Republic of Korea
|I travelled to Seoul for two weeks in October 2003. I had visited Korea a year earlier, for the same reason: the World Cyber Games. The WCG is a sort of Olympics of gaming, convened in this country where the government has established a broad bureaucracy to promote electronic entertainment. Imagine that - a world government investing in video games. I have cultivated a distant affinity for Korea over some time, based mostly on this news and the stupendous foods served in Korean restaurants. So I was happy to make my second visit and expand my superficial understanding of that nation.|
|Statues||I seen some amazing and fabulous public figures in Seoul.|
|A bright bronze statue in Seoul celebrating Badminton - a racket-swinging man atop a shuttlecock.||Statues out in front of Seoul's pride: the recent World Cup Stadium. They looked psychotic; I decided to join them.|
|This "Buy The Way" convenience store in Kangnam had a fantastic statue out in front.||The statue was labelled "Mr. Ike" at the base - it was a middle aged Korean man posing as the Statue of Liberty, thrusting a portable cassette player in the air, and holding a book listing exams in his hand. I had to assume the statue was promoting a test preparation course. But he looked too enthusiastic - an eager student liberator, frozen in carbonite.|
|Seoul Tour||Visiting journalists were invited on a Seoul city tour. I signed up in advance, eager to make some time to see the official sites of the city. The woman organizing the tour found me on the first day of the World Cyber Games. She laid it down straight - there were precisely two people signed up for the tour. They were hoping for more like 80. If they (ahem, I) didn't come up with more people, they were going to cancel the tour. I took their dryly-worded tour outline and re-worded it into a blazing activity listing with "FREE LUNCH" written in all-caps. She passed that out, twenty-five more visiting journalists signed up, and we had our tour.|
|A mix of tour groups compiles beneath a broad roof at Changdeokgung Palace. You couldn't enter any of the buildings, and many of the broad plazas were completely empty. It was slightly desolate; ameliorated a bit by the bright paint. I lingered behind the groups to enjoy the feeling of standing in a broad, old palace square, completely empty - the place to myself. Like a dashing young 18th century bureaucrat on a sneaking midnight errand.||A fisherman with his five poles along the Han river.|
|The Seoul Metro Politan Govement hosted a Han River Cruise. Motoring along in a glass-walled boat, we were treated to a fine Korean buffet, followed by a show of traditional Korean drumming. Traditional is the word used to describe it - because the people were wearing old fashioned clothes. Basically, it was like a drum circle, a sort of progressive percussion improvisation. They were skilled, and exuberant; with a few bratty cybal-type things, these five folks made a tremendous racket! Obliterating conversation. I love a beat, and I couldn't help but tap my feet.
All the while I was laughing to myself - if you were having a dinner party, and five people dressed in four hundred year old clothes came in and started banging on pans and drums, it would seem to be socially awkward - odd at least. Except it's labelled traditional drumming, and it has some kind of historic connotation. What if these people were just wearing ordinary street clothes? And they were banging up a tremendous racket? Would people still sit politely and listen to it? We tolerate tradition the way we tolerate children - they can be much more noisy than modern citizens.
Shortly after they wrapped up their formal performance, members of the audience were invited up to dance around and play the drums along with the band. I was excited to join in - participation is the best kind of tradition.
Enjoy a short video clip of the band:
|During a Journalist's tour of the Samsung museum and showcase, the kind attendant demonstrates the top-of-the-line five-drawer kim chi fridge. Kim Chi is not only spicy cabbage, it refers to fermented, pickled and preserved vegetables. When you sit down for Korean foods and they bring you sixteen bowls of vegetables, fish, pastes and sauces - a lot of that is kim chi. So you need a big fridge to store it! It's helpful to have separate compartments to keep the tastes, smells and temperatures separate.|
|Mi Coatel||I was in Seoul for two weeks; I spent probably about a quarter of that time in my fine room in the Hotel Coatel Chereville. Located conveniently in Kangnam, the high tech development neighborhood, Kangnam is hopping after dark, with people wandering the streets soused after 2am. The hotel provides some quiet respite, including a basement spa and in-room kitchen and laundry machine. Two twin beds, broadband internet - $120 a night. Rock!|
It was efficient but comfortable for someone staying longer than a short trip. My chief complaint? The shower had been crafted such that it was impossible to bathe without leaving a giant puddle outside of the stall. The fault? Poor measurement or slapdash fabrication. Not fitting an otherwise thoughtfully put-together place!
|My room at the Coatel Chereville.
