Monday, September 14, 2009

Losing Nemo

Last weekend, my friend Michelle and I decided to hit up Seoul's largest fish market, Noryangjin. After a 20 minute ride on the subway, we exited at the station suggested by our guidebook. The guidebook gave no further directions, nor was there need for any. The smells there could wipe you out. The air was saltier and fishier than that near any beach. Following the smells, we entered a long concrete building where vendors were setting up for business. Men and women wearing knee high rubber boats and plastic aprons in vivid pinks, greens, reds, and yellows were pouring plastic bags of fish into large aquariums. Other vendors had set up early and were smugly sitting behind their aquatic displays, waiting for business.

Everywhere, there were fish. I saw octopus, eels, stingrays, sea worms, sea squirts, crabs, assorted crustaceans, and probably hundreds of different fish, including small sharks. It was like a dark version of Sea World. You could admire all the unique sea creatures, and if you liked, you could eat them. Some of the fish were already dead, such as the octopus stung through the head on a wire, like grisly party garlands for The Little Mermaid. Most of the animals, however, were alive and writhing in their crowded tanks. The mutant crabs, larger than the circumference of my head, seemed the liveliest and the most intent on escape. I would not at all have been surprised if I'd seen a few of them scuttling along the subway platform, hoping to hitch a ride back to Incheon or to whichever oceanic community from which they'd come.

I peered closely into one particular tank. The man nearby pulled out a fish with his net to allow me closer inspection. "How much?" I asked curiously. "10,00 won," the man said. "8,000!" I countered, an automatic haggling reflex. With that, the man flung the fish to floor and, excitedly shouting something in Korean, bludgeoned it to death.

No returns, no exchanges.

For all the meat and seafood I consume, this was the first time I'd ever actually witnessed something die in order to become my meal. The fish I'm used to eating comes in neatly pressed little squares or sticks, cute geometries that in no way resemble an actual fish. I began to doubt my pro-omnivore position. Vegetarianism all of a sudden seemed, well, less vicious.

A nearby woman scooped up the fish and brought it into her restaurant. There were various restaurants set up along the side of the fish market. Some made arrangements of sashimi, which is raw fish similar to sushi, while others boiled up fish stew, and still others just grilled or baked the seafood to simple perfection.

Michelle and I followed the woman into her restaurant and seated ourselves on mats by a low table. After a ten minute wait and handing over several thousand extra won for food preparation, the fish was delivered to our table. I took one bite and decided to retain my omnivore status. It was undoubtedly the freshest, flakiest, most tender fish I've ever tasted. Most of it I ate without seasonings, though the restaurant lady was eager for me to douse the fish in soy and wasabi, so I ate some of it that way, too. Either way, it was delicious.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Do Not Ask for Whom the Bell Tolls, Quasimodo

Sitting through a three hour stage performance of The Hunchback of Notre Dame being sung in Korean is equivalent to being five years old and watching Hamlet. I spent hours without understanding much of anything. And then everyone died.

Monday, September 7, 2009

If You Are What You Eat, Then What Am I?

If she knew what she wants, he'd be giving it to her. If she knew what she needs, he would give her that, too. If she knew what she wants, he'd be giving it to her now. The lyrics from a 1980's Bangle song played unhelpfully through my head as I ended up in yet another awkward restaurant predicament.

I'd been walking alongside the Han River, having taken a short hike above the city that ended in a well-developed path along the river. The path was marked by a vivid green covering similar to astroturf. A replica of an old-fashioned wooden watermill and a pretty, man-made waterfall were alongside the river. I enjoyed walking there, but then again, I also enjoying watching romantic comedies starring Meg Ryan, so my tolerance (and appreciation) of too-cutesy is rather high. At any rate, I was getting hot and restless in my river stroll, so I decided to come up on one of the riverbanks and see what was in this area of Seoul.

I passed by a place that had an open door with a jumble of shoes in front of it. Curious, I poked my head inside the door frame and saw that it was a traditional Korean restaurant with low lying tables that had hot plates nestled in their centers. I was about to withdraw when a woman noticed me. “Come, come, come,” she gestured, saying something in Korean. “Um, that's o.k. I was just curious,” I mumbled, but she understood me no more than I understood her. “Come, come, come,” she gestured again, getting the attention of a number of other people in the restaurant, who all then stood and motioned for me to step inside. So I did.

The people assembled around me appeared to be the owners, along with assorted family members and the cook. One of the women laid a mat on the floor for me, gesturing that I should sit. Someone else handed me a menu. They then conferred in Korean, presumably asking each other what they should do with me. Finally, the husband stepped forward.

