Jeongdong Road (정동길)

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There’s a superstition that if you walk down Jeongdong Road, the road following Deoksugung Palace’s southwards facing wall, with your boyfriend or girlfriend you’ll break up. I guess you could say my girlfriend and I took a a leap of faith and walked it anyway, joking along the way that it was a final parting stroll. Neither my girlfriend nor I knew the origins of this, so I looked it up on Jungu office’s website where it’s written:

“There are three theories that explain the origins of this saying. One theory holds that the spirits of court ladies, who were obliged by their status to renounce marriage, still reside in the neighborhood, while another theory says that the family court used to be located nearby and couples had to walk along this street to get divorced. The third theory says that the street is so long that couples easily get bored and end up arguing with each other.”

I can understand the first two. The third, which seems most practical, is a bit of a stretch in my opinion, as the street’ really not that long. I guess if you’re out of shape or already prone to arguing it could hold true. Anyway, like the quoted article states the road is, ironically, ideal for dates. In the fall, the tree lined road is cast with a orange/gold glow and the shadows of the trees leave speckle the palace’s outside walls. Following the wall, you eventually end up in Jeongdong, a neighborhood famous as Korea’s entry point to the Western world. Up until the 1880s, true to it’s nickname “The Hermit Kingdom”, isolationist polices (instituted during the Joseon period) kept Korea largely untouched from foreign influence. Before that time foreigners weren’t allowed to live within Seoul’s city walls. With the first American envoy being allowed entrance in 1884, this city section began to undergo major changes, becoming a conduit for the introduction of Western style education, architecture and religion. Jeongdong, congregated by many foreigners, was soon after referred to as “Legation Street” or “European Quarter” by locals (Koreanet).

Today, despite the passage of time, Jeongdong’s history remains intact to see, from the Seoul Museum of Art (formerly the Supreme Court of Korea), Chung-dong First Methodist Church, the central hall of the Salvation Army (completed in 1928), to the Russian Legation (where King Gojong and the crown prince sought refuge in for a year after Queen Min’s assassination). This is a history not easily observed in a country long characterized by such isolationist policies and preservation of it’s own architecture/culture, contrasted with the early adoption of Western attire/Architecture by Korea’s close neighbor, Japan. So, while walking around the leaf-strewn streets with Winnie, sounds of a mock-procession of the guards in front of Deoksu Palace in the distance, I was reminded of the Western-Asian mix of Shanghai’s streets; stain glass tiled windows on the nearby church and sharp angles of Western buildings juxtaposed against the iconic Korean style curved tiles marking the Palace’s wall.

Seoul’s cafe craze, it’s obsession with coffee and the European cafe aesthetic, blends really well with the surroundings in Jeongdong. Sometimes modern style cafes, flushed with white, modern interiors, can feel out of place in neighborhoods packed with Korea’s pervasive neon signs, old pubs and cheap eateries, but here, set among the wide, tiled street, the western style cafe’s blend into the surroundings naturally. Winnie and I stopped by Jeongwangsu Coffee House, a small chain in Seoul before heading on our separate ways. As usual Winnie ordered a sweet iced latte and I ordered black coffee (or “poison”) as Winnie likes to call it. Afterwards we made our way back to City Hall station, along the way passing a group of older Korean men clad in Joseon-era apparel, in between shifts performing in front of the palace. A picture with one of these men is a classic souvenir from Seoul, but something I’ve never felt compelled to get myself. Yet, while passing I caught eyes with one of the men, dressed in red garb with a large red hat, suggesting “yangban” status (the privileged upper class of old Korea). He smiled and waved for me to come by his side. I laughed and posed for a shot. Fitting that this would happen in Jeongdong.

