Monday, November 12, 2007

11/5 The End...

As my trip neared the end, I had contrasting notions of time. Mongolia seemed so long ago but it also felt like I had just left San Francisco for this adventure.

Before leaving Seoul on Monday, I said good-bye to some friends and my Korean mom. Nancy drove me to the airport and we said our farewell too. I'm always so sad to leave. Every time I come back, there's always something that's changed and no longer the way I remembered. But change is good. After all, that's the reason why I embarked on this trip. Who know--if my Korean mom's prayers are answered, maybe I'll bring back a husband and a child on my next visit. One thing I know won't change is my friendships, especially ones like the one I have with Nancy. And that's very comforting.

Thanks to all of you who took the time to read my entries and view my photos. It was nice to hear from you and receive your feedback!

10/19 - 11/5 Old Friends, Aye?

I met Nancy in 1998 when we were placed in the same second level class at the Korean Language Institute. After graduating from the University of Toronto, she moved to Seoul and has made a nice life for herself as a successful voice actress. Over the years, she's become a very close friend and "home base" for all of my visits to Korea. In addition to opening her home, she's my partner in crime in Seoul. She suffers through noraebang (karaoke in a private room) as I sing my catalogue of Korean pop songs from the 1990's; we laugh at each other as we bowl yet another terrible game; we eat at Pusan Shikdang, the best dive restaurant in Shinchon, our old hang out; she expertly weaves us through the stalls of Namdaemun and Dongdaemun markets, some of the most complicated mazes in Seoul; we visit the World Cup Museum where we take silly photos and make asses of ourselves "playing soccer"; and she expands my knowledge of the city by sharing her latest finds. Plus, since many of her friends are ex-pats, I catch up on my Canadian, aye?

On one of our trips to Dongdaemun, we were walking towards a large shopping mall when I heard my name. As soon as I heard the voice, I knew it was Abel, one of our friends from KLI. Neither Nancy nor I had been in touch with him much but we always wondered how he was doing and what he was up to. Abel was the first Korean-Brazilian I met and his perspective had always interested me and Nancy. And before running into him on the street, we had literally spoken about wishing to meet him again. It was a huge coincidence that we were on the same street at the same time. We caught up at a cafe, after which Nancy and I went over all the things that had to have taken place for our serendipitous meeting with Abel to happen.

Will, another KLI friend, was also in town so we had a mini reunion. I can't believe we've all known each other for nine years already. A lot has changed. Will and Abel are now married and Abel also has a daughter. I'm sure we all look older but I pretty much see the same faces I remember from our carefree days as students. I also met with Korean friends who've also gotten married, have children and are well into their official adult lives. Almost always, we'd end up reminiscing about the good old days. Aren't we too young for that? I suppose it's trying to recapture that freedom with old friends that makes coming back to Korea so much fun.

Photos can be found here.

11/1 "Twelfth Night" Russian!

On Thursday night, Nancy, Chris and I went to see a performance of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" by the Chekhov International Theatre Festival. The production was directed by Declan Donnellan, a world renown actor and director of Shakespearean plays. If I read "Twelfth Night" in high school, it wasn't thoroughly since I didn't remember anything so Nancy gave us a quick synopsis. This became essential since the play was in Russian with a translation into Korean on projection screens placed on both sides of the stage. Since I don't speak Russian and am not fluent in Korean, it was pretty tricky to watch a comedy of errors involving twins, gender-bending and mistaken identities in this format. To make it extra challenging, it was performed by an all-male cast!

The play was excellent and though the only words I understood were "
spaseeba" and "dasvidanya", the Chekhov players were so expressive it didn't matter. And I was pleased that I could keep up somewhat with the translated dialogue.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

10/31 Seoul at Night

For a nice evening out, Nancy and I went to n Grill, a revolving restaurant at the top of N Seoul Tower which provides the city's highest viewpoint. The tower serves as the antenna for various local and nationwide FM and TV broadcasting stations and opened in 1980 as a hybrid recreational/cultural complex.

Nancy and I enjoyed our dinner at n Grill but the movement made us both a little queezy. The view was spectacular and until then I didn't know how beautiful Seoul is at night.

We also got a nice view of the city's evening skyline from the ferry. Nancy insisted we take a ride along the Han River which runs through the center of Seoul. In some respects it is like the Seine but much wider. Within city limits, its width measures 1 km.

Photos of Seoul at night can be found here.

10/29 Gyeongbok Palace

Though I had toured the palaces on my first trip to Seoul in 1995, I visited Gyeongbokgoong since Monday was a nice day. I arrived just in time for the changing of the guards ceremony which was a great photo opportunity.

A brief history: Gyeongbok Palace was completed in 1395 and was the main and largest palace of the Joseon Dynasty. After being destroyed during the Japanese invasion of 1592-1598, it was reconstructed as a massive 330-building complex in the 1860s and became home to the Korean royal family. All but 10 buildings were destroyed in 1911 during the Japanese occupation.

The main buildings on the palace grounds are Geunjeongjeon (the imperial throne room) and Gyeonghoeru Pavilion, which stands on 48 granite pillars on an artificial lotus lake. With two mountains near the original palace grounds, Gyeongbokgoong is surrounded by great natural beauty.

