Musings about Korean markets in the 1990s…

So very different from Canada….

Fresh food was for sale in a lot of areas. On the sidewalks sometimes, and at huge, sprawling vendors’ markets, and at stands outside of corner stores. Prepared ‘street food’ was for sale on the roads in certain areas. Small, blue-coloured Daewoo trucks drove slowly through residential neighborhoods, with a man’s voice on a loudspeaker announcing seafood or Asian pears or even eggs for sale. These were all affordable, or they were even great deals. Like I’ve mentioned in former blogs here, you could see a man selling roasted chestnuts outside of a venue, or come across a truck selling bags of rice snacks next to a subway station or you could go to a stand selling freshly cooked ‘boongobbang’ (waffle-like cake filled with red bean paste shaped like fish) beside a factory.

There were underground malls adjacent to subway tracks and above-ground markets that had hundreds of stores in clusters of buildings, covering a lot of city blocks, that sold just electronics, for example. Many times the buildings that housed these ‘markets’ were a number of stories tall, and there would always be vendors at these same markets who had their wares on the street too. Food courts were large and in malls and big box stores.

Malls were huge, but were in 6, 7 or 8-storey buildings to save precious space and they sold high-end clothes and jewellery. Prices of food and necessities were good at most places but clothing was always high-priced everywhere, no matter what. There were no sizes for tall, big-boned women like me. And when I wanted gloves or a hat, for instance, there were only fancy, expensive choices. In Canada, by contrast, there were elite stores but also there were always more affordable ones that were usually cheap department stores. I could have bought cheap, affordable gloves or scarves or winter hats in a North American department store for a few dollars each, but in Seoul each of these items was over 8 dollars and nowadays the price would be much higher 22 years later. In November of 1997, I needed sneakers or boots and saw some spread out on the pavement, outside, below some apartment buildings, but they were too expensive and the sizes were small. I looked at the men’s ones, since I knew I couldn’t fit into women’s sizes, and they weren’t much bigger than the women’s sizes and also, these men’s boots were not at all rugged or practical. Everything was made to wear while going from a car or subway into an office building – even the men’s winter boots! They reminded me of men’s dress shoes I would see in Canada. I wanted something made for walking long distances or even hiking or at least going through some snow. So I never bought any footwear while I was there and had to make do with one pair of sneakers from home.

An example of street food, which is popular.

One thing that was so interesting was that one time in Seoul, I was at a very large place where people could buy vegetables, and not only did they have carrots for sale, but they were in a space the size of my city block at home. That city block was full of carrots piled there right on the pavement. You walked and walked a long way to pass the mountains of carrots. Then you had an area the size of another city block piled with onions, just piled there for a long way, like the carrots were. A large area the size of my neighbourhood in Canada had all the common types of vegetables on the ground for sale. You walked a very long distance to get your vegetables at this place. I thought that was something I certainly would never have seen in my country and I marvelled at such a set-up. The population was so high they needed to do it that way.

There were grocery stores all around, and I would find them with difficulty, as they were usually in basements of buildings that had other businesses in them, and the signs were all in Korean. I was always struck by how there were no potatoes or milk or bread made with wheat like they’d have in my area of Canada. There were no fridges full of cartons of cow’s milk. Just some little plastic bottles of ‘flavoured’ milk, perhaps strawberry or coffee flavour, and the banana one is very popular with foreigners today. The tea sections had expensive green Korean ‘loose’ teas, and big glass jars of lemon or plum to mix with hot water. Some kinds of tea in bags were ground barley ‘tea’ in bags or ground corn in tea bags. ‘Job’s tears’ tea was popular and was usually a powder mixed in hot water, called ‘nut’ tea. I found some Lipton ‘black’ tea in bags like at home but Canadians in the Atlantic region think Lipton tea is not very good, and we have better brands of ‘black’ tea – my older relatives all would have perished without their King Cole or Red Rose tea! I had no idea that the tea we use in the west is called ‘black’ tea. Now, if I order tea in an Asian establishment I must remember to call it ‘black’ tea or the server won’t know what I’m asking for.

Packaged spicy ramyeon ‘noodle soup’, seafood made into street food, what looks like raw blood sausage, Korean pancakes and fish and vegetables.

