Thursday, July 29, 2010

Korea Day 7: Hey, It's My Birthday!, Lotte World, Buddhist Temples, and My Amateur Acting Career

Today I turned 30, went to an amusement park and a Buddhist monastary, and began my amateur stage career in Seoul (not that kind of stage).

The day began with sleeping in a little bit (Brandon's request).  Then we headed out to meet Ju for lunch.  She had made reservations but she wouldn't tell Brandon where.  She said it was a surprise but to tell us that we were going to have frog legs, frog soup, and frog meat.  Then she said really she chose between two places but she picked this restaurant based on everyone's tastes.  We had no idea what that meant.

The family. 

Evidently she knows us well because she selected an amazing buffet restaurant inside a swanky shopping mall.

It was called Muscus, which did not make for a very appealing name, but the food was delicious.  Most things were labeled in Korean and English.  A few things were only labeled in Korean, which is how I ended up biting into a clove of garlic.  There was all kinds of sea food and David was in hog heaven over the crab meat (his very favorite).

We ate a lot.

My plate.

David's second plate.

My second plate.

David's third plate.

Then Ju insisted on paying for it!  Which was totally unnecessary since we already loved her but very sweet of her.  She was concerned when she learned that Brandon had taken us to eat san nakji.  She felt that he was not being considerate of me, especially since I'm pregnant.  She turned to him at the table and exclaimed, "You should care about people!"  A mantra that I (of course) kept repeating to him all day.

Ju:  You should care about people!          Brandon:  What?

After lunch Ju suggested that we walk around a nearby park with a lake that led to Lotte World.  Keep in mind that this stroll was her idea even though she was wearing these shoes:

The park and lake were lovely and it was funny to walk through a park in middle of Seoul and hear Barbra Streisand and Simon and Garfunkel playing from the outdoor speakers.  Seoul doesn't have much greenspace or parks so this was really the first we'd seen.  It was cool and shady and breezy by the lake, so it was nice.

Lotte World was out of control.  We walked by the outside portion of it and marveled at how adorable it is:

Ju had to leave to go to work (she teaches at a private school that is open from 5pm to 10pm--Korean education is crazy intense).  So we told her good-bye and after she left we talked more about how adorable she is and how much we love her.

Then we decided to check out the inside of Lotte World, which has shopping, restaurants, an ice rink, and more amusement park rides.  It was crazy.

 We watched little kids ice skating--including some taking figure skating and speed skating lessons.  Then we decided to sit at a cushy little cafe and have beers and bing su and do some people watching.

 I wish that I had been sent here on a fashion assignment for Glamour magazine because I swear that every girl I see is a Glamour "Do."  "Do pair a bright patent bag with a black and white outfit."  "Do wear a simple sheath with strappy sandals."  "Do put a tailored shirt with a ruffled, feminine skirt."  The clothes are so adorable, but I guess it doesn't hurt that the girls all have tiny, perfect bodies and look good wearing them.

After we'd rested a little while at the cafe, we headed into the Lotte World department store.  The first floor was a regular grocery store, which surprised us.  The other nine floors were more typical department store fare--six floors of women's clothing, then men's, children's, sportswear, and the 10th floor was a Duty Free shop with lots of cosmetics and Louis Vuitton bags for sale.  We rode the escalator up so I could gawk at all of the beautiful, shiny things but of course we were there with my dad and brother, so there was no real shopping to be done.

From Lotte World's department store, we wandered a few blocks and left the hustle and bustle to enter the gates of a Buddhist monastery.  It was a beautiful place--buildings built like the replicas of the ancient ones we've seen, with detailed painting and open walls. 

 There were people worshiping so we sat for a while and listened to the music and the chanting and smelled the incense.  One of the loveliest things about the place were the white paper lanterns that hung everywhere.  It gave the place a magical feeling. 

 A 75-foot tall Buddha statue looked over the entire grounds and we saw lots of ordinary people who came there to worship or pay their respects.

It was a nice and peaceful place to spend a small part of our afternoon--a sort of oasis in the middle of Seoul's crazy energy.

