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

At First….Garak Market

This is what I saw when I looked out of the window of the airplane after the pilot said we were about to land in Seoul. The hundreds of apartment buildings looked funny when you were so high up in the air looking down at all of them – like tiny beige matchboxes. I had never imagined anything like it.

I didn’t know anything. I knew nothing about Korea. Perhaps that was best. Here I was on a plane from Canada to Seoul. It was my first time on a plane and I didn’t know anyone in Korea or anyone on the plane. I was completely alone and didn’t mind.

I was used to doing things alone, as I had gone away to University alone, but this was a very big deal to me because I had spent my life living in “The Maritimes”. The Maritime Provinces of Canada are small land areas that stick out into the Atlantic Ocean. “The Maritimes” include islands too. I grew up and lived in this Atlantic area, in New Brunswick. The forests and lakes and ocean views are lovely in these provinces but any cities in this region are small. This means low employment and I had always said, “There’s nothing there”.

It was unusual for women or anyone from my remote Atlantic province to go alone to live and work in Asia. I had signed a contract teach English in Seoul for a year. And I was leaving my husband to go there. You see, in New Brunswick I could not find satisfactory employment. The economy was poor and I couldn’t use my degree, so all I had to do was get through a year of teaching English…and I’d have lots of money saved from my job in Korea…surely to goodness I could do that. I gave my husband instructions on how to pay the bills and I waited so eagerly to be able to get on a plane to Seoul. After all, I had always wanted to go to a far away place.

People told me not to go. “You’re going to be the only person like you on the subway…” “People don’t leave their husbands to go do that…” “You’d better like rice. That’s all they eat!” “You might not want to go there. I think that’s what M.A.S.H. was about!” My grandmother thought it was dangerous and prayed and prayed that I wouldn’t end up going. She told me this when I went over to her house to say goodbye.

Of course, I did not know all or anything about what Koreans eat, and I wasn’t sure if M.A.S.H was about the Korean War (wasn’t it about Viet Nam, I thought?) and how could my grandmother be right, since she worries too much about everything? As far as leaving my husband to go, it didn’t feel inside like I shouldn’t go. It felt like I should go. I did believe in fate and in karma and Tarot cards and those types of things and I felt underneath it was my destiny to go to Korea. On the surface, I needed money and would save a lot of money, but underneath, I felt compelled to go. I had planned to have $10000 at the end of the one-year contract to be able to pay off my $15000 student loan.

I was getting ready to leave in the morning so, so early and saw on TV they seemed to be saying Lady Diana had been in a car accident and was dead. It was an early report at 4am Atlantic time. By the time my father came to take me to the airport, it had been confirmed. She had been killed. Such a larger than life figure would never do more great things. And she was so beautiful and caring. I took it to heart and at that point thought it was a bad omen to be going so far away and taking on this huge, life-changing trip when such an event had just happened. I couldn’t exactly change my mind at that point but started to have doubts and fears about my journey and destination.

The plane was close to landing and when the pilot said we were over Seoul. I looked out of the tiny window and I just remember seeing clusters of similar-looking apartment buildings on the ground below. I just saw many, many plain-looking apartment buildings in rows at first, as the plane descended and headed toward the airport.

Then suddenly it was time to go through the tunnel to get off the plane and into the airport. And it hit me like a ton of bricks – the heat and humidity. And the heat and humidity were constant for another month to come. Kimpo Airport was the only international airport in Korea at the time and it was huge but it wasnt new or especially modern or nice. I had never been over there or anywhere, really, so I thought it was pretty exciting. I was with a girl who was on the plane from Ontario, called Bronwyn, who was nice and seemed to know things about Korea whereas I knew nothing. She was friendly and I appreciate the advice about being in Korea she that she gave me and I still remember her kindness. I can’t remember much of what she said about Korea but I know she told me, “Don’t blow your nose in Korea!”. However, I got off the plane knowing nothing of what was waiting for me…

This is only about 20% of Seoul. Karak-dong, where I lived, is to the left in this picture. You can see Kangnam in front and the Koex Building, which is the Trade Center. It has a stripe down the middle of it.

