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.

Good Morning Seoul

It’s an early Sunday morning here in Seoul. I’m at Starbucks, eating a simple bagel and cream cheese and coffee breakfast. My eyes opened this morning to a view of a foggy Seoul skyline, but the sun is now peeking through the grey layers and cars are passing by in greater frequency. I’ve got a bit of a long day ahead of me. Tomorrow I leave for a month long trip in America…both an opportunity to see friends and family but also to prepare for next steps in Korea. I’ll be setting up a new visa, allowing myself to continue to study and work here, as I continue looking for work options and improve my Korean. I’m having such a great time in Korea now, that I’m sure I’ll be excited to come back in a months time..Yet, for now, I’m excited about the upcoming trip.

I’ll be heading first to Nevada for a day and a night in Vegas followed by a short road trip to some of the surrounding national parks in Utah and Arizona. After a few days, I’ll then be making the final stretch to Vermont, where I’ll spend most of my time, split up with a short trip to Cape Cod, a special place in my memory, where my family used to spend summer vacations.

These days, I’m increasingly feel more and more comfortable in Korea…the result of my gradually improving language ability, an increased comfort living within this culture and my expanded friendships…While I love living in Asia, and in some ways prefer it to home, I’m always fascinated by my home country. I’ve, since a young age, been drawn to and excited by images of the vast American west…images of native americans living primitively amongst nature, the mammoth canyons that expand beyond the reach of eyes, like a large ocean of sand and earth…I’ve never lost this attraction to the American West…so it’ll great to find myself back there for a few days. Also I’m looking forward to spending time in my country as it processes the social, economic and cultural consequences of all that’s occurring…between an apparent growing renaissance in the civil rights and feminist movements, and the current, dramatic, presidential election cycle. America’s my native home, so I can relate to these events in a more immediate, and passionate way, than I can to the issues affecting Korea. I’m looking forward to being back for a bit and documenting my time while I’m there…

More updates to come…

Lounge 6 (라운지식스)

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The other day, after waking up, I decided to make my way to Myeongdong. I had some time to kill before my afternoon appointments, so I figured I’d look for a nice cafe in Myeongdong as a place to start my day…Somewhat of a challenge in Seoul, if you exclude Starbucks and other 24 hour chains. Seoul, unlike Taipei, Hong Kong and other asian cities, is rather dead in the morning…the city never sleeps, but the city is slow to get started the next day. Since most Koreans eat breakfast at home and quickly run off to work or school, there isn’t a strong culture of breakfast restaurants and cafes. Really, breakfast joints are few and far in between and most cafe’s open their doors at 11.

So it came as a surprise when I found a restaurant in Myeondong selling curry rice and Udon soup meal sets at 9:30 AM. I expected, at most, to find a cafe selling coffee and muffins…but while looking around Lounge 6’s sign caught my eye…faded photos of Japanese/Korean fusion breakfast sets, marked with a “6F” on the side. I looked up and couldn’t tell where the cafe might be, but stepped in the musty, glass panelled elevator and got off at floor 6. The cafe, or lounge, was empty, and a bit dark, so I wasn’t sure if it was open…an older woman came out and I asked her if it was too early for coffee or curry. She said no and to take a seat, ushering me outside. I made my way to an outside seating area, crowded with plants and small buddhist-style statues, overlooking the streets of Myeondong. Shortly after, the curry set and coffee I ordered came out…The curry was nothing special…but good enough, similar to curry I’d make at home..but the coffee was surprisingly good. Rich, smooth and served in a pitcher offering 3-4 full cups.

I was surprised to find such a unique, quiet spot, in the middle of Myeondong…more surprisingly, offering a full meal as early as 9AM. On the way out, I looked around, and saw a mini-stage, with an amp and microphone. Thanking the woman for the meal, I grabbed a business card and noticed the restaurant/cafe’s name: Lounge 6. On second glance, it made sense…the environment was more a lounge environment than anything…with a plethora of liquor bottles behind the counter. It had the atmosphere of an old lounge that might attract middle aged and later aged customers, a bit out of view from hot-spots for the young crowd…I’m curious, so maybe I’ll make a trip back for a late night drink to see what’s going on…If not, it’s a great place in Myeondong for a quiet coffee in the morning…somewhat of a niche in Seoul.