When we left, we headed back toward the subway because we wanted to stop by Brandon's before going to dinner and the Nanta show.  As we walked to the subway, we had to go back through another enormous shopping mall--Coex.  Its underground passages led us directly to the subway station and there was an ArtBox on the way.  ArtBox being my favorite store and also the favorite of many twelve-year-olds who joined me in clamoring for notebooks, glitter pens, and sparkly hair clips.  Since it was my birthday, the boys let me do a little shopping and I grabbed a few little gifts for myself.

We had a brief respite at the apartment, then headed out for dinner and Nanta.  Dinner was supposed to be at a Mexican place but it was no where to be found.  Also we were walking up and down streets that were so steep they could only be compared to San Francisco.  We ended up at Kraze Burger (perhaps not my first choice for birthday dinner, but time was short).  They had  tomato/mozzarella sandwich, so I could not complain.  Dinner was quick and then it was a jaunt over to the Nanta theater.

Nanta is a musical cooking performance.  It's hard to describe, so I'll quote from the brochure:

"In NANTA, knives and other kitchen utensils are transformed into musical instruments in the hands of the performers. [...] The only and the best enetertaining performance with a high energy, easy-watch experience, infectious rhythm and non-verbal humor that cuts across both age and international barriers.  It's NANTA."

Here's the synopsis they offer in the brochure:

"An excellent cook, but the unmany HEAD CHEF, a very sexy, masculine SEXY GUY, and the power, sassy, the only woman cook, HOT SAUCE!  The three attractive, characteristic chefs start tehir day.  Washing vegetable, carrying meat loafs, setting fire, cooks at NANTA kitchen is about to begin their busy job as always, then the ill-natured manager orders them to prepare 10 wedding ceremony menus, along with his little nephew, in just an hour.  Suddenly the kitchen is thrown into turmoil and the cooks become wild as they chop, beat, and stir in an attempt to meet the deadline.  The wedding ceremony is at 6 o'clock and it is at hand!  Will the NANTA cooks complete the preparation on time?"

We had fantastic seats--David and I were two rows up and I was on the end.  Lucky me, when the cast stepped out in the audience to get their first set of volunteers to come up on stage, SEXY GUY headed right for me.  Suddenly I found myself up on the stage, eating real potato soup, and wearing a bib and a hat meant to represent traditional Korean wedding gear.  That's right--the wedding that they are preparing for in the show suddenly became MY wedding.  Me and my Korean groom, who was eating soup on stage next to me.

The whole thing was hysterical--for us, for the audience, and even for the actors, who were working up a ridiculous sweat and were dripping wet but also seemed to be totally enjoying themselves.  We laughed and laughed for an hour and half straight.  And I got a free picture of myself in wedding gear to thank me for being a good sport.  Which was only fair, since even after they'd sent me off stage, they ended up projecting a huge photo of us as "bride and groom" on the back of the stage later in the show.  David leaned over and said, "Oh my God, that's you!"  Awesome.  It's like they knew it was my birthday!

My dad took a few contraband pictures of me up on the stage, so I will try to post those later and let you share in my embarrassment new-found fame.  I did feel like a celebrity when little girls pointed at me in the bathroom after the show.  Perhaps my stage career in Korea has only just begun...

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Korea Day 6: Korean War Monument, 63 Building, LG Twins, and OMG Dinner is Wiggling

Brandon went to work in the morning, so the four of us set out on our own to see the Korean war monument.  My papa fought in the Korean war, so he spent a year in Seoul in 1950(ish).  City looked quite a bit different at that time.

David took charge of directing us on the subway.  The metro system here is actually very easy to get around on.  The biggest hurdle is the recognition of names--the words are still so unfamiliar that it is more difficult to read and remember the names of some of the stops, and it's not always easy to understand when the voice comes over the speaker to announce them.  But after almost a week here, we're beginning to get the hang of it.  We mapped out the quickest route, hiked to the subway station, made a transfer partway through, and found the monument with little trouble.

The first thing you see walking up is this statue called "The Brothers."

It is a depiction of an older brother, who is a South Korean soldier, and a younger brother, who is a North Korean soldier, meeting on the battlefield and embracing instead of fighting.  South Korea so desperately wanted a unified country, for obvious political stability reasons but also I think for an altruistic desire for unity and forgiveness.  The statue stands atop a big dome and the crack that runs across the dome represents the division between North and South and the desire to repair that separation.