Summer Heat

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It’s been a really hot summer in Seoul so far. I’ve experienced this type of heat during summer each year since first coming to Korea, but this year’s been especially rough. I was talking with a friend of mine the other day and he was saying how lately the weather forecasters in Korea can’t get anything right. As we talked over a cup of coffee he told me that people are starting to ignore anything the forecasters say. This week’s been no exception. The weather agency kept saying this week would be the beginning of a drop in the heat and humidity. A few days in and it’s been just as hot if not hotter than the prior weeks. One article I saw on a news stand here said something along the lines of, “In contrast to predictions, Seoul this week is a sauna”. It’s not just the heat itself but the humidity that can make Seoul summers so hard to endure. So it’s spaces like the subway and buses that offer some respite. It wasn’t always this way though. A few students of mine were telling me about growing up in the 80s and 90s when air conditioning wasn’t so common in Korea. They were saying how people would flock to the banks during hot days to cool down. During that time, banks were one of the few public spaces where air conditioning was used. So people would go without any particular motive other than to escape the heat.

Seoul’s changed a lot in a short amount of time, as an older man working at a tteokbokki shop reminded me last night. There’s no lack of air conditioned spaces now…as most cafes and restaurants are kept chilled, or at least have many fans on. Understanding how expensive electric bills can be for apartments in Korea I was curious why so many small businesses kept their cafe’s so cool. My friend described to me, while sharing some patbingsu (a summertime dessert food, made from ice cream, condensed milk and red beans on top of shredded ice), that in Korea businesses are charged very cheaply for electric costs relative to residents of apartments. So, the people get the short end of the stick. Meanwhile a lot of the old generation slog and sweat through the summers in old-style apartments without AC. I’m living in a rooftop apartment now. Anyone whose lived in a Korean rooftop apartment during the summer will say the same thing, “mot salgessoyo” (“can’t live”). Without AC, it’s like living in a sauna. Fortunately, I have a fan and AC to get me through, but without it I’d be looking for a way out soon.

Everyone handles it differently, but the sentiment is shared. This has been a long, hot summer. It’s clearly not just Korea…according to a recent study, it seems that this month was the hottest month in recorded history of the Earth. Couldn’t be global warming? Right? Anyway, the philosophy of many older Korean’s is fight heat with heat. So, certain body warming foods like samgyetang or yukgaejang (ginseng/chicken soup/spicy beef soup) are enjoyed to get a sweat going, with the idea the sweat will cool you down while releasing heat. I can see this, and I’ve enjoyed eating these foods and sweating profusely but this summer I’ve taken the opposite approach, eating lots of cold buckwheat noodles and fruits and iced drinks. Yet, I’ve also chosen to try and embrace the heat as best as I can. I usually moan and groan my way through humid summers. I won’t lie and say I didn’t do the same this year, but I’ve had many times too where I’m walking the streets at night, sweating and just enjoying the experience of moving and taking on the heat….Until it’s time for bed…Then on goes the fan and cross my fingers I’ll wake up alive (Kidding…but “fan death” is a superstition here).

Late August

It’s that time of year again in Seoul. War-game season. Since I first came to Seoul, my concerns about a possible escalation of violence on the Korean peninsula have lessened in terms of anxiety around the news. I’ve now been here through countless missile tests (both successful and unsuccessful) from the North, numerous threats of reducing Seoul to a “sea of ash” and at times the talk of an escalated war. I’ve adjusted to this as a normal part of life here. Coming from Vermont, about as safe and peaceful as it gets, I was a bit sensitive to the politically volatile landscape of Seoul at first. Yet, for me, there was always a fascination, albeit depressing, with the whole story and history.

What I have learned, and didn’t take long to learn, was that these threats and chest pumping from the North come routinely. There’s a pattern, as the North is typically using threats and displays of military strength to both boost national pride and cohesion amongst its people and create the right environment for appeasement through financial/economic support. Being the poorer of the two countries, with massive issues of hunger, now facing a sever drought, and next door to the South, with a distant hope of re-unification, the North has relied on military might as it’s main prop to stay economically afloat and safe. There’s a reason and rhyme behind what they do…but that is not to dismiss that a real danger does exist. Most of my Korean friends admit that there is a genuine degree of danger, but it’s so removed from the daily reality in Seoul that it’s out of mind for most people most of the time.

