Thursday, November 8, 2012

Chuseok in Seoul

Gyeongbokgung Palace

After failing to write a post in October, it's time to get back in the swing of things.

A few hours after publishing my previous post, I woke up and grabbed a taxi to the bus terminal in Gwangju just in time to catch my 8:00am bus to Seoul, where I would be spending the Chuseok holiday with the friend I wrote about in this previous post. I had been a bit nervous about traveling that day, since Chuseok is one of the major Korean holidays (like Thanksgiving back home) and is supposedly one of the busiest travel periods here. There were no delays on the bus ride to Seoul, fortunately, but for much of the way going into Seoul the traffic leaving the city was nearly at a standstill. Many people visit their families in their hometowns for the holiday (again like Thanksgiving back home) so the number of people leaving the city is much greater than those going in.

Hyun-ho met me at the bus terminal in Seoul and guided me to the subway. We caught the train to Gangnam and had dakgalbi for lunch. This was the first time I'd had dakgalbi, and it was very delicious and filling. I really enjoy how at so many restaurants here the food cooks right in front of you. With samgyupsal there's a charcoal grill in the center of the table, and with dakgalbi there's a gas burner in the center of the table, and the server adds the chicken, cabbage, and any other ingredients right there. I hadn't seen Hyun-ho since he visited Gwangju back in August, but I was so entranced by watching my lunch cook and brimming with anticipation that I didn't say much. Also, I have to admit that using chopsticks was still a task that required some concentration for me. I'm still no expert, but I have made great progress since I arrived, and I'm better now than I was a month ago.

After lunch Hyun-ho wanted to show me Itaewon, which is famous for its plethora of Westerners and Western establishments. Before we went back down to the subway I asked to stop to get a photo using the camera I'd bought the day before. Up to that point I'd been relying on my iPod touch to take pictures. It did a nice job, but I thought an upgrade in quality would be a good idea since I sometimes send pictures back home so my parents can show them to my grandparents and others. Also, I think it will be neat to look through them when I do make it back home. Since Gangnam is a very well-known part of Seoul I wanted a photo from there so I took one just outside of the subway station, and here it is:
Gangnam subway entrance
We were only in Gangnam a short time, but I'm glad we stopped there. Even just from the buildings you can certainly tell it is a very upscale area.

Itaewon was a few subway stops away on the other side of the Han River, and it made for one of the more bizarre feelings I've had since arriving in Korean. It's very near an American military base and is packed with international style restaurants and stores. Here I am in front of the subway station there:

After walking around checking out the various offerings for a while, we stopped for some coffee. This is where I was really thrown. While we were there several American families came in with children. I see plenty of 20-30 something native English speakers pretty regularly here, and sometimes even people slightly more advanced than that. In Itaewon, however, I saw older people and Western children for the first time since I left the states. This made me think a couple of things: first I imagined how neat it will be for those kids when they get older to realize they spent a part of their childhood in Korea, and then I thought of how I shouldn't feel daunted by being away from my home country because here are kids who probably weren't even ten living over here. Living in Seoul is probably quite different from living in Gwangju, and it's becoming extremely rare for me to feel daunted by living here, but it seemed notable. I remember thinking, "This will have to go in my blog." I just didn't think it would take me six weeks to actually write my next post.

From Itaewon we caught a bus to the area where Hyun-ho lives. We passed by the American military base and the Korean War Museum, which I would like to visit sometime. Hyun-ho also pointed out Seoul Tower and Namsan and said I should visit them next time I go to Seoul. I definitely will make a trip there sometime in the coming months, and these spots are on my list of sites to catch. The bus ride was pleasant. I was able to catch up with Hyun-ho and he pointed out many different sites along the bus route. We had a bit of a shock when the bus was involved in a non-serious collision. It happened on the side of the bus opposite where we were sitting, so I had a sick feeling when I heard the tires squealing followed by a bang and scraping noises. People on the other side looked out of the windows with deeply concerned faces and I hated to imagine what may have happened. Fortunately we just caught the extreme front end of a car that was hanging slightly over into our lane. The bus took off the car's front bumper, but it was a glancing blow and no one was hurt. We filed off the bus with the rest of the passengers after about ten minutes and walked to a nearby stop to catch the next bus.

When we arrived at the apartment I met Hyun-ho's parents. They don't speak English, and I still don't really speak Korean other than the minimal basics, but they were just as sweet and welcoming as I imagined, all smiles and pleasantries. Hyun-ho was kind and patient enough to do a lot of translating for us. I tend to get a bit nervous about being a guest at homes because I don't like to create too many inconveniences and I want to make a good impression, but they immediately made me feel at ease and excited to have made the trip. While waiting for dinner we turned a Korean baseball game on the television, and Hyun-ho's dad offered me some dried squid, which I actually enjoyed. It takes some work to chew it, but it has a pleasant, more-subtle-than-you-might-think marine flavor. They prepared a wonderful bulgogi dinner with various side dishes, including some of the vegetable pancakes that I love with squid tentacles cooked into them. It was delicious and I ate more than I had in a long while, which was to become a common theme on the trip.

After dinner, Hyun-ho and I headed back out to catch the bus to go see "Taken 2". I hadn't gone to see a movie since I'd left the states, so I was excited for the new experience, as well as for revisiting the adventures of Liam Neeson. Ever since I left "The Grey" during the end credits I've been feeling as though I missed something, and "Taken 2" seemed like it may be just the backscratcher to reach the spot.

The theater was located on the upper floors of a very tall department store building, something like 16 stories high. The seats in many Korean theaters are assigned, so we grabbed some Cokes from concessions and went into the auditorium to find our designated seats and settle in for the show. The lights dimmed, and we were treated to exactly what you'd expect from "Taken 2": several dozen more pieces of evidence supporting the argument that one should not mess with Liam Neeson.

I found the movie-going experience, like many experiences here, comfortably familiar while still being different enough to be exciting. As the movie played I began to stop noticing the Korean subtitles so what was on the screen seemed the same as watching back home, but when the credits started rolling and the lights came back on I stood up and remembered where I was and realized I seemed to be the only foreigner in the auditorium. I've always enjoyed going to the movies, and my first trip to the movies in a different country was one that I'll certainly remember.

After we arrived back at the apartment I watched some EPL soccer with Hyun-ho and his parents before taking a shower and retiring for the night. I'd been on the go since 7:00 that morning. Six months ago that would be a typical day for me, but working afternoons and evenings has shifted my routine rather drastically, so by midnight I was pretty well worn out. I also wanted to be sure I was rested for the next day, which was set to begin with a visit to Hyun-ho's church, which I certainly did not want to miss.

Now it's getting a bit late here in Gwangju and I have one more day of work until the weekend, so I'll save the rest of my trip for the next post (including our visit to Gyeonbokgung Palace, shown in the top picture). Don't worry, I won't wait six more weeks to post that one! Maybe tomorrow night...

An Extra Note
For those of you who are curious, I wanted to explain a bit more about how I came here. After dealing with several different recruiters, I was set up with an interview at my hagwon by Dan and his team through Teach ESL Korea. I believe they've posted my blog on their website and it seems like I'm getting some readers from there. If that's how you got here, welcome and thank you for reading! I've been here nearly four months now and am loving it. If you're interested in learning more about what it's like to teach in Korea or about opportunities to pursue it for yourself, check out their website. They have some great resources that were helpful for me as I was doing research for what has turned out to be a terrific experience so far.

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