“It’s not that late!”: All-China Tour 2018

“It’s not that late!”: All-China Tour 2018

In the two months now since I got back from my literally life-changing trip to China, it’s taken about that long to organize my thoughts into a post on the subject.

… Just kidding.

A single post on the trip could easily be 40,000 words long. Ain’t nobody got time for that! So instead, I decided to divide it up into more readable chunks. At first I thought it would be by week, but then I thought it would be more convenient to divide it by city. In this first instalment, I’ll just talk about the process by which I made the plan and acquired the visa.

The planning began months before departure. I spent lots of time researching Lonely Planet’s substantial volume on China, collecting articles and inspiration on Facebook and Instagram, and trying to weed out things that were doable within a reasonable amount of time from the impossible. I quickly found that I couldn’t see all the things I wanted to see in a single week. Why not a month? Why not a grand tour of China over the course of a month? Even though I had a month, I still couldn’t do it all. I never got to see the 2008 Summer Olympics venues in Beijing, despite being there for four days; although there were tons of awesome things to see and do in the southern city of Guangzhou, I couldn’t justify the long detour; the same go for a “little jaunt” over to Tibet or Mongolia, where visa processes add time and complexity to the already-fraught application process.

The schedule I originally settled on was this: beginning with 4 days in Beijing, tracing my way down the coast with 2 days in Jinan, 2 days in Qingdao, a 1-day upshot to coastal beach town of Yantai, one night in Nanjing to reprise my attempt to stay there on the way back from Taiwan, 3 days in Shanghai, starting the journey west with 1 day in Hangzhou, 1 day in Zhangjiajie, 2 days each in Chongqing and Chengdu, 3 days in Lanzhou, 2 days each in Xi’an and Datong, and finally landing back in Beijing for a final night before taking off for the United States the next day.

Once deciding on the time-frame and buying the tickets, you can’t just apply for a visa as easily as in Vietnam. You must have a very detailed plan before you even set out to get the visa (once you schedule the appointment, you can get your visa in as soon as the same day or next day, depending on how much you’re willing to pay), so the hardest part is doing all that planning before you ever have the visa. You must have proof of all your hotel reservations (I found hostels on Hostelworld and Agoda), where you’re going each day, what you plan to do, and how you plan to travel between cities. When I got to the visa office, I had a plan but certainly not all the information. I had addresses for all the hotels but I needed phone numbers, too. I needed to re-print all of the proofs of reservation so that they specifically showed my name and not just confirmation number. It felt very scary, like they would be checking up on you at every hostel and you’d get in trouble if you changed your plans.

Once you fill out the forms and submit all the paperwork and payment, it’s actually quite fast to receive your visa. Just return to the office in 1-3 business days. It’s really expensive for US citizens to get a Chinese visa, more than USD $200, but luckily the visa is multiple-entry and lasts for 10 years. Unlike in Vietnam and other places, too, they truly do check your passport and visa every time you go into a subway, train station, or museum. (They, of course, confiscated my ARC at Gimpo Airport when I left the country, so my last remaining official ID was my passport.)

Before leaving, it was a constant jumble of offloading my stuff onto anyone who would take it, moving out, and sending my stuff home. (One of my boxes still has yet to arrive, after 3 full months at sea). I couldn’t send my laptop home, so I had to take it in the pack with me. I thought I could keep the contents of my pack in the big bag and have the small pack rolled up outside, but after just one or two cities I lost all sense of shame and started carrying one pack on my back and one on front, “like a proper backpacker.”

As with all trips, the plans never pan out. The real roster of places I visited was more pared-down, as I quickly discovered that it’s no fun to spend less than 24 hours in a city and then move on, so minimizing the amounts of one-day stays:

Beijing,

Jinan,

Qingdao,

Nanjing,

Shanghai,

Zhangjiajie,

Chongqing,

Chengdu,

Lanzhou,

Xi’an,

and Beijing again.

The accounts of each city will be linked above as they are written. There’s still a lot of work to do. However, this will have been my last big trip abroad for a long time, truly a once-in-a-lifetime journey, so I want to do it justice.

“How was your trip to China?” they ask me.

“Well, I vastly underestimated the amount of planning I needed to do, and vastly overestimated how much English people would know.”

“Oh.”

“In other words, it was an awesome trip for me but I would never wish it on anyone else.”

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trap city Pyeongchang

trap city Pyeongchang

It’s not just Americans who are obsessed with the Olympics. Olympic fervor had been heating up in Korea since at least the beginning of fall 2017, so by solar new year the advertisements and merch, including full-on curling-themed wraps covering the entire inside of subway carriages in line 2 trains, were in full swing.

That being said, I’m not a Winter Olympics person. All the sports I love, swimming, water polo, volleyball, track and field, are all summer sports. I’m living during summer Olympics time when, for a few short weeks, everybody pretends to care about swimming for a hot minute before it fades into obscurity again. (I’m sure that professional curlers feel the same way about the winter Olympics.)  Basically, I was salty it was a winter Olympics in Korea and not a summer one.

I didn’t plan to buy tickets, but a few things changed my mind: first, my dad politely ridiculed me for thinking of not going, saying that it’ll never be this “easy” to go again, nor will the Games be this close to my backyard. Second, one of the friends in the squad acquired an insane amount of tickets and offered to sell them off to us. Finally, when Aidan came to visit he was also hell-bent on going to see the Games. In this way, I somehow ended up with tickets to events on two subsequent weekends.

