Soon after my arrival in Seoul in 1997, the Korean people told me about a huge indoor/outdoor market that I had to see. They described how many vendors came from rural areas and brought their produce there to sell to tourists and city-dwellers, and they described how these farmers started in the night, at 2 am, every night, to get set up for the day. It was customary at the time, they all told me, to go to Namdaemun Market at 4 or 5 am to get a good deal on what you wanted. What interested me was that there were over ten thousand vendors (!!!) at this market and the beautiful South Gate of old Seoul was outside of it. By the time I finally went to see it at the end of 1997, I had been lucky enough to have gotten a wonderful female Korean roomate and we went there together.
The Korean woman I befriended was Kim Ji-Young and she had been living across the nine-lane highway below, with her parents in the apartment complex there. She worked in the old downtown crunching numbers for ING Direct. She was a highly religious Christian and fell asleep in our room while praying a lot, she prayed that much. She was going to marry a Korean man soon. Thank goodness for me she had decided to live in my institute and learn English more. We talked a lot and went places together and roomed together for a few months. I tried to explain to her I didn’t see eye to eye with the other foreigners there and she didn’t seem to mesh with them either. Maybe she sensed their hatred?
My husband was eager to come and his visit was during the coldest week of the year. We wouldn’t have minded but it was such a damp cold and the worst thing, like I mentioned in a former blog, was that my living area wasn’t heated or insulated. I had to teach just the same during his visit. When he wasn’t shivering under the covers in bed next to the portable, partly broken heater that was provided by my boss, he saw Seoul with me.
Sail from the LG class was instrumental in showing my husband the good things about Korea. He made sure it was a good visit for Robert (my husband). You see, things weren’t perfect from the start, what with the lack of heating, and another thing: Korean Air had lost his luggage! I waited extra long at the airport for him to get off the plane so we could take the subway back to my institute. I waited and waited and waited. No sign of Robert… This is where I ordered a sandwich and it was ketchup and peas. A Middle Eastern man with a white beard and a turban bothered me in the airport and latched onto me, going on in a very animated way, wanting me to try to get him into ‘my country’, and I had to try to get away from him. I read an official pamphlet while I waited that had a huge, long list of countries where people from them were not allowed into Korea at all, period. My husband finally came out where I was and didn’t have his luggage.
It was dark by the time the subway came above ground on our long ride from west to east going from Kimpo Airport to Karak-dong. Robert saw the lights of the massive city and orange lit crosses of churches everywhere very well that evening. I brought him to Anam in Bucheon to meet Mr. Choi one day. One Saturday night we partied at a club/bar in Kangnam and found a small Korean restaurant the next day in my neighbourhood to each have a huge bowl of Korean dumpling soup to cure our hangovers. Was that ever good for making us feel better. The soup had all kinds of things in it like many types of vegetables, tofu, clams and ‘ddok’ (pieces of pounded rice) along with a load of homemade dumplings and the price was only 3 dollars per bowl.
There were many simple places along sidestreets where an older Korean woman would sell her cooking and charged low prices. Men did not cook as a rule in Korea and many men went to these places to have their meals if they weren’t married. If you did buy Korean cooking like that it was very affordable. Sometimes a foreigner like me couldn’t get served. I’ve seen where the Korean people running the restaurant turn away people like me because it’s too hard to understand what they want. Thank goodness I could understand some of the menu that was written in Korean and could speak a little Korean at that time.
One morning during Robert’s visit a Korean student from one of my morning classes right at my institute wanted to take my husband and me to eat at a special place in the satellite city to the south of us, Seongnam. After I had taught a few businessmen for an hour that morning in the 8 o’clock class, I went up to my floor to get Robert and we went in the man’s vehicle to Seongnam. It was funny because his van was not a mini-van like you’d see in Canada. He told us it was a MINI mini-van. A lot of vehicles had to be smaller than in North America due to lack of space. It was a bright, sunny day but cold. I didn’t realise it fully at the time, but the man took us to a famous area where you can get special noodles from that region. This restaurant had a glassed section inside where you could see men dressed in white stretching and pulling the homemade noodles. What stood out to us was that it was very cold, but the outside restaurant door was made of glass, and people kept coming in and out and when that door would open the air was freezing! I don’t remember there being any heat in there either. You couldn’t tell because it was so cold with the door opening all the time. We figured the Korean winter was short so everybody just tolerates the cold for a short while and in some cases they don’t bother to use heat or use heavy doors with weatherstripping, etc. I saw Seongnam twice and each time I saw apartment buildings upon apartment buildings surrounded by mountains.
We both went to Kyeongbokkung Palace with Sail and it was good to show it to Robert and good for me to see it again.
