After a long sleep Frank mustered enough energy to recognise hunger. Vincent, Liza, Frank and I made for dinner at a neighbourhood restaurant serving Korean barbecue. Generally, I’m not a big fan of restaurants where one must prepare one’s own food, as I attend restaurants to avoid that very thing. Aside from being a chore, it is doubly troublesome when the food, sauces, and processes are unfamiliar. Liza, who at one point managed a café of her own, took charge of things, cooking up a storm. In past, managing my own Korean barbecue left me uncomfortable that I was doing something wrong, so it was great to have a local running the grill. By the way, there is no “wrong”. Dinner was both excellent and a lot of fun, too.
The dinner reintroduced me to the Korean fondness for stainless steel drinking glasses and stainless steel chopsticks. These are extracted from a hermetically sealed autoclave by wait staff clad in surgeon’s gloves who whisk them to the dining table with some fanfare. Presumably this is to provide a level of assurance regarding cleanliness. Personally, I find it as assuring as those “Sanitised for your convenience!” sashes one finds around the toilet seat in a bad motel. (Yes, the Hotel Luxury and Sexy had one.)
Moreover, such concern for germs is puzzling when one witnesses Korean dining customs, which almost always involves a group of people repeatedly plunging their sterilised chopsticks directly from their mouths into a pot or plate of shared food, again and again. I gather when dining with someone you are expected to have a familial comfort with their bacterial load, and have given implicit acceptance of that risk. In any case, it doesn’t bother me, not when I consider some of the stuff I’ve stuck in my mouth (or that comes out of it, for that matter). Having said just that, it might bother you.
In Korean culture, if there is no food left on the table, the host takes it as a sign that more must be served. This is in diametric opposition to the Calvinistic “waste not want not” habits hammered into our western heads. Thus developed a vicious circle whereby Liza kept ordering more and more food which we happily consumed until we begged her to stop. It may explain why Vincent, a fit chap, had gained some weight since married to Liza, a slender tigress herself. Anyway, she won, there was some food left on the table.
Their neighbourhood in the Jungnang District presented a Korea quite different from that we had seen years earlier. That was no surprise, as staying in a neighbourhood with locals is usually a much richer experience than, say, staying in a centrally located tourist area at a five-star hotel. Mind you, there are exceptions to that – Orlando, Florida comes to mind as a place where one should stick to the tourist trail, the local culture best left unexperienced.
The Jungnang District is largely residential, mostly spindly apartment towers of twenty-something stories, each floor having maybe four apartments. Otherwise the streets are lined with townhouses and local businesses, not a few being hospitals or other medical facilities. Walking home that evening, personal safety never crossed my mind, except to realise that it hadn’t. Couples and families with children scrambled about doing whatever it is Jungnangers do on a Saturday night.
We had been advised that our visit coincided with the major holiday known as Chuseok. Chuseok is a three-day harvest or thanksgiving holiday which, this year, was to commence on Monday. On Sunday, Liza was scheduled to help her mom (who lives on the 9th floor of their building) prepare for the Monday morning family feast. We eagerly accepted her invitation to join the family celebrations on Monday. We would get to meet her brother’s family (8th floor) and uncle (a roamer, apparently, who lives in another structure altogether). I was beginning to get an idea of the powerful role played by the Korean family.
On Sunday morning, while the women slaved over a cold kimchee fridge, the boys took a hike up nearby Bonghwasan Mountain. At its summit we enjoyed a picnic lunch of wine and a sandwich whilst getting our bearings, enjoying the view, and generally being overwhelmed by the endless sprawl of Seoul. Beside us stood the beacon tower of Achasan Bongsudae, part of an ancient military communication system of smoke signals to urgently alert of the impending arrival of the latest sacker.
