Saturday, September 29, 2012

Korea Trip: Back Home Again

Wednesday morning we got up, finished packing, went downstairs for our taxi, and headed to the airport. We enjoyed the view from the taxi on the way back. We were able to see a little more of the city, the Han, and (I think) the ocean than we had on the train ride in from the aiport because we'd been busy talking to MJ instead of staring out the windows. We enjoyed the view. It was raining, and I always like to see what a city looks like in the rain. We were a little distracted by this monitor-thing the taxi had on his dash. It was like a GPS, but it kept beeping at the driver and talking to him, but it didn't seem to be giving him directions. Finally RR figured out that it was telling him that he was speeding. Yeah, he pretty much sped the whole way there. By a lot. I had heard some crazy things about some Korean drivers, and maybe everything I'd heard is true, but as far as I can tell, a taxi driver is a taxi driver is a taxi driver. That's a big generalization, but come on. You know I'm right about that. I've only ever been driven by two types of taxi drivers: (1) chatty drivers who drive too slowly because they spend too much time talking and not enough time focusing and (2) drivers who are totally focused on getting to the destination as fast as possible and are completely unconcerned about the safety of their passengers.  So this guy's driving didn't surprise or bother me.

At the airport, we returned our rented cell phone and bought a few things at some of the shops at the airport. They have some pretty nice shops at that airport. I could probably spend a whole day there. And I could be wrong, but the prices didn't seem as marked up as the stuff at the U.S. airports I've been to.

The flight back was not the best flight I've ever been on. Poor RR did not feel well at all, and I think she threw up twice. I spent at least 7 hours trying not to throw up myself. I rewatched the movies that I'd watched on the way over, plus the new Muppets movie, which I enjoyed. I don't know that it goes well with the other movies in the Muppet oeuvre, but I still liked it. I also watched part of a Korean t.v. movie that I didn't have time to finish. I cannot find it online anywhere, and I don't know how it ended. This will bother me for a long, long time. It wasn't even that great of a movie, even for a television movie. I know I can accurately guess how it ends. But I don't know. And I feel like I need to know, and not knowing will leave this tiny hole in me, like I'll spend the rest of my life feeling incomplete.

That seems a little over dramatic. Probably I have been watching too many k-dramas.

Another problem with the flight? One row back and to the left of us, a couple sat with their small child. He was somewhere between 4 and 6. I don't know. I can't tell with kids. We should have known he'd be a troublemaker because while the passengers were still boarding, he had already begun ordering his mother around.  He started with an angry "Mom, sit down," and he just never stopped.  The kid was a brat and didn't shut up for the entire flight. I certainly don't enjoy being stuck on a flight with a child that won't stop crying, but realistically, there's only so much a parent can do with young children. It's to be expected from kids if you're traveling on a commercial flight, and you can't expect parents to never, ever travel.  Allowances must be made if we expect people to keep procreating. 

But this kid was not just a young boy with the short attention span that all kids have.  No, he was a brat to his parents the whole time.  I don't blame him, I blame his parents. These were not parents who have tried and have just given up. I see those parents in the stores all the time, pleading with their children to just behave until they leave the store. These parents, however, were not at all concerned with how their kid behaved. They didn't even try to get him to stop. They had completely given him the control in their relationship.  They just ignored him, which clearly didn't work. The whole flight, y'all. The WHOLE flight. Thirteen hours. No, wait, I take that back. About ten minutes before the plane landed, he fell asleep. I don't blame him. Being that awful will wear a person out. I really hope that the parents had just had a really exhausting trip and normally at least try to help their child grow up into a functioning adult. Otherwise, he will have no real friends in life.

Moving on to my favorite topic: food! As I think I mentioned in my post about the flight over, we again ate the Jain meal, which was delicious but definitely contained something we reacted to. It was the height of stupidity to eat it on this trip considering we already suspected a problem with it from our flight over. The fact that we ate it again when they served dinner was indefensible. Yes, we didn't want to seem rude by refusing to eat the meals we had ordered, but I'm sure the flight attendants couldn't care less. And if we had had some kind of serious reaction, that would have been way more inconvenient for the flight attendants than the inconvenience of heating up food that nobody ate.

Because of the combination of my already developing motion sickness with the nausea that often accompanies an allergic reaction, neither RR nor I felt at all well. Because of that, I started eating the food I had brought on the plane with me because sometimes eating bland or absorbent food (like bread) will help settle my stomach. So I ate some gluten-free rolls that I had brought on the trip. Then I ate a rice cake. Then I ate a ginger cookie because the cookies was soft and because ginger supposedly helps with nausea. I say supposedly because the only time I'd ever tried it before was before I had learned to love ginger, and the taste of ginger ale at that point was enough to make me gag. Anyway, I didn't stop there. I pretty much ate all of the food I had left over from the trip.  I figured I didn't need to ration it anymore since it's purpose--to feed me on the trip--was over as soon as the plane landed.  And that's true. But just because you can eat an enormous amount of food does not mean that it's a good idea to do so.  I started off pretty well, pacing myself and trying not to eat more calories than I would normally consume in a day. But after awhile I got confused about what day I was supposed to be counting calories for--do I finish out the Korea day, or do I just go ahead and start on the next (well, technically, previous) U.S. day? Do I go by Korea time or U.S. time? After awhile, I just said screw it, I'm nauseated and I love food. Of course, at some point in this it did occur to me to just stop eating, but . . . I didn't.  Sometimes when I don't feel well, I'll just keep eating on the assumption that at some point, it will make me feel better. It never does unless the reason I'm nauseated is hunger, but I still keep trying.

Anyway, back to Korea. Or rather, back to us coming back from Korea. Next up: customs for the uninitiated!

When we finally landed, nauseated and exhausted, we then had to figure out how to navigate through customs. We didn't understand that we didn't have to list every single item we purchased on the customs form, so we started out using a bunch of them. We couldn't understand why pretty much everyone on our flight only needed one form. Thankfully, someone came along and told us that we could group things together, so, for example, we could list "souvenirs" and then state the value of all the souvenirs together.  That made things easier. Of course, I still had to list everything I had bought so that I could figure out how to value everything. As I wrote my purchases in a notebook, I realized, "oooooh, this is where all my money went. Food and beauty products!" It seems there's truth in that expression about how you can't run away from yourself and no matter where you go, you'll still be you. 

I realize that most people probably just guess at the value of the stuff they are bringing back from overseas, but we do not do that. You know how in the movie French Kiss, Meg Ryan's character gets mad at Kevin Kline's character for using her to smuggle a plant into the country without her knowledge, and she demands to know what would have happened if she'd been caught, and he responds basically that someone like her would never get stopped because she would declare a pack of gum? That's us. We are that type of person. We are not scofflaws. And if we decided to deviate from our comfort one and not to declare something, we'd spend the rest of our lives feeling guilty--and a little nervous that at some point, we'd have the feds knocking on our door wanting to know why we didn't see fit to declare that candy bar or those Q-tips.

That being said, when I glanced over at the form RR was filling out and saw that she had dutifully noted "brown rice" on the form, I thought, "Mistake!" Thanks to one of our friends who spends almost as much time out of the country as he does here at home, I was pretty sure that uncooked brown rice was something that they'd have to inspect before letting it in. I didn't think RR was going to wind up in the slammer for trying to bring back food, but I did think it would complicate our departure from the airport. And it did. The man who went over her form before stamping her passport to let her back in the country told her he didn't think it was a big deal, but he knew the customs inspectors would want to look at it, so he marked her customs form. Then when we got to the customs part, the man who looked at her form said he didn't think it mattered, but since the first guy had flagged it, he had to inspect it. I don't think those two departments are communicating very well. 

I had no idea what was going on with the customs part because I'd been passed through already and wasn't allowed to wait for her in that area.  Meanwhile, my mom, who was our ride home from the airport, was texting me frequently wanting to know what gate we were near and how long it would be. And that was interrupting my response to our well-traveled friend who had texted me a welcome back to the country message asking how our trip was. And here I will say that he is a much better friend than I am. He knew not only the day but pretty much the exact time that we'd get out of customs, whereas when I never know where he is. We spend a lot of time doing this:
Me, texting: "Do you want to go to the movies this weekend?"
Him: "Well, like I told you a few days ago, I'm in [Hong Kong/Mainland China/Italy/Paris/Mexico/India], so . . . no."
So anyway, I was trying to text two people at once, including my mom who would send me a new text while I was still trying to respond to her previous one. All I could tell her was that I didn't know how long we'd be because I don't know anything about customs and I was waiting for RR, who'd been stopped by customs because of a bag of rice. Fortunately, it didn't take long for her to get passed through. I think absolutely none of the guys dealing with the rice situation really wanted to spend time dealing with rice.