Karak Market

I was with the young woman from Ontario called Bronwyn in the “arrivals” section at the airport. A Korean man was holding a sign saying “Bronwyn”. We waited. No one showed up for me. Terrifying, really. I was so scared and upset, not knowing any of the language or the continent of Asia and I only had about sixty Canadian dollars! I didn’t have much money to bring with me and the ‘recruiter’ back in Canada had told me I wouldn’t need any, because all of my meals were supposed to be included, according to my contract. I had borrowed the money from my mother for the plane ticket as it was. Most people in Korea were only paid once each month, I was told at first. In Canada nobody was paid once a month; everybody was paid once every two weeks. So it was very bad, I felt, to have to live there for a month with only forty-seven Canadian dollars. (I had paid $13 for the taxi.)

I got in a taxi with the Korean man who met Bronwyn and Bronwyn herself, as the two of them had agreed together that they would help me, thank God. Bronwyn got out of the taxi after a short while, where she would be working and living, and I continued on in the taxi with this Korean man who was paid by English institutes to pick up and deliver foreign teachers to their bosses. I was so terrified. I didn’t know who this very foreign stranger was or what his job was. I had no clue about Seoul or Korea. The man, however, was very nice. I loved Korean people right away, despite being so thoroughly scared over there at first. They were all so nice and inquisitive. He told me his last name was Kim and he was trying to orientate me a bit to Seoul but it would take me 3 months to feel somewhat comfortable in Korea.

My long taxi ride that day was during my very first few hours in Korea. The heat was new and strange to me while I sat there, and I can’t forget the overwhelming, unending traffic and the endless concrete buildings and seeing so many signs everywhere with bold Korean characters only on them. And I can’t forget the heightened anxiety I felt at first. It was just too foreign to me all at once.

I enjoyed talking to Mr. Kim during this taxi ride. And I could see Seoul for the first time on this ride too. We were going most of the way from West to East across the southern half of Seoul along the humongous river that crosses the city. It took around an hour to go by taxi from Kimpo Airport to my address in SongPa District and it only cost me $13 from Bronwyn’s departure, which was near the airport, to my stop. In my city in Canada, that taxi would have cost an awful lot more.

I got to my building, such as it was, and I had jet lag like crazy, but was supposed to start teaching immediately! I talked briefly to a few Canadians and right away everybody asked, “Why are you here?” because they all hated it there. They completely and absolutely hated Korea. Most of them, I found, were there as a sort of escape from problems they had back home. I did not feel negatively about Korea or its people while I was there. Also, the Canadians who were at my institute didn’t like me, much to my chagrin, because they had a bad attitude towards people who were from Atlantic Canada…I wasn’t from an important place, where people were with-it, apparently, according to them. This made it worse for me at first, when I was already struggling with my extreme “culture shock” as it was.

This is the view from the fourth floor window of my building, looking toward the Karak subway station.

My institute was in a plain, red brick building that was 5 stories high. The “institute” was on the third floor of the building, where there were classrooms, offices and meeting rooms. I slept on the 4th floor with other foreign teachers and with Korean people who paid to stay there while they worked and went to English classes. The Korean students who paid to live right at the institute could practice speaking English with the teachers in the common areas of the 4th floor and have discussions with them in order to learn to speak better.

The trip over for me was even longer than Bronwyn’s because I had even further to travel. Over 1000km more than she did. Around 20 hours of flight time in total. The time-change is around 11 or twelve hours because Korea doesn’t use Daylight Savings Time and we do. So I was accustomed to sleeping when they were having daytime. This made it difficult to function in a work environment.

