Where I've Been

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Korean Smattering

Following is a smattering of pictures and clever accompanying comments from Korea. Think of it as a photo montage, like the type they show after the Olympics, World Cup, and major natural disasters.

Korea is cold, and as we all know, trees get cold as well. These trees are bundled up for the winter. They will provide the cherry blossoms in the next Cherry Blossom Festival.

Here are a few pictures of palaces and royal shrines. After a while they all kind of run together, much like runners in the New York Marathon.

Korean food doesn't agree with everyone. Here I am comforting my little bro as he seeks comfort in a large palace urn.

Here's a picture capturing the pageantry of the changing of the guard.

Koreans drink water out of little envelopes! They’re so funny!

One of the cool places we went was Isadong, which is old town Korea. It was biting cold the first night so we dropped into a traditional Teahouse. It looked like a little hobbit hole.

On the street vendors sell little cakes filled with sweetened red beans.

They’re quite tasty and they quickly became the only thing my father would eat. He began to look for them in the strangest places.

Koreans like to put up signs. This street is well signed.

Koreans also like to exercise and you don’t see many fat Koreans. These pieces of exercise equipment are clearly the reason why:

Even though the weather was about 30 degrees F, a very common activity is to see tons of old men out playing Chinese chess or Go.
Here my brother is being taught Chinese chess by a man that does not speak English. They had to communicate through the international language, love.

Here is my new niece in law, Harang (yes, that’s an official relation). She likes to bow to you.

Here we are at a market.

This kimchi is called bachelor kimchi, not because the radishes look like penises, but because…oh wait, no that’s why.

I really didn’t make that one up.

Here we are in front of the great south gate of the wall that used to surround Seoul

Korean Ginseng is put into everything. It’s a natural aphrodisiac, like me.

We visited a couple Buddhist temples (you know how I love those). These lanterns seem to hang over the entrance to most complexes.

Here’s the whole clan headin home after a day spent walking ‘til the seouls of our feet ached.

Here we are being captured by a huge wicker dragon.

The etiquette bell is the greatest modern Korean invention. They are located in many ladies’ restrooms. It makes a sound like a flushing toilet. When a lady uses the toilet, it is considered improper to make…sounds. Thus the etiquette bell is pushed when sounds are being made. I’m thinking of making it portable and marketing it in the US, any venture capitalists reading this??

That’ll about do it for Korea. I wrote this as I was suspended somewhere over the Rocky Moutains on my way back to Austin. So it's time I hang up my keyboard 'til the next trip.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Holidays in Korea

There’s not really much to note about a Korean Christmas. Stores are still open and many people are still working. It’s treated more like our Halloween in the US. You’ll certainly see decorations up and hear carols in the air but families don’t gather and presents aren’t really exchanged. Traveling home for Koreans is much more done over lunar new year. My family celebrated in the normal way, by wearing an equal number of red and green shirts.

New Years however was a different story. Even though by this time most of us had gotten sick, we still partied it up in downtown Seoul. By about 10PM the air was thick with smoke from the countless bottle rockets being shot into the air. Hordes of policemen stood guard (and took pictures themselves) along the main avenue

There were several traditional Korean music troupes that danced through the streets. You can see one of them at the beginning of this video clip taken about an hour before midnight:

As midnight rolled nearer we packed into the masses surrounding the Boshingak Bell Pavilion. The bell was in daily use during the Choson dynasty(1392-1910) when it was rung at the opening and closing of the city gates. Now however, it is only rung every New Years but they ring it 33 lucky times. The rest of the fam went home and the bros stuck around for this great shot.

You can see the Bell Pavilion in the background.

At midnight the bell tolled and bottle rockets flew, ash rained down like grey snow and you couldn’t even open your eyes due to the smoke, ash, and holiday cheer. Check it out, you can open your eyes though:

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Winter Wedding, Korean style

Korean weddings are efficient. Getting married is not an everyday occurrence, but wedding halls in Korea will do all they can to make you feel that way. Here’s how it worked in the hall we went to. There is a certain time allocated for your wedding, our time I believe, was 1:50. The bride arrives a few hours before to get all done up on the big day. She then goes up to the sixth floor and sits in a very small room as her guests wander in and get a picture with her. Here’s me with my sister, Laura, in the small picture room.

