Food, Friends, and Fun in Seoul
South Korea is one of a few countries that has gone from a developing to a developed country in recent times. It has experienced significant growth and success domestically and in the international business world. Samsung has passed Sony in terms of global brand value. Hyundai has gone from being regarded as a cheap Korean car to being widely accepted and purchased in the US market. Before we left our East Asian neighborhood (the flight from Shanghai to Seoul is only 1:40), we wanted to be sure to experience Korea. An old high school buddy of mine, Nathan, is currently living and working in Seoul as an English teacher, so this made all the more sense. It worked out that his dad, Gil, whose house I used to hang out at after school, came to Korea for a visit (fortunately longer than ours) on the same weekend as us. We found Korea to be a nice place - extremely clean and organized. It isn't quite as rigid as Japan, at least as far as we could tell. We basically stayed in Seoul, which is a large city with over 10 million people (picture above).
Our Local Hosts
My company has somewhat recently started operations in Korea and I had the opportunity to meet our Korean team on a visit they made to China. So, I made sure to say hello when we were there. They not only gave me a tour of our projects in Seoul, they took me out for Korean BBQ lunch (Korea is famous for its BBQ), and hosted Karen and I at two nice dinners. One dinner was in an area of Seoul that Nathan calls little America (Itaewon is right next to the US military base there and has every western brand restaurant you can imagine) and the second was in the old part of the city at a very traditional restaurant they said was about 500 years old. You can imagine the second was a much nicer experience. This picture is from that dinner. Korean food consists of many small dishes, served over the course of the meal. There are endless kinds of kimchee (usually pickled cabbage, but can be other pickled vegetable items). Some things were good, others were not so good (like the plate of raw beef), but it was a very nice place and a neat experience. The garden outside the old restaurant building was also amazing. Henry, Alex, Carolyn - if for some reason you read this - thanks again!
Our Non-Local, Local Host
Nathan has only been in Korea since January. He finds it a little boring (too western and developed after he spent 28 months in Kazakhstan), but seems to have made the rounds and learned the place in his few months there. Gil handled his jet lag pretty well, and we explored the city together on Saturday and Sunday. We hiked up to the North Seoul Tower to get the lay of the land and then went to the Deoksugung Palace downtown. It has an interesting mix of Korean-style and western-style buildings within the compound, a result of the varying periods of occupation by the Japanese. The architecture in Korea does not look that different from some of the buildings we have seen at temple complexes in China and even in Japan (to our untrained eyes). The traditional-style buildings were constructed of wood, with paper walls, and elaborate roof profiles. It is interesting (and confusing) how the histories of China, Korea and Japan are interwoven.
Even the writing is interesting. The Chinese came up with the complicated character language that is used in both China and Japan. However, the Japanese have combined it with more simple letters that represent sounds without meanings (like our letters in English), plus the pronunciation is completely different. Koreans used Chinese characters for a long time (although with another different pronunciation), but one of the Kings came up with a phonetic system that does not involve characters with meanings (like our alphabet). To clarify meaning, Koreans still learn, know, and use Chinese characters in parenthesis after words with multiple meanings. This means that Japanese and Koreans can go to China and read; Chinese and Koreans can to to Japan and read part of it; but Japanese and Chinese cannot go to Korea and read. One other potentially interesting fact is that the United Nations adopted the Korean alphabet and its associated pronunciation as one of the best languages to write the words of languages without writing. For example, some random language from Africa where they don't actually have writing to go with it, could best be written, by sound, in the modern Korean alphabet. Strange to think about.
After the palace, we caught part of the parade celebrating Buddha's birthday. It was a procession of colorfully dressed people - men, women, and children - singing, playing instruments and music, and dancing. A parade is a parade (even the pictures are pretty boring), but at least it was more interesting than the average holiday or hometown parade in America.
That evening, we ventured out for some streetside Korean BBQ. It is fun. Here are Gil, Karen, Nate, and I (right to left). You sit around a cooking barrel with a relatively small tabletop surrounding a grill-top well full of coals built into it. The place Nate took us to was more or less in an alley, meaning that mopeds and motorcycles would regularly zip past our table, which added something and took something away from the ambiance. The proprietor of the alley cookery let us do most of the work, but would occassionally swing by to correct our techniques and make sure we were enjoying ourselves. There were lots of sauces and seasonings that go with it. We ended up eating more than we needed because it is a set portioning per person, plus it was good and fun to cook. Here is the spread. After dinner, the three 'youngsters' (not so much any more) headed out to see a little South Korean night life, which is quite lively.
Here are a few more things, which I consider to be interesting on some level, that we experienced on our trip to Korea.
1. We tried to go to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) as we heard it is interesting and the whole concept of North Korea is somewhat amazing. It is something that you have to book well in advance, so we didn't get to go.
2. The night life in Korea, and the culture generally, was impressive in its western-style mass consumerism. People are very high fashion. The malls are packed with young people out spending money. Bars were fairly expensive. Although it is still somewhat a closed economy and society, there is a significant presence of western brands and influence in the goods and services consumed in South Korea.
3. Virtually every car on the road is of Korean manufacture (maybe about 95%). Korean cars are cheaper in the US than they are in Korea. This is a closed market so import duties are huge. That said, when the presidential motorcade blew by us one morning, it consisted of a bunch of German sedans (BMW, Mercedes, etc.) and big US SUVs (suburban type secret service rigs) so while the government doesn't want Koreans to gain easy access to foreign brands, it has no problem overspending on them for its own fleet (Nate's observation).
4. We were served a bowl of peanuts and dried fish with hot sauce for dipping as a table snack at a bar. Nate and I had some; Karen refrained. Another interesting trend at the bar was that people just come in and buy a bottle (fifth) of alcohol - tequila, whiskey, etc. and then sit there and mix it or shoot it. I guess it is cheaper and effective, but it was different.
5. People eat small snails and cooked silkworms as a streetside snack (in addition to lots of dried squid and fish). In this picture, the round silver container is a cooker full of silkworms and the square one behind it is full of small snails. People walk around sucking the snails out of the shells, which is interesting. These things are eaten in China as well, but it seemed more prevalent in Korea. None of us tried this.
6. We went to Costco on our last day in Korea. This sounds lame, but we were actually quite excited, for several reasons. First, we were able to get drinks and hot dogs for less than $2. Second, Costco was virtually the same as it is in the US - many of the same products - exactly. Third, we were able to bring some foods we miss in China back with us (in limited quantity). We got good tunafish, canned chicken breast, blueberry bagels, and some granola bars.
7. Perhaps the most unique phenomenon we saw amongst the Korean youth, was the tendency for young couples to wear matching shirts. This is really weird and in my opinion quite unfortunate for the men of Korea. The shirts can be exactly the same - cut and color, the same pattern in different colors, the same colors but with cuts for men and women, or somehow be themed together, but different. This was very common. This picture is from the airport at one of the check-in counters. I've gone ahead and circled the visible matching couples in red, but bear in mind that these are just the ones you can see. I would bet there were at least three more in that crowd. You really should click on this picture to see it clearly.
OK, that's it for now. We were going to try to squeeze two more trips in before we go - one to Chengdu (pandas) and one to Xian (terra cotta warriors), but due to the earthquake we may only be going to Xian. So you'll see maybe one more post from China, and then it is off to India for us. Best wishes to all.