Friday, January 21, 2011

Dan and Sue Do Korea

Centennial Christian School was the proud beneficiary of three weeks of Christmas vacation this year, as it is every year. Knowing that I would get bored, and perhaps growing a bit weary of Iowa themselves, my parents came to visit Seoul and me. We experienced everything that was possible to experience in this fair metropolis:

1) the 63 Building
Mom: "I had to close my eyes on the elevator going up to the 60th floor, as one wall was all windows! The 63 Building helped me understand how huge Seoul really is."

2) my classroom
Dad: "Mr. Haggar, what's the question of the day??"

3) stairs
Mom: "Maybe I'll start my weight loss program now!"

4) puzzles
Dad: "I'm going back to your apartment."

5) the Korean War Museum
Mom: "Very interesting and informative. I felt humbled by my lack of knowledge about the Korean War."

6) the COEX Aquarium
Dad: "Where's my fishing pole?"

7) dalkgalbi and Mr. Williams and Miss Williams-to-be
Mom: "Finally we got to meet the Mr. Williams--such a good friend to Reuben! We're happy for him and Miss Gordon!"

8) the gate to my apartment complex
Dad: "Classic and quaint. And please say hello to my friend at the bakery on the corner!"

9) CCS students
Mom: "This was one of the highlights of the trip for us! Very fun to meet the students that you have spoken of so fondly."

10) King Sejong Plaza
Dad: "Where's the bathroom??"

11) Cheonggyecheon
Mom: "Pretty but a bit chilly--would love to take a walk there in the spring."

12) Gyeongbuk Palace
Dad: "This is interesting--he doesn't know where he's going!"*

13) the subway
Mom: "Why are all these people sleeping?"

14) the Joint Security Area
Dad: "Are the guards real people or just statues?"

15) the Third Tunnel
Mom: "This could be the last day of my life!"

16) Doronsan Station
Dad: "Where's the bathroom??"

17) Namdaemun
Mom: "Watch your step!"**

18) a cat cafe
Dad: "Do they serve dog here?"

19) soju
Mom: "What is this?"

20) N Seoul Tower
Dad: "What an awesome view from the men's urinal!"

21) ex-CCS students and parents
Mom: "It was fun to meet Yurie, one of Reuben's star students! I also really enjoyed visiting with her mom."

22) barbecue
Dad: "Tasty stuff! Was it grown in Iowa?"

23) Mark Nola and chili at the same time
Mom: "Mark, it was great to have you over for chili! And to hear about your trip to Laos. Thanks for being a great friend to Reuben this year."

24) Ilsan and all the ballers who live out there
Dad: "I'm glad these people are Reuben's friends."

25) New Year's at Jongno
Mom: "I must say--I enjoyed it, in spite of the cold. A unique way to usher in the New Year!"

26) the 02 bus
Dad: "I saw my life flash before my eyes."

27) my apartment
Mom: "It looked awesome, Reub--so clean!!"***

28) Megan "Now I'm Feelin' So Fly...Like a G6" Schwartz
Mom: "It was great to meet Megan, always known to us as 'Rebecca's friend in Korea.' It was fun to hear about her traveling adventures!"

29) the COEX Mall
Dad: "This is worse than America!"
Mom: "Wish I would've had more time..."

30) noraebang
Dad: "Oh, Suzie Q!"
Mom: "I could do noraebang on a regular basis!!"

So. We had a good time. Mom, Dad, thanks for comin'. I love you both and am super glad you got to come see what happens out here in the boonies.

*We got lost in the palace complex. Sue me. Pun intended.
**One of us wiped out here. Whatever.
***In your face, Mr. Williams.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

101 Awesome Things About Seoul: Installment 1

It is common knowledge that Seoul is a neat place. To prove this to the few disbelievers who roam the hills and eat out of dumpsters, 101 pieces of evidence - completely subjective evidence, perhaps - have been compiled. The first twenty are recorded here.