My dad wasn’t wrong. The tickets for Pyeongchang were chronically undersold, so it was not difficult to get into any event you wanted as long as it wasn’t figure skating. The trouble, it turned out, was getting transport to the games. After spending billions of dollars on the venues and infrastructure leading up to the Games, there should be more ways than just the KTX to get to the events. Instead, the KTX trains to the Pyeongchang mountains in the east and Gangneung on the coast were booked up for months and months. I’d thought it would be okay to just buy bus tickets there. After all, we had taken the bus to Gangneung and Sokcho last year with no hitches, so I figured it’d be okay.

Haha… nope.

I still followed the proceedings on social media eagerly. There seemed to be lots of controversy beforehand over the expense and extra trouble of the two Koreas going to the Games under one flag. Lots of South Korean athletes were angry about their places on the team being given to, in their opinion, less-accomplished North Korean athletes. In hindsight, that may have started us off on the road to peace that we’re currently navigating.

The first week, I had tickets to go see snowboarding slopestyle. As the event started at 10 or 11, and it was functionally impossible to get tickets to stay in Gangneung or Pyeongchang on short notice, that meant taking the first subway to get the first bus out of the city. I took squadmate Rachael, who was an unexpected boon in my stressed planning of this event. Her eternal calm, positive unflappability, and good humor helped when we were late to the bus station, running across the street, and arriving to be the last ones on the bus.

It’s not any great leap of logic to assume that a bus to Pyeongchang would take you to Pyeongchang, right? And that you’d be able to see the Olympic venues from there? Instead, we disembarked in a still-asleep town in front of the bus station, where there was no sign of the Olympics being held there other than an advertising standee telling about the shuttles to the events. We ended up taking a 50-minute taxi to another town, Jangpyeong; from there we would be able to take a shuttle to the slopes. I was salty AF but Rachael managed to talk me down.

The shuttle was easy, and as we already had the tickets, it was easy to get through the lines and climb up to the slopes. It was wicked cold, but at least the huge crowd standing helped to block the biting winds a bit. At snowboarding slopestyle, the spectator area is at the bottom, after the last jump, so most of the event is watched on a Jumbotron screen. Being short, I struggled to be able to see both the screen and the jump, but the energy of being at the games was infectious. We were a bit annoyed with the overly loud and enthusiastic Americans in the crowd, so we were cheering for the Canadians, saying who we thought would win. It turns out that Canadian Mark McMorris’s parents were next to us, so our cheering for him was a nice coincidence. Luckily, I didn’t miss Red Gerard’s legendary last run, despite being so short I had to stand on my toes the whole time.

We returned to Jangpyeong, and knowing that I’d be starving to death if we waited all the way until back in Seoul to eat, we found a beef BBQ place which was super delicious. It was a sit-on-the-floor kind of place with nice windows that had views of the mountains. After lunch, we were able to buy tickets and walk directly onto the bus back. It turned out later that the tickets were also good for women’s slopestyle, but because of the cold weather, that event was postponed anyway. So, no harm done in leaving early.

The next weekend with Aidan went similarly. We had tickets to men’s hockey and skeleton luge. Planning-wise I was already nervous that at the end of the skeleton event, it would be nearly midnight, and we might not be able to get back to Seoul. Once we got off in Gangneung, it was easy enough to follow the crowds of people going to the hockey match. The match was Canada versus Czech Republic, and nearly everyone assembled was cheering for Canada, with the exception of the little boy next to us, who kept yelling in Korean “Czech! Czech!” (It sounded more like “재거!재거!” Mine! Mine!) I never stopped telling Aidan about how nice it was to sit down, to not be freezing our butts off in the wind, to be able to see everything. I sounded like an old lady, but never overlook the nice privilege of having your own seat at a sporting event. Canada was pretty soundly beaten, and after we searched for food.

There’s a big events tent near the venues where you’re supposed to get food (a.k.a food-court-style dining in a big, white, noisy tent), but we bypassed that in favor of something better. Keep in mind that this was also Seollal, Lunar New Year, weekend, so many actual restaurants were closed. But after walking around for a while we managed to find a good spot, ordering up some budaejjigae and watching Yuzuru Hanyu’s stunning gold-medal figure skating performance on TV. A Korean boy, Cha Junhwan, had also skated that day, but his routine didn’t go off as hoped and he didn’t medal. His performance played over and over in the background wherever we went. Near the end of the meal, we managed to help out an Aussie family, perhaps one of the athletes’ family, with their ordering in Korean. Over coffee and bingsu afterward, we somehow both agreed that we didn’t want to have to stay for skeleton and  stand outside in the cold, so we left after that, taking a taxi and a bus back to Seoul.

The takeaways, of course, were that I was glad I went to the Olympics, winter or otherwise. I just wish they had been more user-friendly. It certainly gives perspective to all future Olympic Games that I’ll watch on TV, and of course I’ll still hope to watch a Summer Games in person one day. I’ll forever refer to Pyeongchang as a “trap city,” as will Aidan.