In Kyeongju we walked through a sprawling market of mostly produce, where you passed items set out on a the street by many vendors. The picture above with the vegetables for sale reminds me of what I saw there. In the picture above, the prices show how items, some in packages, cost a dollar or two or three each. The prices are in Korean won and I always estimate if something costs 1000 won, it would be around one American dollar. The stock market fluctuates, but that’s how I figure it. Also, I figure ₩1000 is around a Canadian dollar too sometimes, to make it simple.

In Pusan, we were in a gigantic fish market downtown where we came upon anchovies for sale. I never knew what anchovies were because we do not eat them or sell or buy them in my area of Canada. They are little silver-coloured, dried fish. This indoor market had a few large boxes of big anchovies (still small, dried fish) in a section. In that same section beside the big ones, were a few boxes of a size a little smaller, then another few boxes of the slightly smaller next size, and so on, until you saw a few boxes of tiny, tiny anchovies. Maybe there were 8 different sizes. I thought it was amazing to see the sheer amount that was needed, as there were so many of those little, dried fish for sale in that one area of the market.

Speaking of these anchovies, I had soup with different sizes of the tiny fish in it while I lived in Korea. I like fish in general, but I didn’t want to have soup with little fish in it in the morning. One morning I was finishing my nice bowl of Korean soup in the basement of my institute and there had been a bunch of these anchovies in it – they were all in the bottom of my bowl!

I should mention that in one area of the old downtown there were many little jewellery stores, and it was thought of as a ‘jewellery market’. I went in a few of these stores, and it was amazing to me to see many display counters showing pieces with only one particular coloured gem, like a yellow one. Then after looking at many counters of yellow, I saw many counters where all pink gems were showcased, and then blue gems, and so on. Counter upon counter and row upon row of just one colour! Then more! I couldn’t believe the sheer amount of one kind of coloured gem in one spot and there were many other stores with the same set-up in this famous ‘jewellery market’ as well. At home we’d have smaller stores with smaller displays and only a few stores in my city at that.

Teaching in Karibong, Aju Middle School

I loved the magpies…they are the same ones that live in the western part of North America. They are a large songbird around 10 inches long and they make a loud cry like a bluejay. I had never seen one in Canada.

‘LG’ class….

One of the main classes I had was in Karibong-dong, teaching four businessmen at a building that was run by LG. LG is one of the biggest companies in Korea. My “LG class” was in a large building complex that had a cellphone plant and many offices and a cafeteria in Southwestern Seoul. I knew nothing about any of their big companies when I started the class. And it would have been nice to have been told something about where the class was and who I was going to have to teach when I began this class, and for how long, but I never was told much about anything.

Whenever I went to this LG class, I had to go in the late afternoon on a long subway ride, traveling on and on to western Seoul, but then I had to go on further, south of Yeoido, as well. Karibong was about an hour and 20 minutes by subway(one way!) away from Karak-dong and then there was 15 minutes or so of walking to get from my Karibong subway stop to the LG building itself. It was an industrial and business area that was another concrete jungle like Bucheon was back then. I had to walk through all kinds of streets and even walk alone beside a raised highway after leaving the subway station in order to make it to the LG class. I always had a nice guard to wave to and to speak a few words to outside at the entrance of the LG complex, and smiling, young Korean receptionists to see at the information desk in the building before meeting my ‘students’. This area was where I could buy some warm “bungobang” desserts from a food cart near the LG complex. A bungobang snack is a waffle made into a fish shape, and filled with red bean paste.

I had only been in Korea for about a week when I first went there and was still basically terrified and unsure of myself. That first late afternoon, I found myself in a nice classroom with four Korean men, not knowing what I should say or do. They introduced themselves one by one and told me a bit about themselves. Oh my goodness, I was so nervous. One was an engineer who designed the inner workings of LG cellphones, called Kim Jin Man. He spoke to me very slowly in a soft voice. Another student was an engineer like Jin Man but he was even shier than Jin Man and his name was Pyo Sang-Mun. A third student had very good English and a loud, strong voice. He told me he was a salesman for the cellphones and he was called Lee Su-Il. The fourth man was older and ultra-dignified and he was in charge of a large group of employees there. He was “a superior” to the other men in the class because of his job title, and their society was strict about varying status levels and formalities, but he was very humble, however, in the class. His name was Kim Dae-Sik and he asked me to call him “Joseph”.

