Thursday, August 22, 2013

Hana, dul, set… Foreigner!

If you travel to Korea as a foreigner (read: if you’re not Korean) or as a group of foreigners, prepare to be stared at and have your picture taken… blatantly.

Korea is a very direct society to start with (not impolite! Just direct!), but there is something weird about strange people you don’t know taking pictures or videos of you with their phones, iPads/tablets, and cameras.  If I had 10,000₩ for every Korean person that took our picture today, I could buy myself a royal feast.  Seriously.

When Chris said “Let the circus begin,” as we got off the bus this morning, it was funny.  Six hours later it was awkward and heading toward annoying.  In a completely neutral tone: have these people really never seen a foreigner up close before?  Korean is a very homogenous society – and that homogeneity is seated in the group collectivism/identity that arises from Confucian ideology.  It’s entirely plausible and it’s understandable why people might stare, but are pictures really necessary?  I mean, come on.  But Korea is also a very picture-focused society.  They take pictures at all sorts of events and just whenever; I’m sure we all know about Asian picture booths or apps that you let you add all sorts of cute stickers and phrases to your images.

but I did wonder what it would be like if I took my camera out and started taking pictures of them.  The thought totally went through my head.

(And just so everyone knows, this is not meant to reflect on Koreans in a bad way.  It's just one of those many culture shocks you can expect.  Foreigners are interesting and even get leniency in many ways when they're here because we're interesting/cute/insert adjective.)

Still, even with all the staring, I had a pretty cool field trip today.

We started the day at 7:30AM (though I actually woke up at 5:30AM).  I found a granola bar from home and ate it, found out that food was being served a little early in the cafeteria so I had a tiny bowl of corn flakes and two slices of apple; got on the bus and had a piece of dried Taiwanese mango, part of an apple-stuffed cookie which tasted like an apple Fig Newton, and a dried chocolate puff thing which was good; and then the EPIK staff gave us sandwiches from Paris Baguette (this place is everywhere…).  The sandwiches made me sick (yay!), but I had my Tums with me so ha!  My no-real-breakfast morning turned into a veritable feast of different flavors.

After a two hour bus ride through terrible traffic (don’t EVER drive here), our little special group arrived at Dokdo Museum in Seoul which was actually underground beneath a skyscraper.  Dokdo is an island off the East coast of Korea that Japan has made multiple (successful) attempts to claim despite the fact that the island was claimed by Korea as part of Ulleungdo after Silla’s conquest of Usan-guk.  The museum reviews the “History and Future” of Dokdo, the “Nature” of Dokdo, and has a 4-D theatre.  The museum itself is very pretty and has some high-tech things, like the projection that you can wave your hand over and enlarge information bubbles to read (both English and Korean!).  I really enjoyed the Nature section because I’m a science nerd: you put some graphs on the wall, a few diagrams of currents and rock cross-sections, and then toss on genus and species names?  You got yourself a deal.  The 4-D theatre was really just a 3-D movie with moving chairs that made most of us motion sick from what I understand.

After Dokdo Museum we only got to visit the traditional Namsan Hanok Village for about 15 minutes because we were running late (traffic in Seoul is terrifying beyond belief), but I still got some good pictures.  I’m kind of hoping I’m in/near a village that had some architectural elements similar to Namsan Hanok Village.

After the village we went to Korea House and saw traditional O-go-mu, Seoljanggo, and Korean fan dance performances.  In the O-go-mu performance, five beautifully dressed dancers each played five drums to their left, right, and back.  Several drummers also accompanied them in the back.

The Seolkanggo is a style of farmer’s percussion music.  They had a little gong, two hourglass-shaped janggo’s, and another drum and they each played a slightly different beat.  At the beginning it just sounded like cacophony to me, but then they kind of meshed together to create this interesting percussive piece.  We once played a similar song in high school band where it sounded totally strange, but a weird sort of cadence revealed itself.

The final performance we saw was the Korean fan dance.  The dancers were all dressed in royal formal dress (which is so crazy pretty!) and they all had fans with three peony blossoms on them.  The fan movements represented peony blossoms and their movements.  I highly recommend seeing all of these performances in full.

Our next stop was lunch at Korea House where we had delicious bibimbap!  There was also a beef soup, pickled radish soup (I think), some kind of juice (no idea what it was, but drank it anyway), sweet potato noodles, fluffy rice cake things (YUM!), watermelon (one piece, with seeds, which resulted in a discussion about genetics, GMOs, and organic foods to clarify some basics), grapes (one), and these peanuts that had some kind of sweet glaze/sauce on them.   I ate two of the four communal dishes at our table…

Soo Kim and I after the bibimbap lunch.

Fountain in a fish pond in the courtyard of the building we had bibimbap.
The fish were huge!

Also, I ate with a golden spoon and golden chopsticks.  And just in case you doubt me…

Our final stop was Gyeongbokgung (경복궁) or Geongbok Palace ( is ‘palace’), the main and largest palace of the Five Grand Palaces in Seoul built by the Joseon Dynasty, the first dynasty in which Seoul was the capital.  It was constructed in 1395, burned during the Japanese invasion of 1592-98, abandoned, eventually reconstructed in 1867, destroyed again by Imperial Japan in the early 20th century, and has been gradually restored (about 40% as of 2009).  They were still doing reconstruction on it when we were there today.

In front of the King's throne room.  The walkway to my left between the
low pillars was the place where only the king could walk.

King's throne room.

Queen's room.
Elizabeth and I.
Some of the Gangwon-do group.
Palace on the water.  Our EPIK team leader described this
as the 'party house' I think.

This is me in front of a door.

The palace was huge though I wish it hadn’t been such a very hot and humid day (I’m writing this now as I feel sick from the heat… yes, I drank three bottles of water, mom).  When we were by the palace on the water, the breeze was on water was great though. 

Oh!  And this is the place where we think they filmed the final Agni Kai fight between Zuko and Azula for the cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender:

There’s a ton of cool history that goes along with this palace like the places only the king could walk, which sides were favored (left!), and the buildings and rooms for the different members of the court.  We got a little bit of this history from our EPIK team leader, though the most hilarious bit was when she was describing the king and queen as “holding hands” in one of the buildings.  I’m sure you all know what I/she mean/t.  Gosh, it was hilarious though.

After the palace we went to the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History.  They are apparently celebrating 60 years () of something. :P  The museum was interesting, especially in the particular story it presented: you could feel a strong sense of national pride and it of course made you want to take everything with a grain of salt.  But even that doesn’t undermine the artifacts in the museum, like Korean flags signed by US soldiers, casings from large artillery, and outfits of miners and nurses.  I thought one of the interesting things was the similarity of Korean 1960-70s advertisements to American 1940-50s ads, except these ones were for rice cookers.

After this we headed back (we got Dunkin’ Donuts as a snack… mine was a Bavarian) and I stuffed myself with canned fruit cocktail at dinner after a cold shower.  Now another shower and then BED.  Lesson planning for our presentation on Sunday will have to commence tomorrow.  We were supposed to meet tonight, but I feel sick and I think the other two are feeling pretty dead as well.  Just as an aside, one of my partners was a DJ in South Korea for a while.  You meet lots of interesting people here…

Finally, why did my Gangnam Style water not prevent me from feeling sick?!

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