“Ragrets,” “Regerts,” and Rolodexes

“Ragrets,” “Regerts,” and Rolodexes

So you’re homeless sort of…  if we hadn’t raised you so we’ll I would be more nervous for you. But I’m not. I know you’re going to do just fine, and you’ll also be fine flying by the seat of your pants, much like you did when the Korean Army gave you a lift home.

Currently, I’m sitting in one of my favorite cafes in the city, which I call “Fern Café” (on account of all the ferns), reminiscing and looking ahead. This is perhaps my last time in this café and I’m thinking it’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog post. I had a lot of stuff to say before my family came to visit before Christmas, and then it became insanely busy in the last few months preparing for my China tour and moving out of my house.  While applying for my China visa, I hit an unexpected snag: when I was filling out the form, it asked for “home address.” What is my home now? I expect I’ll be answering that question for many years to come, but it never caused me such consternation. Were they looking for my home here in Korea, which (at the time) I was going to be quickly leaving, or my “permanent address” in the United States, which I haven’t been to in more than two years? Which feels more like home?

The months of January and February, during my time in Korea and before, have always been a mad clusterfuck to figure things out, whether they be future jobs, housing arrangements, visas, or travel plans. Naturally, there’s not much time for major trips, but I did manage to sneak in two separate trips to the Olympics (more on that in a separate post) and two major visits from friends and family, in addition to steadfastly checking things off the “to-do list.”

I’d intended to write up a whole thing about my parents’ visit and hyung Aidan’s visit in February, but I think it’s more useful to put them together and contrast the two different travel styles and two different trips. My parents came to visit during some of the coldest days of the winter. They also came from knowing absolutely nothing about South Korea and Seoul, the food, and the culture, so it was pretty much Korea 101 for them. They don’t normally use public transportation and are never in a place where they would not know the language. The best way to travel, according to my parents (which I don’t think is wrong, just different from my own), is to book a long, guided bus tour through a travel agency. Everything is taken care of and carefully planned for you, and all you have to do is pack your bag and get on a plane.

For this trip, I was essentially my parents’ and younger brother’s tour guide. I tried my best to prepare them before they arrived, as well as guide them through the food, cafes, and most important sites, despite having to work some of the days and many of the places being closed due to holidays. In addition, my brother and dad were at different times really sick due to stomach bugs (I think, not due to food poisoning), so we had to navigate that as well. Nonetheless, we squeezed in a trip to the DMZ in the rain, two cooking classes, a city and palaces tour, a visit to the Arario Museum, jjimjilbang, noraebang, and some shopping. My life here revolves around walking a lot and taking the subway, but my parents were more than content to take a taxi whenever it got dark. (My brother was more daring, but only a little). The experience was pretty extraordinary for me because my parents encouraged me to think of things I normally couldn’t afford/ wouldn’t splurge on, and we would do those. In this way, we had a wonderful salmon and yukhoe (raw beef) dinner near my house that we had been meaning to try. My mom loved all the things that were cooked right at our table, watching the do-it-yourself aspect very closely. My dad seemed to enjoy the historical and economical aspects. My brother, who is just months from turning 21 in the States, was just excited to drink a beer with every meal. In a way, it’s probably fortunate for him that he didn’t come by himself because we both would have drunk ourselves to death.

In comparison, Aidan had already been to South Korea once before, on that ill-fated trip when I had first arrived here. Getting all of the big palace-things out of the way, and him crashing in my house, enabled us to have a more relaxing and chilled-out hang session. His guidelines were nothing more than “just do whatever is still on your list that you haven’t checked off yet.” As such, I took him to that huge library at the COEX mall, the StyleNanda Pink Pool Café, the Coffee Prince Café, on a hike in Cheonggyesan, and to Insadong. Somehow we also squeezed in a trip to the Olympics. This visit was much more gritty and grungy than my parents’, but I think it was more representative of how I actually live here. Aidan was perfectly content to just wander around and get lost all day in Hongdae while I worked, and if I told him to meet me somewhere at a subway station, he followed the instructions well enough to actually get there.

That being said, of the two travelling styles, while there might be one that I prefer over the other, they’re both good. The other day, I was talking with my friends Matt and Steph when we were talking about “rating” your travel style. Let’s say, 1 is the poshest most luxurious kind of traveler, who needs all of their hotels, meals, and activities planned for them before they go. 1 is the person who would book the cruise or bus tour that has all the activities planned for you. In contrast, 10 is the most grungy, low-maintenance, “let’s wing it” kind of traveler. Our friend Zach is like this, just arrive in a place and figure it out as he goes. My rating? Somewhere around 6 or 7. I like to have, say, my sleeping accommodations sorted, so I know which city I’ll be in each day, but everything else can be figured out along the way. 8-hour bus ride from town to town? I don’t mind that. Asking the hotel for recommendations or bookings? That’s good too. Memorizing the Chinese characters for that day’s destinations and getting by with minimal Chinese language skills? I can do that too. I’ve grown tremendously both as a traveler and a human while I’ve been here.

