx of foreigners. Korea's going to change... a lot. I just hope that it does it well.