This product generally comes in small plastic containers and does little to satiate real thirst; it is just tasty. It also can be found in strawberry and neutral flavors, but those are subordinate. If one were to go to a convenience store that has its act together, one would get a cute li'l straw to insert into said plastic container. So good. Long-time Seoul resident Erik Johnson says, "If I could drown in one fluid, it would be moonshine. But, after that, it would be banana milk!" An incredible picture of him consuming this delicacy can be viewed here.


There are a million neat things about the subway itself, but, obviously, the main thing is that it can take one almost anywhere that one would need to go. Places that are not within walking distance of some sort of subway stop are, in my opinion, worthless. There are eleven or so different lines, to my knowledge, and the word is that there are more being built. All the lines are generally connected by transfer stations, and all of them are basically the same. Line 1 is the oldest and sort of sucks; the cars are dirtier and the train moves slower. Line 2 is a big circle that goes through most of the fun places in Seoul: Gangnam, Samseong, Jamsil, the Sports Complex, Sinchon, Hongdae, Dongdaemun, Wangsimni, Gangbyeon. Yes. Line 3 goes to Ilsan. Line 4 is nearest to my home. Line 5 is what I used to live closest to in Mok-dong, so it holds a dear place in my heart. Line 6 also has a stop close to my apartment. The others I am not very familiar with. There's allegedly one track that goes out to the Incheon Airport as well. Whatever. The subway is better than the bus system in that it is not hampered by traffic. There is generally more room on the subway than on the bus and it is a less violent ride. It just seems more stable. Lastly, it is cheap. Not compared to the bus system, but paying 900W for a ride to anywhere is a solid deal, in my opinion. Negatives: sometimes it does get crowded and gross. Occasionally you will run down the stairs and see your train pull away. And it is sometimes scary going through the doors if they've been open for a while, because you don't if they are going to close on you and cut you in half. And: sometimes people throw themselves in front of the train in order to die. But! In general, the Seoul subway system is efficient, clean, and cheap. Count it.


It cannot be denied that ladies of every ethnic background are attractive, or have at least some redeeming qualities, but in Seoul, females step it up a notch. It's possible that plastic surgery or formal dress can distort the perception of how a given individual actually looks, but, as the ol' saying goes, perception is reality. The percentage of passers-by who qualify as "beautiful women" increases substantially when I leave my part of town, which is riddled with old people, and venture, say, south of the river to where there is more money (read: more ways to make oneself appear great). Here the observer can see exactly how much Seoul stresses a beautiful exterior: one has to look awesome all the time. Be that as it may, Korean women are attractive, and nowhere else on earth can one find as many as here, in - you guessed it - Seoul, South Korea.


I suspect my upbringing in the United States has contributed to the fact that I think money of different colors is a novel idea when, in reality, it makes a ton of logical sense. Different values: different colors. How many times have we Americans glanced into our bulging wallets and not been able to immediately discern what quantity and sort of bills are weighing down our right butt cheek? If I had a dollar for every time that's happened to me, I'd be living in Apgujeong and not Yongsan. Cripes. Anyway. Blue is for 1,000W, dull brown is for 5,000W, green is for 10,000W, and a brighter shade of brown (yeah, the ball was dropped a little bit on the brown thing...where's the red?) is the somewhat newly-released 50,000W bill. Holler.


Maybe this is possible state-side and I have never had to use it, but transferring dough from one person to the next can be super easy. If Kelly Freeburg, who lives in Ilsan, which is an hour's bus ride from where I live, needs 100,000W from me, all I have to do is walk to my bank, hit up the ATM, and send said hundred grand from my bank account to hers. It shows up immediately. If she decides she doesn't want it back, back she sends it. Boom. And it's fairly secure; there's no way to get into someone's account even if you have their account number. I sent 406,000W to a complete stranger for tickets to Japan one night; our plans fell through, and she sent the money back. No problem. We wanted to go on a cave excursion; get on the website, write down the dude's bank account digits, and send him that crap. No problem. Even on a test, I wrote: "Name: Grade: Bank Account Number: " and kids wrote theirs down! Knowing that I could only send money into their money pool. No problem. Sidenote: most banks have what a novice like myself might call an ATM lobby; the bank might close and lock its doors, but you can still access the five or so ATM's in the front room of the bank. Often (though not the case with the Woori Bank near my home) these things stay open all day and all night.

