After an exciting first week in Korea, week two started out a little slowly. On Monday, I fought my way through class all day and afterwards had a beer and a coffee with Jesse, one of the guys I came here with from Texas. On Tuesday, my phone card had run out of minutes, so I made the 30 minute subway ride and 30 minute walk to Yongsan Garrision PX in Seoul (the US Army base) to buy a phone card. I had plans to have dinner with my mom, but it was already late and by the time I got to where she was in Seoul, it would easily be 7pm. Then it would probably be 11pm before I got back to Yonsei. Being tired, I decided to stay in the area and then be back in my room early. Since I was close, I decided to take a quick stroll through Itaewan, which is basically the part of Seoul where foreigners and American soldiers go to hang out. It has a main street with very common stores such as Starbucks, McDonald’s, Outback, etc. There is also a descending slope of Korean merchants selling everything from custom tailored suits, fake purses, suitcases and clothes to dried fish, chicken on a stick, and Soju. It was near the end of my walk through this market that I ended up in an undesirable place. I knew I was in the wrong part of the town when doors started opening and middle-aged Korean women wearing tight t-shirts, high heels, fish-laced stockings and a pound of make-up began asking me to come in and hang out with them. I kept my Korean short and sweet and hoped they were targeting foreigners and would just leave a local Korean alone (or at least somebody that they believed was a local Korean). I made my way down that hill and hopped in a taxi, hit up Starbucks on the way home, and made it back to my room by 8:30 to do a little studying and sleep. All in all, uneventful, but an experience at the least.
It is pretty interesting how often the Koreans think I am a Korean. For starters, I’m about three inches taller and 50 pounds heavier than the average male here. I also have about two inches less hair. But I guess there is no mistaking the fact that I still seem to fit in here. While walking with my to friends I came here with (Jesse and Chris) who are both very white, even if they talk to somebody in Korean, they will respond to me. When I get into a taxi with them, I usually get the same response. However, Jesse is actually a much better Korean speaker than I am so I usually let him do the talking! When they are not with me, I usually just get it out of the way by telling them I’m actually an American, but my mom is Korean and I’m here for a little while to learn Korean. Then I’m always met with the same compliment, “Wow, you’re Korean is so good!” It’s not.
Wednesday after class, Jesse and I hopped into a taxi and made our way to the King Sejong cultural center to meet my mom and grandfather. Also there was my grandfather’s younger brother, my great uncle. We had coffee and then made our way to an underground restaurant for dinner. Underground restaurant may sound cool, but in reality, it is literally just a restaurant that is located underground. Seoul seems to have three dimensions, ground level where millions of Koreans walk, underground level where there is not only subways, but massive marketplaces and mile long passages, and finally the above ground levels where a small gift shop at the ground may have a PC bang (internet and gaming cafe), restaurant, barber shop, bar, and a night club all in the same building.
Anyways, we had our dinner and my grandfather had to leave a bit early. A few minutes later, my great-uncle’s daughter arrives. I guess that she and my mom had been very close as cousins growing up. We decided to take our little part to a No-rae-bang, or literally, “Song Room”. This is a small room with just your group, a table, some chairs, and a karaoke machine. I’ll let my mom demonstrate. We started drinking a few beers and a Soju at the restaurant and followed that up with more Soju and more beers while singing Korean and English songs for about two hours. It was actually more fun than I thought considering the company was my mom, her cousin, and her uncle. But Jesse was there as well and if any of you know him and want to see a video of him ripping out some Jerry Lee Lewis, I have it. After a late night out, we made our way back home and after a few hours of sleep, it was back to Korean class.
Thursday after class, I made my way to Sinchon (which should be spelled Shin-chon to be pronounced correctly) to meet a friend from the states, Brandon Cook. Brandon and his wife Tracy are here in Korea while she finished her last few months in the Army at Camp Humphreys. I haven’t seen Brandon since last February, so it was great to get together. We hopped on the subway and made our way to the far eastern part of Seoul to Myong-Il, where my mom is staying with her uncle and aunt (one of many). We had a great home-cooked meal, a few beers, then took a cab to Myong-dong to walk around a bit. We didn’t buy anything though and ended up back at Seoul train station around 10pm so Brandon could get back down to Pyongtaek (about 40 miles south of Seoul).