I had to go in a small classroom that first night and talk to a Korean adult student and another foreign male teacher. As far as teaching went, a pattern emerged right away, in that I had to talk about the differences between Canada and Korea in most ‘classes’. I listened to Korean businessmen, mostly, tell me all about Korea the whole time I was there. I learned so much over time like their heating systems, how and what they pay for their children’s weddings, their religions, their history, their food and attitudes, and so much more. Thank goodness I was allowed to sleep eventually that evening in a tiny, tiny room with paper-thin walls and no insulation to outside. I had air-conditioning at first because I wouldn’t ever have been able to sleep at all without it for the first month. The most striking thing to me was the noise of the traffic. I noticed that I was living on a nine-lane road that was a main throughway. In the night I would wake up at 3am, especially at first, and I would lie there wide awake listening to that traffic. The unpopulated province where I was from had only 600 000 people in the whole province, and at that time, 1997, Seoul had 11 million people or some estimates gave 15 million when they considered people coming to the city from other places in Korea or Seoul vicinity to work or sight-see. My city in Canada had around 55 000 people at that time. Imagine me there.

This gives you a sense of the magnitude of the number of buildings and traffic. I could always see the mountains surrounding the city as well. I loved it. This is a view of the Central part of Seoul and I lived at least 10km from here. The area was not quite as built up as is pictured here back then though.

There was another unexpected and noticeable thing in Korea that first night for me. Along with the humidity there was a horrible, strong smell of something I had never smelled before. I thought at first it was all of Korea or all of Seoul that smelled. I found out from one of the Korean people later that the horrible smell was coming from a huge abattoir across from the nine-lane highway below me! The largest agricultural market in all of Korea was attached to it, hence the name Karak Market. In the heat and humidity the smell was worse. This was another negative thing that added to my feeling of alienation in Korea at first. I laid there in bed that first night feeling like I should be awake instead of sleeping, and had the traffic roaring downstairs and that horrible heavy smell, and the heavy humidity in the air also. I did think all of Korea must smell like that at the time, and it was a ‘rotten’ odour hanging everywhere. Since there was no insulation in that building, as was the case in many buildings there, and the windows weren’t ‘up-to-code’ like they are in Canada to keep out cold, the traffic sound was even louder and felt closer than it would have back in Canada.

The next day I would have to go out into that huge city………

The Subway….

A subway car. My closest subway line was Line 8 and it was new and very modern. I looked at the advertisements on the walls a lot and always wondered what they were saying. Most ads were for cosmetics. I also had to hang onto the stirrups hanging down when the car was crowded.

On one of my first days there, my boss (who was creepy and aloof – I did not get a good feeling at all when I met him) sent a Korean man to show me how to use the subway system. I knew there was a subway, but I was scared to take it. Growing up I saw on television and the news that the subway was dangerous. That’s all I knew. I really was scared to go see. I went on a subway ride with the man explaining. The subway system in Seoul is one of the biggest and most complicated in the world. It was around 65 cents to go quite far. And in Toronto the subway cost three times that at that time. The subway map was very daunting with 9 lines crossing eachother, and maps were mostly in Korean, making it even worse. Now, over 20 years later, the map has twice as many lines crossing eachother. They all said the Seoul subway has English everywhere so not to worry.

Map of Seoul (2019). I lived in the bottom right-hand corner near Karak Market Station and Munjeong Station. The subway lines are on this map. The line is pink on this map going through where I lived showing Line 8. 1cm is around 2km.

I lived along a nice new Line 8 called the pink line to Moran or going south to a new satellite city called Seongnam. It took me a while to know I lived in Southeastern Seoul. That 9-lane highway outside my building was a main throughway eventually going to another major city, Busan, at the SouthEastern tip of the country. Their subway system was modern, clean and orderly. When I travelled outside, which was usually all day, I took the subway a lot and saw what they do. Everyone is neat and freshly scrubbed in the shower with not one hair out of place. They do not generally speak on the subway and they actually used it as a chance to sleep on weekdays because they were working long hours with not enough sleep at night, so you’d see them sleeping sitting up a lot. I noticed that and thought it was certainly different. You just wouldn’t see that in the Maritimes or anywhere in Canada. When I was walking in some long hallways to get to the subway car, I could smell garlic and sweat and kimchi and perhaps car exhaust and it made another unusual common smell there.