Anyway, I’m reminded again of this cycle as September approaches and the annual US-Korea joint military drills begin. This year they were preceded with NK accusations that the drills were cover for a secret attack. Last year during this time was a long drawn-out conflict involving land mines, K-Pop and other Korean drama audio clips being blared over the border with loudspeakers and tanks lined up alongside the NK border. Since these drills have just started, there’s a good chance for more to come this time around. Living here, the seasons are marked by these escalations. This afternoon was another mock-drill where a siren sounds at loud volume across the city and cars are told to park and the subway shuts down.

I looked outside from my Win’s apartment, up on a high floor of a tower in central Seoul as the siren blared. People below were walking around talking on their phones. The streets looked a bit quieter than usual, but beyond that, it’s like the blaring siren was simply background noise. It’s just another day of life for people here. As a foreigner, we have the privileged position of looking in, without the same concerns of this land being our foundation, our absolute home. Obviously, the longer I’m here, the more that changes. But for now, I still often feel like I’m looking in, not truly understanding what all this uncertainty means to the people around me. It’s part of the package being in this part of the world. There’s probably a lot of change to come in East Asia these next 5-10 years. For the time being, I’ll stay hoping for peace.

 

 

Neon Seoul

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The first thing that I’m always struck by when I first come back to Korea from the States are the neon signs. Before coming back I always look forward to the food, the public transportation, certain spots in the city, the experience, but I never think about the lights that signal Seoul’s insomnia; that point out, “the days not over yet”. Most of these signs are for suljibs (bars), or hofs (pubs) or noraebangs (Karaoke rooms). In the picture above you can also see illuminated store front signs with vertical scrolls advertising certain soups and foods. In the foreground you can see a Cass beer poster, the Budweiser of Korea, describing the enlivening experience of a sip from it’s can. These are the fuel for Korea’s sleeplessness: alcohol, food and karaoke (not to mention 24-hour PC gaming rooms). Karoake itself comes in many forms, from simply rooms to sing in, to rooms with women to join. Hong Sang Soo’s 1998 film The Power of Gangwon Province includes a memorable scene where the two lonely friends spend a drunken night singing songs together and fooling around with 2 naked women in a karaoke bar in the Northeastern province of Gangwondo. So, the signs symbolise energy, life, insomnia, vice. They’re the light that keep the misadventures, conflicts, and doldrums alive at night . But there’s something also beautiful and magical to these old neon signs. Something I don’t think is only particular to me but to many, as evidenced by Vegas. Not to mention, for Westerners, the lights have become, through popular culture, a symbol of East Asia.

Before I first came to Asia, I remember watching Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and marveling at the images of a multi-colored, multi-faceted Tokyo; the arcades, the fashion, the flashing lights and neon signs, the Karaoke room floating above the busy streets below, the chaotic and loud Pachinko parlors. At the time, all these sights were foreign to me, and Tokyo and Asia still held, in my mind and heart, a place of mystery and fascination. It’s all these images of a futuristic yet retro Asia, symbolized by this pulsing sea of lights, that I’d held in my mind for so long. This picture I took when walking through the streets reminded me of that Asia. The Asia I don’t think about so often anymore. The Asia of Blade Runner and Akira.