(6) K-POP

Basically Korean pop music is written and sponsored by large corporations and is sung by groups of extremely attractive young people who set the tone for the younger generation in Korea. The songs are catchy. The videos are sketchy. And the lyrics are a general mystery to me. Although it's not too hard to guess what they are singing about. Bands that come to mind include the Wonder Girls, Super Junior, Big Bang, Girls Generation, Kara, 2NE1, Brown Eyed Girls, 2PM, and Son Dambi. Jeff Hunt let me come with him and watch a bunch of these unruly performers at the Asia Song Festival in September. It (and the whole scene in general) is unhealthily cheesy. This is the only video I do like, because it still retains a sense of innocence. I think I'm going to go eat some raw meat and do some push-ups now.


“Norae” means “sing,” “bang” means “room.” Thus, a noraebang is a room you rent for 10,000-20,000w per hour to sing in. There's an LCD screen that provides you the lyrics. It also provides Korean music videos that play while you sing your song, which can be distracting. But don't get distracted. Focus. The last thing you want to have happen is to get distracted and not have another song ready for when the current one is over! Basically there is a giant remote control and a song selection book; you find the song you want, punch in the numbers, the music and lyrics for your selection play, and you belt your li'l heart out. You can sing alone or together, because there's two mics. Obviously most of the songs are in Korean, but there is inevitably an English section (and even smaller sections for songs in other languages...Japanese, Thai, Tagalog, etc.). The songs in this section are fairly predictable; Top 40 stuff, all the popular songs from the past thirty years, but not extremely current. There are a few “new” songs, but. Songs that seem to get sung most often: “Drop It Like It's Hot,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and “Wonderwall.” Songs that I've seen sung that are a little obscure: “Oh, Holy Night,” “Under the Sea,” “To Hell with the Devil,” and various Lonely Island songs. Go with people you feel comfortable being stupid around.

(8) BBQ

Few and far between are the individuals who can turn away from grilled meat. Brats. Steaks. Hamburgers. Hot dogs. It's part of the American tradition. However, Korea's barbecue scene is nothing to sneeze at. The mouth begins to salivate as galbi, bulgogi, dwaeji galbi, and samgyeopsal are thrown messily onto the grill. You continue to dribble drool everywhere as you cook your meat to the degree of your choice. You can hardly contain your anticipation as you shakily wrap your meat in lettuce and whatever else is within grabbing distance. And you gorge yourself, like a person who lives in a cave and hasn't seen food in two weeks. Your friendly restaurant owner, seeing how dangerously hungry you are, brings you mounds upon mounds of side dishes and buckets of hot coals. I don't really know what else to say about this.


Seoul is one of the most congested cities in the world. Traffic is absurd and, honestly, the public transportation is fine. But, if you live in the hills like many of my acquaintances and I do, the public transportation isn't that reliable or may not even come that near to your home. Thus, your next best option is the moped. You can get from Point A to Point B in a jiffy, regardless of whether Point B is two-thirds of the way up the Haebangchon hill. You can speed quickly from place to place without having to wait for a bus that is often tardy or full. You can join various CCS staff members for a "donut run" to the DMZ and back. You can coerce members of the opposite sex into joining you on said moped, at an intimate proximity. And, lastly, you can carry items you'd not be able to bring with you in a taxi, bus, or subway car.


All of us have been there: we need contacts but haven't had an eye doctor appointment to prove that we truly need the lens we desire (at least in my experience, no one would sell me any contacts unless I could prove I needed that particular power). Maybe we're too busy to schedule an appointment. Maybe we have a fear of doctors probing into our eyes. Or maybe we just graduated from college and don't have insurance to cover such a costly visit. Whatever the case, you can't let your eyes deteriorate by using the same lens pair that you've had in since 1996; something must be done. Here is a reasonable course of action: move to Seoul, where contact lenses are sold over the counter. Make sure you know what power your lenses need to be and you're golden. I got mine in five minutes. The price of contacts here appears lower than in America to boot. It keeps getting better and better.