So, anyway, we left the airport, and our mom took us back to my parents' house, which isn't far from the airport. I'd left my car at their house, so we went by there to pick up the car.  We were ok on the sleepiness level on the drive home, probably from the adrenaline we got from getting home.  But not long after we got home, it became apparent that our plan to stay awake to avoid jet lag was going to be difficult to stick to. I cannot remember the last time I felt that sleepy. Everything was painful.  We watched movies to stay awake, by which I mean we stared at the television without comprehending anything we saw. It was awful. I think it would have been fine if we'd been able to sleep on the plane, but thanks to motion sickness and That Child, that didn't happen. We finally allowed ourselves to go to bed a little after 7 p.m.  When we woke up on Thursday, we weren't too off schedule.  The weird thing was, it didn't feel like we'd been out of the country at all.

And that was it for our first trip to South Korea. I hope we can visit again--and that next time, we don't have to fly economy class.

Korea Trip: Tuesday--Doota, Chocolate, 7-11

Tuesday was our last full day in Korea, and we were determined to find a place to buy cute Korean office supplies.  We were, however, defeated by the confusing layout of Korean roads, at least in Seoul, anyway.  No grid system here, my friends! Street signs? Maps labeled with street names? Please. Those are for wimps! Nope, nothing to guide our way there but a few sites on the internet that said to take a certain exit from a certain subway stop, walk straight ahead, and turn right by a pharmacy. Well, we walked quite a ways and never saw a pharmacy.

We were able to find a different set of directions, which were actually substantially the same, except they named a different subway station and exit. We tried that one, too. Never did find that pharmacy. Many blocks were made that day, and nary a stationery store was seen, despite much walking and google-mapping. We did, however, find Doota, which we decided to visit despite it's ridiculous-sounding name. But not for shopping. No, we spotted Doota while sitting forlornly on the ledge of planter-bench-thing, eating our snacks, when we saw Doota across the street.  One look quick online search revealed that Doota had both a coffee shop and an information desk.  And so, we ventured across the busy street on the promise of coffee and the hope of an English-speaking person at an information desk who could direct us to the stationery street.

We didn't like the coffee--not their fault, I just don't like iced americanos but keep on buying them. The woman at the information desk did speak English, but she couldn't direct us to where we wanted to go. She just pointed us in the general direction and said we'd have to ask someone else on the way because it was too complicated to describe to us. Basically, we'd have to get directions from a different person for different sections of our trip there. Um, no thanks. That just seemed like an excellent way to come up with a blog entry titled, "How I spent three days wandering lost in Dongdaemun."  But the good part of us wandering around for awhile is that we came across Dongdaemun Gate, which we would not have seen if we'd known where we were going.

[Side note: speaking (sort of) of Korean fashion, here's something we noticed. Well, I noticed after RR pointed it out. There seem to be a not small number of women walking around sporting white shirts with dark-colored bras. Is that a thing now? Is it a world-wide trend or just a Korea thing? Over here that's considered kind of tacky. Don't get me wrong, I totally did that in college in my "I wear what I want, damn the conventions" stage of life that most college students go through. And for me that stage lasted a few years after college, too, I'm not going to lie. But women over college age generally don't do that here. Is it just me? Are we just really behind the times here in Texas? Is this my sign that I'm officially old now? Is this my "hey, kids, get off my lawn" moment?]

Before we left Doota, we decided to make use of the restrooms. One of our unwritte rules when out and about is "Go before you go," meaning that before you leave a place that probably has a decent bathroom, you go make use of it because you don't know when you'll next find acceptable facilities.  On our way up to the floor with the restrooms, we saw lots of shops with clothes that were very "us." Unfortunately, we'd already spent all our budgeted shopping money. Regrets, we had them. I could have happily redone my entire wardrobe based on some of the clothes I saw there.

And while I was in the restroom, I got treated to a Phil Collins song being played on the sound system, and not even a good Phil Collins song. Even in Korea, the shopping center background music of choice is easy listening Top 40. Like death, it's inescapable.

On the way home, we decided to try and find the Institute of Traditional Korean Food. We didn't want to go to the museum part. I mean, we did, but we didn't have time, so we prioritized. In other words, yes, we wanted to go to the cafe part and buy more dduk. We did find it and were disproportionately proud of ourselves for doing so. Inside the cafe, it looked just like the little tea room restaurants that old people love so much over here.  I have spent a lot of lunches in those tea shops, so I immediately felt at home. And then we bought more dduk than we needed.  The street that the Institute is on is completely lovely and charming, and I wanted to move there immediately.

Chocolate castle on the left, Jilsiru Cafe on the right

Right across the street was Chocolate Castle, a place I'd read about that makes and sells--you guess it, chocolates. It seemed fortuitous that here was a place I'd read about and wanted to visit and I hadn't had to try and find it on our my own.  We took that as a sign that we should definitely patronize Chocolate Castle. Actually, the sign outside said "Chateau Chocolate Castle," which technically translates to Castle Chocolate Castle, or Chocolate Castle Castle. We decided to give the proprietors the benefit of the doubt and conclude that the sign only says "Chocolate Castle," just in both French and English. Of course, the packaging the chocolate came in said "Chocolate Museum," and we weren't sure how that fit in. But you know what? We didn't care. Those chocolates were fantastic, so if they want to call their store Castle Chocolate Castle Museum, that's ok with us.

We weren't able to ask the woman behind the counter about ingredients because we don't speak enough Korean to ask if any of it was safe for us.  But we bought some for friends and family, and we bought a drink (called "chocolate elixir") for ourselves. Y'all, it was so good. I was pretty sure I had a mild reaction to it, but I didn't even care. The woman was so nice, and super sweet to RR for her conducting the transaction in Korean. If we lived there and spoke fluent Korean, I'd probably get annoyed if people were always surprised and patronizingly "good for you!" when finding out I spoke the language. But I don't speak it, and we were clearly tourists, so it just came across as encouraging and sweet. If you find yourself in Seoul, I suggest you go and treat yourself.

On our way home, we came across one of the other palaces we'd meant to go to, and then we discovered that we were quite close to our hotel. It meant we didn't have a long walk back, which was nice, but it also made us wish we'd walked in that direction earlier in our trip. We really liked that area and would have liked to have spent more time there exploring. Oh, well! Maybe next time.

Oh, I forgot to say that in the morning, before heading out on our fruitless stationery excursion, we had swung by De Chocolate Coffee in Insadong to buy some gifts for folks back home. Some people really like souvenirs, others just think of them as something they want to throw out but feel they have to keep, so we thought we'd buy food for our family members.  That way they'd know we thought of them, but they didn't have to keep some trinket they had no use for. Anyway, as a name, De Chocolate Coffee doesn't really make sense, in French or in English. But considering how many places here in the States try to use French names to sound fancy, only to end up looking ridiculous to anyone who understands French, I'm not going to pick on this place. From what we were told, the dark chocolate that we brought back from there was very chocolatey and enjoyable.  Of course, the people telling me this are very not picky about chocolate, so keep that in mind if you are trying to decide whether to go there. The poor young guys working the counter looked terrified when we walked in, so I'm guessing that English is not their strong point despite working in a very touristy area. We did our best with our limited Korean--ok, RR did--and we walked out there with most of what we'd wanted.

And that was pretty much it for our last full day in Korea. On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at the 7-11 across the street to buy some of the interesting looking snack items we'd seen there for our family. If your family appreciates a good showing of Engrish, then the 7-11 is a good souvenir destination. When we got back to the hotel, we asked them to arrange a taxi to pick us up the next morning, and we went upstairs to pack and crash for the night. 

I had a good time all in all. I'm just sad I didn't get a chance to see the famous Korean pylons. I'm joking but also serious. In many a K-drama, the characters will go to the Han to break up, to argue, to threaten someone, to divulge a secret, or to ponder over an Important Decision, and the two-guys-fighting scenes always seem to happen near pylons. I love drama cliches. Well, not if it ruins an otherwise original, quality drama. I guess I should say that I love spotting and making fun of drama cliches. As a result, every time we crossed over the Han on our way to some destination, I had a hard time not laughing. I really wanted to be able to go to a spot by the Han, lean on the hood of a car, and have RR take a picture of me looking pensive. I feel like my trip wasn't complete because I didn't get to do that. But I can't really complain. The only problem with our trip was that we had more that we wanted to do than we had time for.  Next time we go, we'll plan better.

Korea Trip: Monday. We went to a palace. All by ourselves!

The next day was Monday in Korea.  The first thing on our agenda was to go see some palaces. Actually, the very first thing on our agenda was to go back to the book coffee shop we had gone to with MJ before and treat ourselves to an iced mocha each.  It was yummy.  Having been both cooled down, sugared-up, and mildly caffeinated, we were ready to tour.  Before we went, though, we had to make a stop at a store in Insadong. See, while we were sipping our coffees, RR and I discussed what souvenirs we wanted to bring back for our friends and families. For my friend K, I wanted to bring back either something very Engrishy or something completely bizarre. I was describing the kind of thing I wanted, and RR said that she hadn't yet seen anything really terrible yet. I leaned forward to say conspiratorially, "I have." She reacted with the appropriate level of enthusiasm.  And what was this thing of which I spoke? Sadly, I don't have a picture of it. On our previous trip to Insadong with MJ, I'd walked past a store with a table outside that was filled with knick-knack type items. On that table was a creepy and possibly offensive statuette figurine thing of a small white boy. It wasn't quite like this, but it was of that genre. I couldn't say anything at the time because MJ was there, and I didn't want her to feel any sort of responsibility, as a representative of her country, for the creepy thing. But it was definitely weird. So on our way to the palace, I showed RR, and she was suitably horrified. I don't know why I didn't buy the thing. I will probably always regret it.