As the guests arrive, they are greeted by the father of the bride and groom and they sign in and pay. Yes, pay. There are no wedding presents given (same with Chinese weddings as I found out in Singapore), rather you give a certain amount of money depending on how close you are to the person. This is a rare opportunity to assign a monetary value to your friendship, and could be the reason that so many people attend these weddings. $50 is considered the least you would give if you were simply a mere acquaintance. Good friends run in the hundreds, and best friends may require pawning a non-vital major organ like the heart or skin (yes it IS an organ, didn’t you take 4th grade science?). When you sign in, your name is written next to the amount you gave, recording your friendship rating for all posterity. At this time you receive your meal ticket (after all, it’s the second reason you came besides forced tributes). Jeong apologized on behalf of all Koreans, being that the majority of people that come to your wedding will obtain their ticket and proceed directly to the floor above to get their dinner, then leave. But don’t worry, you know they really do care as long as they gave more than a paltry $50.

Everybody who desires to see the ceremony waits outside the actual wedding chapel as the previous ceremony is finishing. As they file out, you file in (hey the seats are still warm!). Take your seat quickly because before you know it “Here’s Comes the Bride” is pumping out of the speaker system and the procession has begun! Koreans don’t use bridesmaids or groomsmen so they were entirely without a clue as to what to do with these six extra people standing at the altar. The ceremony proceeds pretty similarly to its western counterpart except the fact that the Koreans gave a pleased gasp of surprise as they kissed at the end (a normally absent bit that Laura insisted upon (my family are real kissers)). The new couple then bows to both sets of parents, which have special seats of honor up front, the groom gets down on his knees and plants his forehead to the ground in front of them. Respek.

As the guests who actually came into the chapel now file off to the mess hall, the picture taking begins. Jeong and Laura changed into traditional Korean wedding get-ups (hanboks) and then went through the Korean portion of the wedding. They serve tea to both sets of parents, then each set of parents throws fruit at the bride as the groom pulls out her apron to catch the fruit.

You’ll have as many children as the fruit you catch. The Na’s (the new couple) caught 9. They now have no choice but to have 9 children, it’s tradition and it’s never wrong.

Finally we went to the mess hall once everybody had already eaten and left (no, I’m serious). It seems that you can really have any type of event you would like at these event halls, check out the banner.

Laura is wearing a traditional bride’s hambok, characterized by the rainbow sleeves. This is not to be confused with the rainbow affiliated with gays, since they actually can’t get married. This is a serious conflict, which accounts for the sparseness of gays in Korea. I drew that last conclusion myself.

An interesting sidenote (and much more serious than my gay comment above) is how uncommon it is to see a mixed couple in Korea. Koreans have a peninsular mindset. Being that a peninsula is an avenue to the mainland from offshore islands they have a long tradition of being in the path of marauding Chinese, Japanese, or Mongol armies as they attack each other. As a result, Koreans are fiercely protective of their people and their heritage, historically going to great pains to not intermingle with other races that travel through. Upwards of 90% of Koreans that live in the peninsula are just that: pure Koreans with a painstakingly detailed genealogy that chronicles their bloodline. Seeing foreigners is not really all that common in Korea, but it’s much less common to see someone who is a Korean mix and they are unfortunately more likely to be the result of some prejudice. My brother in law has noticed the stares and the occasional comment that accompanies his decision to go against the national paradigm. Clearly the benefits of marrying into the family offsets this downside. As I said, we’re good kissers.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Seoul food and the DMZ

So my little sis was actually getting married to a real live Korean. Up until now I had only seen them on TV and I just thought it was some trick of computer animation. Nope, I was totally wrong! They've got a whole country! I arrived in Seoul on December 23. My entire family flew in for a bit of Seoul searching (these puns won't end so get ready). Immediately we set out to get some Seoul food.

Korea's food is incredible. For those of you who haven't had a chance to eat some Korean food here's how it works. You go to a restaurant and oftentimes sit on the floor around a low table which will usually have a grill or pot built right into it. Immediately, the waiters bring out your panchan (I'll misspell all Korean words, my apologies to the non-computer-generated Korean people out there). Panchan is composed of a ton of little bowls of food that is intended to be eaten before, during, and after the main meal. Usually these are varieties of kimchi. The cabbage kimchi that most Americans know is only one variety of kimchi. Really Koreans tend to kimchi anything: radish, pickles, lettuce, sprouts, etc. One time I thought I had a kimchi finger, but it turned out to be octopus. Generally, there are about 6 bowls of panchan at a given meal. Then the main course comes which is generally pork or beef based. Much of the time you'll grill or boil this at your table and then wrap the meat in fresh lettuce leaves. Sesame is especially good. Here is the clan eating some Seoul food (two of the folks are Laura's friends).
Here we are eating some stuff which name I can't remember. It was the only chicken we ate in the 11 days we were there. Plus, bonus, we have non gender specific aprons on. There's my Mom, Sister and betrothed.
Then here are the bros.

