Kyeongbokkung Palace is a very large, beautiful complex. The king’s throne and 2 ponds and a pagoda-style museum are inside. When you face the front of it, you see the northern Bukhansan Mountains behind it. North Korea is around 50 kms beyond those mountains, a Korean businessman told me at first. They were very aware of North Korea but had to live their lives regardless. Ha ha, I told that Korean man that my grandmother thought I would be shot by a North Korean soldier and he laughed. Of course, it wasn’t really funny. There were 100 000 US troops there always at that time. We would see evidence of this here and there. For sure they all thought my husband was a US soldier when he visited, because he had a military-like haircut.
A bit of orientation to Seoul is required here. If you are facing the North Gate above, the Bukhansan mountains are beyond the mountain in that picture. If you are beyond them, you are very close to North Korea. I had to know north, where these distinctive mountains were, and behind me would be south, then, where the Han river was. As long as you knew that, you knew a little about where to go. Many times, knowing north, south, east and west was enough to get my bearings.
I was on a ‘working vacation’. I went to see special places on my days off. I didn’t need much money. Entrance fees to large, beautiful places were only a few dollars. To get here, I had to go to my subway station in Karak-dong and go on the pink line for about four stops, then switch trains in Jamsil, and go for many stops on the green line, and then switch to the orange line to get to Anguk-dong and walk from there to the entrance of this palace. There was a lot of stamina needed because after this journey you were walking around the palace grounds, and had been going up and down many steps in subway stations and you still had to get all the way home afterwards too.
That September was when I first saw the palace. It was one of the first sights I saw in Seoul. The ponds had koi in them and I could feed them crackers. There were several large courtyards where soldiers would have stood in designated rows in front of the king in their colourful uniforms. There were spots in these courtyards for scholars and advisors wearing their tall black hats. Huge columns came down from high walls surrounding the courtyards. A special peach colour was on a lot of the walls, houses and chimneys inside Gyeongbokgung, creating a peach colour theme throughout the palace.
I walked from section to section to section of breathtaking houses. Some were for the queen and her ladies in waiting to live in. Some were for the king to hold examinations (Koreans still have an extensive exam system in schools today) of servants and workers. So many special buildings, and you could see decorative chimneys too. These chimneys were all part of a techologically advanced heating system that was displayed at this palace. In ancient times a floor was heated by having a fire in the chimney and the heat from it was channelled underneath the floor in ducts and therefore the room was warmed. These buildings all had granite floors and they were all raised up like they would have been back in 1500AD to allow heated air to go underneath them to heat the floors up.
This heating system is used today but it has been modernised. Many floors are heated in Korea in the winter. It’s called “ondol”. If you really like heat, you would absolutely love it! It’s very warm and luxurious and more effective at keeping you warm than Canadian systems.
One day Sang Hyun brought me on the subway to a nearby neighborhood that must have been Yangjae, where there were many flowers and plants for sale. We walked along a sidewalk towards a small mountain. We walked past some men who were busy with a huge steel vat of white liquid. The vat must have been over 3 feet wide. Sang Hyun told me they were making tofu – right along the busy sidewalk! I had walked right beside the vat! Sometimes, like on that day, I would walk past a huge dead ‘skate’ for sale on the sidewalk. Some Koreans liked ‘fermented skate’ (large sea creature with ‘wings’). We made it to the mountain and there was a yellow ginkgo tree forest around a small Buddhist temple, as the leaves were turning colour for fall. Sang Hyun and I sat under the ginkgo trees and talked and relaxed. It was a wonderful day.
At that time there were no skyscrapers in Seoul. There was a gold-coloured building with 63 floors that was the tallest one in the city, called ’63 Building’. It was in the business area of Yeoido, which was comparable to Wall Street, they said. Yeoido was far away from Karak-dong and also housed the National Assembly Building of the government and was the television and entertainment center of the country. News companies filmed there and had their headquarters there. If I was going to see a Korean celebrity, they all said, it would be in Yeoido. I was given a morning class there for 3 mornings a week. I had to find a certain building after walking from a subway stop and it was a Financial subsidiary of Hyundai. I was the personal English teacher of the head of this branch. He would drive into the circular driveway in a chauffered car and all of the staff were in uniform and bowed to him. Secretaries had to bring me and him coffee. If they hadn’t, I can’t imagine what would have ever happened. At this building, as in many others, I had to go to a big locker room when I first got there and switch into a pair of slippers provided to me(found in ‘my’ locker) and leave my sneakers in the locker provided to me while I went upstairs.
It was exciting to take the subway across the bottom of Seoul again to get to Yeoido, almost like going all the way back to Kimpo Airport, and what a feeling I had getting out in such a unique district. There was a statue of a bull, to replicate a bull statue on Wall Street, outside one of the places I would pass on my way to Hyundai Financial. Most importantly, I want to say that the subway stop I used in Yeoido had 160 stairs. I counted one time because I noticed there were more stairs than in other stations. To get there I had to transfer twice so I used the pink line, the green line and the purple line to go there and also to go back. I loved it but every day I spent many hours travelling toand from classes – more time travelling than in the classrooms.