 

 

Gamcheon Cultural Village – Busan (부산 감천문화마을)

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My first visit a few months ago to Busan, the southwestern port city of Korea, was accompanied with great weather. The early spring weather brought with it a slight, refreshing breeze, hinting at warmer weather to come. With the clear air and sky, the conditions were perfect for a visit to Busan’s Gamcheon cultural village, the iconic mountainside slum ever-present in flyers and brochures for the city. While now a colorful smorgasbord of clustered homes, the hillside neighborhood wasn’t always so bright. This breadth of shades and colors is unique to Korean architecture, and more a reflection of youth culture than of traditional Korean design.

This area became a tourist attraction after receiving a makeover by young Korean artists, who, in 2009, were given permission to brighten up the streets/homes and staircases with touches of color, arguably at cost to the peace and quiet of its residents, as can be seen by the numerous signs saying “please be quiet” scattered along the walking courses. I’d seen photos of the village many times before Busan and had really wanted to visit one time myself. I, however, wasn’t expecting how touristy it’s become since its original makeover. The bus stop was crowded with hoards of young couples and women taking selfies at every stop, holding out long selfie sticks, striking cute poses. My friend, somewhat embittered by possibly too much time in Korea surrounded by selfie-frenzied young Koreans, lamented this state of affairs in dramatic tone…mocking this obsession with selfies and social media. The rest of us nodded, amused with his passion on this topic.

Yet, nonetheless, he had a point. The area was beautiful, but having become such a touristy place, lacked some of the feel it might once have had….of being a unique cultural enclave, home to families living real lives. It wasn’t until we descended into the labyrinth of side streets below the major lookouts and main street of shops selling ice cream and churros, amongst other treats, that we could really feel what it might be like living in such a neighborhood. Like other hillside communities in Seoul, the narrow alleyways and winding streets were lined with parked motorcycles, the major form of transportation living there, as cars simply wouldn’t fit. For this reason, we had to keep our eyes wide while walking around. As anyone who’s spent even a short time in Korea knows, the motorcyclists expect you to move out of their way, not the other way…so, unless you want to end up limping back to your hostel, don’t make any strong stands for your “right of way” while sightseeing in Korea.

On the way down the hill to bus stop, we passed a variety of small shops selling gimbap (Korea’s version of sushi rolls…a common snack), small family run convenience stores, fried chicken shops and laundromats, with locals going about their daily lives, few and far in between. Korean flags were waving in the wind, suspended from the sides of houses, a reminder of the beginning of Korea’s independence from Japan, celebrated on that very day…the day when Korea’s independence fighters gathered in Seoul to organise in protest against occupying Japan…What would those freedom fighters have thought having seen Korea now, a major economic power, drawing tourists from all across Asia to places such as this? Would they be happy with what they see? I guess I’ll have to ask the next elderly man I see here…

 

 

Suwon Hwaseong Palace (수원화성해궁)

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I first visited Suwon back in 2014, as a way to kill time during a free afternoon. At the time, I went with the aim to visit Suwon’s famous Hwaseong Fortress wall, stretching a total of 5.52 km and dating back to latter period of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The Fortress Wall, demarcated at the four cardinal directions by four gates – Janganmun (nort), Paldalmun (south), Changnyongmun (east), Hwaseomun (west) – and the Sumun gates. which flank the point where the stream meets the palace, is a highlight of the remaining Joseon history in Korea, and provides a great day-trip from Seoul. Yet, at the time, I didn’t make it to the palace itself, seated below the iconic Hwahongmun pavillion. The palace was used as a temporary palace, to retreat from war, by the king and royal family during the Joseon era. Aside from this function, the palace had a particular purpose and value as a place for King Jeongjo to worship his father’s tomb, housed in one of the palace’s quarters.