“Oogle,” he carefully enunciated, pointing at the menu. “Oogle?” I repeated, confused. It didn't sound like a typical Korean word. “Oogle, oogle,” he repeated, tapping his finger in staccato against the menu. As the menu was written entirely in Hangul, this did not clarify things. My thoughts tumbled different letter combinations and sounds, trying to make sense of things. “Do you mean 'noodle?' ” I finally asked. “Yes, noogle,” the husband happily repeated. “Yes, yes! Noodles. I like noodles,” I said, recognizing it as one of the safest possible options. “Noogle, noogle,” the various family members and the cook all told each other. The cook went into the kitchen. Then she came back. No noogles.

The husband chivalrously continued helping me with the menu. “Ifffs,” he said, pointing at another item. This one had me stumped. “Ifffffffs,” he repeated, drawing out the word more slowly for me to understand. I considered an option. “Fish?” I asked. “Yes, ifffs,” he replied. “Fish, like fish that swim in water?” I asked while puffing out my cheeks and pointing at my water glass to verify. The family took this as a negative indicator and after some conference, moved on to a third item on the menu.

“Beak,” the husband offered, pointing again at the menu. “Beef!” I shouted excitedly. We were finally getting better at this game. I was ready to bust out the Pictionary by this point. The family interpreted my excitement as a gesture of interest in beef, and so my meal was decided.

What I was served most likely did have some relation to beef, but what exactly it was difficult to determine. The main dish was a sort of soup with large chunks of bone, possibly hooves, that had small portions of gristle and fat attached to them. The soup also had onions, green leaves, sprouts, and glass noodles in it. In case this didn't fill me, I was also given six side dishes, including one that had the appearance and taste of paraffin wax, though it quivered like jello whenever I poked it with my chopstick. Although I'd been given a set of chopsticks and a spoon before the meal was served, it seemed to my hosts that I needed more help than that. One of the women arranged all my food for me and mimed the appropriate way for consuming some of it. Another woman ran to the kitchen and brought back a fork. I picked up my chopsticks to eat with them, anyways. This made the family and cook burst into a fit of giggles, which they politely but ineffectively tried to smother. A woman went back to the kitchen and returned with a second fork, which she set next to the original fork on my table. Perhaps they'd decided forks should come in a set, like chopsticks.

The food was to die for (in a literal sort of way, mind you) as there were altogether far too many items that I could only identify as “gelatinous,” but everyone there had been so kind and so eager to help that I ate away at it for as long as my stomach could handle it. When I left the restaurant, I was given a big handful of candies and smiles from everyone. Sometimes doing all the wrong things works out alright.

Changdeokgung Palace Photos

The Royal Treatment

[Actual Date: August 23, 2009]

"Do you remember that show," asked Michelle, "where those people started out on an island for a three hour tour and ended up trapped for the rest of their lives? Well, that's how I'm starting to feel."

Michelle and I were rounding on the 2nd hour of our 90 minute tour through Changdeokgung Palace. We were required to go on a tour instead of self-guidance, even though it was completely in Korean -- meaning that, for the next several hours, unless the tour guide thanked someone or asked for the location of the nearest bathroom, we couldn't understand anything she was saying.

To make matters worse, it was at least 80 degrees outside with a humidity rate that would melt iron. Neither Michelle nor myself had ever been so hot. We melted, we dripped, we pooled from place to place. In truth, we ambled along at such a slow pace behind the tour group that even the young pregnant woman out strolled us, and eventually, we were left behind by the rest of the pack.

It was nice for a while. We had the place to ourselves, and the greater number of my photos looks as though we had stumbled through a recently deserted palace rather than touring a UNESCO landmark in the middle of Seoul with a group of 40 other tourists a kilometer or so ahead of us.

We didn't mind having the place to ourselves, except that the palace grounds were the size of a small forest and we were a little disoriented. ("Disoriented" is a good word, since using "lost" in every single blog entry would be repetitive, and probably downright copyright infringement on the ABC television series.) Eventually, though, we found a second tour group and latched onto them. This group had a guide whose intent seemed to be taking us up and down six kilometers of woodsy hills beyond the palace buildings to ensure we'd get full value out of the $3 entrance fee we'd paid. Three hours after beginning our (first) tour, Michelle and I made it back to the front gate. No longer lost and wandering through the palace grounds, we were now free to become disoriented anywhere we wanted within the entire metropolis of Seoul.

Summer Days in English Camp

[Actual Date: August 22, 2009]

This post is exactly something I would not want my students to write. It has no plot, no development, no conclusion. But it does have a thesis: Kids are cute.