Joseph had chosen that English name because he was a devout Catholic. He said there were only two Catholic churches in Seoul and he went every week to the main one in Myeong-dong across the river. He would have had quite a journey just to get to church. At that time, one third of Koreans were Buddhist, one third were Christian and one third were “no religion”. I asked them, What kind of Christian religion? They all didn’t know what I meant when I asked and they’d all say, “Just Christian!”. I was confused. In Canada Christianity was so divided. The different groups seemed to dislike eachother : the Pentecostal people, for example, thought they would be ‘saved’, but other groups like the Catholics or Baptists will not be ‘saved’, and so on.

Thank goodness I could bring photocopies of pages from the books about teaching English as a second language that were in the office at my institute. I at least could have a semblance of professionalism if I had those papers with me to hand out. These four men were eventually involved with me outside of the class. It was my favourite class and one of the longest lasting contracts I had. It lasted 3 months. I had to go there at suppertime every Monday and Wednesday and Friday and it was a long way to travel. I had woken up every weekday at 6 am and had taught classes all day before leaving at 4 pm for Karibong and the LG class. By the time I got back to my building in Karak-dong it was nine o’clock at night! But I always found it enjoyable and looked forward to seeing the men, who had such respect for me and were so funny and interesting at the same time.

Since this area was less modern and less residential, it was less safe for me and I had 2 unusual events happen around here. Six weeks after I started going there a man acted strangely on the street and was saying something to me, but I didn’t know what he wanted. He was agitated. It was fine with me and I was no more scared than usual, but when I told my LG students about that man, they were very concerned and always drove me back to the subway station after the class from then on, so I wouldn’t be walking in that area alone at night anymore.

The signs say you can get pork at these restaurants.

The other ‘event’ was much worse than the man who was saying something foreign to me on the street. I was walking in the crowded Karibong subway station to get to the exit, and a Korean man rushed up to me and swiftly kicked me hard, square-on, in the shin. That hurts because your shin-bone is right there. He hurried away and I noticed a few people looking a little funny, but they quickly looked down and continued on their way. I had a huge sore purple and green bruise in that spot on my shin for a long time afterward. One of the ministers at the Sejong Institute told me this might have happened because the man thought I was an American….. I never did have a Canadian flag sewn on any of my clothing – I probably should have done that.

These two incidents were really out of the ordinary in Korea. Everyone was orderly and never bothered anyone. The LG students were right to be concerned about that agitated man acting unusual and saying something to me in Korean because over there it would be so rare to get harassed or bothered. It would mean there’s something very wrong with that man. I did have a few other awful or odd experiences in Seoul but considering the fact that I might have one oddball per every 10 000 Korean people I saw, I thought that was pretty good!

Smiling receptionists at the LG building in Karibong.

The class had a different feel or dynamic, depending on who came. Sometimes I was with only one of them, or with just 2, or three or all four. In this group, as in all of the English classes I had in Korea, there were a few who were aggressive and talked a lot and wouldn’t give the more reserved men a chance to speak. I had to let the confident speakers talk but I had to interrupt them here and there so I could ask a shy student what he thought of the topic. It was mostly discussions that we had in all of these adult classes. Practicing speaking was important for them. They all had years of looking at English textbooks in school,but needed to listen to native English speakers like me. I found it so interesting that all the businessmen I met in Seoul told me at first that it was extremely important to them that they learn to speak English. The business world was turning “global”, they said. They knew they had to branch out and sell their goods to other countries. This was the way of the future, they all told me. In my remote area in Canada, I had never heard about this. When I read articles lately about their national and global success that has multiplied since I was there, I am truly happy for them all.

They eat short-grain sticky rice. It’s heavier than long-grain rice. I remember Jin Man exclaiming in protest and dismay when I shook soy sauce on my little bowl of rice one time, as they eat it plain, usually, in a separate small bowl.