In the neighborhood beside mine, to the west of Karak-dong, was a tall distinctive building called The Koex. It meant Korean Trade Center, or Exchange. They were very proud of it. It had a zig-zag shape. A few other modern buildings there had fancy architectural designs like a hole in the top (Jogno Bldg in old downtown) or one was called Glass Tower in Gangnam and it had an oval shape.
I had other places to teach on a regular basis and early in the morning I was supposed to teach right on the third floor of the building I lived in. Usually, I just had one particular student in these early, early classes. It was ‘Anthony’ Lee, who was a civil servant residing in our building while he studied English to be able to advance in his job. He worked nearby so he went to work after this early class. A lot of the people had to try to learn English before work. And they had longer work hours than people in Canada did.
Since Anthony and I were alone in most classes, we mostly just talked for him to practice speaking. His English was good. He was, I think, 39 at that time. When we were sitting there alone, each at a desk, he told me why he was single. When he was a lot younger, he said, he was in love with a girl. And she loved him. But her father said ‘no’ and would not let her marry Anthony because Anthony was poor. Anthony said he was poor and had to hunt rabbits on the mountain near where he grew up when he was a child. He said in that classroom to me, “Now I have money. I am not poor now. But she married someone else and it is too late”. I was so caught up in the story I said he should go and find her, even now, and get her to go with him and I was sure she would leave her husband to be with her real love…. Anthony said it was out of the question. I said again he should find her. He shook his head and said in such a serious voice, “You do not understand Korea…..” I think he was also a little amused that someone wouldn’t understand their collective consciousness and complicated, strict social rules. I like their society but it would take years to even be able to understand the rules about bowing, or to be able to pronounce their words like they say it, let alone be able to feel comfortable with how to act as a woman in their society.
Most foreign people like me were always teaching kindergarden classes only right at their institutes. I liked businessmen or adults in general better. At least I could listen to wonderful, interesting stories the businessmen told me, even if I did have to pay around a dollar for a subway or bus ride to get there. I had one-time jobs as well. I would have to try to find the place I was going, first of all. One time a female Korean teacher and I were late at a kindergarden because it was so hard to find and the older Korean woman who had ordered us went up one side and down the other of us, telling us off in Korean for a long time. She was yelling at us after we were done trying to teach the alphabet to the kids. This class was just sprung on me and I didn’t even know where I was. The Korean girl who was supposed to be my teaching partner said, “We’re fired!!!!’ afterward. A building like that was chock full of screaming, unruly little kids and we couldn’t do much with the ones we were assigned to. I wanted to say ‘g’ is for green grass, but realised they don’t have much grass there….. Maybe I should have had a bunch of new ideas like, “Green like the seaweed!!!!”
Once I had to go near the Kyeongbokkung Palace up in an office building and stand up in front of a large classroom of strangers whose were eager to be ‘taught’ by a real English speaker. No one told me who the group of Korean people were or what I should talk about. They just said, “Teach the class!”, as usual. It worked out because I talked about my impressions of Korea. They were thrilled, thank goodness. I was terrified.
Sometimes people were somewhat rude or not suited. Korean women were not the same as men back then if I had to teach them. The women were at a disadvantage – they seemed to have not been taught English as well as the men were and I think Korean women hadn’t been encouraged to speak English in the same way as the men had been. The men usually communicated better in English than the women there did. Sometimes a woman with money who didn’t have a job came to take classes at my institute – the ones who did this were called ‘Housewives’ by the secretaries. When I talked to a few, it was interesting because one had travelled to Egypt and one had tried to have a sheep farm as a new immigrant in New Zealand but couldn’t succeed. The one who had been in Egypt said not to bother trying to eat the food there.
The women were less enjoyable to me. They had good pronounciation, I noticed, but were not using their ability as far as speaking goes. Their seriousness made them hard to talk to. Men had been given more confidence, I found, and some caught onto speaking English better than others. I think companies and schools didn’t put as much effort into helping the women speak English because not only were men more important, but Korean women didn’t work at all during their child-rearing years. Everyone did the same, predictable things there. Every woman stopped working when her first child was going to be born. Most women returned to the workforce when their children were grown up, but the men could stay at their . Almost every Korean did the same things in life – someone would learn and learn and study and study every day all day and go to university, then get a job, preferably an office job. There were other rules too. A Korean person would be ostracized if he or she didn’t do the same as the others. One Korean businessman told me if everyone is reading a book on the subway, a Korean person will feel he should take out a book and start reading it too. He said it goes back eons ago to Confucianism. There are so many facets as to why things are the way they are there.
