My time in Korea with Jimmy and Brent went by extremely fast, with hardly a moment to relax. In many ways the antithesis of a vacation. At the same time, however, we executed precisely what we intended. We spent all our time (and funds) eating and Starcrafting. Somehow, despite the incessant eating and travel, we only spent about $50 dollars a day. Glamorous budget traveling, as Brent explained to Jimmy.
On our first night we enjoyed a home cooked meal with our Couch-host’s Korean friends. I connected with one of them, a teacher who’d taught her way across South America, bringing Korean drumming to each country and back again to Korea. I hope to connect her with our own Jason Stahl. I showed her the video of Tsubasa! and she was quite impressed by the camerawork, though the troupe she showed me, her students, was certainly more energetic and choreographed.
It would be our only meal in, as we went hard after that. We threw Jimmy into the deep end on his first day, taking him straight to eat the still moving baby octopus and raw beef, then to the extremely spicy and massive webbed octopus dish, then Starcraft at a PC 방, then KFC (Korean Fried Chicken). Most of our days went more or less like this.
Aside from the always excellent food, I also got my root canal done. On landing, we found a medical tourism office in the airport, and I contacted the various dental clinics by email (phone didn’t seem to work as the operators always hung up on hearing English). They immediately emailed back, and one arranged an appointment for the next morning – the return email came directly from the dentist himself. What a massive difference from the United States! I arrived shortly after 10am, when they opened, and was seated in the dentist chair within fifteen minutes. I’d expressed my worry that I needed to make a wedding at 12pm across the river, and asked if it would be possible to make it. If not, I’d reschedule for another time. The receptionist said “I’ll make it possible.” And they did. My tooth was numbed, x-rays taken, root canal done and patched with multiple irrigations within the hour, and I was finished at 11:15. The dentist was extraordinarily efficient and informative, assuming competence and intelligence on my part as he explained everything he was doing as he did it. It cost 100,000 KRW, or $85.00. In the USA, the visit to the Endodontic Office to simply ask how much it would cost cost $150. A five minute appointment made weeks in advance to enquire about the price of the operation which wouldn’t be possible for another month cost nearly double the entire procedure in Korea. Absolutely fascinating. (The quoted price for the procedure in the USA was $1200.)
Unfortunately the second part of the day went much more poorly, as I unwittingly boarded an express train to the countryside. It had stopped at every metro stop prior to the stop I needed to alight at, so I’d assumed it was a standard subway. Then it didn’t stop for 45 minutes. I had to wait another fifteen minutes before taking the 45 minutes of train back. I missed the wedding that had prompted our entire trip in the first place. I hadn’t eaten all day. It felt pretty awful. I met Brent and Jimmy at the KSL (Korea Starcraft League) Finals quite irritated (they were late and didn’t have my ticket) and famished. But after dashing out to print my ticket at a PC 방, buying two onigiri, and watching Rain completely demolish Mini in the very hype finals, all was well again.
We spent our first three full days in Seoul. We hunted for 빙수, ate duck, ate at the oldest registered restaurant in Korea, visited the Kimchi Museum (replete with books on Kimchiology and amazing food porn videos with loud squelchy noises) and a twenty ish course banquet. I met and ate with my advisee/student’s extremely busy parents, and was thoroughly impressed by my student’s ability to translate back and forth. I got most of my coursework done and Brent played lots of Starcraft.
Our food tour to the South was frenetic. We alternately experienced the Korea that always works efficiently and the Korea where nothing works at all. It’s fascinating how we come to expect conveniences and amenities. We had access to lockers at every station except the last one in Cheongju, and this last threw me for a loop (we had to lug my very heavy bag full of paper around while we tried to find the Jjimjjilbang 찜찔방). We kept encountering issues with money withdrawal and payment by card, as the main bank in Korea, Nonghyup, had recently recoded all of their ATMs to not accept foreign cards. Which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Just as in Taiwan there was extra code to make online reservation systems not function at specific times, here there was extra code to reduce functionality.
We went first to Jeonju, then Yeosu in the far south, then back up to Gwangju, Cheongju, and back to Seoul. We spent a single day in each location, staying in Jjimjjilbangs in each city (and getting extremely clean!). Some of these turned out not to be 24 hours, so a lot of time was spent roaming the cities in search of the appropriate ones. We stayed at one in Gwangju that was rather seedy, and one in Yeosu that was rather posh. Some highlights from the trip:
The blood sausage 피순대 in Jeonju, or rather the server. A massive man with an extremely flat face an heavy jowls, he mimed collecting the various ingredients onto a leaf and eating them, completely deadpan, then gave an equally deadpan thumbs up. This became our trip meme.
The paper museum in Jeonju. Because I like paper (Thanks Brent!). The royal portrait museum, as well, which shed a lot of light on the importance of portraiture (I teach a Korean Portrait as part of my AP Art History curriculum).
Admiral Yi Sun Shin’s 이순신 statue and model of his turtle boat 거북선, which I was able to explain to Brent and Jimmy due to Ponz’s excellent storytelling style teaching.
The 5.18 Archives in Gwangju, a UNESCO sponsored museum about the Democracy protests in Gwangju which read very transparently like post-facto propaganda, yet included documents which shed harsh light on the more complicated facts of the events – memos to the United States Intelligence Communities and German newspapers. It was fascinating to see the blatant propaganda about democracy and its “heroes” and martyrs, as we are so often taught in the United States that propaganda is the purview of other ideologies.
The 돼지찌개 in Gwangju, as excellent as I remembered, this time with a restaurant full of young women and effeminate men crushing their food in half the time it took us, eating larger portions, and apparently unbothered by the spice.
Our successful taxi ride to the random shrine in Cheongju which housed the AP Art History curriculum portrait. Gardeners everywhere and I only got a short peek at the portrait (which looks rather different than the terrible quality photographs available to AP educators) before we were shooed away.
In Seoul again, I met up with Seung, my good friend from High School, and Kieun, a student who had graduated the previous year. So many Oak Hall connections. We watched more Starcraft, I had a followup appointment with the dentist and an inexpensive resin treatment, and we had our only barbecue of the trip. I left Korea absolutely exhausted, as we had been darting around without any stable base for most of the time, and spent our final night at a PC 방 instead of sleeping.