Mr. Lee was one who insisted on talking and not letting the others speak much; even the older, ‘superior’ Joseph always let Mr. Lee talk uninterrupted. When Mr. Lee wasn’t there, Joseph talked the most and the other two men couldn’t get a word in. After a few weeks of my teaching them, they said I should eat supper at their company cafeteria. I would meet Jin Man when I arrived, usually, and we would talk and eat, like I did at Anam with Mr. Choi. I think it was in that cafeteria that one of my meals was ‘blood sausage’ or pork intestines, which is an old-fashioned meal in my area in Canada but I would never accept to eat it when I lived in Canada. In Korea, I found it was edible and of course it was a moderate amount in a little dish, served with a number of other little dishes, like rice and kimchi and soup. I was so accustomed to eating something objectionable, or foreign to me in Seoul, that I just ate what was given to me. I remember around once a month at a workplace cafeteria like this they would serve ‘curried chicken’ and the Koreans loved it and were very happy if it was on the menu.

One thing I never forget is a sidewalk stand near this LG building that sold “boong-o-bang” for 50 cents each. It was a waffle-like batter poured into a hot metal mold shaped like a fish, with fishscales decorating it, and filled with the red bean paste Koreans ate it as a sweet snack. The person operating the stand was pressing the waffle-iron down to cook the batter and heat the filling, like when you work a waffle-press. So you bought a hot, delicious ‘fish’ to eat that was a sort of dessert. They were really something, and had a crisp outside and a rich taste, but not too rich. I would buy 2 or three at a time. If I look online at places in Koreatown in Toronto that sell boong-o-bang today, they are filled with custard filling, and not red bean paste. Oh, to really be there in Korea and get some!

I looked through many stock photos online and this was the closest to what the area looked like back then.

I do remember sitting alone in the classroom with Mr. Lee one time, and he told me to call him ‘Sail’. It was easier. Later, when I got the hang of his real name, I realised it’s because his name was Su Il. He was very remarkable. He was instrumental to LG’s growth because his English was so good and he had such confidence and presence. They sent him to Singapore and the Philippines and other Asian countries to head up their global cellphone sales. Later, he was a frontrunner in the US and England for these sales. He was the only Korean person I met who knew about the Maritimes in Atlantic Canada, where I was from. He told me he had to know about all of the world when he did research for sales and that he had seen information about Halifax, which is where I went to university.

Many times, Sail would drive me home or close to his home in Kangnam so I could take the subway from there to Karak-dong. This was really something as well! Many Koreans, including Sail, would take a few hours to get to their job and would be at the job for 10 hours, and then they would travel for a few hours more to get home afterward. It’s the same even today. Their days were long like mine were. We would go to the underground parking and get in his car and then when we were leaving the complex, we had to stop for the guard at the gate. The guard would go around to the trunk and open it and check to see there were no company secrets or electronics being stolen. Everyone leaving was checked. There were many, many cars in Seoul and so much population that on the drive, we were in traffic jams the whole time. And all the drivers regularly beeped their horns at one another. I think it was just to warn drivers and say, I’m moving now or Be aware of me. Beeping the horn in traffic seemed to be a habit. I remember being stopped waiting to move a lot and hearing constant car horns. And it would be dark by then so all the buildings were lit up. And of course we would talk the whole time. Sometimes the radio would be on, playing lovely pop songs. The songs were all in their language and the melodies were beautiful. And sometimes Sail would stop at one of Seoul’s bakeries and buy me a Korean “vegetable pocket”.

This picture is just inserted here to break up my text. These types of ceremonies are put on a lot for tourists but I never did see one while I was there. Sail’s wife, So-Jeong, was extremely beautiful like these women.

I knew his spending time with me was mainly so he could further practice his English but I did not feel used and found him helpful to me – he and his wife are the ones who gave me that special red winter jacket I had on in the GuRyeongSan photo. He would also bring me to his ‘house’ and his wife would have cooked a late supper for us. One time it was a rice dish and I told her honestly it was the best, tastiest rice dish I had ever had. She was surpised and said it was just ketchup in the rice. I don’t know what she would have done with the ketchup and rice to make them so delicious.