Constructed for the 1988 Summer Olympics, this mongo complex is a cool place to walk around and encompasses several venues for professional sporting events. Leading up the park is a long road full of athletic statues. There is a huge Olympic-themed "World Peace Gate" that greets visitors as they reach the park (see left). There is a large flag collection that displays the colors of all the nations that participated in the Olympics. There are waterworks galore. Some two hundred pieces of art populate the park as well; fifty-five different well-known (but not well-known enough for this blog post) artists contributed. A large hill dominates the interior of the park, a rise from which most of the surrounding area can be viewed. Across a large plain from this mini mount lie a handful of sporting facilities; baseball, basketball, soccer, swimming, and tennis are all played here and can be best reached from the Sports Complex subway station, as opposed to the entrance to Olympic Park, which is fed by Mongchontoseong Station.


Sold on streets both high and low, these rarely-seen accessories can brighten up the most fungi-infected of feet. The range of decor adorning the socks can range from the "mundane," such as a rainbow pattern, to the absurd, like the idolization of young male singing groups (2PM, see right). Also, I have seen pairs of socks that bear characters from "The Simpsons" on feet at my school. Thank heavens. I have not purchased a pair yet, but I think that that time is fast approaching. There has to be a pair of Twins socks out there somewhere.


We have all been there. Some friend of ours is inordinately excited about some movie or some trip or some...thing, and he or she tells you over and over again how it is the best in the world. And then, when you finally experience it, it's not really that great. The bar has been set too high. Well. Let me tell you about a time that that did not happen to me: Peter Freeburg, a resident of Ilsan, Korea, discovered a fountain that was lit up with lasers at night and was accompanied by various songs. It was creatively called the Musical Fountain. Time and time again, he told Erik and I that it would be incredible. We ventured out to see it, and, lo and behold, it was a good time. Each weekend evening from 7:30 to 8:30, the Musical Fountain is lit up with lasers, and loud speakers play romantic music. It's dark, it's peaceful, it's colorful. Go. Even though it's not technically in Seoul.


Even if you don't really drink coffee, which I don't, you too can be a person who benefits from the plethora of caffeine-sellin' establishments in Seoul. I'll also add that I am not praising the quality of coffee here, nor I am praising the quality of all of the coffee shops nearby. There are just a lot of them, and when you a) have a lot of paperwork/ reading to do and b) need quiet and c) are sick of distractions like the internet and d) when you feel worthless sitting in your house or in your classroom all the time, then walk two blocks; you will run into a place to rest your weary bottom. The best one in the entire city is a three-minute walk west of my home, toward Sukdae; I don't know what it is called, but it plays acoustic covers of a million good songs and whoever is working always gives a little pastry with whatever I order for free. And then leaves me alone. And there is a table outside. There are a plethora of other spots (Holly's Coffee: cool name, and the place pictured above: which has a tiny little backyard to sit in) but this place near my house, which shall remain nameless until the end of time, takes the cake. The coffee cake.


We have all been there. You are out to eat. Maybe it is with a girl you are trying to impress. Maybe it is with your impatient friends. Maybe you are freaking starving. And something is missing. A full cup of water. Chopsticks. Enough beef so satiate your filthy hunger. It ain't there. And you need it. You need it now. In the United States you'd look frantically around, trying to spot the nearest waiter or waitress, longing to reel them in with simply your panicky body language or your urgent, jerky looks. If that waiter or waitress does appear, perhaps he is preoccupied with serving someone else, or maybe she simply ignores you. Because you're ugly. You are tempted to holler for them, to make some noise, but you do not want to look like cruel and demanding in front of the girl you are trying to impress or your impatient friends. Or, maybe you do bellow, and you look like cruel and demanding in front of the girl you are trying to impress or your impatient friends. Idiot. However, in Seoul many restaurants of the finer quality come equipped with an ingenious device that is meant to quietly summon service of some sort without creating a disturbance of any kind. It is a call button. Press it, and a waiter or waitress will soon appear at your table to fulfill any request you may have.