We headed north toward where we thought the first palace was.  Turns out that we were pretty close to it. We had figured it was probably walking distance, but we hadn't realized how close it actually was.

We joined up with the free English tour, and I'm glad we did because it was quite informative.  I don't normally like tours, but this one was worth it.  Having the background information made it even more interesting.  Some parts of the palace we already knew something about from watching an old episode of 1N2D--who knew television would actually be helpful!  Also, that place is huge. The movies and t.v. shows don't do it justice.  We very much enjoyed our visit to the palace. I felt bad for our tour guide at the end because no one asked questions. I wanted to tell her that I can't speak for other cultures, but Americans generally don't ask questions unless they are a particular type of person that the rest of us all hate. You know, the ones who either ask stupid questions that reveal some sort of ignorance or, worse, bigotry, or who ask questions just to hear themselves talk. Sometimes you do get genuinely curious people, but that's rare. And even when you have a legitimate question, usually we don't want to ask questions for fear of making ourselves look ignorant, or of annoying everyone else who just wants to leave and now has to wait for the answer so they don't look rude for leaving while the tour guide is talking. Is that a universal thing or just an American thing?

On our way out, we passed the Korean Folklore Museum, which is on the same grounds as the palace.  Surprisingly, RR did not want to stop in. I say surprisingly because normally there isn't a museum that she doesn't want to see.  But we had a lot of walking ahead of us, and we didn't want to wear ourselves out. Later, however, we realized that the museum probably had a gift shop, and we were annoyed with ourselves for not thinking of that while we were there.  Museum gift shops are one of our favorite places to visit.  But maybe next time, right? 

On our way back to the hotel, we walked down Gamgodang-gil, a street near the palace.  We weren't exactly sure where we were going, but we'd heard good things about that area and were pretty sure the street would get us where we wanted to go eventually.  I'm so glad we went that way.  The street is lovely and a perfect example of why Americans today are idiots when it comes to transportation planning. It's perfectly possible to have a street that cars can drive down but yet encourages use by pedestrians--and is actually safe for them.  I don't blame the planners who originally came up with our terrible modern cars-only street designs--they thought they were making the roads safer and more efficient, and they had no idea how badly it would turn out. But I do blame today's engineers, city officials, and most of all, city residents who insist that the way we design roads is the only way we can design roads, the only way for emergency vehicles to be effective, the only way to be safe for pedestrians, the only way to have efficient city traffic.  I resent the people who panic at the thought of Something Different.  So while I really enjoyed the walk, it was a bittersweet experience. The whole time I thought about how much more pleasant our neighborhoods would be if they had just a few streets like that one.  Go over to RR's blog if you want to see a picture of it.  And here's a picture of a different part of the road, courtesy of google street view.

We had already decided that after seeing the palace, we were going to head back to Myeong-dong, which we did. I'd like to say it was because we wanted to do some bargain hunting, but the truth was that we wanted more chestnuts.  Yes, we went for food.  But we did do some shopping while we were there.  We wanted to buy some makeup for our teenage cousin. Of course, while we in one of the shops, I wound up getting suckered into buying some cream for myself after the saleswoman pointed out it would be good for my skin, seeing how my face looked so dry around the eyes.  Apparently, skin care salespeople in Korea use the same techniques as skin care salespeople here in the U.S.  Later, I looked up what I had bought and found out it had snail in it. I know that should have been obvious since it said "escargot" on the label, but I guess I didn't think it was supposed to be literal.

By the way, one of the samples I got from something I bought was described as having placenta protein in it. I threw that one out. 

After we did our cosmetic shopping, we went to Shinsegae department store to the basement area, which sells groceries.  We wanted to buy some bok choy and some mushrooms to throw into a soup with our dduk. An older woman who worked there took the package of bok choy that we had selected away from us and gave us a different package, pointing to the price tag to show us that it was cheaper.  And then she took away our mushrooms and gave us a different pack, pointing out that they were fresher.  She was really sweet and managed to help us even with the language barrier. I know some Americans have had some issues with customer service while visiting Korea, and some Westerners have had to deal with issues with racism/prejudice, but while we were there, we didn't have any problems.  Everyone was very welcoming and helpful to us.

So, anyway, we headed home by subway. All by ourselves!  And back at the hotel, we made what turned out to be really, really good soup.  And we had survived our first full day in Korea all by ourselves. MJ and Husband had nothing to worry about.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

These Things Happen

In the last week, I've had to replace my modem and my car's engine.  I'm not too concerned about either of those events, because that's how life goes.  But it wrecked plans I had for doing fun things with money I'd saved, and it put me behind on things that involve the internet (like this blog).  But bear with me, and hopefully I will have more time to blog, and more interesting things to talk about than car engines and modems.  In the meantime, you will have to make do with a few more posts about my vacation.

Korea Trip: Sunday--Wedding Day!

Sunday was the wedding.  We weren't exactly sure how to do our hair, never having been to--much less in--a Korean wedding before, so we just did what we'd do if we were attending a wedding in the U.S. "Done" but not too fancy. We took a taxi to the wedding location because we didn't want to try to take the subway in the heels we were wearing.  We were in Insadong, and the wedding was in Gangnam, so it wasn't a short taxi ride, but it wasn't exactly long, either.  Nevertheless, it was long enough to make me regret sitting.  I had taken the time to steam my dress--with a steamer we bought at E-Mart and then lugged home on the subway--but it was linen, so of course by the time we got there, I looked like I had slept in it.  When she saw me, MJ assured me that I didn't look that wrinkled, but she wasn't wearing her contacts, so you can't take her word for it.  RR looked lovely. Her dress was not wrinkled, or if it was, you couldn't tell because the skirt was pleated.  So maybe I looked like a homeless financial adviser, which I guess doesn't make me seem reliable after all.

The lobby area of the wedding hall

Where the ceremony took place (L) and the room MJ sat in and greeted guests before the wedding (R).
We enjoyed the wedding tremendously, although we were quite a bit confused by parts of it.  Despite the fancy dress of the bride and groom, the whole process is much more informal and ritualistic than the weddings we're used to here in the States.  There was no rehearsal--right up to the time she entered, MJ had no idea where she was supposed to stand when she got to the front of the room or what she was supposed to do when she got there.  And she didn't seem nearly as bothered by this as I was. I was a little anxious for me and RR because we didn't know what we were supposed to do as bridesmaids, and MJ didn't know either because apparently bridesmaids aren't so much a thing there.  But I was really anxious about what she was going to do. People don't pay that much attention to bridesmaids, but everyone looks at the bride.  If I had known how informal and non-ritualistic the wedding was going to be like, I'd have been completely comfortable with winging it.
Yes, the wedding was also shown on the screen for guests in the back.
I'm sure I annoyed MJ by my asking her several times, "But what are you supposed to do? Shouldn't you ask someone?" As it was, my anxiety about her not knowing the plan reflected our different personalities and how our relationship works. MJ tends to wing it, even on the big things like weddings and finding an apartment in the city you're moving to in a few months, whereas I'm more of the "THERE MUST BE A PLAN!" type. But apparently for Korean weddings, you don't need to know the plan, even if it's your wedding.

I did ask MJ how we should walk--did she want us to have our hands by our sides, or clasped in front of us, or what? And that's when she realized we didn't have flowers or anything. The wedding planner grabbed some lilies out of a vase, handed them to us, and told us we needed to be sure to put them back after the ceremony. That was pretty quick thinking on her part, and it looked like that had been planned the whole time.

So we entered when we were told to by the wedding hall staff, then we walked to the front when directed to, turned at the front of the room, gave a quick bow, and then sat down with MJ's family. RR had asked MJ if she wanted RR to hold her bouquet, or adjust her train, or any of the maid of honor type stuff typically done here in the States.  But MJ told her, no, she didn't want RR to have to do any chores. And no assurances that this is what bridesmaids--bridesmaids--do in the U.S. could persuade MJ that it was an ok thing to expect of her. But I guess it kind of makes sense. If there isn't a true bridesmaid tradition in Korea, then it might look weird to the guests that one of your friends is performing what's seen as chores and doing what the employees of the wedding hall normally do, instead of merely enjoying the wedding.