I know it sounds awful to say, but I’ll never forget about what the Korean diet did at first to both of us. Robert and I were on Line 8 on the subway one morning; perhaps we were heading out to Bucheon for him to meet Mr. Choi, and Robert told me he really needed the bathroom. At the next stop, we got off the train and thankfully found a bathroom. I had memorized where bathrooms were along that route. After a few minutes Robert came out of the bathroom and rushed up to me. His face looked really funny and he exclaimed in an urgent voice, “…Jen!!!…Holy ****!!! There’re stems and leaves in my ****!!! I looked in the toilet and it’s just stems and leaves!!!!!…” He was actually scared. I had forgotten that this happened to me a week after I’d been there. It happened sooner with him. I told him Don’t worry, it happened to me at first too. It is shocking that from the sudden, extreme change in diet it caused that in both of us over there. I should have found more western-style food for him but it was really hard to do that. That’s how different their diet is from ours. No potatoes….no bread….no cheese….
Sail wanted to bring Robert to see the Lotte Museum. We did go, and Sail went through all the exhibits with us. Their culture was beautifully showcased in room upon room upon room, on and on. There was a huge section where each room had a large display case or two filled with Korean dolls dressed in different costumes, posing in a variety of situations. A display case was maybe 12 feet by 12 feet. The dolls represented Korean people in many places. Display after display after display we came upon. Sail stood back while we marvelled at so many dolls. A number of displays had the dolls lined up in a true to life courtyard in front of the king and his throne. So many lines of different types of servants and soldiers, there were. A few displays showed the dolls as children all playing traditional games outside and mothers were cooking at pots over the fire inside the grass-covered little houses or hanging out clothes on clotheslines. More and more and more displays of dolls there were. Each doll was around a foot high. I think the entrance to this place was only 3 dollars! I later asked my husband what he liked the best about his visit. He said he liked the doll displays in that museum the best out of his whole visit. Koreans have the nicest, most elaborate museums of anywhere, I think.
After we saw the museum we went to a Western-style restaurant called T.G.I.F. and Sail ordered a platter of this and a platter of that along with other items from the menu. He paid for everything even though I did not want him to. One platter had Korean seafood pancakes to eat and they’re not sweet like ours in Canada. This platter had pieces of pancake cut into squares with green onion and Korean squash or zucchini inside as well as pieces of squid and you dip your piece of pancake in spicy soy sauce. I was having trouble eating a piece and couldn’t chew it and Sail had to tell me what the trouble was. I was eating a piece that contained a squid’s eye! And it was big and hard. I had to take the eye out of my mouth and leave it on my plate. Robert laughed about that for a long time afterwards.
Once when Robert was down on the third floor with me where the secretaries and Mr. Kim were, Miss Park took me aside and told me that Robert had good eyebrows. She said Koreans liked big, strong eyebrows on a man, and it was good that my husband had them. It meant something important if a man had pronounced eyebrows, and I can’t remember what it was…. I always find it so funny and so strange that they like men’s big eyebrows and women’s big eyelids. We all never think about those things in Canada.
The week that Robert was in Seoul was Solnal time, or Korean New Year. He and I were invited to Ji Young’s family’s apartment across the nine-lane road for dinner one day. Her parents were very nice and could speak a lot of English. Her father had worked for the government in a high-up job that had to do with international relations. We sat around their dining room table and talked and that huge long table was absolutely full of nice dishes, one after another. I know there were many types of soups. The most beautiful soup was made with eels! I had never eaten eels before because in my area of Moncton they were thought of as gross. That soup was wonderful. Koreans make excellent food with eels and sardines and squid, and everything else for that matter. I had a nice clear turnip soup too. Before we went back to the institute, Ji Young’s parents gave me a set of bronze-cast cranes! They are old and they are precious to me. What a gift!
Speaking of Solnal 1998, when Robert and I were going to Sail’s apartment to go sightseeing with him during that time, we got lost. We knocked on someone’s door in Seollung in Gangnam-Gu. A Korean man answered and he was wearing one of their special Hanbok outfits and I could see his family waiting inside in their colourful outfits. I felt so bad for disturbing them while they were performing their rituals for Solnal. I think I had to get the man to call Sail. It was so hard to find a place because they didn’t go by a street and number on that street. They only seemed to name a huge neighborhood and perhaps used landmarks after that to get anywhere. This is another reason it was scary and intimidating for me to use their taxis – there was no western-style address to give the driver.
Sail personally drove us up to Seoul Tower also. On the way, Sail had to stop and ask directions from someone. He stopped and talked to a Korean man. I remember noticing how remarkable it was for them all to live in a homogenous population. Everyone was like a friend or relative and they were all familiar and at ease when speaking to Korean strangers. In Canada many people are wary and cautious of everyone, even a next-door neighbour.