The best thing of all was that he and his wife had a tiny, white toy poodle! They treated that dog so well. I had never been around a toy poodle before. He was so tiny! Like a toy that would almost fit in your hand. And they fed him fruit! I remember Sail giving him Korean grapes to eat when he begged. They had called the dog ChoRong and Sail told me it meant ‘shining’ like calling your dog ‘Twinkle’, like a star twinkles. Chorong was very smart and he was trained to pee and poop on their bathroom floor so the small amount of pee went down the drain that was in the middle of every bathroom floor over there.

When my husband came to visit in January, Sail insisted on being his “personal guide” while he was in Korea. I have always looked back and thought of how the Korean people would go out of their way to help us and show us their culture even though their society was so ‘closed’ to the world for so many years. Also, a number of them told me they felt it was very important for them to try to make foreigners feel more comfortable in a strange land. Some acted like it was their personal duty to do so.

This is what it looked like in an old outside station, like where I stood when I was lost around Karibong once.

Taking the subway in that region was not very modern at all. In Part 1 of this blog I mentioned that everyone had believed there was no place without English in the Seoul subway system. Well, one day I found a spot near Karibong with no English. I had gotten lost and must have missed my stop one time around 5:30pm on my way to the LG class. I found myself on the outdoor platform looking at the signs. Why were all the signs in Korean only, I thought. There must be at least a name of a neighborhood printed in English here somewhere…. There wasn’t! I knew I had to go in one direction or another, and as I stood on the platform outside, that looked like the photo above, I dug out my complicated subway map that contained no English. Since I had taught myself how to read their language by then, I could find the place that was written on the station’s signs. Then, I looked at my map to see how how I could get on another train that was going back in the right direction. You might think I only had to get on another train going back from where I came from, but I didn’t know which stop I was at. It’s awful when you don’t know where you are and all of the signs are foreign to you and you can’t ask anybody for help. I was so happy that I could read the sign saying Dosan, although I had to look at my phrasebook to identify the Korean characters. It would have been a huge predicament to ask a Korean speaker what to do. No one would have known what I was saying. Knowing their alphabet really came in handy that day.

That old, original subway line had a spot where the train would stop and the lights would go out for quite a while enroute to Karibong. It happened every day in the same place. It was like what happened on a Seinfeld episode once. But wasn’t it worse and scarier if you were in the middle of a strange, huge city and it happened? And what if you’re the only person from a western country, and no one can speak your language and you can’t speak theirs? I did look at the workmen walking around the tracks outside and saw all kinds of buildings just the same while I was on that subway route, since part of the route was above ground, at least. Everyone waited and was quiet during these blackouts and stoppages. No one ever said a word. I was always so glad when that train got moving again. What long days I had. I was up by 6am and home at 9pm. Many days I had 10 hours of travel time alone in that one day.

I wrote above that I was involved outside of the class with these men. It wasn’t only Sail. After quite a while of knowing them in the small way that I did, I tried to “set up” Sang-Mun with Hee Nam, my secretary and friend, Miss Park, who took me to Seoul Tower once in an earlier blog. I went with Hee Nam to meet Jin Man and Sang Mun, I can’t remember where, and we talked and probably got something to eat. Unfortunately, Jin Man was married, and not surprisingly Hee Nam told me later she would have been interested in him, but not Sang Mun. He had no personality. I remember her thanking me for honestly trying. On the last day of this class, the students presented me with a gorgeous high-end scarf and a European soft leather wallet. We all walked to a “sum” restaurant and Jin Man went to a little nearby store at my request and picked up a bottle of traditional, sweet rice wine for me to have with the meal. We had pork lettuce-wraps and of course they would not let me pay for anything. Then Joseph personally took me in an expensive taxi, a black taxi that hardly anyone took, all the way to Karak-dong to the Karak Hotel – not for something seedy! The basement of that hotel had a dance floor and loud music and expensive fruit platters and liquor. Beautiful Russian women would dance on stands in skimpy clothing. I could not judge. It’s the way it was.

Joseph kept telling me that night that he was very thankful for what I had done to help him with his English, although I am still baffled by this. I felt I hadn’t done any kind of an effective job at all, as I always felt when I was teaching in Korea. Joseph paid for everything that night. It would have been expensive. One day Kim Jin Man told me at LG that I had helped him! In his cautiously-slow, sweet voice he described a business call he had to make to a supplier in a Scandinavian country. He was so excited he was able to tell the person on the phone in English that the electronic parts they sent him were no good. He was so pleased and he said couldn’t believe he had been able to make that call. He said it was because of me.

