Sorry I haven’t written my weekly updates; I guess my first two weekends were so full of excitement that it was easy to write about. The last three weeks have been a little low key, most likely because my mom went back to states two weeks ago! Week one I knew very little Korean (at least I remembered very little Korean) and got to travel down south with my mother to meet both sides of the family. Week two, the Korean improved a bit and I spent that weekend at Jeju Island. Week three was a little more relaxing.
My mom spent her three weeks in Korea staying with her uncle and aunt in Seoul. They are on my grandmother’s side (the Bae family) and are about the same age as my mom. They have two daughters and a son that are about my age (we actually stayed with them the one other time I came to Korea back in 1983 when I was in kindergarten). During the week, we did a few small things such as shopping at Dongdaemun Market (Seoul was once a walled city with four large ‘gates,’ one in each direction. Dongdaemun is literally “East Big Gate.” At Dongdaemun and Lamdaemun (“South Big Gate”) there are large markets selling all kinds of goods. At Dongdaemun, they are famous for clothing and fashion. There we did a little bit of shopping coming away with new winter coats (mine was only $30). Afterwards, I had my first taste of a great Korean meal called Sam-Gae-Tang. This is basically starts as a large bowl of broth and they then place a chicken in it. I don’t mean pieces of chicken, I mean a whole chicken with they then use sharp scissors to slide it into chunks, bone and all. There’s a process to eating this meal. First, you eat the chicken, carefully removing the now cooked meat, dipping it into a salt and pepper mix, then eating it with a bit of red bean paste and sliced onions. It is delicious. After the chicken is gone, you fill the broth with noodles which also cook at your table and finish off the soup. I loved it; especially since it was a bit chilly outside! That was Tuesday.
Wednesday I met my mom and her aunt at the King Sejong Cultural Center downtown. The cultural center is a fine arts center specializing in traditional Korean performances, but we didn’t attend any. Instead, we met at the coffee shop and met up with the son of one of my mom’s friends in Virginia. Actually, my mom’s friend in Virginia is a high school classmate that spent many years in Canada before coming down to Virginia (at my mom’s urging). Their son is a month or two younger than I am and came to Korea about a year and a half ago to work in the banking industry. My mom is very interested in hooking him up with her cousin (who is my age). We had a great dinner of Samgyubsal (Literally “three layer flesh” but it is just large pieces of pork that is grilled at your table).
I met up with my mom and her aunt again for Thanksgiving. We met at my grandfather’s office in Apdujong, an upscale section of Seoul located south of the Han River well known for its plastic surgery offices. My grandfather game me a large book that contained the history of the Song family, but most of it is written in a very high level writing called Han-moon that mixes Korean writing (Hangul) with Chinese characters (Han-ja). Maybe one day I’ll be able to read it! We went to lunch near his office and had what the menu called “Traditional Korean Meal.” It was a lot of food to say the least but very tasty. Afterwards, we left my grandfather and went to Lotte World, a large mall, museum, and amusement park (indoor and outdoor) in Seoul. We spent a few hours at the Korean Folk Museum. This place was amazing and displayed not only the art and utensils used during Korea’s vast history, but also had large life-like scale models of Korean folk-life. This was by far the most amazing museum I have seen with over an acre of scenes from Korean folk life. See the photo albums section and look for “Korean Folk Museum.” After the museum, we made our way to Yongsan Garrison, the home of the 8th US Army and headquarters for all US military troops stationed in Korea. My mom’s uncle met us at the subway station and together I brought them onto base to the Dragon Hill Lodge (the large resort like hotel that serves US government and military personnel and their families) for a American style Thanksgiving Dinner. For my great uncle and aunt, it was their first turkey dinner (I meat that is very rare in Korea). They seemed to enjoy it.
I spent the weekend in the Amsa district of Seoul, south of the Han River in the eastern part of the city. This is where my great uncle and aunt live. Friday night was a large meal and a lot of relaxing. Saturday though was different. We hopped in the car and drove into the center of Seoul to see Gyeongbokgung. This is the largest of the five main palaces built by during the Joseon Dynasty which lasted from 1392 until the Japanese colonial era of 1910. Here it was clear to see the beauty of Korean architecture and contrast of the modern city (Gyeongbokgung is located just north of central Seoul and just south of Chongwadae (the Blue House and home of the Korean President). However, one of the most beautiful aspects of the palace is that looking north and northwest, it has great views of Bukak Mountain, one of the 8 mountains of Seoul. Afterwards, we drove to the top of Bukak mountain to see the view and then back down to a traditional Chinese medicine market. We had more samgyoksal (the pork) for lunch and then my mom bought a bunch of “bo-yak” or health medicine literally. I have about 10 pounds of it sitting in my suitcase right now to bring to her because her luggage was overweight going home.
Saturday night, my mom and I met up with two of her cousins from the Song side of the family. Although I was not even close to hungry, I was forced to eat even more meat while they caught up on life. The meal was fantastic though and I had met one of the two cousins previously and really enjoyed their company. We joined that cousin at a coffee shop where her mother also joined us. My mom was very close with her and was so happy to see her again. We had a cup of tea, a piece of tiramisu and then my mom and I made our way back into the heart of Seoul to Dongdaemun Market.
It was now 11:30 pm. South Korea used to have a thriving, obvious black market. It was not hidden. I never really witnessed this. In the past few years, Seoul has cleaned up quite a bit. My friends were actually surprised that they could not find the same level of counterfeit goods and ‘knock off’ items. Well, my mom was quick to find out how to get them and the answer was simple… go back after midnight when the cops no longer come snooping around. Dongdaemun Market is busy during they day; at night, one can hardly move amongst the crowd of street shoppers. There are two immense buildings at Dongdaemun (by immense I mean half a mile long and four stories high) filled with indoor shops selling mostly clothes. Then there is the area between the stadiums (baseball and soccer stadiums built for the 1988 Seoul Olympics) that sells purses, more clothes, watches, etc. We had one goal for the night… my sister wanted a ‘knock off’ purse. After an hour of fighting the crowd and negotiating prices, we were successful (and even bought a few ‘extras’)
After a long night, I was more than happy to spend most of Sunday relaxing at my family’s house eating great Korean food. I did venture out with my ‘aunt’ that is the same age as me and bought a new camera. Maybe you’ll be able to tell the difference in the pictures after this week!