Seodaemun is the area just to the west of Kyeongbokkung Palace. It was important for me to go because the West Gate of Seoul was here and that long, beautiful mountain with all the granite on it, InWangSan, was here as well. The day we decided to go to the area, we found ourselves near the west gate, and a few young Korean people came out of nowhere to say we should really come and see a museum that was right there. They worked at the museum, apparently. I got the impression they had been told it was better to recruit foreign tourists to see this museum. No wonder. This was the most interesting museum I’ve ever heard of. We followed those Korean people to the entrance as we did have time to go and it only cost around a dollar each to get in!
Seodaemun Prison Museum…
It was the Seodaemun Japanese Prison Hall. This was a testimony to the last time that Japan had taken over Korea. And it was like we had the whole complex to ourselves, as we seemed to be a few of the only people there. A young Korean staff-member showed us parts of the place and gave us a lot of explanations.
For around 30 years from something like 1915 to 1945, Japan had ruled Korea and they kept Koreans who were freedom-fighters or who refused to submit in this prison. One thing I was surprised about was that one of the main prisoners was a woman. There was a mannequin in a tiny dark cell that was supposed to be her and we could look into this cell to see how she was forced to live. The most amazing thing to us was a display room with a mannequin who was supposed to be a Japanese guard watching a prisoner being tortured. The guard was moving in his chair, rocking with enjoyment, and holding a lit cigarette. He was relaxing and had his legs and feet up on the table in front of him. It was very lifelike and also was another way that showed how the Korean people created their elaborate museums.
When we came out of the exit, the huge, looming InWangSan mountain greeted us, and I was so thrilled to be so close to it that I took a picture of it showing the granite design it had that looked like an ink painting.
I found the West Gate, also called Tongnimmun, near the Japanese Museum. It wasn’t like the other tiled-roofed gates, and was the first western-style structure built in Korea, modelled after the Arc de Triumphe in Paris. There is a picture in existence of the original gate that was destroyed before this one was built and the gate is not like this one. It looks more traditional. The old west gate was used by Chinese royalty when they came to visit Korea from the west and its 2 pillars that were left standing are in this picure behind the Tongnimmun Gate towards the overpass. This current west gate, the one I took the picture of below, called Tongnimmun, is called Independence Gate, signifying independence from China as well as Japan. People weren’t allowed to walk through Tongnimmun when I was there and you can see the iron fence around it in my photo. Nowadays people can walk under and through it and the area has been made into an Independence Park.
Even in 1997, Korea did things sensibly like save the environment in a more effective way than people do in North America. When I was living there, someone in Korea could order a delivery from a restaurant and it would come with real dishes that looked like melamine. No matter where the customer lived, after the food was eaten, the customer would put the tray with the now-dirty dishes out in the hallway on the floor outside of the door for the driver to pick up later. The dishes would go back to the restaurant and be cleaned and reused. The government there is not like people and companies in Canada where disposable dishes, usually not recyclable, are constantly used and thrown away. In Canada, one problem is that most people are not honourable enough to not steal the real dishes. Also, companies in Canada would be unwilling to pay delivery drivers to pick up the used dishes and return with them to the restaurant. Too bad they can’t do that environmentally responsible use of dishes in the west though.
JiYoung, my roomate from Karak-dong, took Robert and I to a museum in the southeast of Seoul in January of 1998 when he had visited me. It was an exhibit about China and it was huge. I remember everything was in Korean or there was no proper information to read at all, so when there was a Xian warrior on a horse in a glassed-in case, I wanted to know if it was a real clay warrior or a replica, but I couldn’t find out. I did learn that China has around 20 separate cultures and has other languages than Cantonese and Mandarian and there are many different dialects of each language as well. We don’t learn in Canada about their diverse groups within their country. At one point we saw a section which seemed to show Europeans first arriving there and the information must have said some awful things about them because after that part we were getting dirty looks from people in the crowd as we passed them on the stairs.