Somewhat at odds with this message are the zillions of tanks, trucks, and fighter planes that surround the area.  We took pictures of David on the B-52, which is the plane his grandfather worked on during his long career at Boeing in Wichita, Kansas.

 We also found a tank that actually ran when you deposited 500 won--the gun moved around, the wheels turned, and it made shooting sounds.  I dropped in the coin and once the tank started going, it was like a kid-magnet for all these little guys who were wandering around with their families.  I started a trend because we kept hearing the tank's guns long after my two minutes had run out.

The sun was beating down on us pretty good so after we'd strolled around the grounds and checked out the boat they had on display, we headed inside the museum for some air conditioning.

Air conditioning is not nearly up to American standards, meaning I definitely don't need a sweater when I enter buildings and much of the time I (who am always cold) find myself wishing I had a fan.  Still, it was a relief to be out of the sun.  And this museum had a great Korean war exhibit.  It walked us through all three years of the war and had engaging videos at frequent intervals throughout the display with options to play in Korean, English, Chinese, or Japanese.  The museum was not crowded so we were able to stroll right through and watch all of the videos.

I'd never really learned about the Korean war in school, so most of what I knew was from the guidebooks I'd read about Seoul and Korea.  It was most interesting to think about how the war started in part as a fallout from World War II and the division between the Soviet Union having control of the North and the U.S. being stationed in the South.  It was unreal to think about 10 million people being displaced from Seoul and this huge city being little more than a burned out shell of itself less than sixty years ago.  I also didn't realize that South Korea never signed the peace treaty at the end of the war--the United Nations/U.S. and North Korea and China signed, but South Korea refused because they did not want a compromise that did not result in their country being reunited.  It was amazing to think that they were willing to remain at war rather than continue as a nation divided, although when you think about the tensions that still exist, it kind of seems like South Korea had a pretty good point.

Anyway, we were at the museum a long time (long enough that I had to eat a granola bar so I wouldn't murder anyone) but it was pretty fascinating.  By the time we'd gotten to the armistice agreement of 1953, we were all starving and we decided to head to the 63 Building to see if we could find some lunch.  We'd read a brief blip about it in a tourist brochure, but didn't really know what we were in for (that speaks for the entire Korean vacation, actually).

We weren't really sure what to expect--it's basically a big tall office building with a food court on the first floor, and also an aquarium, an art gallery, and a cafe up on one of the top floors.  It was not that cool.  First of all, we were starving so we ate at the food court immediately.

I ordered bibimbap because it was the first vegetarian entree that I saw.  It's basically just rice and vegetables, which sounded good to me.  It was kinda spicy and it came (of course) with two different kinds of kimchi and also a bean sprout soup that was disgusting.  When I ordered it, I definitely yanked out the guidebook and pointed to the sentence that said, "Take out the meat, please" because I wanted to be sure I didn't some how end up with a plate of pork.

The girl at the counter said, "Egg ok?" and I said sure.

I did not realize the egg would be raw.

I am pretty sure that raw egg is on the list of "Foods for Pregnant People to Avoid."

So I used a spoon to scoop off the raw egg and ate the rest of it because I was starving.

Clockwise from top left, kimchi, black beans (?), kimchi, bean sprout soup, bibimbap with raw egg.  The first kimchi was delish, and the bibimbap was good once I got rid of the egg.
Mom, Dad, and David got burgers and fries.  But so did most of the Koreans who were dining around us.

Korean kids are universally absolutely freaking adorable and so it was fun to sit in the food court and people watch.  If I weren't pregnant, I think I would seriously consider trying to steal someone's cute Korean baby because they are so darling.  Sometimes the older kids will say, "Hello," but none of them have been as brave as the first little boy who came up to David on the train.  My dad watched two little boys play rock-paper-scissors and then one of them came over and said "Hello, where are you from?" to him.  Dad wasn't sure if he was the winner or the loser (I'm thinking probably the loser!).