Try as I might to purchase a ticket at the counter, the poor man behind the glass hardly ever knew I was saying Karak Market. I tried saying it so many ways…

The nicest thing about the subway was that sometimes it is running outside, not underground, and you see views of the river and neighborhoods on your way.

An example of a subway car running above ground. (This is a modern picture and I don’t think it was taken in Seoul.)
One of my most cherished memories is of sitting so long going many kilometers across the city on the subway in the morning, and suddenly coming above ground and seeing the morning sun shining on the gold-coloured 63 Building. There’s nothing like seeing that. You can see the 63 Bldg on the right in the morning sun in the distance here.

The bus…

I still had to take buses as well to get to my teaching spots. My first outside job, given to me on one of my first days there, was to take a bus 78-1 to Kangnam to ‘teach’ businessmen who worked for a Scandinavian company called Votra. I didn’t know what I was doing at all or where I was. I just explained to these Korean men about Canada, and showed them the few pictures I had brought with me of my family back home. One of them, when I was first there and in shock, explained to me that in Korea they have a saying when they talk about the weather. If the sky was blue and mostly clear, he said “We say, ‘The sky is high today’, to someone when we meet them”. I had learned my first Korean saying.

I used several Korean sayings to break the ice with other Koreans from then on. They thought I must have been all right if I knew those things. One saying was “Sum Han Sa On” meaning their Seoul weather in winter has 3 days of cold, then 4 days of warmer as a rule. Someone like me could only know this by talking to a Korean about it. There was also a saying meaning somebody was not too smart, “Deok Mori”, meaning ‘chicken head’. The young Koreans loved that and would laugh when I’d mention I knew that saying. My favourite was “See a ‘gachi’ in the morning, and you’ll have good luck all day”. It meant it was good for business to see a magpie in the morning, especially for a store owner – it meant many customers will come in the store that day.

I heard and saw magpies all the time in Seoul. That was exciting to me because I had always been a birdwatcher and in Eastern Canada where I am from there were no magpies. Magpies are only found in Western Canada. They are a large, loud, black and white bird related to jays and crows with a bit of purple and blue iridescence on their wings and tail. They were all throughout Seoul flying around the tops of buildings while they cried, especially in the morning.

A Korean magpie or ‘gachi’

This first class I just wrote about, Votra, was in Kangnam-gu, which was a trendy new area, they said. A Gu is a huge neighbourhood. I had to pass the bus driver a note written by one of the secretaries from the Institute so he’d let me off the bus at the right place. It was fascinating taking the bus there. There were so many businesses and office buildings and apartments. And the mornings in Seoul were so wonderful. The sun would shine a light orange glow on everything. You could see such a wide endless area of blue sky and mountains in the distance everywhere, some with granite on them, surrounding this city of neverending buildings. It was breathtaking.

I went to Votra on weekday mornings to talk to some businessmen in a small boardroom. There were papers for me to copy from English-As-a-Second-Language books and bring to class to give students. Students were supposed to take turns reading paragraphs out loud and then we could discuss the not-so-good topics. A lot of the time in all classes we would all just talk about the way it was in Korea, so I learned a lot. Also, I would try to explain where my home in Canada was. I drew pictures on a blackboard like a map of Canada to do this. I noticed most Koreans assumed that all of Canada was the same everywhere in every region. They didn’t see that if 2 places are 3000 km from eachother, they would have different temperatures and different geography. At the time, I figured they must think think like that because their country wasn’t big and vast like Canada was.

This is near Yeoksam in Kangnam, where I would go on the bus to Votra. On and on the buildings and traffic went…. I remember seeing many places that sold cars here and a movie theater.