It’s been a good run. I’ve learnt and grown so much I feel like I might be nearly unrecognizable when I return. In some ways, I’m ready to leave. I love teaching in some ways, but I don’t love the Korean education system. The focus on memorization over understanding is something that I will never appreciate or like, and I don’t think it’s a great way to learn a language. I’ve never been much of a disciplinarian, except in swim coaching, where even the punishment of pushups, wall-sits, or squats still makes you stronger. You can’t do that in school, and in this last year’s school nothing seemed to motivate the kids to want to do anything. I don’t think teaching is really my calling, so the end of this contract came at a good time. In addition, I never truly intended to stay forever. It would have been hard to leave whether I’d been here for only 4 months’ study abroad or whether I’d been here for 3, or 5, or 10 years. I expected to have some breaking-point moment where I would be like “Fuck this! I can’t take it anymore! I have to leave Korea immediately!” but it never came. No going out with a bang. In the same way, I feel like I’ve done so much, that there’s really not anything I will regret not having done. I’ve “seen it all,” pretty much.

I do have some regrets, though. None of them are about things to see or do, all of them are about leaving friends behind. Once you leave your parents’ house the first time, most of your waking hours revolve around your “chosen family,” your friends. I put down so many ties here without realizing it that I will be really sad to miss all of them when I go. That’s the thing about being an expat, and why a lot of expats report that it’s really hard to make friends here in South Korea (and abroad in general, despite it being otherwise really rewarding); you need those friends to help you make it through your time here, but you will always, always have to leave them or they will have to leave you. Nobody is going to be with you forever, despite how many promises you make to visit them in Cape Town or Derry or Seattle.

My nana was well-known for being so adept at keeping in touch with her friends from high school and beyond. For decades and decades, she steadfastly exchanged letters and emails and phone numbers, updating the Rolodex each time a friend changed their address or got married or eventually passed away. I want to channel some of that ability. It’s easier than ever now with social media and internet, there’s almost no excuse. When asked about my regrets, it’s leaving behind my Geoje squad, my Canadian “parents” Matt and Steph, old coworker Jenn, brunch buddy Kevin, old man friend Gwan, and my old co-teacher Miss Tiffany. After I leave, my memory of them will be retained like a snapshot frozen in place, but in reality, many of them will quickly be scattered to the four winds. Like friends from college, you yearn for that time when everyone is still together, easily accessible, when really it was only a short time that everybody was all in one place. People leave and people change, but it’s up to the friends to keep that contact alive and keep talking. Anyway. I’m kind of a mess of emotion right now, but I would be basically nowhere without my chosen family.

 

A toast, to the families who get you through the week.

Homeworld 2

Homeworld 2

2: Seoul – what is home

Georgia, after graduating the University of Pittsburgh in 2015, is nearing the end of her second year of teaching English in Seoul, South Korea. Besides teaching, she has kept busy this year, traveling to Vietnam, Taiwan, and around Korea, as well as taking a rigorous Korean language course at the Seoul-based Yonsei University over the summer. We were happy to have her back at Myrtle Beach for our annual vacation this year, although the jet lag can’t have been easy. This year for Christmas, we are excited to fly over to spend time with her in Seoul and have her show us her world. As for next year, she is not quite sure where the winds will take her. A trip to China after she finishes her contract is in the works, after which she will return to America, hopefully “for good.”

A week or so back, I wrote the previous paragraph for our family’s annual Christmas letter. How do you condense a whole year into a few sentences? How do you convey the utter vastness of a year’s worth of experiences in a foreign country (or several), but also convey the utter normalcy of everything? How do you put things that are so wildly different from home into terms that even my grandmother could understand? The last post was concerned with what was home. This one is focused on what is home.

My family will arrive here in Seoul in about 10 days. How do you even cram all of those experiences, all the “‘essentials,”” into a week and a half?

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My friends asked me if I will take my family outside of Seoul, and I rationalized against it (plus, although I don’t work for long each day, I still don’t have a proper “”vacation”” during that time, so we wouldn’t be able to go far.) I think that, even though it’s one of the largest cities in the world, Seoul is a pretty accurate microcosm for Korea as a whole. What will you do when they’re here, the next question always comes. Foods, drinks, palaces. Noraebang, jjimjilbang. Hikes, if we can manage it. Trying to give a sense how Seoul has both the ancient and modern coexisting right next to one another, nature and high-rises competing for space within the city, and tradition and innovation in the cultural sphere.

What follows is a Cliff Notes version of what to do in Seoul, curated by me, of course.

Food

I think food is central to Korean life for all, foreigners and Seoulites alike. It’s unique in that everybody has to choose together what they want to eat, rather than agreeing on a general restaurant and all ordering separate dishes. Most of my days are planned around what’s for dinner.

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Samgyeopsal – It’s well-documented (as I mention it in almost every blog post here) that this grilled pork-belly dish is my favorite meal. It’s filling and fun to eat, and comes with enough vegetable side dishes and lettuce wraps to mostly cut through the grease of the pork. If your little lettuce wrap “burrito” bite is well-made, the combination of flavors is nothing short of perfection.

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Duk Galbi (닭갈비) – This spicy mixed chicken dish is wonderfully filling, often cheesy, and all of the friends can eat their fill without necessarily feeling like dying at the end of the meal.

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Salmon – Technically salmon sashimi, my friends and I are kind of addicted to salmon, especially the “infinite refill” (all you can eat) variety. Usually the salmon comes with tasty sides of mixed rice, beef soup, or raw beef called yuk-hoe.