I was walking around Myeondong, a cultural and arts area of Seoul during the Japanese occupation, when I took this shot. Myeongdong is now a symbol of consumer culture and one of the largest shopping and tourism districts in Seoul. To my surprise, I’ve spent a lot of time there lately. When I first came to Korea, I hated Myeongdong. It felt, when I first visited, like the Asia I’d seen in the movies, but I couldn’t enjoy it the way I expected I would. I was right in the center of the madness. Hoards of people squeezed together in dense streets, smells from food carts wafting through the air, lights in every direction and music blared from all corners. As I walked through, I remember hearing the young Korean women standing in front of cosmetic stores advertising in loud, high pitched voices for special deals. I remember looking across the sea of faces and bobbing heads and feeling dizzy and overwhelmed. It was too much for me and I was turned off by the lack of any real traditional culture.  So, my surprise comes from the fact that I’ve come to enjoy Myeondong. I enjoy it for the food, the energy, the busyness – all the things at first I couldn’t stand. Maybe that means I’ve gotten used to the frenzy and chaos of Seoul? Or maybe I simply am looking for different things? The practical explanation is I happen to be in this area a lot lately, between attending a private school here for Korean and attending a new gym nearby.

Between the proximity to Myeondong and the heat of the day, I’ve spent a lot of my nights after class and after workouts getting bites in the area and taking strolls. It’s been so incredibly hot that I haven’t wanted to spend too much time outside during the day. In turn, the nights have been my time to get some air and simply enjoy a walk. The other night, as I passed by this street, I was reminded of that feeling of returning to Seoul and feeling at home again, at home in the glow of the neon lights. So, in contrast to my home back in the states, marked by it’s stillness and quiet at night, broken occasionally by the sound of a passing car and punctuated by the creek of crickets in the dark, the neon signs of Seoul are what grab me first to say “you’re back”. Now, rather than being overwhelmed, I find the sight of the signs and their colors, despite whatever type of drama or vices they might be hiding, to be comforting.

Hongje Stream (홍제천)

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Hongje Stream flows through the western side of Seoul, notably past World Cup Park (the site of the 2002 World FIFA World Cup) and Peace Park. Since I first came to Seoul, the stream’s been a regular place I return to to walk and take some time for myself, to breathe and unwind. On a sunny, clear day it’s a gorgeous. Each side of the stream is lined with greens, flowing over into the walking paths and the stream below. Every so often along the trail are stones set in the water allowing you to pass, the classic Korean stream bridge. On the weekends when the weather’s warm, the walking path is full of bikers, kids on scooters, roller bladers, and couples taking strolls. And despite the weather, there’s always older Korean men riding their bikes, classic trot (the oldest form of Korean pop music) from the 60s and 70s blaring from speakers on their side.  It’s a place, like other streams scattered throughout the city, to get a taste of nature and reconnect with the surroundings…A good place for a bottle of makgeolli (korean rice wine) with friends, or a stroll at night for a couple.

I remember distinctly, during a run  there back in Seoul in 2013, running past a group of elderly Koreans..a large group, both men and women, sitting alongside the stream…Trot music was blaring from a boombox while the older women (probably in their 70’s-80’s) danced passionately without shame, as the men sat around watching sharing drinks. I remember being surprised at the time to see people that old behaving just like kids…But that’s something I’ve come to find true of the older generation here…A while back I asked a friend why that is and she said, “I think in Korea, when you’re young, you have no time to just be a kid and have fun like Americans…So, once people get old, they celebrate their wild 20s then”. Whatever the reason, it’s an admirable sight…A reminder to stay active and and to keep having fun. For me, Hongje stream is one of those places…Where I can just unwind, relax, and connect back to the earth. Today was a bit cloudy and muggy, and my best camera was at home charging, but it was a nice walk nonetheless.

Ah, I can do that…

As I mentioned in my last post, the weather in Seoul lately has been HOT…humid, muggy and damp. I live in an oktapbang (roof top apartment), the top floor of a old concrete building built in the 70s. It’s spacious compared to average one room apartments in Seoul, it’s cheap and the location’s great but getting through the hot summers is one challenge everyone who’s lived in an oktapbang can relate to. After getting back to Korea I found out my air conditioner was broken. So, I had to call up the service center for assistance. Simple enough…Right?

