American in Korea

I usually use this space to document places I’ve visited in Seoul and abroad, but I’d like to start treating it as a journal as well. I miss writing a bit more personally, so I figure I’ll use this post as a way to say a bit more about myself than I usually do. As my friends and other familiar readers know, I graduated from Sogang University’s Korean Language Center here in Seoul a few months back (July), and since then I’ve been teaching English, editing and getting back into shape. I still feel, however, like I’m in between my education here and something else. As much as I enjoy teaching, I’m hoping to move into a different field here in Korea; where I can make use of my Korean and everything I’m learning in a broader way. That’s part of the reason I continue maintaining this blog and shooting photos. I love writing and shooting, and I believe my writing, at least, could be something I bring to my future career, be it as a journalist, blogger, marketer, etc. In the meantime, I’m learning a lot still from teaching and just simply living my life here in Seoul, working on the language, meeting new people and pushing myself in different ways.

It’s strange. People ask me often “When will you go back to America?”. I imagine some day I will, but as of now I’m able to live here doing what I am and I’m building upon the skills I’ve decided I want to work on (photography, writing, exercise, editing). So, regardless of whether I’m in Korea or America, I’ll still be pursuing these things. On top of that, I enjoy it here. I feel energized in Seoul. Despite the frustrations, occasional loneliness and challenges, I receive inspiration from my surroundings to learn more and, in the end of the day, something keeps bringing me back to the culture and language…something inside of me keeps driving me to learn more, even though at times I feel like just throwing my hands up. Note: For anyone who hasn’t learned Korean, it’s tough. Yet, it’s definitely worth all the stress and hard work so long as you’re properly motivated. (I’ll write some posts later about my Korean learning experience/story).

This past year, however, with all the drama of the election season in America, it’s been harder than usual for me to place most of my focus on Korea. I was caught up in and passionately supporting Bernie during his run, and since his loss, despite my disappointment, I’ve continued following the debates and everything else happening. The whole spectacle of this year’s election has been like nothing I’ve seen before and so often resembling a drama more than an actual race, without Bernie’s influence bringing in the real issues as he consistently did in the primary. For me, however, it’s not so much the details of this time period in America that have so transfixed me, but rather the intensity of it. America looks as if it’s undergoing a massive transition, as if this era of American hegemony is beginning it’s decline. From here, I often feel a desire to be back with my people, amongst the familiarity of my culture, during all that’s happening. Yet, on the other hand, I enjoy the distance. It gives me an ability to look in and observe what’s going on more objectively, without all the emotions so present in my surroundings. But all this has brought me back to myself as an American in Korea. When I first came here I dreamed about assimilating, about making my place amongst the people and really blend in to the crowd. There’s a few problems with that. One, I’m a tall white guy. Two, I never will be able to fully assimilate, nor do I wish to. What I failed to realize at first was that while my orientation to Korea would change over the years, through my experience and language learning, Korea wouldn’t. The cultural differences between America and Asia, and particularly America and Korea, are vast. The challenge, in the end of the day, seems to be being able to tolerate always being a bit outside of the culture. To be okay with some of that loneliness or confusion, rather than to attempt to break that divide. The divide’s always going to be there, and I’m learning to embrace it while simultaneously appreciating how far I’ve come in my own way to adjusting and adapting to a culture so different from my own.

So here’s to America, in all it’s current pains and joys, and to my new home, Korea, in all it’s grit and beauty.

Jeongdong Road (정동길)

14712895_10154194344759125_4695543190229839073_o

14681766_10154194153984125_776003521662008764_n

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.

Namhansanseong (남한산성)

14242326_10154090021724125_5448327700340479524_o

14231328_10154092375289125_6990289850447200355_o

14289927_10154095074739125_5019305642483319167_o

A few weeks ago I made a short trip out of Seoul to Namhan Mountain Fortress, or Namhansanseong in Korean. Being a Vermonter, my roots are in the country. I grew up spending a lot of time outside, playing in the woods, biking, hiking, etc. When I first came to Seoul, the city life was overwhelming to me. I felt rushed, overstimulated and even little things like taking the subway and going to the grocery store, packed beyond what I was used to back home, felt like small adventures. Yet, after just about 3 years, this urban life has become normal to me. Recently I’ve come to miss the country. I’ve felt a desire to re-connect more deeply with nature and take more excursions outside of Seoul. I’d heard many times of Namhansanseong. I’d heard it’s a good day trip from Seoul, but my expectations were low. I thought it might provide a nice rest from Seoul life, but didn’t expect more.

