korea


WIndow of a calligraphy brush shop.


Despite all the illness at the tail end of of my Korea trip – I did get out and do much more touristy stuff than I’d expected. Or at least as much as one might reasonably expect while staying in a capital city of ten million of another country for nearly three weeks.

VIew of some lush rooftops cafes in Insadong.


As on my visit to Seoul, seven years prior, when I mentioned I wanted to see art, I was immediately directed towards the neighborhood of Insadong.

There is one long main street dotted with galleries, cute shops, and street vendors selling fans, chopsticks, and other favorite Korean knick-knacks, including mini-stampers of any photobooth picture that you could provide. (Postcards, though, were amazingly difficult to come across – particularly ones with a food theme…)
And while yes, this is a touristy area, Seoul, in general is not very touristy, compared to other cities I’ve visited. There were definitely just regular Seoulites strolling about, most comically, the ever-present couples dressed in matching outfits. This seems to be a popular thing in Korea, this dressing like eachother. It’s cute in that uber-cute Asian way that makes cartoon characters have enormously big dark eyes.
We stopped to buy a touristy treat, which is called a Kkultarae, or a traditional court cake made of thin strands of honey – 16,000 strands to be precise.
The guy started with a solid block of boiled honey slighter larger than his fist. Slowly he stretched it out into a long ring loop. Then constantly dipping the loop into a vat of cornstarch, he folded the loop in half, and continued the stretching process. That made 4 strands.
Less than 12 folds later, the honey strands were thin as cobwebs – literally 16,000 threads of honey!

Then he tore off an 12-inch length and wrapped it around a spoonful of sesame and nut mixture. The texture was very unusual – like a light honey cloud, but similar to baklava once the honey melted in your mouth.

We ended up buying five boxes, of which we consumed three! One box was a gift for the folks who lived in the apartment underneath my parents (we didn’t know them, but they were definitely experiencing a lot of our noise) and the other was for my neighbors back home.

Notable art that day was the Red Room – I would tell you the artist’s name, if I could make out which Korean word on the pamphlet was a name (that’s how few tourists – everything is still written in Korean!). The entire room was strung with metallic red ribbon – and blindly you had to navigate your way to five different spots in the room. You paid $1 (1000 won) and were a given a map and directions before entering. Visitors entered the room individually and were spaced out by at least a minute. At one point, Songbae stretched and screamed – there were butcher knives dangling above our heads and his fingers had grazed one! he wasn’t hurt, but we all got a big laugh.

Also like this work, which was made in the tradional craft manner of sewing strips of linen to the canvas.


For dinner, we stopped in at a cozy restaurant simply called “Bpap,” which is the Korean word for “rice” and also for “food.” It was an old-style house that had been transformed into a restaurant with a few different rooms. They had one specialty: kimchee chim – which was stewed kimchee served with pork and tofu and rice, of course.

Afterwards, we (my brother, his friend, Christian and I) got a coffee at an upscale district nearby – this is where I paid $5 for my espresso.
Taxi home – and fell into bed.

I asked my brother whether Korea was considered a first or second world country, because, frankly, I could be in NYC except that everything is in Korean.

This is the view from my parents window. Christian stands at the window and loves to watch all the buses pull in and out of the terminal.


He thought first –
but then made it clear that talking about countries as first, second, or third world countries, is no longer pc. Countries are either “developed” or “developing.”

Christian asleep in the guest room. Considering getting rid of our own bed at home and getting sleeping mats that can be put away during the day, old-fashioned Korean-style.


As a rule of thumb, countries where we send Peace Corps volunteers are still developing. The US no longer sends Peace Corps volunteers to Korea, in fact, Korea has its own Peace Corps-style organization to assist other developing countries.

My mom with Christian (don't worry Chad, that ledge is very wide). The Xii apartments, where we're staying, are in the background.


Heck, I consider a country where an espresso costs me $4 and small fresh-squeezed orange juice costs me another $8 in a stylish cafe where I am the only one not in designer heels – as definitely “developed.”

Watermelons at Kim's Club - think of a regular grocery store, but the size of Costco. Here, even something as familiar as watermelons look different to me.