Despite being in Korea for a while and having reached a high level in my Korean, I still get nervous when dealing with things like this. I worry there will be a communication breakdown over the phone while I speak in Korean..or that the assistant will ask me repeatedly, “What did you say??”. For a long time, making this type of call in Korean was something I was unable to do. Even as my listening’s improved along with my conversational abilities, the fear and nervousness around putting myself out there and making calls in Korean has remained. Yet, this time, after much deliberation I said “Fuck it, I got this”. I felt a confidence, a part of me that said “Don’t worry. This is how you learn. You make mistakes”. Before making the call, I prepared notes about all the things I expected to be asked about: air conditioner model name, address, phone number, what happened, etc. I prepared any vocab/sentences I needed on a scrap paper and made the call.

Upon answering, I first said “I’m a foreigner, so please speak slowly”. And then we talked. A few minutes later I was told to wait for a call from a technician who would stop by my house this week. That’s it. Done. I felt a wave of pride and satisfaction, giving myself a invisible pat on the back…and I was reminded again, “I can do this….”. Sure, my pronunciation and intonation sometimes are a bit off and I had to ask the customer service agent to repeat herself once, but that’s not to get hung up on the mistakes. The mistakes are part of the process, and I did something that, at one point, wasn’t possible to me.

The lesson of this whole episode was that it’s easy to under-estimate ourselves…fearing the worst, thinking we can’t do something…That’s natural…but eventually, to move forward, you need to act. I usually will ask a Korean friend for help in these situations…but this time, I felt the desire to prove to myself I can handle this on my own. Half the time when you just say “Screw it, I’m doing this”, you’ll do better than you expected. The key towards success in anything is to re-orient from good/bad, win/lose, black and white thinking to a creative approach where the lines between these distinctions are blurred. Life is not clear cut, and we’re not born perfect. We learn through experience, and that includes pain, embarrassment, uncertainty, etc. This time, I felt a clarity in myself, somewhere deep down in my core the words “I’ll make mistakes, and that’s how I’ll learn, this is the way forward” echo up, passing through my mind. This is the way forward.

Sanmotoongi (산모퉁이)

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Looking across towards the western ridge of Mt. Bugak, Seoul, from Sanmotongi Cafe.

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Winnie trying out the telescope, looking across towards Mt. Ingwan.

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Balcony seating, offering a panorama of Northern Seoul, nestled amongst the hills.

    I’m back in Korea after a little over a month in the states. My trip home was great, affording enough time to reconnect with friends and family and enjoy far too many burgers, yet it’s good to be back in Seoul. Arriving back in Seoul in mid July, I was suddenly reminded of just how hot it can get here…each day since I’ve been back has been humid and damp. Outside, it feels like a sauna and I’m perpetually sweating. So, while I expected I’d be out exploring every day as soon as I got back, in reality I’ve been taking it pretty easy and enjoying air conditioning whenever and wherever it’s available.

     The day after my arrival was date day with Winnie. We spent it wandering around Buamdong, a quiet neighborhood north of Gyeongbokgung palace and saddled between Mt Bugaksan to the East and Mt Inwangsan to the West. We made our way to Sanmongtoongi (meaning, “corner of the mountain”), a small cafe up on the hills offering views of Seoul, particularly the neighborhoods spread amongst the valley below. The cafe’s famous as a location where a famous drama was shot (forget the name), and for it’s unique location, off the well worn path and described as one of the harder cafe’s to find in Seoul by some. Spent most of the time chatting with Winnie while sharing cups of tea, rather than taking shots, but here’s a few I took. The cafe itself is cozy and welcoming, with a rock wall exterior and wooden floor interior, with wide wall sized windows facing south. Outside was a patio space, where Winnie and I tried the binoculars there…surprised to find we could watch people hiking alongside Inwangsan in the distance as well as people sitting inside there offices through the binocular’s view.

    When there, you might feel like you’re far removed from downtown Seoul, but it’s really only a short bus trip away from Gwanghwamun and the city center. Besides this cafe, Buamdong is full of other cafe’s, restuarants and galleries…all warranting more trips back. Definitely worth a trip to see a quieter, yet sophisticated side of Seoul.