I wanted to show that Seoul was so different at night. The lights were amazing, but they are just beginning to come on here.

Sail told me a story one evening that was similar to Anthony’s sad one. Sail had a great love that he was passionate about in the past. Everyone must go to a government building in Seoul to check their national genealogy registry with 3000 years of history before they decide to get married. They have to check officially to see they aren’t too closely related before they are allowed to be married. He and the girl were not allowed to get married. He had to find someone else….

Gasan Digital Complex….

I must write that all of Karibong, even the name, is now gone. I was looking for it on Google Maps in 2018, and wondered why I couldn’t find it. They changed the whole huge area into a modern business area and shopping mecca. It’s called Gasan Digital Complex now. They think of it and a few neighborhoods beside it as a tech city. This new tech city goes on and on with many streets with tall, huge glass buildings and beautiful malls. Near there as is a sprawling Chinatown of sorts there too. It wasn’t like this at all during my time in Seoul.


I've always been interested in people's attitudes and perceptions.  My thesis at university was about attitudes towards mental illness.  The most fascinating thing I heard from anyone in the LG class was part of a sort of mistake, I think.  In one of the classes in Karibong all 4 of the students were standing up with me near the blackboard while I wrote English words on it.  We got on the topic of people from other countries.  Sail burst out saying that Koreans were disgusted with western people like me because they can smell our underarm sweat!  He said a few extra sentences describing their horror at our 'smell'.  I had never thought of something like that, but I can see why it's true!   We North American caucasians all need 'deodorant' to put under our arms but Koreans do not!  There are no sticks of deodorant for sale there.  There's no deodorant section in any of their stores.  They don't sweat the same way as we do.  They don't need 'underarm deodorant'.  Poor Joseph was looking so funny after Sail blurted that out.  Joseph thought, I think, that Sail shouldn't have said that.  I wasn't insulted at all.  I had never thought of it before, actually.  I told them that Caucasian people notice that Africans have a strong body odour.  Many of us find it offensive, I told the students.  I don't mean African-Americans, I mean people directly from Africa.  It's true.  I do believe the Korean people probably don't need underarm deodorant because of their diet.  At the time I thought it must be a 'racial' thing.  But when I lived there and was eating their diet, my sweat didn't smell anymore either!  I noticed that.  Is it the kimchi? Or race?

Seoul Churches…

More fascinating than the billions of neon lights at night were the lit up crosses on buildings that housed churches all over Seoul. I can never find a picture of a neighborhood with lighted crosses everywhere to show people what it was like. It was amazing though. In the daytime, there were some churches with steeples here and there. But at night, the crosses on all of the churches were lit up. You couldn’t see there were places of worship in a lot of non-descript buildings in the daytime. But everywhere you looked at night, there were bright orange crosses in spots where you wouldn’t know there was a Christian meeting room or ‘church’. There were so many of these orange crosses everywhere that it was magical. Every night.

This is the flag of South Korea. If you read an article that explains the meaning of each line and each colour you will be reading for a long time. Even palace buildings are placed strategically and these placements themselves have meaning and are in line with specific mountains. This is supposed to be pleasing to someone’s ‘line of sight’.

Aju Middle School…

Another class that started in the fall of 1997 was the Aju Middle School class. It was always at 2 in the afternoon on Tuesdays and Thursdays and I’d go after being in Bucheon with Mr. Choi. Aju was near Asia Park around the Sports Complex subway stop, 4 km northwest of Karak-dong. I was really weary when I’d arrive at the Sports Complex station from such long rides to Bucheon and most of the way back. I remember it wasn’t a busy time at 2 o’clock in the subway. One time on the way out of the station on the stairs a Korean man was exposing himself to me and he was crooning something in Korean to me as he did it. I had to think quickly and decided in an instant, without stopping, to go right past him up the stairs. I was so rattled I couldn’t even do any teaching in the classroom for a long time once I made it to the school. I was so disturbed. Who could have done anything to help me? No one could have.