I moved my computer on to the small round table so I could compute facing the TV and the door, instead of the mirror and the wall. That's an error common to many hotels. I tend to spend most of my waking hours in a hotel room sitting at the desk, using the computer. Rather than looking up from my laptop at a nearby wall, or at a mirror revealing my reddened eyes and drooping cheeks, I like to face the window, for example. Or at least the TV. So I rearrange things to make it so.
|I went grocery shopping in Seoul, bought many snacks and drinks. I didn't end up drinking any of the beer or wine I brought, but I loved the barley hard tack and aloe soda!|
|DoDo Barber - I got a fine fantastic massage there. From three people!||Perhaps my greatest regret from this trip to Seoul was that I never followed up on this banner hanging in the lobby of my hotel:
"Welcome Iraqi High-Ranking Officials: IT Development Policy Program"
|After coming out of karaoke with friends, I noticed these paper flyers by the score, littered on the ground and shoved under windshields. A Korean friend said that they are advertising "drive your car, you drunk" services - people who will chauffeur you home from drinking for a small fee.|
|A prestige car called the "Chairman," by SsangYong - another fine example of import substitution and GTA3-style car naming irony.||The scene: a young witch rides a broomstick over a field of pumpkins, while her parents look on, wearing liederhosen-type tops, holding mammoth beer steins. The place: "Everland."
I didn't visit, drink or wear liederhosen in Korea, and that's another regret. Though it's a lesser regret than not meeting the "visiting Iraqi High-Ranking Officials."
|An advertisement for "Inner Hunt Wear" brand lingerie and undergarments in the Seoul Subway. Or maybe it's "Hunt" brand "Inner Wear" ? I will continue my reflection.||The Techno Mart is a ten or twelve storey shopping mall packed with tiny shops selling a wide range of hard-core geek and accessible consumer electronics. I was there on three separate occasions, hunting a laptop bag, a Korea-friendly power adapter for my GameBoy and some video games.
This advertisement for the Techno Mart, in the subway station beneath it, depicts a US-style squared-off plug as a man and a Korean-style round-peg plug as a female, in traditional Korean costume. They are working out the relationship of international electricity standards in the dance of gender and tradition. I can only assume the idea behind the characters is, we can handle all your power prongs. The poster is advertising the whole mall; regretfully I only captured this couple and not the whole poster so I can't ask Hongol-reading friends for confirmation of the electric appliance miscegenation here.
|Howard introduced me to Jean Kim, a business school graduate student in Seoul. He has a searching intellect, curious about the ways technology is shaping politics and community in his country. He sent me his research on Oh My News, the amateur net-powered Korean news powerhouse; you can find his columns online in Korean. We went out to a microbrewery, Platinum. There were three floors; Ocean, Earth and Sky. This is the Ocean floor - rich blue lights abounding, a smattering of stars on the ceiling. In the center of the large table we shared with two dozen other chairs was some confabulation of translucent plastic, light and smoke machines. Whimsical fun with electric light and interior design - inspiring.||Brian Sharp I met at the Indie Game Jam (I interviewed him for this piece in Wired). He works as a game programmer at Ion Storm in Austin. He'd just finished up programming work on DX2 and had a sort of surprise week vacation. He'd seen that I was travelling in Korea, and asked if he could come along. He found a cheap ticket on Priceline and he was landing four days later. He stayed for a week. All 6'5" of him (195cm), with red and black striped hair and a few facial piercings. He caused a bit of a stir in the men's sauna at the hotel!
Here's Brian, eating his first meal in Asia. Hot stone bi bim bap - rich and kim chi, vegetables and fixin's that cook in the hot dish. This is so good, I tell you, I think I miss it more than the incredible Korean meat. This was the first night Brian had Soju, the Korean liquor; he made sure we had it each night after.
|Like Amy, Brian grew up on the East Coast eating mostly cooked fish with cream sauces. He hadn't ever eaten raw fish, sushi; heck he'd been a vegetarian for over six years.