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Bulgogi – While this Korean “fire meat” (the literal translation) is gaining popularity, or at least visibility, in the West, I’ve found that I never really liked it much until coming here. There’s a place in my neighborhood that does a wonderfully simple version – just beef, green onion, mushrooms, and japchae glass noodles – that is perfectly filling and definitely worth scalding the roof of your mouth for.

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Kimbap restaurant – These restaurants, described to me as the “McDonald’s of Korean food” when I first got here, serve so much more than just kimbap, the Korean answer to sushi. In fact, I find them closest to an American-style diner: open 24/7 and serving a wide range of food from snacks to full meals. This is the best place to try a “little bit of everything” without making the commitment of going to a dedicated restaurant for each dish.

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Budaejjigae – This Korean “army stew” came out of frugality during war times, originally: the American soldiers stationed in Korea would give their extra food, like packets of ramen, Spam, and hot dogs to the Korean citizens, who would then whip it up into a filling and flavorful stew with kimchi, rice cakes, tofu, and whatever veggies they wanted. Everyone tends to favor different parts of the stew, so there’s usually little fighting over who gets the spam or hot dogs.

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Samgyetang – A dish traditionally eaten during the summer, this whole chicken, ginseng root, and jujube soup is supposed to be very good for your health. Even though it’s supposed to only be around in the summer, the dish most closely resembles American chicken noodle soup, making it good for winter, too.

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Mandu – It might not be my favorite food, but there’s no denying that the traditional Korean-style dumpling, often filled with cabbage, noodles, and meat and veggies, is one that is important to everyone’s daily life here.

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Ddeokbokki – These rice cake dumplings in a spicy sauce can be at times a wonderful side-dish to your meal, a cheeky drunk food on the street, or a meal by themselves. My first week here, without even any chopsticks to eat with, I got a ddeokbokki from the stall near my house and took it home to eat sitting on the floor.

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Hoddeok – These brown sugar and nut-filled pancakes are the most delicious dessert you can crave in the winter here in Korea. I know that there are also savory varieties, but the sweet one is the only one I go for. However, the scalding brown sugar dripping from the pancake can turn into a deadly weapon if you’re not careful.

 

Drinks

Equally important to life here is drinking, maybe even more important. Almost every person here at any given time will either have a coffee, tea, or alcohol in their hand.

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Cafes – My love of Korean cafes is also well-documented. Before I came here, I made a resolution to try at least one new cafe a week. The real average is probably closer to 1.5 or 2 new cafes a week. There’s a cafe for all tastes, whether you crave a quiet place to camp out and study, a pretty dessert for your instagram, or a kitchy environment that captivates your interest.

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Makgeolli – Many people abroad know what soju is by now, but really, Korean rice wine makgeolli is my jam. A traditional drink after hiking or when it’s raining, it’s a hard sell for some. It’s tangy like a soda but a bit milky like a yogurt, usually drunk from a bowl, and makes for a perfect accompaniment to pajeon, the green onion pancake. After trying all different kinds, I can say with absolute confidence that I prefer makgeolli to soju.

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Soju – There’s no denying soju‘s reign as the most popular alcohol in the whole world. How else could you get completely trashed off of $4 USD’s worth of alcohol? That it comes in different flavors (my favorite is the “toucan soju”), certainly makes it more palatable to many more foreigners. The unflavored kind pairs well with beer, cider, and other things.

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Beer & other things – That Gordon Ramsay endorsed Cass beer was an unfortunate debate topic for a few weeks, but it makes sense: you need a smooth, relatively flavorless beer (water-like, almost) to wash down the strong and spicy flavors you’re consuming. Everybody here, Korean and foreign alike, has their favorite “mix”: somaek, the most common soju and beer mix, soju-cider-beer mix, soju-beer-cola mix, or even soju mixed with the yogurt drink that they give to children. (My favorite is soju, cider, and beer in equal measures).

Traditional Seoul

Some things haven’t changed much in decades. You get the sense that the same noraebangs and jjimjilbangs have stuck around for years and years, the old tried-and-true standbys of Korean life.

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Noraebang – Again, my love for noraebang is no secret. The singing room is a cheap and fun way to while away an hour or two while waiting for the train to start up, or keep the party going when everybody’s a little too drunk to keep dancing but doesn’t want to go home yet. Most people sneak their own drinks or snacks in, and the theatricality of the lights and secluded room really call to me. (It’s also been suggested to me that I only like the sound of my own voice, which.. no comment). You better bet I’m going to spend this New Year’s the same way as last year, singing in a noraebang and drinking toucan soju.

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Jjimjilbang – The Korean-style bathhouse was unlike the Japanese-style I knew about previously. You get a little gym uniform and some towels and go into salt-, charcoal-, or crystal-bedecked heated rooms to sweat out your impurities. You can rest from the heat in the cold room or in the middle room, where many people take a snooze, read magazines, or eat hard-boiled eggs. When you can’t take the heat anymore, you go into the bath area and scrub off all your skin at least three times with a rough cloth, then dip into the baths. Lots of foreigners are weirded out by the nudity (even though it’s segregated by gender), but as a swimmer I don’t find it that weird. At the end you truly feel like you’ve got baby skin, and it’s quite the treat in the winter.