Koreans are serious about their Kimchi, honestly they rarely even smile when they talk about it (so serious are they). You could also say it's Gimchi because K's and G's are interchangeable and the sound is somewhere between the two, thus some of you actually drive a Gia. Here I am beside the latest craze, a Kimchi refrigerator. It's so huggable isn't it?
One of the coolest and most poignant activities we did in Seoul was to head up to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. This has to be done through the military, specifically the Joint Services Organization which is a mixture of US and South Korean military. We left Seoul at 7AM and drove up to a fort on the border of the DMZ. There they gave us all a briefing and also required that we sign our lives away in the event of any occurrence from "enemy" activity. The DMZ extends the entire width of the Korean peninsula and averages 4 km wide (that narrow red line in the middle of the peninsula). Normally nothing lies within the DMZ except at the spot where the tour went. There are two villages that are located within the DMZ on either side of the central Military Demarcation Line (MDL). We were specifically instructed not to take pictures of the South Korean village as we drove by it, I imagine for their protection.

The residents are guarded 24/7 by the JSA and have strict curfews and have heavily subsidized, tax-free incomes ($80k USD per year) along with other perks. On the North Korean side there is the "Propaganda village", so named because it has loudspeakers the size of a house pointed at South Korea that, until 2004, used to broadcast communist propaganda for up to 12 hours a day. There's also the huge flagpole you can see there that's over 500 ft tall flying a massive North Korean flag. Funny thing is, nobody actually lives in this village. Funny commies.

The weather was blisteringly cold, rivaling the sentiment that this picture illustrates. This is by far the closest point of contact with North Koreans.

About 5 buildings here straddle the MDL. The North Korean soldiers stand in profile against a raised concrete divider about half a foot tall between the two sides. You can see the South Korean JSA soldier (who looks like the T1000 from Terminator 2 (you know, when he was posing as a traffic cop?)) interminably staring across the border at the North Korean guards. The guard in the lower photo stands half blocked by the building so the North Koreans can't get a direct shot in the event of an attack. In the building to the left is where the talks occur between nations.

North Koreans and South Koreans alternately use this building for the tour (we had to wait while a North Korean tour finished before we could go in). The microphones on this table are directly on the MDL,

so crossing to the other side of the room lands you squarely within North Korea. Here's me in North Korea:

These guards are like ninjas so we were warned not to get too close. They stay dead still and stare straight ahead wearing these sunglasses even indoors. It must take a lot of heart to do what they do. I mean, I've got seoul, but I'm not a seouldier.

As I mentioned, there are supposedly tourist groups from North Korea that come to the same place, the "tourist group" however that waylayed our tour was just this group of North Korean guards. They were laughing and taking pictures of each other. Then they perched on top of their guard building and watched us like "The Birds". With all the show of the North Koreans I kind of wondered if perhaps they were just instructed to act happy and carefree in the face of all these westerners.

Despite my joking, the feeling produced in all this really is just sadness. My new brother in law, Jeong, spent some of his mandatory 2 year military term guarding the DMZ. He told me that after the death of Kim Il Sung (former premier of North Korea and father of Kim Jong Il) several years ago all the South Koreans were so excited because they thought that a reunification was finally going to occur. It seems that the true sentiment, at least from the South Korean side, is not one of hostility but a great sense of loss and a keen longing to become one again. At least, that's what Jeong explained has been taught to them since grade school. Later that evening we all watched a South Korean movie, "Joint Services Organization" that tells a fictionalized story of the friendship that developed between a group of South and North Korean border guards. Again these feelings were portrayed.

It's hard to reconcile the fact that 23 million North Koreans are kept from their brothers by the pride and stubborness of just a few men. Take for instance the little pot bellied-pig Kim Jong Il or "Dear Leader" as he likes himself to be called. His desire to live up to the profile of his father has caused him to adopt a "Military First" philosophy that is forced down the peoples' throats instead of the rice and nourishment for which they are starving. All the while he sits aboard his yacht or dabbles in failed movie making with kidnapped South Korean actresses. Unfortunately the people are taught that they are the envy of the world, and how should they know better with banned internet, cell phones, and a controlled media? They are taught to deify the Kims; we were told that there are approximately 25,000 statues of Kim Il Sung alone in North Korea. The little pot-bellied pig is going to have to commission a lot of statues and kidnap a few sculptors to be able to keep up with that. Looking at North Korea's horizon, I don't know if we can see any difference for a while...

So this blog entry will obviously end on a somber note. I'll have a few more entries dedicated to Korea, including the traditional Korean wedding and New Years in downtown Seoul!