One day I tried to return to my building on the same bus I had been taking. I had been in Korea for a week. The bus was moving along as normal, and there was a recorded woman’s voice announcing something over and over. This is what happens on the subway and buses, so I thought nothing of it. After a while I realised no one was on the bus anymore! And suddenly the bus was pulling into a rural-looking place with chickens on the ground! I was so beyond upset. I could not speak ANY Korean and the middle-aged bus driver could not speak English. Terrifying. Absolutely terrifying for a 28 year-old woman from a small area in a foreign country who could not tell them anything and could not understand what they could say. And I was so new to Seoul I didn’t know any areas at all yet. I went with the bus driver to a desk in a small rudimentary building and I made a gesture that looked like I was dialing a phone and holding a phone receiver. He knew right away what I meant and handed me a phone. I called the main secretary at my place and she explained to the driver how to bring me ‘home’. I sat on the bus in the seat trying to look out the window and I had tears coming down my cheeks. I was so upset over this mishap and could not speak the language – I don’t know what upset me more, the fact that I was lost, or that I could not communicate my problem. The driver turned back toward me to look at me and pointed up to the ceiling of the bus, pointing, pointing and pointing. Ha ha, my goodness – he thought I was sweating, not crying, and he was trying to tell me to use the little personal fan above me to cool off! He saw me wiping my tears away and thought I was wiping sweat away trom my eyes! I sat there alone, crying on the bus, feeling so terrified, embarassed, helpless and frustrated all at the same time. And, when the driver let me off the bus, I said ‘thank you’ in English but vowed to myself I would learn how to say Thank You in Korean. I was so grateful and so wanted to thank him. So that was the first thing I learned how to say and I didn’t wait long to learn it. But I also learned how to write it and read it in Korean. And I kept on learning more of the language after that.


This is what their Kimbap looked like. In my area of Canada we call it ‘sushi’ but that’s not what it is. They sold trays of it everywhere and it only cost a dollar or $1.50 for a lot of fat rolls – the best you’d ever eat.

On my first full day there, another Canadian who knew I didn’t have much money for the next month said I had to get some kimbap. In Korean, rice is ‘bap’ and seaweed sheets or laver is ‘kim’. So it’s a filling covered in sticky rice and rolled up with a seaweed sheet and sliced. In Korea, they are big, fresh and cheap. I found I liked ketchup and mayonnaise on them. Honestly, it’s really nice. Usually the inside of the roll had a piece of cucumber, a piece of carrot, some scrambled egg and a piece of pink and white ‘immitation crab’ meat.

I ate in the basement with groups of Koreans at first because it was free at the Institute. A nice lady cooked and cleaned for us. She couldn’t speak English and was friendly. We called her ‘Agumma’, as that means ‘middle-aged female server’. She mopped all the floors with just water and baked huge sardines for us in hot sauce. There was an old man downstairs who guarded the door and he had a sweet little dog with him all the time. They were lovely people, but could not speak a word of English.

I found out at the start no one could give me a fork. It took me a whole month to be good at using chopsticks. I loved it. I could pick up a single grain of rice at a time to eat once I could use them. If we went to an expensive Western restaurant we could ask for a fork. There were many convenience stores and they had Korean rice wine and beer for sale in the coolers. Some of the ‘soju’, or Korean rice wine, cost LESS than a bottle of water! And outside, you could always find a cigarette stand selling a pack of 20 Korean or American cigarettes for a little over a dollar. Korean beer was very good and the bottles were much bigger than ours. With the cheap taxis, subway fares, beer and cigarettes I was in heaven.