Above is a photo of my homeroom class after watching the Korean martial arts comedy, Jump. The thing I love about this photo is how it absolutely captures the personality of all my students from the cool young girls waving a solemn peace out at the camera to the rowdy boys who like to roughhouse each other with or without any sort of provocation.

Now, the kids do have a tendency to divert lesson plans by intermittently shrieking, "Teacher, teacher, teacher, teacher!!!" with the same volume and intensity an average adult would use to communicate he's on fire -- but at other times, the kids are cute as kittens.

As a case in point, I've also attached a short clip of the youngest kids I teach. They wanted to show me a dance they're practicing for the club act, although their performance was cut short when snacks arrived. They're performing a scene from Sister Act II. You'll never appreciate Sister Act until you've seen it re-enacted by seven-year-old Korean kids.

Seafood Surprise

[Actual Date: August 21, 2009]

I went out to dinner with my teacher friend from Yonsei, Michelle, and ordered a heaping plate of seafood surprise. I'm not sure what the dish is actually named, only that I was trying to order noodles and –surprise! – jiggly little bits of seafood were included at no extra cost. Of particular interest was a baby octopus. As you can see from the photos, it was not as tasty as it looked. (And if you can't clearly see the photos, let it be known that it did not look so tasty in the first place.)

Just to amuse myself, I try to imagine how I must appear to the Koreans. Imagine the same scenario in the U.S.: A foreigner wanders into a restaurant without knowing any of the language, not even knowing enough words to order food. She sees someone else's plate of food and points to it. When her own food then arrives at the table, she pokes at it and giggles. Before eating her meal, she proceeds to take about a dozen photos of it. That weirdo foreigner is me.

Moral of the story: Never make fun of dumb foreigners. You may become one of them . . . if you are lucky.

Meeting Superman

[Actual Date: August 19, 2009]

"A miracle is within you" was the message delivered by Dr. Lee Seung-bok. This also happens to be the guiding principle and title of his 2005 memoir. Of all the speakers featured in Yonsei's summer English camp, no one was more inspiring than Dr. Superman Lee.

Dr. Lee has always been ambitious and strongly motivated. As a teenager, he dreamed of becoming an Olympic gymnastic champion. And it was more than just a child's dream. He earned a coveted position on the 1988 Olympic team for Korean men's gymnastics and was in competitive training, a serious contender for winning a medal. Then he fell. Dr. Lee did not explain his accident, except to state the obvious: It left him a quadriplegic.

By hard work and sheer willpower, Dr. Lee built strength and a certain degree of mobility in his upper body, allowing him the use of his hands. The same hard work and willpower he took with him to medical school. His own rehabilitation as a quadriplegic had been rough and, he gently hinted, the health care professionals had not treated him well. He was determined to help others suffering from similar injuries.

Today, Dr. Lee is one of the most prestigious doctors working at John Hopkins Hospital. He has accomplished his goal of working in rehabilitation, as well as serving as a physician on the medical staff of the Olympic gymnastics team. His honesty, simple confidence, and strength of spirit are amazing. There's no doubt: Dr. Lee's nickname is Superman because he's a genuine hero.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Yabba Dabba Do Time

Ever since reading Jean Auel's imaginative depiction of prehistoric man in her novel Clan of the Cave Bears, I've been interested in all evidence of prehistoric life. I was excited, then, when I realized that Gangdong-gu, in the suburbs of Seoul (several subway transfers and then a short bus ride), held key artifacts from Korea's biggest Neolithic settlement.

A total of 29 dwelling pits exist in Amsa-dong, as well as 4 storage pits, all semi-circular in shape, buried 50 to 100 centimeters into the ground. Of course, the 9 thatched huts made of weathered straw are recreations, but the large pits over which they stand guard are quite genuine and have existed there for over 6,000 years. Radio carbon dating indicates these pits were originally dug between 4000 to 3000 BC.

The Neolithic site was first discovered in 1925, after a flood caused many pieces of the ancient pottery to surface, but excavations did not begin until 1967.

The museum's offerings are sparse but several beautiful vases, with bottoms rounded like bullets, are on display, as well as a collection of pottery shards featuring a comb-tooth pattern, various fishing instruments, and some jewelry constructed of bone and shell, in addition to a miniature polymer clay diorama of the prehistoric lifestyle once prevalent in the area.

The best thing about Amsadong, though, is that it is quiet, very nearly deserted.

You can walk through the little pathway among the pines hearing nothing louder than birdsong. You can stroll past the row of huts with no one else in sight. My favorite feature of Amsa-dong is inside the 1 thatched hut that allows for entry. Inside this hut, archelogists have built a small glass case that encapulates 2 clay vessels half-buried in the rubble. They lie there, as they have for the past 6,000 years, undisturbed by the touch of time or man.