My favourite room was the one where an antique, giant, silk-embroidered banner went the whole way around the edges of a room. It was in a number of long wooden cases under glass. I looked at the intricate embroidery and it was an old scene showing peasants going about their business. The scene showed royalty too. There were animals they raised to eat and ‘ox carts’ in the streets. People having a meal in their traditional homes were depicted. One part seemed to be the emporor in palacial buildings with his servants incorporated into the scene, along with many rich Chinese ladies at a large party in another continuing section. There were trees and flowers and many details everywhere. I love Chinese art, especially very old art, so I looked at this embroidery for a long time. It was lifelike yet had that quaint look that Chinese artists used to create in their work. The fact that it was so old and all embroidered made it even more beautiful.
Outside of the large museum we saw an older Korean man cooking chestnuts at a barbecue-type stand to sell to people. Chestnuts were commonly eaten and most times they were raw. I had never eaten chestnuts in Canada, although we have chestnut trees, and I had some raw ones while I lived in Seoul. They’re very good and must be healthy too. Raw chestnuts are peeled and cut in neat geometrical designs and arranged in organised piles on ceremonial plates to have at fancy food tables during their Chuseok or Solnal meals.
I remember being told about the NamHanSanSeong fortress wall south of Karak-dong by a few Korean students in the fall of 1997. When I planned my trip I wanted to go there. I did it the hard way, as my Lonely Planet book only explained to go by subway to a certain stop in Seongnam and then hike up the mountain there to get in the park. This was lovely but very difficult to do. It was quite steep and many Koreans were climbing as well. There was a temple on the way up but I didn’t explore as I wanted to make it to the top. After an hour and a half of climbing we came to the huge South Gate in the picture below. We went under and through it and then we walked along stone wall, which was like a mini-Great-Wall-of-China running along the top of the mountain range there.
When you walked along the wide path, you walked along the fortress, which was 500 years old. The wall was built because one of the kings had to be protected from Chinese invaders at the time, I believe, but Korea had Japanese and Mongolian invasions and threats through the years as well. You can view Seoul from the southeast at one point on this trail but we couldn’t see it well when we came upon this spot. A great thing was that a Korean man started talking to us on the walk, and stayed with us talking and walking. He was a nuclear physicist! He said he liked Celine Dion when we said we were Canadian.
We wanted to leave the park after hiking there for a while, and the Korean man didn’t know where to go or how to get out either. I remember him saying that to us. He suggested going down another trail through the forest that headed downhill further into the park. It worked! After a time we came upon a “tourist village” where people, especially foreigners, at the park could eat a special meal or get a bus home. I wish I had known about the buses.
Finally, and I don’t know how he knew, but we followed the Korean man to a bus stop and he got on the bus too and told us where to get out to get the subway to get to where we were going. The people there are extremely helpful and everso curious about foreigners.
I thought it was important for us to see the War Memorial Museum in Yongsan, Seoul, where the American forces were based. It did not disappoint. When we had come outside after being in the museum for 3 hours, I remember saying to myself that it would have taken us 2 weeks to see all of it. There were huge displays inside and outside of real planes and equipment that was used in the Korean War. A huge section inside had rooms and rooms of just Chinese strategies and tactical inventions from hundreds of years ago like how they rolled stones as weapons down a hill during primitive warfare several thousand years ago but then later they gradually developped gunpowder. The rooms presented actual examples of the ancient weapons used over time in many countries whose warfare involved Korea.
There were many interactive display rooms also. You could pretend you were in actual combat. We were in one room where it went dark, and then flashing lights and the sound of gunfire would start, and the recorded voices of what was supposed to be Korean soldiers in the trenches, talking to eachother, wondering what to do, would play. The voices spoke Korean but they sounded confused and scared. During my visit to this museum, I learned that many, many Chinese soldiers joined the Korean War partway through it and they fought on the side of North Korea, making things worse than they were.
It was a museum showcasing how all warfare for hundreds of years had affected Korea. This only cost a few dollars to get into as well!