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Hiking – “What, you like hiking? I never noticed,” said nobody, ever. I think that the hiking culture is one of the best representatives of Korean culture as a whole. The healthy practice of hiking mixed with the unhealthiness of drinking at the top of the mountain, generosity with individualism, the tradition of monks and priests walking into the hills to meditate balanced with the modernity of taking all the selfies at the top. Everyone says “hi,” in a mixture of Korean and English, and wants to help you get where you’re going. Young kids hiking with their parents, couples, and old people all coexist happily on the mountain. (We will probably not get to go hiking because it will probably be too cold in a few weeks’ time.)

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Palaces – Seoul’s palaces are a well-known fount of history knowledge for foreigners and Koreans alike. Although there are many palaces in Seoul, two very close to one another are my top picks. While I think that most foreigners know about Gyeongbokgung, the main royal palace, I argue that Changdeokgung is the best palace to visit in Seoul, as it is larger and more well-preserved (and also a UNESCO World Heritage site).

Modern Seoul

Sitting right alongside the many centuries of strong tradition are the modern high-rise skyscrapers and other amenities of city living. Arguably the best transportation system in the world gets millions of Seoulites from place to place every day and anything you can ever want is available at the touch of a button.

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Malls – Boy, do Koreans like to shop. Clothes, electronics, homewares, everything. While there are lots of malls in the recognizable Western sense, many more are underground in subway stations or under other buildings.

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Libraries – Speaking of shopping malls, there’s a huge library inside of a mall in Jamsil area. I haven’t gotten to go yet, but I’m eager to take my family, all avid readers, to see what all the fuss is about.

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Lotte World Tower – The new tallest building in Korea, this tower, well, towers over the Seoul skyline. They were just building it when I got here, and now you can ride up to the top to get a view of all of Seoul (although in my opinion, the view from the top of a mountain is better, and more well-earned). I use this building as a weather gauge each day when on my commute to work: if I can see the tower from the river, the smog isn’t too bad, if it’s obscured, the air quality is pretty bad (and certainly should not run in that weather).

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Namsan Tower – The former most famous tower in Seoul, Namsan tower is a common place for young couples to go and put a “love lock” up on the fence. You can hike up the mountain (not recommended, but that’s what I did, and on the way I met an opera-singing Italian man who was part of an international biking team), take a cable car, or bus to nearly the top. It may be a little overrated, but it’s still a cute way to see your Seoul vista if you don’t want to hike.

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Movie Theaters – Movies are something else here in Korea. While it’s a common and almost mundane part of American life, movies here retain their special-ness. You can see a 4D movie that rocks and shakes your seat or get a set that includes beer, coffee, or dried squid. I’m excited that we might see the new Star Wars soon on the big screen.

Museums

My family is also a big museum-going family, so besides some palaces, no trip would be complete without at least a little bit of outright “”educational”” experience.

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DMZ tour – Not for lack of desire, but rather all of my friends are either Americans who had already done the tour before, or non-American citizens who don’t care much to be so close to the North Korean border. It seems almost a rite of passage for many Americans who visit Korea to go on a tour like this.

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Arario Museum – Located between Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung Palaces, I found this modern art museum quite by accident. It’s in the most unique building, and the maze of exhibition rooms are fascinating. It combines a modern glass building with traditional Korean hanok-style building and a 1970s office building with art pieces that really make you think. I’ve been twice already and can’t wait to go back. After you’re done with the art spaces, you can catch a coffee, dessert, and an art magazine in the museum cafe, which has a great view of the busy city life outside.

Neighborhoods

It’s hard to describe Seoul like other cities (like, say, Rome), where you have a checklist of things to see that are clearly defined. For me, Seoul is more a collection of unique neighborhoods to be strolled through at your own leisure. Each area has its own specialties and its own history, its own flavor. I usually go to different areas for different purposes, but find other reasons to stay.

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Hongdae/ Sangsu – My current home neighborhood is a young university-age area dripping with cafes and cute boutiques. I find it hard to go other places when everything I need and all of my favorite bars and restaurants are now within walking distance of my house. Hongdae is a hopping nightlife area whereas Sangsu is more of the quiet restaurant area.

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Insadong, Bukchon, Samcheong-dong, Gyeongbokgung – There’s a long walk that I like to do through all of these neighborhoods, and in it, you can take in the traditional arts-and-crafts street of Insadong, the boutiques and street food of hanok-lined alleyways in Bukchon, or the high-end shops of Samcheong-dong all in one walk. I could never give directions on this walk, but some of the best restaurants I’ve discovered in Seoul have been found on these walks.

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Gangnam – I roll my eyes, but no trip to Seoul would be complete without taking in Gangnam’s high-rises and bright lights, and yes, even the “Gangnam Style” sign that put South Korea on the map for most Americans. Gangnam may be expensive and crowded but it is quintessential modern Korea.

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Itaewon, Noksapyeong, HBC – The cornerstone for most foreigners in Korea is Itaewon. I have spent many a weekend drinking there, and many of the best restaurants I know of are in this area. My favorite cafe in all of Seoul is located in the quieter hillside area of Noksapyeong, and some really excellent restaurants line the quiet “kimchi pot” street of Haebangchon, usually known as HBC. Nestled right next to the U.S. army base, many foreigners work and play in this area, which makes it comforting in some ways and more dangerous in others.

