We just returned from a 1.5 week trip to South Korea. Coming back to Washington state is like coming back to the country side. Seoul is a metropolis, bustling with energy. 10 million people packed into a tight city. Probably much like other mega-packed cities of the world, it’s ripe with pollution, you shouldn’t drink the water, and courtesy is hard to find among strangers. With that said, the people who met with us were so generous. We, mostly Tenille, received gifts from almost every person we met. It’s part of the Korean culture to exchange gifts at a meeting. In addition, our hosts were the most generous I’ve ever met. They live in Apgujongdong which has been nicknamed the Beverly Hills of Seoul because celebrities are often spotted in the posh shopping area. The father of the host family is a high school alumni of my father. They drove us everywhere, even hours out of their way. They would come with us, merely to make sure that our meals were paid for.
When our hosts couldn’t drive us we took taxis which always made for an interesting experience. First of all seatbelts are optional in Korea, and carseats are not required for children. Some of the taxis didn’t even have seatbelts. So, we drove around holding Caleb on our laps. It was very scary as drivers in Korea do not even check their blindspots before changing lanes. In fact our scariest incident happened when our taxi driver crossed 3 lanes of traffic in one swoop and cut off another taxi. Following this cut off we heard the longest honked horn I have ever heard, and then the angered taxi driver proceeded to pass us on the right, cut off our taxi driver and stop in the middle of the highway….yes, stop on a very busy highway. He yelled and shook his fist at our driver. They exchanged some words (we’re glad we didn’t understand them) for probably 30 seconds and then we were able to continue our journey. You would think this would phase our driver, but it didn’t. He continued to provide us with a white knuckle ride all the way to our destination. We were very happy to get out of that car when the time came. Another funny taxi story is when our taxi driver announced to us after 5 minutes or so that he was about to run out of gas in rush hour traffic. So, we had to jump out of the taxi and hail a different taxi. Then, our original driver pulls up to our second taxi and demands that we pay him. Don negotiated a dollar and we were off in our second taxi. It was an adventure.
There were a couple of times that we went places without Caleb and so we took the subway. The subway system in Seoul is the most extensive we’ve ever seen! Fortunately we were able to navigate our way underground, and it proved to be a great system for getting around, just not with a baby in a stroller because of all the stairs.
We went to the Gyeongbokgung Palace which was the main palace of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) located in the middle of Seoul. We also visited KyungJu which used to be the capital city of the Shilla Kingdom (57 BC – 935 AD). At KyungJu, we visited a buddhist temple and a buddhist statue that was carved into a granite cave that was over a thousand years old.
We watched a show at ChongDong theater that showed traditional Korean drumming, dancing, and singing – highly recommended if you’re a tourist like we were. I doubt any natives have seen this show. We also watched a modern percussion show called Nanta – it was a cross between Stomp and Blue man group. We also visited the Korean Traditional Folk Life Museum (which is the only Museum that I have ever heard Tenille say that she’s enjoyed), and the Korean War Museum, which was all about Korean warfare since ancient times.
Shopping was one of Tenille’s highlights. Since most of the markets we went to required some negotiation to get a "good price," Tenille got her game on. We went to Itaewon, which was really a shopping area for tourists as all the shop owners spoke English and Japanese. We went to NamDaeMun (which means SouthGate), which is a wholesale open air market. This place was known for its great deals and hard bargaining. Apparently, we were not very good bargainers, because we later found some things we negotiated at lower marked prices elsewhere. And, we almost got ran over by multiple mopeds delivering goods. Finally, our favorite shopping area was InsaDong which is a shopping area that carries traditional Korean art and ceramics. We bought some things for ourselves and Christmas presents for family and friends.
The department stores on the other hand were the most expensive we have ever seen. A sweater you could buy at Old Navy for $30 was over $300 in the department stores just because they were from a name brand. Koreans are very hip and brand conscious. In fact, we looked like slobs most of the time compared to the fashion that Koreans wear for their every day attire. Tenille didn’t see one pair of the same shoes on two different women, and there were definitely no flip flops to be seen. In fact, the women mostly wore pointed shoes with heels with their pants (even jeans) and fashion boots with their shorts (again even jean shorts). All of the business men were in suits with suitcoats. We realized just how laid back the northwest culture is.
The supermarkets were another interesting sight to see as people rushed around in the most crowded supermarkets I have ever seen. The other oddity was seeing so many workers. There were employees standing at each of the produce tables ready to weigh and mark the price of your produce. There were employees at each of the meat counters who were yelling what sounded to Tenille like, "Buy my meat, buy my meat". It gave the feel of a flea market, but with people trying to get you to buy expensive food rather than their homemade goods.
We went shopping two days with my preschool friend Young Lim (who I have not seen in 25 years) and her sister Herry (Hae Lim). It was refreshing for Tenille to be able to talk to them since they both speak English very well. After 25 years, the one thing that is clear in my mind is that their mom makes the best Tonkatsu (breaded pork) with fresh bread crumbs. I was hoping she’d make us some, but to no avail. The delicious breaded pork will have to stay a mythical food of desire in my mind.
I think I gained weight (which I have been doing steadily for the past 30 years), and Tenille lost weight. We ate at several Traditional korean food restaurants, had Shabu Shabu, Kalbi ($30 per serving!), and duck cooked in clay. We also ate at Outback (always great chicken wings), and Bennigan’s (perhaps one of the worst meals).
We rode on the KTX, a train that travels at over 300 kmph (187 mph), to Busan, the second largest city in Seoul. We rode back on a bus with fully reclining seats and a TV (with no sound).
A favorite highlight of the trip for me was the visit to the LDS Temple in Seoul. We had an opportunity to meet the temple President there. Although the session was in a language I can barely understand, for a few hours I had a sense of familiarity and a bond with the people there. I would encourage everyone to try attending a session in a second language. Tenille was given head phones and later told me that she listened in Spanish.
Considering all the travelling by plane, train, car, and bus, Caleb did pretty well. He wasn’t without his share of breakdowns, but you can’t blame a one year old for getting fussy when travelling internationally. To be honest, I was probably more fussy than Caleb. However, wherever we went, he was the star of the show. Perhaps it’s because of the novelty that he’s a "mixed breed", but strangers would come up to us and take him from our arms. Department store workers stopped what they were doing to gather around him and play with him. Restaurant waitresses flocked to him. Hopefully this kind of attention won’t later manifest itself into high maintenance. The toughest part was getting Caleb to readjust back to Seattle time. On the first night, he wouldn’t go to bed, and we had to tend to him all night. Finally he ended up sleeping in our bed with me while Tenille slept in the guest bed. We are hoping he will readjust soon.
All in all a great trip. Tenille wished she could have stayed longer (for the shopping). I’m glad to be home where I can drink the water, breathe the clean air, sleep in a soft bed, live in a tri-level home with a yard, zip around in my car at over 60 mph, and have a respectable hunk of beef.