I left from Seoul on Line 3 from Apgujeong on a Sunday afternoon, arriving at Namhansanseong 45 minutes later, where I took a bus up to the base of the mountain fortress. I was expecting a short, relatively flat ride, not anticipating the steep winding route the bus would take. As the bus inched, or rather zoomed, up the side of the mountain, views of the surroundings below expanded into the horizon. I was reminded of hikes I did in Hong Kong, where just getting to the trail head required long rides up the sides of mountains. The bus arrived at the base, where the old mountain palace is still in tact, nestled underneath the surrounding peaks and the fortress wall along their ridges. On the way to the North Gate, where I started the hike, were various cafes and restaurants selling anything from Sundubu (Tofu soup), various cuts of meat to Sanchae Bibimbap (Mountain Vegetable Bibimbap). There was a surprising amount of character and charm to this area and cozy, hanok-stye (traditional Korean architecture) cafe’s were pocketed away in the forest.

After reaching and passing the North Gate, I slowly made my way along the fortress wall towards the South Gate, where I’d finish my loop. I was hoping for the sky to clear. The air that day was extremely foggy and filled with smog. I brought my camera in hopes that it’d somehow clear up, a somewhat futile wish. Unsurprisingly by the time I reached a lookout providing views of Southern Seoul and the new Lotte Tower, the sky had barely changed. A dense haze/fog hung over the surroundings offering only a faint view of the buildings/landscape below. Nonetheless, the fortress itself was impressive. As I walked along the wall, images kept coming to my mind of battles between the Mongols and Koreans, stationed along the wall fending off incoming groups with arrows. I recalled a story about how Korean troops stationed at this fortress were able to fend off the incoming Mongols from this location, whereas elsewhere in Korea the Joseon elite were forced to flee to Ganghwado (an island west of Incheon) to escape the invasion.

On the way down I stopped by a local restaurant at the mountain’s base for a bowl of tofu soup before heading back to Seoul. I ate in a more relaxed, slower pace than usual, taking in the fresh mountain air and quiet; something harder to find in Seoul, allowing myself to be recharged by the energy of the mountain, before returning to my apartment nestled in the concrete jungle of Seoul. The trip turned out to be more than a simple excursion. I was impressed by the architecture and breadth of the fortress, enough to make me want to go back to try a new hiking route and hopefully catch a better view of Seoul.

Shanghai: Old and New (상하이, 현대와 옛)

14425449_10154132704474125_816657815530945265_o

I’m back now in Seoul after a short trip to Shanghai last week. It was my first time to China. I’ve been meaning to travel there for a long time, but kept putting it off due to the visa process for Americans. Being in Seoul, I’m just a stones throw away from Shanghai and Beijing. I figured it was about time I get my visa and open the door to explore this vast country. Originally I didn’t have much interest in China. I was turned off by the bad air, the authoritarian government, the bad reputation of Chinese tourists, etc. Yet, as time’s passed for me in Asia I’ve become increasingly curious about the country. China figures predominantly in the current American political narrative and it’s undeniable that China is quickly becoming the strongest country in the world economically. I wanted to get a taste of what it’s all about, so I booked a round-trip flight to Shanghai and spent four days there.

14481757_10154132729469125_5150040331281109638_o

Now that I’m back, I’m about just as confused as before I went. Shanghai struck me on first impression as an impressive mix of new and old, like Seoul, but on a more exaggerated scale. The modern areas of Nanjing Road, The Bund and Pudong, reminded me of New York , and the European architecture of France. Yet, right around the corner from these spots are small, windy streets and old homes, cluttered, busy neighborhoods where older people can be seen cutting vegetables on the street and aromas from small restaurants and shops permeate the streets. I’ve always seen Seoul as a city, like Shanghai, caught between new and old. Yet, the dichotomy between the two worlds is more profound in Shanghai. Since I came to Korea three years ago, Seoul has changed fast. It’s always changing, both for good and bad. So many neighborhoods have quickly become gentrified, bringing along with the tide new cafe’s, book shops, clothing stores, etc., leaving a lot of old homes and history behind. In it’s move to modernize sometimes it feels in Korea like the governments willing to leave all remnants of history behind. In Shanghai, these two worlds felt a bit more intact, existing side by side, rather than the old fading away rapidly into the new. I wonder if Shanghai will follow along with Seoul and do the same or if the history will be better preserved?

14409902_10154132658729125_3769064055126912808_o

(Dog I met in the streets of Old Shanghai)

Either way, it was good to get some time away from Korea and see somewhere new, somewhere I imagine I’ll be going back to again. China’s such a large country with so much to offer in terms of history, nature and culture, so as long as I’m here in Korea, I plan more trips back.

 

 

싱숭생숭 (Singsungsaengsung)

IMGP7187

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!