The subway system is one of the most extensive I’ve ever seen. And you can get almost anything you want in the grocery store, except for good cheese.

Signage is big here. I took this picture my first day here, but have since recognized that is a common sight.

I feel very clean. Very very clean.
Christian and I visited the bath house for the second time yesterday and I do believe that my father was right; all that soaking in warm water helped us sleep well and transition out of jetlag (that, and the fact that it is now my 4th day here).

A Korean bath house is such a cultural peephole, but one I think is not experienced as often as it should because you do really need to get naked to hang with the locals.
But there is no reason to be self-conscious, because NOBODY ELSE IS. There are elderly bent women with sagging wrinkles slowly making their way across the tile; and mothers with full breasts and bellies with babe in arms; and chopstick-thin teenagers – everybody is just there naked and in the business of getting themselves clean.

It is downright fascinating to see so many naked females at once. It’s been a while, and I think it’s healthy for both me and Christian to see something besides crowds of scantily-clad hipsters at a SoCal beach.

Some things I’ve noticed, women here
do not have tan lines – they avoid the sun altogether (to preserve their skin)
do not have piercings or tattoos (THAT makes me self-conscious)
do not wax either – everybody is au natural
are rarely overweight
have friggin’ amazing skin all over their bodies.

This would seem to make for a narrow range of uniform bodies, but there is SO MUCH DIVERSITY – it’s wild, like people watching from a sidewalk cafe, but even more interesting.
Tell you what though, my body holds up just fine in comparison. No wonder Chad doesn’t mind my sunspots ; )

I emphasize clean to emphasize the matter-of-fact, down-to-earth feeling that permeates every bath house I’ve ever been to (only 4 – but in three different countries) In Korea, bath houses or mogyuktang abound.

P.S. I posted about a bath house in LA on June 7, 2008; the post is titled Squeaky McClean – I’ll post a link when I figure out what all the Korean says when I right-click on my dad’s computer.
P.P.S. Sorry, no pics for this post either.

My favorite quote about eating Korean food (which is famously hot – in both senses of the word)
“If I don’t sweat, how do I know I’ve eaten?”

Hotness in Korean food is so important that we have a separate word for spicy hot and temperature hot – and they are never confused.

Chad, Christian, and I had an unexpectedly fun day last weekend.
We checked out the OC Market, which a huge weekend swap meet in the parking lot of where the OC Fair takes place every summer. Entry is $2 and you can find anything from knock-off sunglasses to discount bottles of your favorite shampoo. There are also lots of food vendors plying you with samples and several conventionally-grown produce stands where you can walk off with 25 pounds of produce for under $10. No joke. I could barely carry our groceries to the car.

Then we cruised over to H Mart, the nearby Korean market to eat at the little hot pot place just inside the front of the market. It’s called Bibigo and it turned out to be an economical way to get a Korean food fix.

The hot pots actually sit directly on top of the flaming burners until just before they are filled, so when your dish arrives, it is not only spicy hot, but bubbling HEAT hot. YUM.

I tell you, Christian looks like a white boy in comparison!

Today the woman I met through Freecycle and I carpooled to a market she knew about in Irvine: a KOREAN MARKET!

And although I was tired and grumpy (I woke up last night at 2am to discover that Bella and her three friends were MIA – after much stressing and pacing, they showed up at 3 am – in bikinis and towels; they had taken upon themselves to go swimming in the middle of the night. Needless to say there is much house cleaning and sobbing about how unfair life is going on around here…and will be too, for the next week or so.)

Zion Market is not only a Korean market (versus a general Asian market, thus having one entire aisle dedicated to kimchi, another to hot pastes, another to seaweed, etc) but it is clean and huge. I see lots and lots of Korean food in my future. Now I just need to get there at the beginning of budgeted grocery money not at the end like I did today (I did get the essential: kimchi).

But transliteration is still painful; the North Korean town that is now open to tourists is named Gay Song.

Watch a 2:35 minute BBC news clip about it here (but be prepared to watch a 20 sec commercial first).

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