A Canadian writer teaches English and finds out what it's like to be a foreigner.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Out and About

Shane and I wandered around in Seoul on Sunday, and took in a few sights:

First we walked through Namdaemun, which is a tight-squeeze street market affair with a vast array of goods both cheap and bizarre. Bottles of whole ginseng roots, pickled in strange golden liquid, are lined up like tuber-men in Sci-fi style suspended animation. Pig trotters and octopus arms share stall space with ceramic banks and chintzy souvenirs. It's an interesting stretch of compact commerce.

The recent snowfall begat this pimped out snowman on a manhole in front of a gross table of stank fish. As such, it leads into a nice anecdote about a vendor Shane saw in the subway. He was selling a vast array of gold chains, and setting out his wares for the day. He had a blanket in front of him and was scooping the chains out of a sack, and— in Shane's words— "sprinkling them out like cheese on a pizza."

This is Sungnyemun, Korea's #1 National Treasure, and one of the two remaining gates from Seoul's 14th century city walls. After I snap the picture and Shane and I are trying to plan our next move, a 68-year-old man with translucent bottom teeth and a fake Burberry scarf approaches us. He introduces himself as a volunteer heritage guide and we reply that we are teachers. After asking us many questions about our origins and impressions of Korea— as well as announcing that we must be "very affluent" because of our teacher's salaries— he proceeds to inform us about the cultural significance of the gate, and the evils of the Japanese in equal measure.

He explains how the additional gates were torn down during the Japanese occupation, and how Koreans suffered greatly under colonial rule.

"The Japanese are very vicious people, and very cruel," he said "I hate them all. You should cut off all ties with any Japanese friends. Do you have any Japanese friends?"

I had to truthfully reply "no" but I wanted to tell him I was married to a Japanese woman just to see how he'd react. Shane said he only had Korean friends and the old man gave him an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

After the racial screed, he proceeded to lecture us on the importance of compass direction in Confucian philosophy. North, south, east and west all correspond with a virtue, a colour, an element, a season, and a spirit animal god. After explaining each in detail, he quizzed us on the information and when we successfully recited how North was wisdom, black, water, winter and turtle; South was courtesy, red, fire, summer and phoenix; East was benevolence, blue, wood, spring and dragon; West was righteousness, white, metal, autumn and tiger; and Center was but trust, yellow and earth, he told us we were now "allowed" by him to be teachers in Korea— which later prompted the question from Shane: "Were we teaching in sin?"

He showed us the gate's wall close up, and the pock-marked stone from gunfire during the Korean War. He talked about the hard history of Korea spending most of the early 20th century under one boot or another. He talked for about half an hour, and finally let us on our way with a polite handshake and a business card. It was certainly informative. One might easily dismiss the guy as having an ax to grind, but seeing as how he was a teenager during the war, I can only imagine the perspective from coming-of-age in a time of starvation and violence to a modern era of prosperity, disconnect, and yes, "affluence." A high-school English teacher for 40 years, he had something to say about how Korean youth don't understand the significance of the war and the meaning of freedom. It seems like a generation gap that is nearly impossible to broach. That said, he gave us directions to the nearby shopping district which he promised had many beautiful girls and affluent restaurants.

At said affluent plaza we saw this interesting combination of mixed messages. The "Nutrition Center" luring the attention of passers-by with dozens of dripping rotisserie chickens.

After omurice omelets and coffee, we headed to Itaewon which is the sketchy "American ghetto" of Seoul. It was a very different, very uncomfortable vibe. I had no urge to take any pictures and we stopped quickly for a few needed items, before fleeing back to the subway station, away from the propositions from heads peeking out of "hostess bars" and creepy dudes in dirty fatigues hawking Rolexes.

Afterwards we shuffled around Lotte Plaza in Jamsil and watched people wipe out on the ice-rink. I think Lotte World is the plan for Christmas. If one can't be with family on Christmas you might as well take in the showy lights, fireworks and bells and whistles of a Korean-style theme park named after the heroine of Goethe's seminal sob story.

To end, here a shot of a kid trudging to school this afternoon through the heaviest snow my boss has seen in his 12 years living in Siheung.

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