Believe it or not, one form of advertising in Seoul is handing out flyers of the paper nature. This can happen anywhere; it picked up with alarming frequency in late May of 2010 when there were elections happening. There are many annoying elements to this form of advertising; most of the ads end up all over the ground, most people are not interested in anything that is being handed out, and the vast majority just doesn't want to be bothered. One of my students gave a step-by-step speech on how to avoid receiving these ads. Stay away from busy parts of town, avoid eye contact, be engaged in conversation, have your hands full. Sort of like how you'd want to run into Orvis. But I have a trump card to all of my student's advice: be a foreigner. Korean advertisers assume those not native to the peninsula can't read or understand Korean. And, to be honest, it's mostly true. Except for Erik (see left, and then or text if you still can't find it). Observe how the man handing out the flyers has already given up on handing Erik anything before Erik has even walked by him. Or the dude might be checking out the two girls to his right. Or he might be wondering why another white guy is taking a picture of him. But, the bottom line is this: Erik Johnson walked away from that encounter empty-handed.


Spring is in the air. The south shore of the Han River is the best place to celebrate the end of winter and the pinnacle, the embodiment, of the spring season. Look east and behold Japan already celebrating the arrival of the cherry blossoms. Thank your lucky stars that they inoculated the celebration of these buds during their occupation of Korea, perhaps the only positive aspect of a darkly negative time. Now head west out of the Yeouido subway station and follow the river and the crowds past Yeouido Park and nearer to the National Assembly to behold the magnificence of thousands of trees bursting into bloom, covering the road with their fallen blossoms, shading the landscape a pale pink, soliciting a million photographs from the families and couples of Seoul. I don't consider it a particularly manly event, but for some inexplicable reason, I feel awesome walking through the tunnel o' blossoms. It signals the beginning of so many things: warmth, baseball, later evenings, the impending end of school. Check it out.


They're clean because all residences and any establishment in which you'd sit on the floor at all requires the removal of the shoes prior to entry. This is because Koreans correctly consider the bottoms of shoes to be dirty. For a while I though this was dumb. Once at Poly School I got up on a chair in class to touch the ceiling or something, and all the students yelled, "Dirty! Dirty!" I scoffed it off. But shortly thereafter I was taking a leak in some public place and, mid-urination, I noticed the conglomeration of urine, fecal matter, mud, and other unidentified, disgusting debris in which I was standing. Thereafter, I readily took off my shoes. Homes and floor-sittin' restaurants have this little area of the room sectioned off; this is where you leave your shoes. Sometimes there is a shoe rack. My house doesn't have one. Long-time Seoul resident Jordan Williams says, "I don't hesitate to eat off my floor."


If you are in a rush or are feeling too lazy to prepare food for yourself or if you want to be unhealthy, then the street food in Seoul might be for you. As noted by historian Scott Hourigan, food stands are often found where foot traffic is heavy. The intersection near my home has two bus stops and a bank, so there are several places to acquire nourishment there, a block from where I rest my head. I do not know what many of the items sold at these food stands are, but I do know this: most of the subsistence there is delicious. There's mandu, corn dog-esque delicacies, dukbokki, squid, skinny fries, meat on a stick (obviously stolen from the Minnesota State Fair, fish cakes on a stick (obviously stolen from the Minnesota State Fair, rice cakes on a stick (obviously stolen from the Minnesota State Fair), Kim Jong-Il on a stick (obviously stolen from...Pyongyang), blah, blah, blah. Instead of coming home from a tough day on the job and having to cook a five-course meal for my hungry self, I find it much more appealing to spend 3000W on food that's already hot, or food that used to be hot and that the vendor will either microwave or throw back in a vat of grease for a minute or two. I prefer the latter solution for reheating.


Cutting neatly through the city lies the Han River. Some twenty-nine bridges span it, expediting train passengers, bus occupants, and car owners quickly from north to south and vice versa. The water of the river might not be the cleanest; I have never seen anyone swimming in it. But regardless of its quality, getting out over the river's calm, placid surface provides incredible views in a city littered with sight-obstructing apartments and office buildings. The river also provides a division between the older part of Seoul, where I currently reside, and the new part of Seoul, where I used to reside. Overall, though, the Han is critical to the city's identity, just as the Rock River is key to Rock Rapids, Iowa. Holler.

To be continued...