Then on the way once we had found out how to get to Sail’s, I needed the bathroom. You will think I’m odd and obsessed with toilets, but I’m just describing that even using the bathroom was different there. One of the teachers at my institute had told me that some older bathrooms in Korea that were for women had no toilets, but these older bathrooms had an oval ‘toilet’ built right into the floor, so a woman had to ‘squat’ and do her business. Could I imagine the audacity of Koreans, she asked indignantly, expecting women to squat to use the bathroom because their anatomy is a certain way? The woman (from Calgary, Alberta) telling me was resentful and hateful, and looked for anything to run the Koreans down. I pondered what it would be like to have to use a ‘squatter’, and was hopeful after she told me about it that I would never have to use one. The bathroom I found on the way to Sail’s in Seollung had a squatter!!! I wasn’t angry or resentful at all after I used it. Later, I did come across a couple more of them in Korea and I didn’t mind at all. It was just different. Like everything there, it was different. The squatters are probably all gone now.
More about Karak-dong….
In the bottom of my building in Karak-dong, a person would first wave to the old Korean man who always had his beautiful little dog with him before he/she went up the stairs. He was a security man. They were extremely common everywhere. Then a person would walk up the four flights of stairs, as there was no elevator, and come to the landing of my floor, which had 2 bathrooms and a digital clothes washer. If you kept going up the stairs, at the landing part of the way up to the fifth floor, there were a few clothes-drying racks to hang your wet clothes. This was extremely important there, to have these drying racks, as there were absolutely NO CLOTHES DRYERS in Korea. While being transported across the city, everywhere I went, I saw clothes hung up in the windows of all of the apartment buildings! When I used the digital washing machine, the information was in Korean. We all just pressed some buttons and had to hope it washed our clothes!
If you walked about 8 steps across the landing at the 4th floor and passed the bathrooms and the washer, you came to a glass door and a bunch of footwear on the floor. You had to take your shoes off and leave them there and put on a pair of rubber slippers. Then you could open the glass door and enter our living area. There was a small lounge with a television and a fridge and a phone on a desk. This is where we received our calls from friends and family. You couldn’t just call a restaurant or anywhere and ask a question because no one spoke English. I remember one Canadian teacher yelling into the phone over and over, “…Yong-o…!!!….Yong-o…???…Can you speak English???!!??!!…Does anyone there speak English..!?!!?…Yong-o…???…” ‘Yong-o’ was English. There were many bedrooms beyond the lounge. On the tv, there was a channel that showed The Jay Leno Show and Seinfeld. Thank goodness I could see Seinfeld, but only once a week on Thursday like back home. Other than that we used the tv to see American movies on videotapes we would rent and watch on a vcr. Koreans were always interested in the latest American movies. I saw some of the latest ones while there like G.I. Jane, Murder at 400 and Twister. Only certain ones had been ‘approved’ for them to see. The Korean students watched The Jay Leno Show on Friday nights. Anthony and the men loved it.
One day a foreign teacher said I had better come and see what they do there. I looked out the window and there was a huge crane-like vehicle or machine at the bottom of one of the HanShin Apartment buildings beside where we were. The vehicle was extending a long metal crane or tube up to the window of one of the apartments in that HanShin building. People moved their furniture in or out of apartments this way. A sofa, for example, was shifted through the crane-like tube and it moved down to the vehicle, or maybe a sofa would travel upwards in the long extension if someone was moving into a place. So no one is carrying furniture and bags into elevators at all. They do everything in a convenient and sensible way.
I want to also say that it was so different being there that when we stood talking by the washing machine having our smokes, the Korean men went in the men’s bathroom and went to the urinals while leaving the door open. The women or anyone by the washing machine could see the men using the large bathroom. I couldn’t believe it!
Robert’s visit ended after the third week of January and I continued on travelling to classes and missing Canada more as well as worrying about the financial crisis.
I enjoy reading all the details which I have forgotten over the years. By the time you were teaching there, I had left Korea the end of the school year in 97 and was in the states making my way eventually to Florida. I also smoked from nerves in Korea and didn’t like some of the other foreign teacher’s attitudes. I need to email you!
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Once I was invited to go on a climbing trip and we camped overnight and I had to use a very rustic bathroom by squatting and it was up in the air!!!It is hard to explain it.
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I wonder what the deal was with that toilet you saw and had to use? It’s like we were the same person over there – you even smoked!! I had to get KOOL American ones (strong menthol) because Marlboro were so strong. I missed my Canadian ones. Theirs were light and not very good, I found. Were they called “This”??
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I think. I stopped smoking in 2001, so it is hard for me to remember the details but I do remember the Marlboro was strong! I will have to write sometime about that camping trip.
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