My mom left on Monday this week and that means I’ve lost my Korean help while visiting family. But that’s ok, I’m not going to shy away. Monday after class, I made my way to downtown Seoul’s Myongdong area to see my mom off. We met at the Lotte Hotel where I thought we were going to catch dinner along with my mom’s uncle and aunt from Masan that took us to Jeju Island. They drove up to spend a few days in Seoul. Instead, as soon as I showed up, my mom told me that she was just going to go straight to Incheon. So it was me and my great uncle and aunt from Masan alone for dinner. It also meant, nothing but Korean!!! I love them to death though so I had no problem hanging out with them alone for the night. We wandered the alleys of Seoul a little looking for a place to eat. This may sound strange to Americans (wandering alleys for food), but in Seoul, the alleys are just as lively as the streets. In many parts of the city (and most cities in Korea it seems), random alleys will be full of restaurants and is often the best food in the area. They are called Mokja Gilmok or literally “Let’s Eat Alleyways.” We decided to eat beef ribs. When ordering meat in Korea, it’s not simply a meal from a menu that comes on a plate. Most of the time there is a pit in the middle of the table that is either gas powered or a hole that they will place hot coals into. I personally like the coals better and that is what we got. Then you order the meat by portions, literally “2 people’s worth.” Well, between the three of us, we ate 5 people’s worth and about four bottles of Soju. I have mentioned Soju in the past, but it’s worth mentioning again. Koreans love to drink Soju. It’s so different than in the states, but it’s a common tradition here to serve each other shot glass sized portions and to drink it throughout the meal. Soju is also infamous to US soldiers as the quickest way to get drunk. What tends to happen is that while eating, the Soju just flows freely and before one knows it, they are nice and drunk. For some reason, Soju doesn’t work as quickly on me and maybe it’s because I outweigh the typical Korean male by about 75 pounds. So two to three bottles of Soju during a meal is barely a buzz but has much more effect on my hosts. After dinner, we made our way to the Lotte Hotel for tea. The best part of this long night with my family is that I had to rely on Korean the entire time. It was probably one of the best nights of practice that I had ever had and when I got back to my room that night, I really thought that I turned a corner in my language skills.
Tuesday night, in the absence of my mom, I decided to hang out with my two co-workers. We made our way to the Sinchon train station area where Chris and Jesse had found a great little restaurant. For about an hour and a half, we ate Samgyoksal (the three layer flesh pork) and Daenamoo Sul (Bamboo alcohol). The three of ate about 7 person’s worth of meat and about 5 to 6 bottles of the alcohol which was a little weaker than Soju but so much tastier! We were quite toasted after dinner and so we decided to try our luck at a Korean club. I made it through the entry without a problem but as soon as my friends tried, they were met by a bouncer who kindly told them, “Sorry, Koreans only.” No problem, we made our way across the street to a bar. We ordered a ‘set’ that included 5 beers and some side-dishes and then encountered another Korean social aspect that I had not yet experienced. We were joined by a girl wearing lingerie who just sat with us and talked to us. At first I was a little leery and was afraid that we had just met an infamous “juicy girl.” These are girls that prey on foreigners at bars near the military bases. They work for the bar and convince people to buy them drinks at much higher prices that they slowly sip while the GIs try to get more out of them that just good company. But this girl was not like that. She didn’t ask us to buy anything and instead served a different purpose… just get us to stay at the bar longer! Well, she was fun to talk to for all three of us and we chalked it up as speaking practice. My weeks with the family paid off and I quickly realized that I have never spoken Korean as well as I do now. The girl sat on the other side of the bar from us so I was not too worried about the lingerie thing and there was no real ‘flirting’ going on, just conversation that quickly became a US vs. Korea type conversation comparing customs and pop culture. It was actually quite enjoyable! But before long, it was very late (2:30am) and we still had class in the morning. So the three of us made our way to a taxi and had about 5 hours of sleep.
Wednesday after class, despite feeling the previous night’s alcohol, I made my way to Apdujong to meet my cousin Sang-gyeong and my grandfather. Sang-gyeong spent some time in the states studying at Georgetown and Boston University and had previously met Holly and the kids. We also saw each other down south the first weekend I was here. My grandfather is her great uncle and so she was happy to join me while she was in Seoul for a job interview. We went to his office and had tea and caught up a little. Then we had dinner nearby. I still get a little nervous when talking to older Koreans because there is such a cultural aspect of respecting one’s elders. The language changes and customs change when compared to younger people. I let Sang-gyeong do most of the talking (she also speaks English very well). After dinner, Sang-gyeong and I walked around Namdaemoon Market and Myongdong in downtown Seoul. We didn’t really buy anything but I did learn another Korean word or two from her.
On Saturday, Chris, Jesse and I made our way down to the Camp Humphreys area by train (about an hour south of Seoul). Camp Humphreys is home to most of the people in my job field, but I only knew two people there; both former co-workers at the 101st Airborne and now married to each other (Brandon Cook and Tracy Hansen). We met Brandon at his apartment (which was actually much nicer than I had expected) and walked the streets of the “Vill” (the common name to the Korean shopping areas just outside of the military bases outside of Seoul). We did a little shopping (I think I bought some DVDs and that’s it) and then made our way to a bar that used to be famous amongst the Korean linguists called “The Wall.” I guess it was past its glory days. We met up with Tracy there and then had some outstanding Chinese food. We spent the rest of the night at a bar called Shooters just hanging out playing pool and darts. It was amazing to me how we could be in Korea but pretty much live just like in America. I didn’t have to speak Korean once and I didn’t eat Korean food once. It was a good experience because if I did happen to stay in the military, it’s very likely I’ll end up here sometime.
We made our way to the train station and had about 30 minutes to spare. Jesse thought we would enjoy seeing a darker side of Korean society so we walked what Jesse liked to call the “Barbie Doll” street. Literally across the street from the train station was a large area of about 2 x 5 blocks of bright pink lights and large window-front buildings. In the window fronts were young Korean girls ready to service any takers. I knew why Jesse referred to them as Barbie dolls because they looked like dolls sitting in a clear plastic box on the shopping mart shelf. But we were not there to sample the goods. I was actually kind of sad to know that these types of places exist in Korea, so open and inviting and in the middle of the city. But I guess that’s just a part of life.
We got back to Seoul around 11pm and for the rest of the weekend, I was entranced by yet another Korean phenomenon, the TV drama. While I was in Jeju, I went to a beautiful site that had a church overlooking the shore. The church was built as part of the set for a drama called “All-in.” I didn’t know anything about the drama and had anticipated that it referred to some sort of church boarding house or something. While in Seoul, my relative happened to have the entire drama on DVD and gave it to me as a gift. I watched the entire 24 hour drama in two days. It was not about a church boarding house though, it was actually a very correct American usage of the term “All-in.” It was a drama mainly about gambling. It combined a love story, Korean gangs, corporate corruption and greed, Korean gambling houses, Las Vegas casinos and finally Jeju Island casinos. It was outstanding. They even featured the hotel that I stayed in while at Jeju and shows many of the exact places I had been while I visited. Needless to say, I was happy to finish the drama on Monday night and resume normal life.