RR and I were completely confused by the cake-cutting.  Here, of course, you serve the cake to your guests at your reception. That's pretty much the highlight of the event for the guests who are not related to the bride and groom. At U.S. weddings, two things matter to the guests: is there going to be an open bar and is the cake any good. Everyone looks forward to the cake. There is much speculation about what kind it will be. Everyone is disappointed when it's some weird flavor.  No matter what else happens at the wedding, if the cake isn't good, it will always be mentioned in discussion of the wedding. "How was your friend's wedding?" "It was ok. It was pretty, but the cake was terrible. I don't know what they were thinking." We seriously like our wedding cake. And of course there's the quaint ritual of the bride and groom feeding each other cake. It's antiquated but cute, it's expected, and it marks the point of the reception at which it no longer feels terribly rude to leave. Yes, you're supposed to stay until the bride and groom leave, but if you have to leave early, you wait at least until they cut the cake. And that's exactly what people say when you tell them you have to leave early. "But you're going to at least stay until they cut the cake, right? You have to stay until they cut the cake!"

So, based on our friend's wedding, they've sort of borrowed the cake-cutting tradition in Korea, but it's not served to anyone, and it's not cut at the reception. No, what happened was, at one point in the wedding, some people--I think employees of the wedding facility--rolled the cake out on a wheeled table, MJ and her husband cut it in half with a giant knife, and . . . then the people wheeled the cake away.  That was the last we saw of it. I don't know what was going on there.  RR and I looked at each other like, "What just happened?" And of course the fact that they have a designated bouquet-catcher, rather than the random throw into the crowd of single women tradition we have here, I don't understand that, because it seems to defeat the entire purpose of the bouquet-toss.  I'm assuming it has a purpose, just one I'm not aware of. But it was very uncanny valley-esque. Just when we thought we understood what was going on . . . we didn't.

The bouquet
After the wedding, the guests and MJ's family went downstairs to partake of the buffet.  We were allowed to stay behind and watch as MJ and Husband and his family went through a traditional Korean wedding ceremony of some sort. We didn't understand what was going on,and it wasn't explained to us, so I can't tell you much about it. All I can say is that MJ and Husband put on fancy traditional wedding outfits, and they were very pretty. 

By the time that was over and we went downstairs, most of the guests had finished eating, and many of them left soon after we sat down. That meant we didn't get a chance to talk with MJ's friends or Husband's friends, which was disappointing because we would have liked to have talked to people they grew up with. But I don't think they really spoke English, so I guess it was moot.  After the wedding, her husband's sister drove up to the subway stop so we wouldn't have to try and find it on our own.  His family is really nice.

We wanted to try and find a store that would sell a camera battery, since ours was dead, but apparently there is no place in Korea that sells Canon camera batteries.  I mean, obviously, that can't be true, but it felt true. Even the concierge at our hotel couldn't think of any place but the Yongsan electronics market.  We didn't want to go all the way there just for a camera battery, so we had resigned ourselves to just having inferior camera phone pictures from our trip. After much online searching, we figured out that there was supposedly a Canon store in Gangnam. On the way home from the wedding (after changing into more comfortable shoes and taking off our hose in the subway bathroom, which had the one and only squat toilet that I saw the whole time we were there), we took the subway to the part of Gangnam where the store was supposed to be. 

We walked around quite a bit and--surprise!--never found it. We didn't want to ask for directions because we didn't want to walk up to random people and ask if they spoke English.  In my admittedly limited experience, no matter the ethnicity, nationality, or culture of the person you are asking for directions, 9 times out of 10 the person will feel terrible if the person can't help you, like somehow the fact that you are having a terrible time is all that person's fault.  In retrospect, we should have just stood in one spot and done our best "we are so lost and helpless right now" body language and facial expressions.  It's highly likely that someone who spoke at least some English would have taken pity on us.  But we didn't think of that.  And then it started to rain.  And with that, our solo excursion into Gangnam was over.  We headed home in defeat, accepting that the rest of our trip would be documented solely by our inferior cell phone cameras. And I'd like to say that despite the fact that we walked past a building that, from it's signage, appeared to be affiliated with KBS, I did not happen to run into Uhm Tae Woong. So disappointing.

We managed to get home without incident, despite MJ's fears.  As we walked up the steps at our subway stop, there were some drunk ajusshis in business suits going down the stairs, and judging from the expressions on their faces when they saw us and the "Aaaahh!" that followed, they seemed quite friendly, harmless, and interested in talking to us. But we kept walking. We don't speak korean well enough to deal with salarymen on their way home from hwaeshik--it was Sunday, so maybe they were on their way home from a wedding, too, and not a work-affiliated drink fest, but whatever they'd been up to, it clearly involved alcohol.  I've never been good at communicating with drunk people, even without a language barrier.  So we did not engage. 

Then, as we were walking the last few blocks to our hotel, I distinctly heard a man start singing 10cm's "Americano" as we walked past him, but maybe he was selling coffee, or maybe he's just a 10cm fan. 

On the way home, we stopped at a nearby corner store to by dduk so that we could make ddukbokki with the pepper paste we had packed and brought with us.  The woman who sold us the dduk asked us in Korean if we were twins, and when we said we were, she told us we were pretty. We had that exact conversation a lot while we there. This is why I decided that, in this area, Koreans really are very polite. Sure, your Korean friend might tell you to your face that she thinks you're fat, and ajummas will elbow you out of the way to get to the front of a line, but strangers kept telling us that we're pretty when we're actually extremely average. Of course, it could just be the twin effect. I think that sometimes when people see twins, they think what they're seeing is interesting, or just kinda cool (science!), and they don't really have a word to describe the impression that our appearance makes on them, but they know it's a positive feeling, so they conclude that it must be that we're pretty. I'd be interesting in knowing if this happens to other twins that aren't supermodels.

After we got back to the hotel, we changed clothes and walked around Insadong a bit, trying to find Bizeun, another store that sells dduk.  As you can maybe tell, we're big fans of dduk.   Bizeun sells a different kind of dduk, more like dessert than for making ddukbokki.  We were glad we found the store and found some plain rice cakes we thought we could have, because when we got back to our hotel, we were too tired to actually cook.  So no ddukbokki for us that night.  Instead we watched 1 Night 2 Days and ate the Bizeun rice cakes with peanut butter.  No complaints there.  It was kind of like eating a peanut butter sandwhich on white bread--kind of spongey, slightly sweet.  It was delicious.  DELICIOUS. We immediately decided that when we got back home, we'd throw out the frozen rice flour that was all kinds of freezer burned in our freezer, buy some more, and finally make some rice cakes for ourselves.  

Confession: we did buy the flour, but we have yet to make the rice cake. It is probably freezer burned by now.  We did, however, make the ddukkbokki type of dduk, which we discovered is very good pan fried then topped with peanut butter.

Anyway, it was all in all, an eventful day. And MJ had become an ajumma, much to her dismay. And if you think I'm too kind to call her ajumma to her face, you don't know me very well. I can't NOT do it.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Korea Trip: Saturday

I'm just going to go ahead and warn you that the next three or four posts will be about my trip to Korea with RR. If that's boring for you, I don't understand how that's different from my normal blog posts, but feel free to skip them. No offense taken.

On Saturday, it was off for more shopping.  Although I'd worried about finding a jacket that would fit me in Korea, land of the tiny female frame, MJ assured me that I could find something in my size.  Actually, she said it should be no problem at all because I was close to her size, just "more glamorous," which isn't at all true.  I mean, I'm not overweight, not even by a few pounds, but even if I turned anorexic, I'll never be close to her tiny size, her frame is just way more narrow than mine.  If all that was left of us was our skeletons, you could still easily tell which one had been me and which had been her.  But despite my trepidation, the first shopping center had something that worked. Now there was nothing preventing me from being in the wedding.  I'm not going to lie, I had mixed feelings about that.

And also, I had a good internal laugh at the Korean use of the word "glamorous," which is not at all the English language meaning of the word, and which is not exactly a word I'd use to describe myself, either the way we mean it in the U.S. or the way the word is used in Korea. But the fact that MJ chose to say that instead of saying "You're close to my size but you're a little fatter," meant she basically called me the equivalent of "curvy." And of course, "curvy" is the safe way a woman will describe her friend who is heavier than her because it can mean "overweight," but it can also literally mean simply "having curves," which would make it a compliment. Yes, you weigh more than me, but in a good way. I'm not curvy in either sense of the word (though definitely I am heavier than MJ), so I was tickled to be on the receiving end of that exchange for once.

So, Saturday.  We went to E-Mart, which is kind of like Target.  I'd say it was like Wal-Mart, but I didn't see any screaming children running loose around the store, and I didn't feel like killing myself or someone else after being there for 10 minutes, and it seemed pretty clean, so it's not like any Wal-Mart I've ever been in.  On the other hand, it did have underwear in two separate sections of the store, and I can only assume that some other products were, for some reason, put in separate sections of the store.  So in the sense that it could be confusing and inconvenient to find what you wanted, it was very much like Wal-Mart. But I know which I'd prefer to be stuck at for an hour.