This rich history, however, wasn’t what brought me back to Suwon. Rather, it was Hong Sang Soo (a famous Korean independent film-maker)’s 2015 film Right Now, Wrong Then (지금은 맞고 그때는 틀리다), that planted the thought in my mind. While watching the film, one quiet night in my apartment, I recognized the film’s background. The two main characters meet, at the start of the film, inside the palace, followed by an awkward exchange where the male protagonist (Jung Jae-young) asks Kim Min-Hee’s reluctant Yoon Hee-jung for coffee. “Insists” might be a better choice of words than “ask”, typical of the desperate male characters that appear in his films. Later on the two characters meet at a cafe and end up drinking soju, paired with sashimi and sushi at a small sushi bar near the palace.

With only a plan to visit the palace, I unexpectedly stopped by the sushi bar as well. I met my friend Jun-ho one afternoon, and we spent time catching up while walking along the fortress wall, meandering our way towards the main palace, where Jun-ho explained to me both the palace’s history and unique architectural characteristics. We spoke together, mixing English and Korean, helping each other find the words we needed at times, as the language used in describing palaces and Korean history can be uncommon and complex. While a lot of what I learned has since left my mind, one image remains. It was Jun-ho’s description of the chimney’s used in the palace…To the western mind, it’s hard to imagine a chimney without a thick cloud of black smoke ascending from it’s mouth. Yet, these palace chimney’s were designed in a way so that the heat emerged clear. Jun-ho described the interior of the chimney as being composed of a complex tube system which cools/alters the smoke in such a way to reduce it to clear heat. Again, science isn’t my specialty, so I don’t quite remember nor understand how it works..but the image stuck in my mind, as another example of Joseon-era innovation.

After our walk around the palace, we stopped by the sushi bar I previously mentioned, sharing a beer over a mixed sashimi/sushi platter, as the day winded down. Scenes from Hong Sang Soo’s movies repeatedly sprung to mind as I ate, a experience I’ve repeatedly had in Korea, having watched many Korean films prior to first arriving here. The sushi was okay, nothing to rave about, but the quiet atmosphere and the cold beer made the meal a pleasant end to the day.

싱숭생숭 (Singsungsaengsung)

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You might be asking, “what’s that title about?”. To explain it shortly, it’s a Korean mimetic word meant to capture and evoke the feeling of restlessness, particularly around the change from spring to summer. It might be this feeling that brought me back to writing on this blog after such a long hiatus. Whatever it may be, this change of seasons, through spring and the gradual shift into summer has got me thinking of new projects new ambitions…contrasted with the desire to retreat and turning in, so characterised by winter. Short story is, I’ve been in a creative space lately, feeling a renewed sense of energy, as the vegetation around the city, too, wakes up from its long winter slumber.

The picture above was taken in Busan, during a walk in Dongbaek park before sunset. This was my first time down to Busan, a short getaway from Seoul in between school quarters here. Busan wasn’t quite what I’d expected. I’d heard Seoullites describe Busan as “시골” or “countryside”, and it certainly isn’t that…as Korea’s second largest city, behind Seoul. Nonetheless, while Busan readers might be upset to read this, I understand the joke. Busan’s a beautiful, impressive city, but lacks the energy and intensity of Seoul…It certainly can’t compare in breadth, but struck me as a relaxed place to live, offering more space and quiet than its northern sibling. I like the pace of Seoul..I like the craziness of the city, but the quiet and peace I felt in Busan was a welcome change from the bustle of Seoul. It wasn’t just that there were less people, but the city feels more spread out and the vibe felt more relaxed. While a short trip, it provided a brief respite from Seoul life and a chance to eat some fresh seafood at the same time.

I came back to Seoul feeling rejuvenated, ready to start up a new quarter…and here I am, approaching the end of my final quarter in my school’s language program, entering a new phase of life in Korea and the start of a new, squelching hot Seoul summer, feeling this restless anticipation for new experiences around the corner…More to come!