Anyway, the 63 building has an art gallery on the top floor and an aquarium on the bottom floor, but by the time we finished our late lunch, we needed to head out to meet Brandon, who had taken a half day off work so he could get done early and hang out with us.  We met up with him at the Gangnam subway stop and then we continued onward toward the ballpark.

Brandon decided that he was in the mood for a pre-ballgame snack, so we wandered down some side streets until we found restaurants with large fish tanks in front of them.  Sure enough, one of those fish tanks was full of san nakji, otherwise known as octopus.

David is hungry for crab.
We walked in and were the only people in the restaurant.  The woman working there handed us menus, water glasses, and a carafe of water, and then left.  We weren't sure what to do, but she returned a few moments later with another woman who actually worked at the store next door and evidently spoke English.  But Brandon started talking to her in Korean and even without knowing what they were saying, I was able to translate.

Brandon:  We'd like san nakji.
Store Clerk:  You speak Korean!?
Brandon:  A little.
Store Clerk:  San nakji.  Big or little?
Brandon:  Big.

And then some other stuff.

She bustled outside and returned a moment later with a bowl carrying a live octopus.  We heard some vigorous chopping and maybe one minutes after that, we were looking at this:

Are you feeling hungry or what?
It was a bowl of octopus.  Brandon stirred it around with his chopstick and then it was a bowl of wriggling octopus.  Gross me out.  It looked like grubs or worms or guts or the grossest thing you can imagine in a bowl.  Brandon and David clicked their chopsticks and dug in.  Early on, Brandon picked up a piece that suctioned itself onto the bowl and as he yanked with the chopsticks and it stuck with its tentacle sucker, I started gagging and had to turn away from the table to keep from dry heaving or possibly vomiting.

My parents both tried small pieces but my dad said that was the last time he was eating fish bait.

David and Brandon both seemed to enjoy themselves.

A little soju helps the octopus go down.
Needless to say, I did not sample any of it.

Once they had eaten more of the octopus than I would have thought humanly possible, we headed for the ballgame.  We emerged from the subway station stairs and were immediately accosted by old women selling ballgame treats that could be taken into the park--water, tall boys, and dried squid.

The amount of dried squid was mind-blowing, but I didn't actually see anyone eating it.  Most people were eating box dinners from KFC or Burger King.  I myself picked up a cheese pizza from Dominos.  When in Seoul...  Beers at the ballpark were refreshing cheap compared to St. Louis prices ($3 instead of $8).  We settled into our seats in the outfield along the first base side.  And the game between the LG Twins and the SK Wyverns began.

We'd seen lots of people buying thunder sticks outside, but we were unprepared for the intensity with which the crowd would bang their sticks and shout.

It was a fairly small crowd--lots of empty seats--but what it lacked in size it made up for in intensity.  So much chanting and singing and everyone was organized in their cheering.

Each batter had his own song when he'd come up to the plate, sort of like in the U.S.  But instead of playing a little blip of the song and then the stadium growing quiet for the first pitch, the entire fan base sang along with the song, only the lyrics were changed so that they sang the name of the batter.

For example, the top of the line up batted to "Dancing Queen" but instead of singing "Dancing Queen," they would sing the guy's three syllable name.  So let's pretend that second baseman Park Jong-Ho (Park is the last name, but Koreans say it first) is that batter.  The ENTIRE crowd in unison would sing, "Park Jong-Ho, LG's Park Jong-Ho..." to the tune of Abba's "Dancing Queen" as he walked to plate.  This would continue through the first pitch.  Other songs we recognized for batters later in the line up were "It's A Small World" and "Macho Man."  Random.  And the crowd had special gestures to go with the song so everyone was waving their arms or thunder sticks in unison.  It was almost eerie but pretty awesome.

We had a nice night for the game and we got to see the LG Twins pull out a win, which was exciting.  We made a quick souvenir stop after the game so David could get a bobblehead-esque figurine and then we headed back to the san nakji restuarant to get some jogae gui (shellfish cooked over a fire). 

We walked in and were not the only people in the restaurant anymore.  The waitress who'd been there before was gone, and the store clerk was no longer there.  But our reputation had preceded us because the waitress who was there asked Brandon in Korean if we were back for more san nakji.  He laughed and said, no, jogae gui.