On the way there, we stopped at a place for me to buy some kind of hair accessory because I hadn't brought any bobby pins or any hair clips that would be suitable for a wedding-y updo. I spent $40 on a fancy clip. I didn't end up using it, but at least now I own a $40 hair clip. I have mixed feelings about that.

I didn't have as much time to spend in the E-Mart office supply section as I'd have liked, but I did have a chance to buy a small notebook that said "Seoul" on the front, and on the back had a drawing of a bear and a little boy and said "Good deal! You're in!"  It might be my favorite thing that I bought on the whole trip and possibly ever.  RR bought a bag of brown rice there so we could make rice in the rice cooker in the hotel room, the same bag that would later cause RR to get flagged going through customs because her "agriculture product" had to be inspected.  We felt no sense of foreboding when we bought it, though.  Just hunger.

I also bought some mascara and an eyelash curler. I had accidentally left mine at home, and I wouldn't have cared if I was just going to be attending the wedding.  But actually being in the wedding definitely called for mascara-wearing, I thought.  Plus, I wanted to see if Korea had managed to build a better mascara brand.  It hasn't. 

That's not a dig at the mascara I bought, which I like.  I don't want to hurt Korean-American relations by implying that Korea makes shoddy mascara.  But it's just mascara, which means that it winds up mostly under by eyes by end of the day.  So far, I still haven't found anything better than Blinc for actually staying on my eyes. MJ tried to ask a woman in the cosmetics department if they carried anything like Blinc, but the woman didn't really understand what MJ was describing. She thought MJ just meant waterproof, or something that doesn't come off easily. Eventually MJ was able to make her understand, and as expected, they didn't have anything like that. The entire conversation, though in Korean, was exactly the same kind of conversation you have with sales people here in trying to buy mascara. They can't understand that yes, you understand how mascara normally works, and this is different from that, so please stop trying to sell us regular mascara and listen to the words we are actually using to describe what we want. It was another "everywhere in the world things are different but the same" moment for us.

I really like the eyelash curler I bought, so I thought Korea had improved on that, but then I realized it was an American brand. So. I re-imported an American eyelash curler. I guess I indirectly supported the American economy, so I guess that's good.

We next stopped by a pharmacy so I could buy some more Benadryl. It wasn't Benadryl, actually, but a Korean brand.  It wasn't marketed for allergies, though, but as a sleep aid. The pharmacist seemed concerned and asked MJ why I was buying it, and she said it was for my allergies. Did the pharmacist think I was going to OD on the stuff? I don't know. I'm not sure why she was asking what I wanted it for.  You don't need a prescription for it, so I don't think it was really any of her business. Maybe they are supposed to warn people not to take too much? But she seemed surprised that I was buying it for allergies. I hope that it was because people don't usually buy it for that purpose and not because the pharmacist didn't know that diphenhydramine is good for allergies.

Of course, I can't say I'm surprised that it's marketed as a sleep aid. It certainly has that effect in large enough doses. If I take a full dose at bedtime, you can bet I won't be waking up on time the next morning.  I'm just surprised that it seems to be only marketed that way and not as a treatment for allergy symptoms. If the dramas I watch are realistic, and of course you can trust everything you see on television, then some people in Korea do suffer from allergies. So, Korean allergy sufferers, take note: that stuff works on your allergies, too. Just don't drive, sign any contracts, operate heavy equipment, call your ex, or make any plans while you're using it.

We also took the time on Saturday to get manicures.  I had mixed feelings about this, too. I don't like professional manicures because the stylist always rips out your cuticles, which is really not good for you. In the U.S., I've become comfortable with telling the person doing my nails to just leave the cuticles where they are, thanks just the same, but I don't know how to say that in Korean. So part of me didn't want any part of that barbarousness.  

On the other hand, for MJ's wedding, I didn't want to have a botched manicure, so it was best for a professional to handle it.  Plus, let's face it, as cliche as it is, going for a manicure with your friends can definitely make for some fun girl-bonding time.  So we went and got one of those gel manicures--you know, the kind you are supposed to have professionally removed because it takes super strong polish remover.  I removed mine myself about a week after I got back home using a scraping kind of tool that I've never used before and hope to never use again, no doubt causing some damage to my nails. The whole time I was scraping--and it took awhile--I was thinking to myself how stupid I was being and that I should just go to a professional to have it removed. But I just kept scraping because I'm lazy, and it was easier than having to leave my house. Can't say I plan on ever again having one of those manicures. But it did look nice for the two weeks I had it, in that over-done, those-nails-look-fake kind of way that's so popular among certain kinds of Texas women.  I can't describe the type exactly, except to say they tend to wear a lot of Brighton, and sweaters with designs knitted onto them, and very fake hair color, and it's not me. 

Maybe I was uncomfortable because it was just too pink. I wanted a paler pink, but I was told it was too pale and would wash me out. I didn't know how to say "this is what I wear back home, that particular bright shade of pink you want to use conveys a certain type of personality back home, and I don't want to be misleading people into thinking I drive to brunch every Sunday in my Lincoln Navigator, and while I'm there I drink a lot of mojitos and laugh very loudly, a lot, and later that day I go lay out by the pool to get a tan to compliment my fake blonde hair, and that I have a lot of opinions about things that I don't know anything about, and I either only like to eat at restaurants like Chili's or I eat at a lot of sushi and maybe Thai food because I think that makes me worldly."  I was pretty sure that wouldn't translate, anyway, so I just let them be happy with the bright, bright pink. 

Wow, that sounded really judgmental. And yet it's also true. If you live in Texas, you know exactly what I mean.

Anyway, after we got our nails shellacked, we walked around this mall-type area with MJ while she shopped very thoroughly for a jersey skirt to buy to wear on the plane for her honeymoon. After the second store, I think RR and I were both thinking the same thing, which was basically:

It was a process, let me tell you. The skirts all looked the same to me, she looked good in all of them, and in the end, I'm pretty sure she bought the one she had tried on in the first store we went to.  But at least she could be happy with her choice, and we could be happy that we'd burned off quite a few calories walking around.

After that, we went back to our hotel, and MJ went home to do last-minute wedding stuff. We hung out in the hotel, read books that we'd brought with us, and watched television. It was another good day. 

Next up: the wedding!

Monday, September 03, 2012

Korea trip: Friday

The next day--Korea's Friday--we once again went to Insadong, this time to return a dress that MJ had bought the day before. It was cute but too short. I also bought a ring at the same store because we felt bad about returning the dress.  There's no room for guilt in a run-of-the-mill commercial transaction, but that's just how we are. 

Either Thursday or Friday, I can't remember which, it was decided that I was going to be in MJ's wedding after all.  Apparently MJ had asked RR to ask me if I'd be in the wedding, but because the request and response were phrased in typical MJ and RR fashion, it wasn't clear at all that she was asking me to actually be in the wedding or that RR had agreed to it. Both of them say "yes" to invitations to stuff that they don't want to do, because they don't want to hurt the asker's feelings.  And they know this about each other.  The two of them are so very worried about making the other one do something she doesn't want to do, but which she wouldn't say no out of fear of causing hurt feelings, that their conversations are very indirect.  Trust me when I say this is not a cultural issue but very much a personality issue.  It's not uncommon for us to have entire conversations in an attempt to plan something, and at the end, we don't have any idea how the other two really feel about any of our potential plans.  So the request had been more of a "Do you think JLR would want to?" said in a way that made RR think MJ was considering asking me out of a concern that I would feel excluded.  Not wanting MJ to feel like she had to include me out of mere politeness, RR replied along the lines of, "She's happy either way, whatever makes things easy on you," which she meant as, "She will if you really want her to but really doesn't care if she isn't involved, so don't worry about hurting her feelings," but which MJ took as, "Yes, she will be in your wedding."  Honestly, even now, I'm not entirely sure that MJ didn't insist on including me only because she was worried I'd feel weird sitting with the other guests by myself. She and RR are extremely considerate. Picture two people standing in front of an entrance saying to each other, "After you," "No, after you," "No, you first," "No, I insist," until the end of time. That would be MJ and RR. That is why I am included in their friendship circle. I'm not nearly as much fun as they are, but I get us through doorways.

I didn't bring a dress with me that was appropriate for being in the wedding, or at least in a typical American wedding, but fortuitously the dress I brought to wear to the wedding was the same color as RR's bridesmaid dress. That meant I just needed to acquire a jacket to make it more formal--and, if this were the U.S., much, much more matronly, by which of course I mean dumpy.  And for that matter, in the U.S., a suiting-type jacket (as opposed to, say, a lace bolero, very popular with brides and bridesmaids) makes it less formal. Put a jacket over a sundress makes it dressier, but it does not make an outfit formal enough for a wedding unless it's made out of wedding-appropriate fancy fabric. But I dutifully acquired a mother-of-the-bride jacket.

