Seoul, South Korea. Hadn’t really pictured myself coming here ever, and was not really sure what to expect. I just knew it was a big city with lots of people in a developed country. It is clean, organized, safe, and very populated. There are poor people, very wealthy people, and most people are working hard just trying to live their daily lives. KIAs and Hyundais, mostly in white, black and gray, are everywhere. Koreans love signs and hang them all over the place. They love pop stars and rice. They respect their elders, to the point where some older people are rude to younger people on the street and there is no recourse (someone old woman on an elevator snapped at my friend). Baseball is the most popular sport, and I keep seeing men in what looks like community team uniforms strolling around.
I am staying at a small place called Mama’s Guest House in the Myong-Dong neighborhood and have to hike up a steep hill and many steps to get to it. The owner does not speak English, so we motion at each other. My room is probably 10x10 feet, with a mat, pillow, and blanket lying on the floor in place of a bed (Korean style sleeping). I can’t sit on the toilet and close the bathroom door at the same time unless I sit sideways, but I have hot water and a heated toilet seat. The place is immaculately clean, as are most of the establishments I’ve been in, including the subway.
My friend set up the arrangements for me. I met him back at the end of 2004 while hiking the trail to Mt. Everest in the Himalayas. He and his friend were going the same route (there is only one road to Everest). We started talking while having lunch at a tea house, they took a liking to me, so we ended up trekking together for a couple of days—them, me, my professor, her husband, and our 2 guides. We’ve kept in touch sporadically over the years, but when I wrote him to say I could stop in Korea for a few days on my way to Jakarta, he said he would be happy to have me as his guest.
So for 3 days he is acting as my tour guide, and in true Korean style, paying for everything. Thursday evening after I arrived we walked to a huge shopping area and had traditional Korean food—noodle soup, dumplings, some egg pancake with shrimp, squid, and vegetables baked in. And we drank, in true Korean style. We shared a bottle of soju, which is a rice-based alcohol that ranges from 20% to 50% proof. We drank some other creamy local alcohol whose description got lost in translation. And then we drank beer. Needless to say, we were both toasted by the end of the night. But that is how the Koreans do it. Apparently it’s common for someone to whom you’re just introduced to ask what is your “alcohol capacity”, just like they would ask about a spouse or children. My friend asked that very early on as we were catching up on each others’ lives over the past 8 years.
Friday we went to the Korean Heritage Museum and the Palace Museum, which helped me get a little flavor of Korean culture, since I know very little about it other than Korean barbeque and kimchi. We had beef rib soup and kimchi for lunch at a little restaurant where you remove your shoes and sit on the floor on mats. I haven’t seen a knife since I’ve been here, using only the metal chopsticks and soupspoon that is provided at every meal. The food is delicious, but much of it unidentifiable.
Last night I met up with another (American) friend that I also met in Nepal back in 2008. He is a Foreign Service Officer and was working at the US Embassy in Kathmandu at the time. I met him at a dinner party at the US Ambassador’s house, and we spent the rest of my time in Nepal going to movies, the best (and only) pizza joint in Kathmandu, and bowling at the 2-lane bowling alley with other expats. After a year back in DC learning Korean, his second posting was in Seoul. He now lives on the US military base with his Australian girlfriend.
He picked me up outside the gates of the heavily guarded US Embassy yesterday evening, and we went to his house (which looks like a typical American suburb in the middle of a bustling city) to pick up his girlfriend. We had Thai food in a neighborhood called Itaewon. We talked about Korean culture from the outsiders’ perspective, and he compared his impression of Nepalis versus that of Koreans. I learned all about the Seoul red-light district, Koreans’ treatment of foreigners (which is not always pleasant), and the plastic surgery craze in Seoul. Apparently having a crease put in one’s eyelids, a nose job to take out the flatness, and “dimple creation surgery” are all the rage here. From what they told me (and I later confirmed with my Korean friends), plastic surgery is even more common here than it is in the US. And as I’ve watched people since having that discussion, I’ve noticed that many will take photos of themselves and each other repeatedly while sitting in restaurants or waiting for public transport. It’s a bit creepy, actually. The funniest incident was watching a guy do bicep curls with a heavy bag in front of a mirrored elevator door as he waited for the elevator to arrive. But who would’ve guessed that my creased eyelids and dimples would be so desirable in some parts of the world?
It’s been a really nice trip so far. Now I am waiting for my friend to pick me up at the guesthouse so that we can go to the “countryside” for the night. I’m not really sure what that means or where we are going or how, as many things really do get lost in translation. But, that’s part of the fun that draws me to international travel.
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