Amsa-dong Information
Admission Price: 500 won
Subway Line 8, Amsa station, then Bus 2.

Sorry, Buddha Is Closed

Kyongju (or Gyeongju) is, almost inarguably, Korea's most famous historic town, containing such a large variety of significant cultural relics that the area is commonly referred to as "a museum without walls." Perhaps this is due to its location, sufficiently isolated from the devastation war and conquest brought to so much of Korea's architectural history.

As a possible contradiction to my hypothesis of preservation, Kyongju was not always a sleepy little town of ruins; it was once the capital of the Silla empire, the dynasty that politically controlled Korea between the 7th to 9th century. The city itself, more than 2,000 years old, is now registered as a UNESCO world heritage site.

The Chomsongdae Observatory, an astronomical tower built in 647, is the oldest standing observatory in East Asia. It is constructed of 361 stones, which is equal to the number of days in a lunar year. The four square sides of this tower are precise in facing the four geographical directions. Some historians consider the possibility that this acted as a meridian for the Silla people.

A tiny cave in the middle of the mountains near Kyongju houses one of the world's loveliest Buddha statues. Made of white granite, it is considered a masterpiece in Asian artwork, but you can only see this image if you visit the Seokgulam Grotto because photos are forbidden.

An equally famous stop in Kyongju is Tumuli Park. This area of the city appears to be filled with perfectly-formed hills. In reality, these "hills" are tombs older than the pyramids of Egypt. When the tombs were excavated in the 1970s, they were to found to have jewelry and intricate weaponry inside them, as well as physical remnants of the deceased royal subjects. My favorite (is it macabre to claim a favorite tomb?) was the Chonmachong tomb. This dates from the 5th or early 6th century AD, and visitors are permitted to go inside it, ala Lara Croft.

Altogether, there are 155 royal mound tombs of the Silla dynasty, a treasure trove of history and rich ornamentation. These tombs are spread throughout the region so it is nearly impossible to see all of them in one day. The biggest tomb, at 80 x 120 meters, is a joint tomb (a "his" and "hers" burial plot, so to speak) called Hwangnam Daech Ong. It rests just behind a small lake.

Another famous lake in the area is Anapchi Lake in Wolsong. The garden islands of Anapchi Lake were originally designed by King Munmu as an ideal setting to hold parties and conferences. Usually, man-made lakes and islands seem too contrived to capture my imagination, but when the garden lake was made by royalty in 674, it lends it a greater appeal.

Here is the point where I confess: My visit Kyongju was as part of a tour. I usually hate tours both for the high pricing and for the general blandness that accompanies them, but this tour was remarkably cheap and, let's face it, convenient in dragging me from site to site on a bus. That is both the downside and upside to tours. They smooth out everything, so there is little to no adventure left, hence why I am only spouting facts and presenting pretty pictures from this trip, rather than writing about it as an adventure.

And up until this point of the trip, things were amazingly smooth, inspite of the "breakfast and dinner included" that consisted of the same dry bread and peanut butter for ALL the meals. Still, like I mentioned, the tour came at a very low cost, so I took the cheap breakfast with a grain of salt . . . and a grain of rice and several bowls of noodles at a restaurant down the street from our lodgings.

The only real hitch in the trip was during the last leg, where we were told about a beautiful Buddha, carved into the white rockface of a mountain centuries ago. It was "a masterpiece of late Silla period" and "a sight everyone in Korea must see."

So, even though some of the tour group stayed at the base of the mountain chatting and luxuriously sipping their too-sweet Korean coffee, I stretched out my weary limbs, cramped from the long bus ride, and began to ascend the trail. I would see the tour leader at various intervals. "Not much longer!" she'd cheer. "It's definitely worth it. I've seen it before," she called out from a temple half-way up the mountain, where she'd decided to end her hike, opting out of seeing the must-see Buddha a second time.

I continued the ascent, inspite of an "accident" where a cranky old adjushi used both hands to push me to the ground so he could step over me on a particularly narrow section of the trail. "That's rude, sir!" I yelled back at him, while scowling viciously from my unwanted dirt seat. "I don't care if you don't understand what I'm saying, you're rude!"

Most disappointingly, when I finally reached the Buddha, it was closed. The only "must see" quality about it was that it was, in fact, rather impressive that anyone could manage to close a statue carved into the side of a mountain. It was securely closed, too, so that even if a person tried to quietly sneak onto it for a closer look at the Buddha, she would get chased away. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

Here is the best view I got of the Buddha, obtained by using my zoom lens while balancing precariously on a rock head far above the actual sculpture.

Fortunately, they could not close the views.