MJ said later that people who went to the wedding told her that we looked "like little dolls," but I think that's just because we're twins.  And also I'm guessing that it was really just her mom who said that, and her mom likes us.  Moms who like you because you are nice to their children tend to think you are adorable.  I just don't see how anyone could realistically describe us, or at least me, as looking like a little doll, because looking back at the pictures from the wedding, I definitely looked like a middle-aged, fashionably conservative wedding guest. I looked like the lead character from one of those really cheesy romance movies on t.v. where the frumpy middle-aged woman gets divorced from the man who never really appreciated her, finds a sexy new boyfriend who loves her for who she really is, and then suddenly and inexplicably develops a fashion sense she never had before, brought on by the power of love.  I looked like the woman in the "before" part.  As we were looking at the pictures, I told RR, "I look like I could be [MJ's] mom."  She made me feel only marginally better by saying, teasingly but also in complete earnest, "No, you look like her financial adviser. . . You look responsible."  Maybe I helped create an impression on her wedding guests that Americans are reliable and fiscally responsible.  So there's that. 

On our agenda for Friday was a trip to yet another department store, this one called Galleria. But first, as I said, we went to Insadong to return a dress. On our way there, we stopped by a cute coffee shop to order coffee and a piece of dduk, the kind filled with bean paste. It was so good. The shop was upstairs, so we were able to sit by the open window and look out on the street below. 


View from the counter. We sat where the guy on the left is sitting.

View from our table.
 In theory, I would love to live above a shop on that street. I'm sure that in practice, I'd find lots to be annoyed by if I lived in such a place. But it was lovely to think about. While we ate, MJ had a long conversation on the phone with Fiance about whether or not they'd have to drive to Fiance's hometown that night for some sort of ceremony with his family. It had previously been decided that they were not going, and so MJ had scheduled all of her last-minute wedding stuff for Friday and Saturday. But now suddenly, Fiance's parents were firmly requesting them to go. Yep, in-laws the world over act like in-laws. It may not be that big of deal to other Koreans, so I can't comment on whether his parents were being inconsiderate or not in the context of Korean culture. But I do know that it caused MJ stress, and that's all I needed to know to get annoyed with her in-laws about it. I do not like it when people make my friends feel stress.

After that, we returned the dress, and on the way out of Ssamzegiel, we stopped by a fortune teller.  Doing something like that is not something that's like the three of us at all.  We don't any of us believe in it.  But it can still be a fun thing to do.  And as it turned out, I'm glad we went.  The woman there read MJ's tarot cards and predicted that her soon-to-be husband would support her in her career choices and that she would be successful in her career, likely as a professor.  It was a very positive, encouraging fortune, and a nice thing for MJ to hear right before making a major life change.  So although none of us believed that the woman had any real insight into the future, we felt better for having heard it just the same. It was a nice way to lighten our mood.

Feeling in good spirits, we stopped at a restaurant in Insadong for ssambap. While we were there, "Rhinestone Cowboy" played on the PA system. That was kind of unexpected.

Then it was off to the Galleria, where we picked up a jacket MJ had ordered and I bought some makeup, but before we had a chance to buy the cosmetics that MJ wanted, she got called away by Fiance. He'd had the suit for his wedding made for him, and the shirt wasn't fitting properly.  MJ thought he could handle it at first, but it became clear over the course of a few phone calls that this was going to take MJ and her "We paid for this, so you're going to give us what we paid for" no-nonsense shopping persona to straighten it out.  So she left us at a cafe in the store while she went off to the suit place, which was nearby.  It was a nice practice run for us being alone in Korea.  We survived, needless to say.  And when she returned, we also survived her shopping for skin care.  Shopping with MJ takes a tremendous amount of patience.  She isn't picky about what the people around her wear or what they look like, but when it comes to buying things for herself, she is painfully meticulous.  We don't shop like that at all.  We're more like the way I once read men's shopping style described: it's like a military excursion behind enemy lines--you get in, do what you need to do, and get out before anyone sees you.  Fortunately for us, our mom shops like MJ, and we have developed coping skills over the years. 

After MJ returned and picked us up from the department store cafe she'd left us at, we went across the street to a small restaurant where we were attacked by a bee. The bee probably didn't consider it an attack, more like just circling around our heads.  But when a bee is circling your head, it feels like an attack. It was hard for us to relax. 

The conversation was enjoyable, mostly about wedding stuff, but it was clear that the day had been exhausting for MJ.  She just looked so beat down. I really wish that eloping were more common and acceptable.  Most women I know are so ready for the wedding to be over by the time it arrives because the stress of keeping family members happy and of making sure that nothing goes wrong in the wedding preparations is overwhelming.

We liked visiting the small restaurant because it felt very non-touristy, and I think we would have liked the food if we could have had any of the parts with flavor on it.  We ordered bibimbap, only actually it was just greens and rice and our own pepper paste. The proprietress was very concerned that we couldn't eat much of anything there, and I wish our Korean were better so we could have told her that her concern was sweet but pointless because we were used to it, and there really wasn't anything she could do to make it better.  She asked us if we could have daikon, which we can--but she forgot to ask if it was ok if it had gochujang on it, which it isn't. So we had to pick it out of our bowls and hope that the contamination was minimal. And then we took some Benadryl.  And then of course, we went back to our hotel and crashed, because there's really not much you can do after you take Benadryl. So that was the end of Friday.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Korea Trip: Thursday

I'm not going to describe everything we did on our trip because it would be the equivalent of making you watch one of those old-school vacation photo slide shows, one narrated slowly in a monotone voice.  But I'll try to cover the major highlights. Also, RR has an overview of our trip with plenty of pictures over on her blog.

On Thursday (Korea time), we went to Insadong in the morning.

Here's (I think) the street our hotel was on, heading toward Insadong.

Almost as soon as we set foot on the street, we got stopped by a very nervous-looking group of college students who wanted to interview us for some English class assignment.  They were sweet and clearly relieved at our willingness to participate. They were adorable, and their questions were easy.  I think MJ was worried we'd be irritated, but honestly, who hasn't had a mortifying, terrifying assignment in school?  Who hasn't had to interview someone or ask a favor of a stranger and been nervous at the prospect? Why wouldn't we want to make it easy for them?  Maybe if we lived there and got stopped every time we left our home, but as a mere tourist, it was no big deal.

After that, we headed toward the shopping. Technically, we were heading toward coffee, but we walked past stores on the way to coffee, so we shopped.  Insadong has a lot of stores selling traditional Korean artsy type things (paper crafts, silk bags, etc.).  Some are clearly cashing in on the tourist trade with cookie-cutter items, while other stores have really neat stuff that's unique and clearly personal to the artist.  We spent a lot of money right out the gate, regretted it almost immediately, and then, out of a fear of future regret, swung too far the other way and bought nothing for days.  That's pretty much how we shop regardless of where we are.  We have only two shopping modes most of the time: (1) go in every store, buying nothing but looking at everything, with the intention of looking at other stores and then deciding what to buy, only we wind up buying nothing because we're too lazy to backtrack, or (2) buy something in every store we go in until we're out of money. Neither makes for a good shopping strategy.

We started out in shopping mode (2) and then, after the first store (at which we bought some hairpins, and RR bought an amethyst necklace that was beautiful and which she regretted buying almost immediately), we switched to (1). After that, we were careful to do more window shopping than actual in-the-store shopping because sometimes that's the only way to avoid impulse shopping--you just don't go in.  Since we were on the street, RR had lots of opportunities to take pictures of the road.  That's what happens when you travel with a city planner--you get lots of pictures of roadways and awnings and things like that because she's always looking for ideas.  And Korea, like older, Eastern U.S. cities and pretty much every country in Europe, has much better ideas about how roads are supposed to work than us here in Sprawlsville, USA. 

By the way, if you didn't know that the idea that roads should be designed primarily, if not exclusively, for cars is an idea generated and promoted by the car industry, an idea that we buy into hook, line, and sinker, to the detriment of pretty much everyone, you should read Peter Norton's Fighting Traffic

Oh, speaking of design flaws, the hotel toilet was very much on the low-flow side. Is that a Korea thing or a hotel thing? Our family has had our share of hotel rooms with non-functioning toilets, but I don't know if it's all hotels or just our dumb luck. We have learned over the years that before we unpack, before we take off our shoes, before we turn on the television, before we do anything, as soon as we walk into a hotel room, we head straight for the bathroom and flush the toilet to see if it works. It doesn't matter the quality of the hotel, we've had problems at pretty much all levels. This toilet technically worked, but it seemed so reluctant to do its one job that we were worried for the entire trip that it was one flush away from giving up.

Anyway, let's get back to our Thursday activities.

After parting ways with many a won, we made our way over to Ssamziegil.  It's a small four-story shopping center in Insadong where you can find more artsy, trendy, young stuff. 

Obviously, this is not my video.  It's this guy's.

There we were able to have coffee--finally! I took a chance on having an iced mocha. I felt like I had a slight allergic reaction to it, but it was good, and I was desperate for coffee, so I just drank it. No regrets. This was supposedly a book coffee shop [I think it was called Between Pages (갈피)], and it did have some books and lots of magazines. The magazines were all in Korean, naturally, so we couldn't read much. But I flipped through the Korean GQ, a magazine I like to look at in any language. I used to have to read it for my job years ago, and old habits die hard.  Despite the slight reaction, we still went back and got another one the next week.  You know, just to verify that it wasn't safe for me. It's not.