She brought out two steaming bowls of oysters and then hot coals for the fire pit at our table.  The oysters were followed by plate after plate of shellfish.  It was so much food.  My parents are not huge fans of shell fish, and I'd eaten my fill of Domino's pizza, so it was mostly David and Brandon who attacked the jogae gui.  David loves seafood so much that Ju suggested he must have a little Korean blood inside his body.  He seemed intent to prove it as he devoured vast quantities of shellfish, on top of his octopus snack.  I did taste some of the shellfish, but after getting a super chewy scallop, I was pretty much done.

My camera battery died at the game, so I may get some pictures from my dad's camera to post later, but since my dad has probably taken at least 2,000 pictures since we've gotten here (I shit you not), it may take me years to sort through them all to find a couple of our shellfish dinner.  So use your imaginations, but picture every kind of seashell you might collect, and then picture a little Asian woman ripping the living animal out from inside it and throwing it on a grill.

Our waitress was funny because, like the first restaurant we visited, this place is basically a do-it-yourselfer, where you would cook your own food over the hot coals.  But since we were clearly incompetent Westerners, she very patiently cooked everything for us and assisted us with her tongs when our chopstick skills failed.

On our way out, we ran into the store clerk from before, who laughed when she saw us again and asked how we like the octopus.  I liked it better alive and in the tank, but then again, I don't really like my food to wiggle while I'm eating it.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Korea Day 5: Gyeongbokgung Palace, Ordinary Folks, and Can We Get Some More Shopping, Please?

Our vacation has fallen into a bit of a pattern:  Let's start the morning with something cultural or historical or educational, break for lunch, and then go shopping.

We began at the Gyeongbokgung Palace, originally built in the 1400s, destroyed by the Japanese a hundred years later, rebuilt in the nineteenth century.

David stands in front of the King's office.

We arrived just in time to see the changing of the guard.

We wandered on our own for a little bit, then met at 11am for the English speaking tour and had an adorable tour guide.  She ended most sentences with "Right?  Mm-hmm."  For example:  "There are no toilets in the king's living quarters, right?  Mm-hmm.  So what did the king do when he had to go to the bathroom?  They brought the toilet to him!  Right?  Mm-hmm.  And then the doctor would inspect what the king did.  Number one or number two, right?  Mm-hmm.  The doctor had to inspect for the king's health."

The king's throne room.  The small tables toward the center of the room were desks for scribes.  The king did not like the scribes because they were like paparazzi--relentlessly snooping and documenting every little thing the king did.

So after learning all about the importance of the king's healthy poops and pees and the total lack of privacy that the king experienced, we moved on through the rest of the palace--the queen's rooms, the king's offices, and the king's pavilion (or "party place," as the tour guide said).

The king's sleeping quarters--sparsely furnished for his protection so that assassins could not hide behind furniture.  The mat was for sitting, not sleeping.

 You had to take off your shoes to go in the king's rooms.

The party pavilion and the mountains in the background--beautiful.

In the gardens.  Doesn't this look like Asia? 

People were evidently a bit shorter than my dad.  Or ducked through every doorway...

Just outside the palace grounds was the Korean Folk Museum.

Most of the signage in museums is in Korean, Japanese, English, and Chinese.

They had displays of artifacts and materials from the lives of ordinary people--baskets, shoes, clothing, etc. and other cultural objects.

Please sanitize your hands on your way in.  David loves this idea.

Year of the monkey.

Year of the snake.
There was a placenta pot that wealthy families would purchase (including the king) and when a son was born, the umbilical cord would be washed a hundred times and then the cord and the placenta would be put in a pot and buried in the yard to bring the baby longevity and good health.

Of course we bought one for Baby Duck.

Except not really because, ew.

They had displays with little dolls in a model school room and they had mannequins acting out a fancy Korean wedding.

Mr. and Mrs. So and So request the honor of your presence...

I thought the clothing was pretty ingenious--linen-like hemp was worn in the summer because it was cool and breathable, and clothes were quilted and padded to keep people warm in the winter.  Korea gets four dramatically different seasons (kind of like Missouri) so these people were good at adapting.  There were also kimchi pots into which people used to put their vegetables, and then bury them into the ground to ferment.  Kimchi got them through cold and hungry winters, I realize, but it still amazes me how ubiquitous it is.  You get kimchi with every single meal here.  It's like the free basket of bread that we take for granted at restaurants.  I have a theory that spicy food is more filling than bland food, so I think kimchi makes people feel less hungry.