This vendor has rice snacks for sale

I went to vendors in trucks or stands everywhere. A few times I bought rice snacks – you could get a huge mixed bag of rice crisps and rice puffs in different forms for a few dollars. My tooth broke from the crunchiness of some of it once and the dentist who fixed it charged a third of what it would cost in Canada. Sometimes the blue Daewoo trucks that were everywhere drove in the streets announcing to the people to come buy Korean pears, seafood, eggs, or any other wares. We often heard the loudspeakers doing this or we would often hear car brakes screeching and then a loud crash from the nine-lane road outside, meaning there had been an accident. Sometimes a fight between Korean men would break out below our windows of the building we lived in where the auto shop was – many problems seemed to be about a parking spot. Also, a few times I looked out at the nine-lane highway at nighttime and saw a severely drunk man was crawling home on the ground along the highway. He would flounder and yell while he crawled. Because the liquor was so cheap this happened, they said.

Sang Hyun….

I had run out of money and was so despondent, not being able to relate to the other English speakers in my building and having no one to talk to on my off time. I went and sat outside my building in Karak-dong. The most amazing thing happened that evening. It was nice and warm and calm and around September 9th, 1997. I was sitting on a piece of concrete after suppertime feeling so sad. A Korean man who was around my age stopped to talk to me. He said he lived nearby and asked, “Why are you sitting alone like this here?” I did not know how to begin to explain. I remember distinctly he said he wanted ‘a foreign friend’ like me and asked if I would want that too. In Canada or most other Western countries a man stopping to talk to you like that would have alterior motives, but I strongly sensed it was safe, even good, to make friends with this person. He asked if I wanted to walk up the street and get some chicken. I had no money for a meal and cautiously followed. He was so nice and down to Earth. He told me he was engaged and would soon be married to an elementary school teacher who lived in Suwon, which was a city with a historical fortress to the south of Seoul I had heard of. He had travelled by himself to China and Australia a few years ago, he said.

The meal was so interesting – a little restaurant that sold ‘smoked chicken and pickled radish’. They called them Chicken Houses. I looked and saw he was spending 6 dollars on me and it bothered me but I explained about my situation as much as I could. I didn’t know then, but Korean society doesn’t think of money the same way we might. They are happy to pay for you, as they often insisted on with me. They said always, “I asked you to have dinner here with me so I must pay”. Not too many would ever be dishonest or money-grabbing.

Baek Sang Hyun (A picture taken 20 years after I knew him. I copied it from Facebook.)

Small residential street where Sang Hyun lived in Karak-dong behind my building.

After we ate the chicken he asked if I wanted to come to his apartment nearby that he shared with his brother, who wasn’t there often. I took a big chance it could be safe to do that and went. He showed me a videotape on a vcr that had his two trips on them. He said after he graduated from university, he wanted to pat a panda bear in China and he wanted to bungie-jump off a cliff in Australia. He did those things and showed me videos of both. It was entirely safe! That night I saw a picture of his fiancee. She was so beautiful, like a movie-star or model. While I was in Korea, Sang Hyun would call me every week to ask me to do something like go eat or go sightseeing or go to a large mall, anything. He had a nice sense of humour and is smarter than I realised – he was an engineer for the government at that time. Now, he has an even higher position and travels giving seminars and speeches about how to deal with waste in Korean cities.

When he would call me, the secretaries always answered and passed the phonecall upstairs to our lounge but they did this reluctantly. They always tried to get rid of him and didn’t believe I was friends with him. They did not want strangers taking advantage of me or bothering me and protecting me was part of their job. No one there understood that we were friends and doing good for eachother. He told me once he had no one in Seoul, like my problem I had there as well. His male friends had moved away to work or get married. His family lived far away. More than that, he couldn’t be free talking to Korean women, he said, because of the strict rules in their society. He was happy he could swear, drink, and smoke with me even though I was a woman. He could tell me anything he wanted. I was like having a male friend, which he didn’t have at that time. I listened to him but it was difficult to understand. In my Canadian society the roles of women and men were more equal. His family name was Baek, and he would always say when he called me and I got on the phone, “…I’m Back..!!!…” so it would sound like “I’m BACK now from somewhere” as a play on words.

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