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DDP/ Cheonggyecheon – The Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) is such an amazing sight, hovering like a spaceship in north central Seoul. Housing exhibition spaces, special events, and a design “market,” DDP is a celebration of modern creative thought. Within spitting distance of DDP are many Korean-style shopping malls (cheap clothes, no changing rooms), boutiques, movie theaters, and the Cheonggyecheon stream, which I first heard about when my urban planning-major friend, Earl, did a project on the excavation of the stream from underground and its elevation into a public park. At present, there will be a Christmas light festival going on which we will visit.

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Myeongdong – Quite frankly, Myeongdong stresses me out a lot, but it is the most typical and famous shopping street in Seoul. Geared towards mainly foreigners, the shops are always blaring k-pop songs and trying to get you to come in. The street food stalls are wonderful here and it’s always busy and bustling. The most famous church for foreigners is also located here, but it’s a bit hard to find if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

Well. That concludes the Cliff-Notes. I’m not sure if it was short or concise at all, but it’s hard to keep in my enthusiasm sometimes.

 

A toast, to introducing new people to old things that you love.

 

if you’re determined, nothing can stop you

if you’re determined, nothing can stop you

“Why is it,” he said, one time, at the subway entrance, “I feel I’ve known you so many years?”
“Because I like you,” she said, “and I don’t want anything from you.”

This post comes woefully late, but a lot of things have happened in between the events of the post and its actual writing. I’ve been on trips, gotten a tinder and met several people because of it, gotten two tattoos, graded a million papers and written report cards, and weathered many holidays and special days, and survived the dismissal of another new teacher. It’s been a wild ride.

So, even before I actually arrived on Korean soil I was already inviting friends and family to come visit me. Now Aidan hyung was the only one to follow up on this so far. But faithful friend Becca soon made plans to visit in early August. I initially thought that it might be around summer break, which was at first cool and then horrifying because I thought that it would be during the summer break and I would have to postpone my Japan trip to meet her. Turns out the time was early September instead, so no conflicts.

However, as time to plan came closer, I discovered that not only would Becca only be here for weekdays (of which I have such long hours that I could barely do my proper job as tour guide), but it would also come at the most stressful time to date of our school year, the changing of the semester.  During this time, a lot of the old coworkers left and a lot of new coworkers were coming in.  We also had changing schedules and books and report cards to hand in.  It was a huge mess.  So I was a nervous wreck, despite all my planning, that Becca would arrive and have to cool her jets for many hours while I languished at work.  I had arranged for Becca to get her tattoo (she likes to collect tattoos from every country she visits, even after she’d just freshly gotten one in Cambodia the week before) during the afternoon so that I could meet her directly after in that neighborhood.  I had told her that I would pick her up on my break and shepherd her to my house so she could put her huge backpacking pack in my house and I could give her the key and explain where to go.  I even bought a few samgak kimbaps for her lunch.

That Tuesday came and everything seemed to be going wrong.  It was our head teacher Amanda’s last day at the school and everything was in shambles.  The schedule had just changed that week, so the break that I had counted upon did not come at the right time and I was afraid she would have to wait in the train station and all my plans would be wasted.  I became a nervous wreck in the office, so much so that the other coworkers literally told me to just not worry about Becca and just have confidence in her.  But I reasoned: “I’ve made all these p l a n s and they can’t go to w a s t e” and was very stressed instead.  Becca’s wifi refused to work and I could not remember how long the train from the airport took or anything.  At lunch break, I strapped on my running shoes and sprinted to the station.  I was terrified that I would a) miss Becca and have to leave or b) get to meet Becca but be late back to school and get in trouble.  I watched the minutes tick by.  There is no free wifi for the Becca-type of travelers in the Seoul National University station.  I agonized over being late back to school

I’m happy to report that that didn’t happen.

Becca arrived in the train station safely, looking radiant and relieved.  I shepherded her to my apartment, explained where she was going, provided her with the tattoo design I’d drawn up previously and some lunch, and then I had to dash back to the school.  I was precisely on time.  Becca left at the correct time for her appointment, and the meeting with the artist was set up with military-like precision like a spy operation.  (Tattoos are technically illegal in South Korea, but more on that, I think, in a later post)  I met her at the end of the day when she had just finished up with the tattoo appointment, and from there we headed for samgyeopsal, which it shouldn’t need to be mentioned is my favorite meal in the entire country.  Becca asked for a “traditional Korean dessert,” and even though a lot of Koreans really do like Baskin Robbins, we managed to find a really good bingsu (shaved ice) place in Hongdae in amongst the night shopping and partiers.

What I learned from Tuesday with Becca?  Trust in your friends.  Trust in the process.  Trust in the universe.  For all your planning, everything will go exactly not as you intended, but as it is meant to go.

My bed is a tight fit but I’m pretty small so we managed just fine.  Wednesday was tall coworker Zach’s last day and there were lots of shenanigans.  I was much happier this day because Becca was safely in Seoul and could start to find her way around.  I had planned for her to go to the palaces on this day, but as it rained that day, that ended up not working out.  I suggested instead that she go to Dongdaemun for shopping and to see the DDP (Dongdaemun Design Plaza).  All I could really do when I left was tell her the subway stops, give her an umbrella, and send her on her way.