We then tried to find a shop in the center that MJ had bought some cute notebooks at a year or so before. We never found it. We think it is no longer with us.

It was lunch time by then, and we were hungry, so we dropped in at Sanchon for lunch.  I'd never been to a restaurant selling temple food before.  And I'd never been to a traditional-style Korean restaurant before, one where you sit on cushions on the floor at your table. We couldn't have most of the food, but we could have was delicious and pretty, too. The hobak juk was some of the best I've ever had, definitely less sugary sweet than what I usually find.  Really, really good.  If you've never had it, describing as "winter squash soup" doesn't really do it justice, because that sounds pretty bland. But it's actually delicious.  And Sanchon's was top-notch. If you have food allergies, have $30 per person to spare on lunch, and can speak Korean, you should go if you're in Seoul, but call ahead to tell them what you're allergic to. We were told that if we'd called ahead, they could have made the food by leaving out what we couldn't have.  Oh, well. Live and learn.

We ate way too much--especially MJ, who tried to eat as much of the food that we were served but that RR and I couldn't have. I'm not sure whether she felt bad for leaving food on the table or because we were paying for it but no one was eating it, but she definitely ate more than she wanted to.  She seemed uncomfortable. I was jealous.

We then headed out to Myeongdong to do more shopping.  
This video was filmed by Hyunwoo Sun, who is awesome and makes me feel like I do nothing with my life.

Just like in the video, it was super crowded, like Times Square crowded.  We went in a few stores but, burned by regret from our morning impulse shopping, didn't buy anything.  Ok, we didn't buy any clothes or makeup or accessories, but we did buy food.  Specifically, bbopki (basically, cooked sugar) and roasted chestnuts.

Both were yummy. I also bought a cell phone charm at a store that was blasting Fergi's "London Bridges." For what it's worth, if you hear it in a foreign country, it's still a stupid song that makes no damn sense.

I'm pretty sure it was that night that we saw this nail place:
We don't know what "actually technic" means, and we're not sure that we'd brag about being a "wannabe," international or otherwise.  But we did kinda want to get our nails done there out of curiosity.

While we were out, we got stopped by another group of students.  They asked us what we liked best about Korea, why we were visiting, what our favorite Korean musical group or singer was, and who our favorite Korean actors were.   When we told the names of two talented and, let's be honest, attractive male actors, they said we had good taste. Yes. Yes, we do. I don't think the questions were the best questions for tourists because not every tourist will know much about Korean pop culture. Maybe they are assuming that the people they stop and interview live in Korea? I don't know. It was fine for us because we knew just enough pop culture to answer their questions. But I would have felt bad if I'd had to say that I didn't know any Korean musical groups or actors or that I didn't know enough about Korea to say what I liked best about it. That would have made me feel very awkward, like I'd accidentally insulted the students.

We were stopped by the students while attempting to locate a Starbucks so we could tell her fiance to meet us there.  As is typical with the three of us, we knew that we'd passed one, but we couldn't remember where, so we circled for what felt like forever before finding one, though not the one we'd originally passed.  And then there was a slight delay in meeting up with her fiance because he went to a different Starbucks in the area.  Probably the one that we passed in the first place.  By the way, they don't have drip coffee or plain ol' tea at Starbucks in Korea. RR and I didn't know what to order because we were so taken aback. It was like that scene in Grosspointe Blank where John Cusack's character finds out that his childhood home had been torn down and a convenience store built in its place, and he just can't process it, so he starts asking the poor store clerk all kinds of questions trying to get at the root of how this could have happened. "How long have you worked here? Where do you live? Where does your manager live? And how long have you worked here?" We were that guy. We didn't ask the baristas where they lived. I just mean that we didn't know what to do. I guess it was naive of me, but I really did expect that all Starbucks the world over would serve drip coffee or plain tea. It's a chain store!  I finally just ordered an americano because that's what I always do when I don't know what to do in a coffee shop.

We finally met up with MJ's fiance, who was nervous about meeting us because he hadn't spoken English in awhile, but he did very well and was perfectly charming.   We then headed to a nearby department store to go to one of the several restaurants they had.  Real restaurants with actual food--we're not talking about Sbarro's or Subway here.  Department stores in Korea are not like department stores in the U.S--they are far, far better.  Some even have grocery stores in them.  They're more like a small version of a mall here (or like Harrod's in London).  I'm not saying I want what they have in Korea exactly--I like that at our malls, they have more than one department store right there.  I just wish that the department stores at our malls were like what they have there. Or maybe we could just have multiple department stores as stand-alone stores but right next to each other.

While at the restaurant (sushi!!), fiance expressed his worry about how we were going to survive once they left on their honeymoon and we were left in Seoul ALL ALONE.  It was very sweet, but considering that both MJ and Fiance had moved to the U.S. to go to school while speaking only limited English, I felt like they should give us enough credit to be able to not die in Seoul due to not speaking Korean.  But then I thought that maybe they were remembering how nervous they were going to a strange country and not speaking much of the language, and they just didn't want us to have to go through that.

We pointed out that tourists go to Korea all the time without speaking the language, and they're fine.  And Westerners go to Korea to teach English and live there for a year, sometimes more, often without bothering to learn much or any Korean, and they also don't die or starve.  Fiance said, "Yeah . . ." in that tone that implies a follow-up, "but it's different." I think MJ must have been telling him stories of our tendency to get lost.  He strongly urged us to join up with a tour group after the wedding.  We don't so much care for tours.  A tour of a museum collection? Great.  A guided tour of a city that takes up your whole day and dictates where you'll go and how much time you'll spend there? Not so much.  Spoiler alert: we didn't join a tour, and we didn't die.  We did get lost, though. Repeatedly and persistently. We walked a lot.  Probably why my coworker told me upon my return, "You're the only person I know who goes on vacation and loses weight."  When you can't eat any of the food at your vacation destination, and you have to ration the food you brought with you because it has to last the whole trip, and you are forced by your lack of any sense of direction combined with your refusal to ask for help to spend most of your awake time walking around, you don't pack on the pounds.

I would like to clarify that it isn't a sense of pride that keeps me from asking for directions, or at least I'm not embarrassed by getting lost.  For me, getting lost is like tripping while walking: if you've done it as much as I have, it loses the embarrassment factor. But I usually don't understand the directions people give me and then getting lost after someone has taken the time to give me directions makes me feel like I've let that person down.  And asking for directions feels like taking the easy way out, like I'm refusing to try and figure it out on my own.  This is why RR and I always pack good walking shoes when we take trips together. Plus, there's always the fear that you'll ask the one person in that city who likes to send tourists in the wrong direction just for kicks.

After dinner, MJ and Fiance insisted on taking us back to our hotel, and then RR and I vegged out for the rest of the night, reading and watching television, trying to figure out what the actors were saying without subtitles. AND THEN we realized that on Sunday, we'd get to watch one of our favorite Korean variety shows (actually the only Korean variety show we watch or even know anything about), and for the first and possibly only time in our lives, we could watch it as it was airing.  We'd have to watch it without subtitles, but it's not a show that you really need subtitles to enjoy. 

All in all, a good day, and a good start to our trip.   

Edited on 9/3 to fix a typo because "better" and "batter" are not the same thing.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Korea Trip, Part I

It's about time I posted something about our trip to Korea, right? Today I'm going to talk mostly about the travel part, so no sight-seeing adventures will be recounted.

Part I of Day One. Day One and the Day Before Day One, If You Count Day One as the first day we were in Korea, and the day before that as the day that we left for Korea, although it felt like one day, and between the time difference and the amount of time we spent on the plane, I don't actually know what Day One was.

Let's start over.

Tuesday, the day we arrived at the airport here in the States.
We were, of course, up late the night before trying to finish packing. Getting all of our food in our suitcase proved more difficult than we had thought. On Tuesday, our mom drove us the airport, which was nice. She was so nervous, but she tried not to make us feel guilty for leaving. It was really sweet to see her put her brave face on. It was clearly very hard on her, but it was just as clear that she didn't want us to feel bad about going on the trip.

We were a little worried that our bags were over the weight limit, but thankfully they were ok. We had a suitcase full of food, for one thing, and we couldn't leave any of that behind, lest we starve while in Korea. 

By the way, the Korean Air employees who checked us in could not have been nicer. They were friendly and were either interested or pretending to be interested in the fact that we were flying over for our friend's wedding. They seemed to think that this was strange and very generous of us. Maybe I would agree if MJ were getting married in a dangerous, hard-to-get-to location that I'd never otherwise visit, but I had already wanted to visit Korea, so it didn't feel very generous. Yes, it's expensive, but since we'd been planning to go next year anyway, it's not like I wouldn't have spent the money. On the other hand, I'm not going to lie, it would have been nice if we could have saved up for it rather than wiping out a lot of our savings to go. But then, we really didn't want to miss her wedding. We felt lucky that she wanted us there.