I wanted to say that we were lucky to even get beds anywhere over there. They don’t like beds much, as they are a western piece of furniture and not considered to be good for the body. Tables and chairs are western too. Korean parents sleep with their babies and small children until each child turns five. And they sleep on the floor on a special “Korean mattress”, which is a colourful, silky blanket with layers of padding under it, like the bright, red satiny seat cushion in the photo below, only bigger. Many people had Western-style beds when we were in Korea, but many people also had their ‘mattresses’ for the floor as well and they preferred their mattressee. When I visited Sang Hyun, we sat together on his floor. The pillows and blankets weren’t the same as the ones in the West either. There were only expensive comforters and pillows that were like sofa cushions with no pillow cases and there were no sheets to ever be found over there at all. A lot of Koreans ate while sitting on the floor at a short sort of coffee table in their apartments, even though they often had dining rooms like we have. The floors in Korea were made out of different material too, like a thin, smooth laminate. Even their walls weren’t like ours, and they were like the fire-retardant walls you see that are inside of trailers. I never noticed any gyprock while I was there.
So SoJoung gave us a bed to sleep in when we stayed with her, at least. I want to mention that SoJoung was Im SoJoung. ‘Im’ was her family name. All Korean women keep their own family names and don’t take their husbands’ names at all when they get married!
While in Seoul, I saw many bottles of what looked like water on sheves in their apartments everywhere. The water was ‘barley water’ they made all the time and that’s what they would drink. They put a bit of barley grains in a pot with water and they’d boil it for a while, then they’d save the water it made and keep that water in bottles and drink it. I always heard over there that something was “good for health”, and barley water was a certain staple at the time. Sail and SoJoung had many bottles of it on their window shelves, I remember. We were always told not to use the tap water for drinking or cooking. Everyone had to buy bottled water to cook with or drink.
It was exciting to go to the Seoul Zoo on our trip, as I had always wanted to go. We had to go by subway to the South of the city, in the middle of it. It was out of city limits. The huge park complex was called Seoul Grand Park and it had 5 large sections in it. Only one part was the massive zoo. The mountains around it and statues and flowers were nice to look at. The enclosures were very spacious and the animals seemed to be treated well. A few spots were better than anything, like the baby albino tiger with blue eyes – he seemed to be the star of the zoo! How would I ever see one anywhere else? Seeing a real gorilla, Asian sun bears and a real Japanese crane up close was exciting to me as well. We spent 4 hours there and only saw a portion of it. The area was nice too and we had some different kinds of excitement there, as I will explain…
To my surprise and dismay, there was a sky-lift to hop on with scary difficulty to get transported to the zoo, the park complex was so huge. We were able to safely jump on and had to do this while it was moving. It was okay for the teenaged students but not everyone would be able to go on the lift. It was like a ski-lift and was a high jump to get on too.
This park was near what they called the Seoul Racetrack. I never went, but it was horse races for tourists who wanted to bet. Can you believe Koreans are not allowed to gamble at all? They spoke of lotteries as well but were not allowed to get involved in it. Korea is and was extremely strict about any crimes or drug use of any kind. More strict than in western countries. There was a no-tipping policy throughout Korea when I lived there. Everyone lived the same and did the same things. They all had a lot of pride in their society and culture. One day I was looking out a high window in the city at the people on the street and it occurred to me what it was that I found different there. It was the army consciption that made the difference. All males had to join the army and train for 2 years. Every single one. Some had medical excuses not to go and some leave Korea to not have to go. I found this interesting when I lived there. As I looked down at the people on the street that day in late 1997, and realised conscription affected the men there, it made sense that all the Korean men were extremely disciplined and orderly. All the time. Not only was everybody freshly showered and neat, but they all walked in an orderly fashion and there was hardly ever anyone who stood out from this orderly, neat crowd.
The photo above was taken because as we went through the zoo, this particular student was exclaiming more than the rest of them every time he saw us. We kept running into him and his group as we walked along. When it was time for me to see the bird enclosure, he planted himself in front of me and wanted to be in my picture. I wish I could have spoken to him, but he really could not speak English and had to go with his group. I like my picture of him and the memories it invokes.
I loved the bird enclosure because of the cranes in it. There were 2 kinds. On the right of this picture is the crane I looked at who was up close. He or she looked me in the eye and it was eery and sad because it looked intelligent. I remember thinking they are such special birds.
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.
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