Friday after class, I got begin a great trip. I met my mom in Sinchon and we took the subway to Kimpo Airport. Seoul has a great new international airport at Incheon, but Kimpo (also spelled Gimpo) is the original int’l airport that is mainly used for domestic flights now. Regardless, we flew down to Busan, which is located at the SE edge of Korea and is one of the world’s busiest port cities. We met up with my mom’s cousin and her husband who own the tea shop in Masan (see week one). They treated us for the entire weekend to include airfare, hotels, and meals. They are truly a pair of the nicest people I’ve met in life. We spent the night in Busan at Jagalchi (also spelled Zagalchi), see website, the largest fish market in Korea. Here you literally walk the streets or the large indoor market to choose the live fish or shell-fish that you want to eat. They will then kill it, cut it, and prepare it for you. You basically end up eating fish that was alive ten minutes earlier. Eating fish this fresh is a delicacy in South Korea that people will pay a lot of money for it seems. Being a good guest, I tried sea cucumber (which looked like snot, but had no real taste, it was just like chewing hard rubber), two types of raw fish, abalone (which also had no real taste, but was very rubber like), and a fish stew that featured the actual fish head. Yum. I’ll try to post pics soon so check out the albums. After raw fish a few beers and two bottles of SoJu, I thought we were done for the night. It was already 9pm and we had a 10am flight to Jeju Island the next morning. Instead, we made our way back toward our hotel and went to a Pojangmacha. Literally translated it means “Wrapped Horse Car.” It dates back to the Korean war when people followed the troops in horse pulled carts covered in plastic or tarp to feed people. Nowadays, they pretty much refer to any non-permanent structure selling food on the street that can be as simple as a tarp between two street signs, two chairs, and a lady serving kimchee and rice to a large, semi-permanent one that seats about 25 people like the one we went to in Busan. We went there for one main reason, my hosts wanted me to try ‘chicken feet.’ Their daughter, who is actually a college student in Northern Virginia near my grandma and mom supposedly likes it and they wanted to see if I did too. But we didn’t start with it of course. No, we started with oysters… lots of oysters. They slipped a chunk of a type of coal or something that I had never seen before but put out a lot of heat in the middle of our table. On top of that, a small grill that we threw all of the oysters onto. When the water inside boiled, you could easily pull the meat out with chopsticks. This was surprisingly tasty. Then the chicken feet came out. They looked like, well… chicken feet, only redder and more meaty looking. Traditionally this meal is very spicy. They asked them to make it a little less spicy for me, but it was still too much for me. I had about three of them and topped it off with more SoJu and beer. By now I was pretty much drunk and would pay for that dearly the next day. But it did allow me to speak more Korean outside of the classroom than I had at any point earlier. Finally, a short walk on the beach to our hotel, a Korean song while sitting on a rock, and then bed time..1:00am. The next thing I remembered was my alarm. It was 6am and our hosts insisted we get up early to walk around the small peninsula near our hotel. Our hotel was great, the Westin Chosin, where President G.W. Bush stayed in 2003. The walk was also well worth it. We watched the sun rise while taking about a half mile walk around the peninsula. We followed that up with buffet breakfast (where I could only stomach a cup of coffee, a scoop of scrambled eggs, and a croissant) before heading to the airport.
Jeju Island. The small island off the south coast of Korea is called by some (here) “Korea’s answer to Hawaii.” I’ve never been to Hawaii and I can’t make that comparison, but Jeju is definitely worth the trip. Despite a slight hangover and having to use the restroom every 30 minutes (beer does that to me), we made our rounds from Jeju City (where the airport is) to about the south side of the island where we spent the first night. Jeju is home to Hallasan – Halla Mountain – which is the huge. At 6,397 feet, it is South Korea’s tallest mountain. It dominates the center of the island, but it is by no means the only mountain worth seeing. The effects of a volcano forming an island creates some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable. We visited a smaller volcano with a very large, forested crater called Sangumbori Crater. From there we worked our way through the island doing a few traditionally “Jeju” things like horseback-riding and seeing a traditional village. Then we arrived at a beautiful spot called Sung-San. It is a UNESCO world heritage sight and very beautiful. There we saw the infamous Jeju Women Divers. These females are usually the head of their household and earn their income by diving (without equipment) for shell fish and pearls. They were famous for their pearls until the supply dwindled and now they are a rare catch. From there we worked our way down the coast and saw more beautiful sites and the location where a Korean drama called “All-In” was filmed. Finally, after a long day of working through my headache to enjoy some of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen, we settled in for the night after another meal of… raw fish.
Sunday was more of the same as we worked our way along the southern coastline. I can not even mention all of the stuff we saw but it included a tea museum, a waterfall, a large bonsai tree farm, and beautiful coastline (see pictures below). It was a whirlwind tour of the island and we didn’t get to see half of it! We had a famous Jeju meal for lunch: huk-tway-gee or black-pig. We ended the day with a Chinese daredevil/acrobatics show including 7 guys on motorcycles riding inside a steel sphere. Very cool stuff. We got to our new hotel at Jeju City and finished things off with another traditional Jeju meal: horse. Yep, five courses of horse to be exact. It was unbelievably good, leaner than beef and more tasty than venison. After a bottle of red wine at the hotel, I took my last night’s rest in Jeju.