Anyway, we went through security and then found a Travelex place to change money.  It was only after we changed our cash that we realized that although they waived their "fee," we weren't actually getting as much as we would if they were just straight-up giving us the exchange rate. Oh, we poor, naive, inexperienced international travellers. Word of advice: exchange your money at your bank if you can get it without fees and at the actual rate, or pay for stuff on your trip using a credit card that doesn't charge foreign transaction fees.

We then sat down to wait for our flight and to try not to panic at the thought of being cooped up in a plane for 14 hours. While we waited, our grandmother called to say what I'm sure she feared were her final goodbyes.  She ONCE AGAIN took the time to tell both me and RR that we should not, under any circumstances, fall in love with a Korean man and decide to stay over there. You know, in the eight days we'd be there.  Because I'm 14, apparently. Or in a movie, maybe, because only in fiction would I be ok with uprooting my entire life and moving thousands of miles away from my family for someone I've known for a maximum of 8 days.

I told her that 8 days was not enough time for that, she said, "well, you know, love at first sight," and when I replied that that wasn't real love, she said that I was already mature at my age. Of 36. I'm 36. And she's surprised that I might have a mature outlook on something.  She always talks to me exactly the same way she did when I was in the fifth grade.  This is why I don't talk to my grandmother very often. I love her, and I don't want to kill her, so we have boundaries.

So, that's how that phone call went.  If that plane had gone down, my last thoughts about my grandmother would have been words that she probably thinks I don't know.  RR and I spent a few minutes fuming and then went back to mildly panicking.

Oh, and by the way, the flavor of Dramamine has not improved since our trip to Portland last year.

Anyway, our seats were waaay at the back of the plane, the next-to-last row.  We didn't mind because it meant we were close to the bathrooms.  This is a big deal for us considering that we prefer to throw up in private, and throwing up is always a possibility when we fly. 

Since nothing particularly interesting happened on the plane, I won't recap the entire 14 hours for you.  Here are the highlights. I got to see two Korean movies that I'd been wanting to see (more on that in another post), two American movies that I'd wanted to see, an episode of "Friends," and half an episode of "House." I still don't know what that lady was dying from since I didn't get to see the end. I guess it just will be one life's mysteries for me, at least until I find the episode on Netflix or (*cough*) (side-eye) elsewhere on the Internet.  One real-life medical mystery on the plane was what the old guy behind me was dying from. I assume he was dying, since he coughed the entire flight.  Between he and the sneezing coughers across the aisle from us, it was clear that we were in the section that would die first if our flight was the start of a movie about a killer disease spreading across the planet.  At the beginning, you have twin sisters chatting excitedly about their first international flight, on their way to their friend's wedding, and then you see the sick, coughing old man behind them, and right away, you're leaning over the popcorn to whisper to your friend, "No way they're gonna make it to that wedding."

Of course, if it was a "House" episode, we'd be the red herring, and it would be the quiet Korean student-type sitting next to us that got sick.

Anyway, back to the flight.  In a move of epic stupidity, we ate one of the meals they provided to us. We'd ordered the Jain vegetarian meal because that wouldn't have garlic in it, and we figured that was our best bet of the meal options as far as being possibly safe to eat.  But I'd turned down the lunch because I wanted to fast and sleep (because if I'm awake, I'm eating) until it was breakfast time in Korea (by the way, from my very limited experience, if you want to avoid jet lag, this does seem to work). So when they came by with dinner, I felt guity about not eating, so I did. How can you order a special meal and then reject it? It was rice with some kind of bean curry and some kind of spinach curry, and it was delicious.  And it also had something in it that I reacted to pretty much immediately.  But I ate a little bit more anyway, because I didn't want to be rude.  In retrospect, as RR pointed out, anaphylaxis while flying over the ocean is not a situation you want to volunteer for, so us taking a chance on that meal was really, really, really dumb.

And we still did it again on the flight back, by the way. We have decided that the only way to avoid doing it again is to just not order a meal and to bring our own food.  We will do a lot of very stupid things in an effort to avoid offending someone.

Poor RR actually did get sick at one point. It was right around the time when the flight attendant came by to tell us about the lunch meal options.  She asked us what we'd like (I guess before she realized we had ordered the special meal), and RR just said, "Can I get by," because the attendant was blocking the aisle with her cart.  I thought maybe RR didn't realize she was talking to us, because I knew RR wouldn't be rude enough to ignore a question, so I said, "she's trying to tell us about the meal options."  Then I looked at RR's face, which clearly said, "OH NO OH NO OH NO OH NO OH NO," and I realized that she really really needed to get to the bathroom immediately, or else there would be public vomitting. What happened then is a little vague in my mind because all I could think about was helping RR to get to the bathroom, but I think I told the flight attendant that we didn't want anything just so she'd leave.  RR was able to make to the bathroom, where she did throw up, but then she was fine after that.

All in all, we handled the cabin fever pretty well--for us.  There was one part where RR said we had two or three hours left, and I had to tell her that we actually had 8 hours left. I thought she was going to cry. I didn't blame her. I seriously hate being trapped somewhere. It's not claustrophobia, which I definitely do not have. It's just being cooped up somewhere with no option of leaving. If it were possible to safely escape a plane by tunnelling out of it Shawshank-style, I'd have done it.

But we made it. Yea! When we got off the plane on what was now Wednesday, we had no clue where to go or what to do, so we made like sheep and followed the people in front of us.  That got us to the immigration area, where signs told us that we needed our passports and an "arrival card." I had no idea what an arrival card was or where to get one.  For a scary minute, I was sure they were going to make us take the next flight back to the States. I had a real sense of panic, not even because I wouldn't get to see Korea or MJ's wedding, but because there was no way I could get back on a plane any time soon. But then I reminded myself that I'd checked and re-checked whether we need any kind of visa or other special document to travel to Korea. We finally figured out that we needed to fill out a card that was on a nearby table, and a few minutes later, I got my first ever stamp in my passport. It was clearly much more exciting for me than for the bored immigration employee who took my thumbprints and stamped my passport.

We managed to find our luggage and then MJ, who was (thankfully) meeting us at the airport. It was a happy reunion and a little surreal.  Being with her was actually part of why it took a couple of days for it to really sink in that we were in a foreign country.  We have spent so much time with her in the local K-town that it felt like that's where we were. We're out with MJ somewhere where all the people are Korean, all the people are speaking Korean, all the signs are in Korean? Oh, we must be in K-town. 

Anyway, we had to find the cell phone rental place that I'd reserved a phone with. It was, of course, at the exact opposite end of the terminal as where we'd picked up our luggage.  And then after getting the phone, we had to go back in the direction we came from to get to the train.  At MJ's suggestion, we stopped to use the bathroom by the cell phone place.  There's something sweet about the fact that our friend knows us so well that she can look at us chugging down our bottled water and say, "it's going to be at least an hour until we get to the hotel, so I think you should go to the bathroom now." And she was right, of course.

On the way to the train, we had to get out of the way of a group of girls being followed by papparazzi.  At the time, we had no idea who they were, but now we're pretty sure it was the Wonder Girls. That was our one and only celebrity sighting the whole time we were there. Very sad not to randomly run into Uhm Tae Woong. Not that I expected to, seeing as I am not a stalker and don't know where he hangs out, but it would have been nice.

Once we got into Seoul, we switched to a taxi, the driver of which had trouble finding our hotel.  We didn't mind, though, because it meant we got to see more of the city.  We finally found it and got checked in.  The hotel room was pretty nice. It was certainly roomy. And it was right across the street from a 7-11, which is always convenient. 

RR and I each took a quick shower, and then we headed out to dinner.  MJ had heard of a place nearby that had good ssambap, which she knows we like.  The restaurant was pretty close to the hotel, but we still had a hard time finding it.  I'd like to say it was because it was in this little alley that wasn't well-marked, which is true, but the truth is that none of us are good at finding places.  And the three of us all trying to figure it out together does not help.  MJ had to call the place to get directions, of course. 

But it was worth it.  The food was good, and I finally got to try that famous Korean beef that is mentioned in, no kidding, every single Korean t.v. show I have ever seen. It tasted like beef.

After dinner, we went back to the hotel and crashed.  Well, we turned on the television and watched some random show for a few minutes, but then we crashed.  And that was pretty much it for our first day in Korea.

On a side note, I'm still sick with something. Now the doctor thinks maybe the strep test was a false positive and this is something else. She sent off a regular, non-rapid throat culture to verify and in the meantime put me on prednisone. This has helped with my headache but not the sore throat. I really, really hope it's strep throat because that could be killed with another round of antibiotics, and as an alternative, the doc definitely mentioned something about "sinuses" and "yeast infection," which I don't like the sound of. So, fingers crossed for something treatable with antibiotics!