I had to mention the fruit. When I was first there and walked to the subway station or bus stop, women were selling fruit and fish and other items on the sidewalk. At first, they had fresh dark purple grapes for sale. The grapes had a rich taste and the peeling on the grapes was very thick. The people there peeled their grapes, but I ate the thick peeling. Someone told me each month had a fruit featured because it would be harvest season of a certain fruit every month. I know grapes were featured first, then it was the month of huge Korean apples that tasted like Golden Delicious apples. Then it was Korean pears and I know tangerine-like oranges came out and persimmons were in season in the fall also. When I was first in Korea, and visiting a pond, there were Korean ‘dates’ growing on a big ‘date’ tree. You could find bakeries that sold ‘date’ bread. It was like eating the most beautiful raisin bread you had ever eaten. The Asian pears were absolutely humongous and only cost 2 dollars each. They were selling a truckload of apples or pears in the streets all the time. They sold them along some sidewalks or outside of little stores too. One Sunday night I was leaving Sang Hyun’s apartment and still didn’t have any money so he sent me home with a basket of persimmons to help me that upcoming week. I had never eaten a persimmon before. The flesh is like a jello consistency.
I went at first to Olympic Park. It was near Karak-dong and was made to hold the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. So there were a number of stadiums and there are also some historical sections in the park.
Olympic Park was a short subway ride up Line 8 to Jamsil. It was pronounced Shamshil. We had to walk to the park from there in 1997. I liked walking there. A Chili’s Restaurant was on the way. A few times I went to Chili’s and it was so nice to get non-Korean food for a change. It was so good but extremely expensive, as all trendy Western restaurants there were. Across from the Olympic Park entrance were two large glass churches. I think it said they were Methodist. There were 2 of the glass churches together – one tall one and one longer, more horizontal one. I went in one once just to say I was in a glass church! One time another teacher and I walked from Jamsil to our building in Karak-dong and it took 3 hours, but that distance was considered to be short in Seoul.
I used to come to this park in wintertime when I was lonely. The views were nice of apartments in the next neighborhood and I was accustomed to walking in parks and looking at trees in Canada.
Yes, you do have a similar look to me! So many of the same photos and same memory of teaching kindergarten. I did better with the adults, also!
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Your anecdotes are amazing and lovely to read. I was born in 1995 in Seoul and can’t imagine what it was like for a foreign woman to live here alone back then. Have you ever come back after that?
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JiYoung: Thank you so much! I was reading from your blog today and found the parts about those 3 foreign guys you were living with in Australia so interesting. It made me remember how frustrating and hurtful it was living with other foreigners in Korea when I was at my hogwan. I was afraid the things I said in this blog would be taken the wrong way but you thought it was okay, thank goodness! I vacationed in Korea (Seoul, Gyeongju and Busan)with my husband in late 1999 but I have multiple sclerosis now and need a wheelchair. I do dream about returning. I want to read more of your blog to find out where you were born in Seoul and where you’ve been living there lately. -Jen
I’m sorry to hear about the sclerosis, you seem like a very interesting person to talk to in person! I’ve read more of your entries and it’s astonishing how you can remember such details of Seoul from decades ago! And it’s such a treat to be able to read your stories, to see how much has changed since when you were here… and I’m guessing you were one of the very few foreign women in Korea living alone. Do you mind if I tell others about your blog on Instagram? My friends and English students would love reading it! I was born in Sinrim (Sillim?) next to Seoul National University, then moved around so many places, lived in Gangnam for a while, and am now in Ewha, near Sinchon. I’m still struggling to orient my way around the city!
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Hi JiYeong! I am thrilled that you think people would like the blog – I remember a lot and I was only there for 6 months. And the 12 day holiday a few years later was a great idea too. I explain about staying in Gyeongju and Busan in the later parts of the blog, like Part 9 or Part 12(?). I am glad you realise it would be hard to be there alone in 1997. I didn’t mention about the old Korean man who ran the Hyundai Financial who was trying to get me to be his mistress and hugging me so close to him and obsessed with body parts. My explanations of Seoul are so positive, I didn’t know how to begin to explain…although I do remember. And I had a “subway pervert” once…in rush hour. I mentioned it in the blog and I also mentioned the Korean man who exposed himself on the subway stairs and I had to walk by him on my way up the stairs while he was talking to me in Korean and stroking himself. I was so shaken once I made it to Aju Middle School… I am going to look on Never Maps for Shillim. I look at videos and news and study but there are so many more places to know now. Shillim was there when I was there – I hope I’m not namng the wrong place..it’s more difficult now that you say there’s a different spelling, like Sollung…!!!
I have more I can say. Sorry, I talk too much and write too much! My Korean roommate in Garak was named JiYeong too. She said in her case, many mothers back then named their girls after a popular actress named JiYeong. Also, the “At First” blog shouldn’t say anything about Beomosa at all (I did go there but it’s way later on). It’s some kind of error by WordPress.
Oh my goodness. I’m sorry for those negative experiences you had. Sadly those types of men did not die out in 1997… it’s crazy what trials solo female travellers have to go through in foreign countries. Yes! Jiyoung/Jiyeong is a very popular name. It’s like Amy or Katie I guess. By the way I uploaded an introduction of your blog on my Instagram, instagram.com/jiyounggeorgiatoefl , and my students and friends love it! You and your anecdotes are amazing!
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I found you on Instagram, I think, and have read more of your writings. I commented just now about the stress you are under in Seoul because of the “beauty” thing. My next blog is going to be about vehicles and traffic in Seoul in the late 90’s but a future blog could be about “beauty” in Korea for sure.