This reminds me of that stairway I had to climb to get outside of the Sports Complex station.

There were wonderful things about the Aju school experience, but not necessarily the people. A stern-looking Korean principal was involved and he seemed to be in such a horrible mood and even mad at me when I saw him. The students were a class full of 15 year-olds with an attitude. After the first few classes they all flat-out refused to open their English books so I couldn’t get any lessons done. Each week there were less and less of them coming to class and one day I looked out the window and most of the boys were playing ball! I do remember some of them even now. I do believe they were so tired of studies and I can understand but I didn’t know how to get anywhere with them. I tried buying a cassette tape of their favourite new English singer, Mariah Carey, and trying to get them to translate the lyrics of their favourite songs with me. I tried playing ‘Hangman’ where they came up to the blackboard to take turns guessing the letters and guessing the mystery word and no one spoke at all. I tried writing my own funny dialogues for them to take turns reading. None of this was enough. A funny time, though, was when they got me to try to properly pronounce all their names! There was one obnoxious boy called Ta-Bom and I tried and tried but it sounded like ‘The Bum’ when I’d say it. Did they ever laugh at that. They all roared laughing over and over because I’d try saying it again, over and over and each time, it was apparently wrong! They really got a kick out of me trying pronunciations. I never got it quite right.

Two girls in my Aju class. Everyone wore a uniform – in my area of Canada students don’t have to wear any.

One time I went to another classroom down the hall and found the Korean girl who was hired at the same time I was. She was supposed to teach another class at the same time as me and I wanted to know if she was doing something right. She told me she was beside herself having the same trouble as I was having! And she was Korean! So I had to give up and grin and bear it.

In the area, there were many trees and there were some cicadas singing in them. I was told that a few months before that time of year, all summer long, the cicadas were more plentiful and would have been even louder. One of the kids at Aju drew a little picture of an ugly big winged insect to try to explain a cicada. They aren’t found in my area of Canada and I only just heard a few outside the school in the trees. It sounded like part cricket, part bat and it was loud. A loud, constant metallic humming. The branches of big trees were hanging over the street near the school. I would sit in Asia Park, where there were more trees, before the class would start. One day it was so beyond beautiful in the area because it was the peak of their autumn foleage. The temperature was perfect and winds were calm and I saw coloured leaves that were so perfect everywhere I looked that day. The leaves were gently falling.

There were apartment buidings near the school and more trees than in other areas. It looked like this when I looked up.


Not long after I arrived in Seoul, the Koreans explained that there were big companies unique to Korea called chaebols, and they are considered conglomerates. Chaebols are so powerful because they have, for example, automobiles, banks and grocery stores and other endeavors in the same company. They all owned their own national baseball teams. Samseong, Hyundai, LG, Lotte, Kia, SK, were some. Over the years the most successful one will move up in the top spot, and the order of who makes more money changes over time. Lotte makes snacks and has a few large hotels and malls and other sub-companies. LG is known a little in Canada for appliances but over there they made cellphones and had other companies under them on the go. I remember Sail telling me in class that LG stood for Lucky Gold Star.

The Lotte Department Store and Lotte World in Jamsil near my institute were places I went to sometimes. I found it interesting that since Korea had such a population and not much space, the department store had a number of floors so it wasn’t flat and one-story like Canadian department stores and malls. Our malls took up a lot of space and were spread out over a lot of land. Even our parking lots in Canada took up a lot of space. It wasn’t like that there. And there was no sense trying to buy clothes in this beautiful store, or anywhere else there, because my frame was naturally large and everything would have been too small for me.

In the Lotte Department Store on the jewellery floor.
The Lotte Hotel in Jamshil then. Lotte World and a museum were beside it. The Lotte Department Store was connected to it, as well as a wonderful amusement park also.

The Lotte World complex was so entertaining you could live there forever. The mall had a huge indoor skating rink and there were eating terraces. I bought a box of donuts in there one day and they were the nicest, most delicious donuts I’ve ever had. Truly! I seem to remember they were similar to honey-dipped and there were sugar donuts in there too.