Also, as Brandon keeps reminding us (somewhat sarcastically?) it's good for the health.

After wandering through the museum and buying an "I Love Korea" children's book at the museum store, we were all getting pretty hungry.  Our guide book recommended a nearby area with lots of restaurants and shopping.  David found a place called "Buccellos" that had sandwiches and when I saw "Vegetarian Sandwich" on their menu, that decided it.

We sat down and were each given menus, but it seems that the Korean custom is that one person will order for everyone.  So I ordered my sandwich and the waiter said, "One?" and I said, "Yes," thinking it a little odd that he thought I would want to eat more than one sandwich.  But then he started to leave and we had to say, "Oh, wait, wait," so that everyone else could order.  The sandwiches were good (served on ciabatta bread with salads and forks--very authentic Korean cuisine here) and we felt quite refreshed as we headed back to Insadong for a little souvenir shopping.

It rained while we were in the first store, but we browsed long enough that by the time we came out the street was wet but there was no more rain.  We looked at celedon ceramics, which is a huge local and traditional product (we saw lots of celedon at the art museum the day before).  I liked the trays made of paper, and they had jewelry boxes inlaid with mother-of-pearl, like the one Brandon gave me for Christmas last year.  Very beautiful.  They also had the cheesy stuff--magnets, bookmarks, picture frames, pencil cases.  It was fun to look and to do a little buying...

Then we headed down the street where we saw more of the same and some variety--pottery, art galleries, cheap fans, socks, scarves, t-shirts.  One thousand won is the equivalent of one dollar, which of course makes for easy conversion but also makes me laugh every time I say something like, "This scarf costs four thousand won!  I have to have it!"

We had a great time watching these guys make a kind of candy. They had some sort of song they sang as they made it that reminded me of the fudge makers at Union Station.  They started with a hard piece of honey, speared a hole in the middle of it, then stretched it and pulled it and folded it over and over again until it was long, sugary strings that looked like angle hair.  They fold all of this around chopped peanuts and it tastes heavenly.  It's best when it's frozen.  I've never had anything like it and I don't know what it is called.  The box just says, "Sweet treat of Korea."  The guys singing were hilarious.  They asked where we were from and we said the U.S. and one said, "I love America!"  They definitely sold us on the candy.

I would not say that most people speak English, as Brandon had suggested, although it seems like most people understand it.  It was easy enough to communicate prices and ordering from a menu, but there is still a lot of "Um...  wtf is going on here?" in most of our encounters with people.  I'm amazed by how good Brandon's Korean is, and Koreans also appear to be amazed that a Westerner can speak their language.  But even without Brandon, we managed to speak the international language of capitalism and after shopping for a couple of hours, we headed for the subway and for Brandon's apartment, carrying lots of bags.

Brandon was working late that night so he could take off the next couple of days so when we got back to his apartment around 5, we decided that we'd rest for a little bit and then eat dinner somewhere nearby.

Two hours later, David and Dad were still napping and Brandon called to say he was leaving work.  So we ended up meeting him for dinner after all.  At a Canadian brewery called Big Rock Brewery.  Burgers and beer (or fish and chips and water) made for a tasty dinner and no one had trouble falling asleep that night in spite of the extended nap time.

On the way home, we walked underground through the subway station, and I continued to marvel at all of the shops which seem to be open all hours.

Let's just say it's a good thing I have no idea what my shoe size is in Korean. Because then I'd probably be in the market for another suitcase as well.
And I don't think Korea has a large selection of maternity clothes that would fit me.  But I love the idea of combining shopping for clothes with the morning commute.  Brilliant!
David and Brandon bought waffles from the waffle girl.

No one looks happy in this picture, but I assure a fresh waffle, folded with cream cheese and cinnamon in the middle, is delicious, and they were both very happy.

 Then we went home to bed.  Seoul is an exciting city but it is also exhausting.