This day, the lack of impending sackers rendered smoke signals unnecessary. Vincent pointed out, though, the haze which blanketed the city. This “yellow dust” is attributed to being downwind of countless unknown Chinese environmental atrocities, a considerable concern for Seoul residents. It is described online as “sulphur, soot, ash, carbon monoxide, mercury, cadmium, chromium, arsenic, lead, zinc, copper, other carcinogens, dust storms, viruses, bacteria, fungi, pesticides, antibiotics, asbestos, herbicides, plastic ingredients, combustion products as well as hormone mimicking phthalates.”
Who knew communism caused phthalates to mimic hormones?
Liza joined us Sunday evening. The four of us headed into central Seoul to attend a “comic martial arts performance”, Jump! It was a slapstick love story involving an extended family that lived the fight scenes of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan in slow motion. There were some impressive gymnastics and first-rate clowning. The overly assertive wife repeatedly beat her hapless husband to a pulp. (Good for her!) A burglar, caught red-handed, had his head bashed against the floor a dozen times. (He had it coming!) Several characters got run through with swords or shot through the head. (Hilarious!)
Returning to the apartment, we realised we hadn’t purchased a gift to present Liza’s mother in thanks for the Chuseok feast she was to offer in the morning. This led to a detailed discussion of the kind of things commonly exchanged as gifts. Vince proudly pointed out a closet full of paper towels and toilet paper they’d received for their house-warming. The Koreans are nothing if not practical. Fruit, we were told, is a favourite Chuseok gift, so we bought a giant crate of giant pears – probably five kilos or more. We were assured this would delight mom, and that there would certainly be no excess.
We were also briefed on the “three levels of clean” one must understand regarding a Korean household. There’s “outside clean”, which means filthy. There’s entry-way clean, which is kind of like the decontamination chamber of a nuclear power plant, or the airlock of a space ship. Then there’s “inside clean” which is clean enough to eat off the floor — a good thing, since they eat while sitting on the floor, if not off it.
Chuseok was a real treat. We joined the festivities after the completion of certain ancient family rituals. Those rituals, apparently, can be somewhat objectionable to adamantly Christian Koreans, of which there are a surprisingly large number. We saw no sign of any spiritual rift, though. The food was wonderful, albeit largely unrecognisable to me. The family was warm and welcoming, clearly delighted to meet Vincent’s relatives. The toddler who had never seen any westerner close-up other than Vincent sat silently in puzzled awe of our cousinly similarities. Sure enough, the pears were a hit, too.
It came to my attention that several historic sites were open for free on Chuseok. Free is one of my favourite admission prices, so in the afternoon we set out to tour the largest of the bunch, Gyeongbokgung Palace (a name easier to cut and paste than to say). Like so much of Korea, the original palace buildings had been burned to the ground, several times in fact, over the centuries. The most recent restoration, begun in 1989, has rebuilt about half the place in spectacular style. Arguably, this replica reflects Korea’s enduring struggle and persistence, so is more “real” than the previous three or four.
You have to get out of Seoul to see much of anything that hasn’t been burned to the ground several times over the centuries. It is worth noting, though, that there have been many, many centuries. On our prior trip we visited the ancient Shilla capital of Gyeongju towards the southern end of the peninsula. Pretty impressive, those ancient Shillas. They had kings, one after another, for a thousand years, each of ’em lasting about 20 years, and each earning a tomb comprising of a pile of rocks four stories high, now pleasantly grassed over. Do the math, that’s a LOT of tombs. The city is covered with them! But they don’t burn to the ground, those grass covered piles of rocks, they are the ground.
Aside from non-flammable grassy rock tombs, the other wonderful thing we discovered in Gyeongju was Korean fried chicken. I’m something of a fried chicken addict. There are very few countries that do it well, and Korea is one of them. It is quite different to American southern fried chicken – the spices bear little resemblance, and the batter yields lighter, flakier result. Highly recommended.
We spent our last night in Korea at the Hyatt in Incheon, near the airport, so we could catch the early morning flight to Manila. I left more convinced than ever that Korea is a very strange place indeed.
Somehow I knew I’d be back for more.
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