Across the street from the Lotte complex in Jamsil, pronounced Shamshil, was Sokchon Lake, a man-made lake that looked like glass. The Lotte Amusement Park, that had elements of Disney World, was sticking out into this lake. I took pictures one day in the area but never went into the amusement park. The pictures were beautiful just the same when I was standing outside of it.

I got close to it by just standing on the path around the lake.
It was quite a park….
The trees hung down to frame the pictures.
Now there are more buildings around the lake than this.
This looked like a restaurant.
There was even this decorative gate to go through to get back to the street.

Gyeongbokgung and Olympic Park, CheongGyeSan

Inside a courtyard at Kyeongbokkung, spelled Gyeongbokgung now. It’s a magnificent place to go and one of six palaces in Seoul.

Gyeongbokgung Palace…

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.

This the most important sight in downtown Seoul. It’s the North Gate of the old city and the entrance to Kyeongbokkung Palace. North Korea is about 50 km from here, behind the pointed mountain.
A Haitai statue is on the left in this picture. There was another one on the other side of the gate also.

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.

This represents climbing mountains in Korea in general, but I don’t know which peak this is. Many people climb the mountains Bukhansan or Inwangsan and can view Seoul from above like this. North Korea would be in the direction of the cameraman taking this picture – Seoul is straight ahead.

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.

This is a statue of a mythical creature called a Haitai, sitting outside of Kyeongbokkung. Looking at the picture above you’d never realise that this statue, including its base, was 18 feet tall! They told me a Haitai guards the palace from fire. There was one Haitai on each side of the main palace doors.

This is to the West of the North Gate. You can see the Haitai from the photo above in the right of the picture. I loved this mountain because of the granite. The mountains in Northern Seoul were so huge and they loomed above everything.

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.

This shows the columns next to people so you can see the size of them. I looked at the tiled roofs, statues, colours and mountains. (The 2 men are my husband and Sail Lee – from Part 6 of this blog. Picture taken in January 1998)
Building that contained the king’s throne. Look how small the people are. Sail and my husband are talking together at the bottom of these stairs in the middle.
Traditionally, certain animals and fictional creatures were featured around palaces. I loved this one. Perhaps it’s a horse? There were many statues representing other creatures.

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.

This is my absolute favourite photograph I took in Korea. It was taken next to a garden that was made for the queen. The garden is called Amisan. Several decorated chimneys are in the picture also.
I was fascinated that many palace roofs had the same row of animals on them. I was told they were based on the animals on Chinese palace buildings.

Yangjae area…

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.

Sang Hyun that day. (Oct. 1997)
Me at that time. Sang Hyun took the picture. Digital cameras were not around then. I had cut my own hair because I was broke and scared to go to a Korean hairdresser.
Sang Hyun was very interested in taking pictures of the ginkgo leaves. An old man was walking in the forest collecting these leaves while we were there – the ginkgo ‘has health benefits’…
Temple buildings were always covered in paintings depicting the life of Buddha. Paintings, ceramic roof tiles, bells, wood and granite. Always so beautiful.


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.

This is what Yeoido was like then with the sun shining on the 63 Building.

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.

Koex Building. I passed by here in Samseong-dong when I visited a wonderful temple (BonGeunSa) in the neighborhood a few times.
I lived to the left of all of these buildings in this photo. In the middle is the Koex Bldg. which has the stripe down the middle of it in this view. In the middle on the left is Olympic Stadium.


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 will always remember being given those persimmons in a basket from Sang Hyun. They are not commonly eaten in my area of Canada.

Olympic Park…

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.

This was a bridge over a pond but it’s winter in the picture so the water has been drained. They have taken the koi out for the winter too. The hill on the right is part of the ‘earthen wall’ explained below.
There were a lot of modern sculptures throughout the park, as each one was donated to them by a country that participated in the 1988 Olympics. The Peace Gate at the entrance is behind the thumb.
There is a stadium to the right in this picture. The big hill is an earthen wall made by Korean natives to protect themselves 4000 years ago.
More of the Earthen Wall. There is a little museum behind here to view more about it.

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.

This is the tall glass church across from the entrace of the park. I think it has over seventeen stories!
This is a popular modern sculpture there.

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.

Apartment view at Olympic Park
Other view looking south from Olympic Park

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