I was sad myself when she asked where to get “authentic Korean breakfast” and I had to explain that breakfast is literally just the same food Koreans eat for every other meal, just eaten in the morning.

When I returned in the evening to discover that Becca only just barely made it to the DDP, and only because somebody who she met in a cafe that afternooon told her to go there, I was initially pissed but then cooled off.  I gave vague directions at best and a real Seoul native could instruct her better than me, right?  Every night I would ask if Becca had a fun day and she never said “no,” so I’m glad.  Basically, Becca is a pro traveler and is really talented at discovering the cool things to do in any given part of town, despite the lack of a guidebook or computer to research.

We had to stop at tall co-worker Zach’s apartment because he had stuff he was giving to me.  He had to take a plane out the next morning, bound for Hong Kong.  I really had intended for Becca to meet all the coworkers, but it turns out that I couldn’t really interest anybody in doing the planned things that week, so we ended up not meeting anybody really.

For dinner we had the actual most-loved Korean meal of all time: chimaek, or chicken and beer.  Becca’s got some mad dietary restrictions on her these days, and I find that I would be so worried about whether she could eat this or that that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy things properly.  Becca had no such qualms, despite not being able to eat spicy foods or drink too much, seemingly Korea’s two favorite pasttimes..  Basically, it was all an attitude thing, so if you let your dietary hangups get in your way of having a good time, they definitely will, but if you’re determined to have a good time, nothing can stop you.

We went to the Han River with a beer or so in hand and had a chat.  It was nice to watch the city lights go by and catch up.

Thursday I had so many well-laid plans, but those always go so well.  I thought this was the day that Becca should go see the Gyeongbokgung Palace.  I think she got to, but I can’t remember.  My instructions to go out the Gwanghwamun Gwangjang stop on the purple line, following all of the travellers, were pretty explicitly clear, for once.  After that I had intended for her to head over to Insadong, which I also left pretty clear instructions for, but all the best-laid plans can go to shit.  And it’s so, so easy to get distracted in Seoul.  Somewhere along the way, she got hungry and, I believe, got some sort of yukgyejang, which is a spicy beef soup.  Sometimes the close-your-eyes-and-point method works well, other times it shoots you in the foot.  She said it was good, though.  You have to be pretty open-minded when eating in another country.

For dinner tonight something quite strange happened.  Becca’s dad is pretty high-up in the medical field, so he has connections all over the world.  Turns out he had a friend in Seoul, and he wanted us to meet that friend.  Said friend was also bringing his son.  I was under explicit instructions not to woo said son.

Becca’s dad’s friend ended up not coming for dinner in Ichon, but his son, Kevin, ended up being perfectly nice dinner company.  I think it may have been hard to balance talking to Becca about her experience in Seoul or about their dads’ work or the medical field and talking to me, a lowly teacher who can speak some Korean.  I’m not sure who would have been more interesting, but he balanced it with grace.  You know what I did not do with grace?  Eating haemul pajeon, the green onion pancakes with squid or octopus in it.  Ew.  Especially difficult with chopsticks.  We did manage to polish off a bottle of makgeolli between all of us, even though Becca did not drink much and Kevin didn’t drink at all.  By which I mean that I drank about 2/3 of the makgeolli.  It’s fine.  After dinner, we went for coffee and Becca’s dad’s friend did meet us.  He was nice and it was really nice meeting a fatherly-type older gentleman here.  It’s too often you see the rude ahjusshis and forget that they are fathers and grandfathers, too.  It’s important not to forget about connections like that.  You never know when your son or daughter might be travelling around the world and be able to meet your colleague for a dinner.

There have been so many mornings of a Friday where I have seen the ahjummas gathering in their full-on hiking garb in the subway station and I wish that I could join them.  So I sent Becca to Gwanak mountain.  It’s so far been my favorite mountain that I’ve hiked in Korea.  I was quite jealous that she got to go and I didn’t.  That day, she found the bus stop like I instructed, followed the students and people in hiking gear right up to the base of the mountain.  She was adopted by some ahjusshi on the mountain who showed her the way to the summit and got bibimbap and makgeolli for her when they reached the bottom again.  Becca is a far more adept traveller than me, but she ends up having really cool experiences because of it.

Even though Kevin spent basically the whole night before telling us how busy he was with med school studies, he somehow agreed to go out with us, both when we went to Kodachaya in Hongdae, where we got really spicy kimchi fried rice that Becca could barely touch, later when we went to my friend MJ’s bar, and even later when we went for noraebang.  It wasn’t the long and crazy night I had promised, but it was enough.  Kevin rapped Beenzino and I was so impressed.  I’m glad he took the night out of studying to come and join us for a night out on the town.

Saturday morning was the departure date.  We had to get all the stuff back into Becca’s bag after everything had been strewn about my floor and caught a coffee and bagel at a nearby shop.  It was sad to see her go and my anxiety is such that even despite profuse assurances that she had a fun time, I still worry.  I’ll probably always have these worries.  But again, this is the kind of travelling that is just kind of go-with-the-flow and entirely attitude-dependent.  Becca is the sort to make a good time out of any situation and I wish I could adopt that attitude.

A toast to old friends in new places.