Seoul has over 10 million people living in an area of 605 sq km (smaller than New York or Tokyo), making it one of the most densely populated cities in the world. When stuck in a crowd, it can feel like you're being carried by a wave of people. While Gyeongbok Palace is a national treasure and symbol of Korea's royal history, it also serves as a quiet place for contemplation in a city moving at hyper speed.

Photos can be found here.

10/25 - 10/29 Metro Hotel - Myungdong

There are some of the kindest, most open people in Korea and an example is the president of Metro Hotel in Myungdong district. Before I arrived, my friends at Eastern Social Welfare Society (the agency through which I was adopted) told me about an offer by Metro Hotel for a free week's stay for adoptees visiting Korea. Myungdong is a popular shopping district in central Seoul and close to most sights and attractions. Staying at a hotel there is normally very expensive. Opened in 1954 (and the first to be registered as a tourist hotel in Korean history!) Metro Hotel was renovated three years ago and the lobby and rooms reminded me of the W Hotel. If you're in Seoul, it's a great alternative to the chain establishments since their rates are quite reasonable.

Though I didn't get a chance to meet the president, I met with the sales representative in charge of this special program. When I asked how the president became interested in adoptees
returning to Korea, she said he had seen a program on television and contacted Eastern to see how he could help. Change happens quickly in Korea and new buildings sprout up all the time. Advances in consumer technology happen at lightening speed compared to the U.S. and Koreans adapt very quickly. But like most societies, social change is much slower. When the first wave of Korean adoptees returned, many came back with stories of hardship about racism and loneliness. In addition, due to negative attention about international adoption of children during the 1988 Summer Olympics, there was collective shame in Korea. As adoptees returned, many hoping to find the acceptance they felt was missing in their adoptive countries, most realized that things were not so easy in Korea either. Due to the work of many adoptees and Koreans, changes have been made. Though more still needs to be done, the generosity of individuals like the president of Metro Hotel is a great representation of this change.

I would like to thank Metro Hotel and its president for their generosity and, more importantly, their interest in adoptees and adoptive families
visiting Korea.

10/19 - 11/5 Korean Cuisine

Korean cuisine in the U.S. is fairly similar to what's available in Korea but the major difference is price. In the States, what can best be described as appetizers are often more expensive than main dishes. For instance, dukboki at a pojangmacha is $2 in Seoul but around $10-$16 in the U.S. Arguably, you're standing on the street when eating at a pojangmacha but still! Korean-American takes on traditional dishes, like kalbi (marinated short ribs) and soondubu (spicy tofu stew), make it to Korea as well. L.A. kalbi is still popular and L.A. soondubu made a big splash a few years ago. But there are still some regional dishes that don't make it out of Korea and restaurants I return to every visit.

Samgaetang is perhaps the most traditional stew in Korean cuisine. The most basic description is chicken soup with ginseng though preparing it is much more complicated than it sounds. A whole chicken or hen is stuffed with rice that is prepared with ginseng, chestnuts, pine nuts, garlic, ginkgo and dates. Ginger and green onions are added to the broth. Though it's a stew, samgaetang is often eaten in the early summer for stamina and energy to help deal with the hot weather. Nancy took me to To Sok Chon, one of the most famous samgaetang restaurants in Seoul. Lines can go around and around the block in the summer. They have a secret recipe for the broth which is thicker and milkier than other broths. The meat was so tender and just dropped off the bones. The soup leaves you feeling like you've just been swaddled in a warm blanket.

On every visit, I go to a famous vegetarian restaurant called San
Chon in the art district Insadong. San Chon, which means mountain village, serves fresh vegetables found in Korea's woods and mountains. The dishes are derived from temple cooking which the proprietor, Mr. Kim Yon Shik, came to know during his years as a Buddhist monk. Nancy and I thought they added salt as a seasoning which they hadn't done before. Everything tastes pure and though there's no meat, you get quite full. As always, it was delicious.

Korean evening dramas are popular all over Asia and one of the most popular is "
Dae Jang Geum" or "Jewel in the Palace" from 2003. The story's main character is Jang Geum, who is loosely based on a historical figure from the Joseon Dynasty and the first female royal physician. One of the features of the drama was royal cuisine and the actress who played Jang Geum trained at Korea House, a well known restaurant and performance hall in Seoul. Korea House was a private residence during the actual Joseon Dynasty period. Its modern reincarnation is inspired by Geunjeongjeon which is located in Gyeongbok Palace (write up to follow). The menu is based on descriptions in works of literature and royal court records. Table manners, kitchen utensils, ancestral rites table setting method and the names and ingredients of foods were all recorded during Korea's dynastic periods and Korea House serves according to those records. They also have folk arts performances. Compared to "peasant" food, royal cuisine seemed kind of bland. Korean food is pungent and spicy and royal food is basically the opposite. The decor and presentation were beautiful. We all felt satisfied and not stuffed like we normally feel after a meal which was a nice change.

Photos of Korean cuisine can be found here.