Living in South Korea is not as difficult or as strange as people might think. It's economically strong, technically advanced and highly westernized. Living out here is for the most part pretty straightforward. Of course there are times when it is the differences not the similarities that are at the forefront. Buddha's birthday was one of those days...
Iris and Jessica, two of our Korean work colleagues offered to take us to Sam Haksa a local temple to see and take part in the celebrations. We met Iris outside the temple which was decorated with brightly coloured lanterns in honour of Buddha's big day. Unfortunately Jessica was unable to come due to celebrating Buddha's birthday too enthusiastically the previous evening so Iris showed us around, running off to ask attendants what something symbolised then translating to us, all the while exclaiming 'I never knew that!' She explained that she isn't properly Buddhist and probably would be when she was older and 'had more time’... talk about East meets West; economically driven, time-conscious Koreans without the time for Buddhism. She did however, know how to pray and how many times and who to pray to; not just to Buddha but
also to his various 'friends.' She got us to pray properly using our whole bodies, in a series of flowing movements, from standing with palms pressed together down to kneeling, our foreheads resting on our hands. Then we 'washed' the Buddha, pouring water over a small statue to symbol purification. All this was to the chanting of a single monk and the swirl of hundreds of devout - and not so devout- Buddhists rhythmically bowing.
We didn't get quite as many looks as you might expect considering we were the only Westerners in there. Any worries I had about our joining in being taken the wrong way were completely alleviated by temple-goers squeezing our hands in delight upon seeing us. A wizened Korean lady came over to say 'I love you' her eyes completely lost in a face-creasing smile. Iris explained she was probably happy we were visiting her temple and experiencing her religion. A man with camcorder in hand, walked behind us grinning whilst filming and asking 'where are you from?' Not once were we made to feel like impostors, even whilst sitting crossed legged enjoying bibimbap (a mixture of rice, vegetables and egg) on a communal table;
a free meal for all visiting the temple on the Buddha's birthday to enjoy.
From its Eastern origin our day took a swift Western turn when Jessica made it out of bed and suggested we visit a department store (her idea of a good hangover-cure). Not normally a tourist sight but then here in Korea even the mundane can give rise to the extraordinary. Such as the 'etiquette bells' in the toilet cubicles: a button that when pressed results in the sound of a toilet being flushed. Its use is probably fairly obvious. The 'Couple Ts' struck us as odd too; matching t-shirts for couples, popular for honeymooners, or even just for trips away or no reason at all. Iris sheepily admitted to wearing 'Couple Ts' with her boyfriend when they go away, you can just picture the airports packed with smug couples wearing their relationship status with pride.
Then it was time for food at the fish market. It had more in common with an aquarium than a market: all the produce being very much alive. It had more fish than you could eat in a lifetime packed into bright blue tanks, flapping in nets and stacked
in buckets. Tanks full of shellfish, squid and slithering eels, buckets full of sea cucumber, octopus and crabs. Behind the array of sea-life were women sitting on upturned buckets, scaling, de-heading and chopping with nimble fingers. Behind them were traditional restaurants: low tables with cushions for floor seating and no need for menus after viewing the choice outside.
The food in these restaurants is extremely traditional.... perhaps too traditional if you're not to keen on eating fish and seafood raw. The phrase 'when in Rome' reeled around my brain like a mantra as lunch arrived. I stuck with the fish to start with, which is eaten after dipping it in Japanese and Korean spicy sauces. It tasted pretty good with a firm texture and delicate taste - although I won't be swapping it for cooked fish in a hurry. I then moved on to the various types of seafood, including seacumber. Fortunately (unfortunately?) at the time of eating I didn't know it was seacumber and probably wouldn't have been able to eat it if I had have known. Just goes to show you can't judge taste on appearance because it was pretty tasty. I eventually plucked up the courage
to try the chopped Octopus tentacles - a delicacy out here. As a testament to its freshness the tentacles were still actually moving and continued to do so for the time it took for it all to be eaten (which was about 30 minutes), disturbing to say the least. Although there was no head so I can safely say it wasn't actually alive. It kept suctioning itself to the plate as I clumsily wrestled it with chopsticks. Iris looked on smiling encouragingly, eventually plucking it into the air and onto my spoon when the battle turned to farce. This brought me rather too quickly to the moment when I was supposed to put it in my mouth. Panic set in. I imagined the struggle I had witnessed on the plate playing out in my mouth. What if it somehow wriggled free of my teeth and suckered itself to my tongue, having to be removed by a chopstick-wielding colleague?
I tried and faltered several times but eventually did manage to eat it. 'When in Rome' won over the fear of vomiting at the moment of raw-Octopus-to-mouth contact...and you know it tasted pretty good. Well, maybe pretty good is overstating it
a little. Possibly because I was treating it as more of a bush tucker trial than a delicacy and I knocked it back with a shot of Soju (Korean vodka). I'm sure that helped too. Anyway i'm pretty glad I tried it.... so were Jessica and Iris: apparently the more I eat it the more I will like it....I'll keep you posted.
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