Perhaps to increase his sense of travel and adventure, he elected to eat his first sushi in Seoul. It was late at night by the time we finally got our plan together; friend Grace lead us to a conveyor-belt sushi place. Not super-high quality, not entirely cheap sushi. I figured it would be a decent place to start, since he could see what went by and pick sushi on the looks of things. We ended up ordering from a picture menu instead.
Here Brian restrains his enthusiasm for the experience, holding a spicy tuna hand-roll.
|Mimi and Deborah each emailed me about this woman Abbie, a literature graduate student living between Berkeley Tokyo Seoul and New York. We met up for Brian's second serious bout of Seoul seafood, at a restaurant that boasted raw fish (ie sushi) on the outside. But the menu was not maguro, tuna and salmon like what I'm familiar with. Instead the fish proffered was more like rockfish, and flounder and puffer fish (fugu).
The menu came in three languages; Abbie could read them all. She ordered us a loving boatload of food. I added simply a request for the live wriggling octopus. Abbie and Brian watched in horror as I worked to detach the fervent tentacles from my plate, into the hot sauce, into a leaf of lettuce, and into my mouth. Hard to do that with slimy shimmying worms. Slightly sad to explicitly end life with my teeth, but I believed it was just nerve-endings. I shot a short video of this eating moment; notice the green shoots placed atop the octopus, certainly for effect: as the creatures undulate, the send these pieces of green up and down like tiny flags signaling their departure from this mortal plane. Enjoy a short video clip of the tentacles:
|Last year when I travelled to Korea with Jane I met this fellow Jay Kim, a former high school teacher turned game developer, making massively multiplayer online games that teach a middle-school curriculum. He was eager to travel around town together, and generous with my friends. He took all of us to a Noribang, a singing room, what we might call karaoke. Except in Korea, as I'm told, Karaoke is what you do when there's fifty people watching one singer up at the front; noribang is when you have a private room to sing in.
We didn't have just any private room, we had a private room at a "Luxury" noribang. Tasteful, clean furnishings, multiple wireless mics, a large flat-screen TV at the front, attendant service on call.
|Youngsters in the song pit - I'm singing, maybe "Mrs. Robinson?" definitely not "La Vida Loca" - I stood up on the couch for that! Next to me is Abbie, then her friend Myeongsil a smart and flexible person, prone to smile. Finally, Brian in the right corner. Jay's taking the picture from above the sunken pit where we sat with the technology. All of our shoes were off, and the surface on which he stood turned out to be a great stage as the evening progressed and we were suffused with energy.|
|I told Jay I was getting sick. It was maybe like 1 or 2 in the morning? What was initially a dinner invitation turned into a walk on Korea's South Mountain, with Irish coffee (and green tea lattes! a taste sensation I tell you) overlooking the lights of the city.
Enjoy a short video clip of the darkness:
I was starting to remember the time and wonder if I shouldn't retreat, to forestall an eager oncoming bout of travelling wipeout and flu. Jay coached me - singing with other people gives you energy, he explained. It's good for your health to raise your voice in song. I regarded him dubiously; my entire trip to Korea I'd been told everything from "kimchi prevents SARS" to "ginseng is a cure for cancer." In between were loads of garlic-bean pastes, chicken dishes and mushrooms, all of which were reputed to have hearty body healing properties. I'm the type of person who usually claims this kind of stuff with my friends, but to have so many people claim the hidden health values of their people's cuisine, it was slightly dubious-making. I mean, if Kim Chi prevents SARS, why don't we all have a daily dose? I guess that's what many Koreans are wondering.
Either way, just as I was wondering if singing loud and hard wouldn't tear up my throat too much, I did feel an growing pleasant sensation. Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" came on the machine, and Jay and I sang it together.
|Brian Sharp croons hard on a Billy Joel song? It might have been - he searched Joel and Radiohead and Bill Withers for his perfect Karaoke oeuvre. He was an absolute natural singer on some songs, in the way that heart can make for good singing. And a fun accent. He said it was his first time! Shocking.|
South Korea was devastated by the Korean War. Millions died, families torn asunder, much of everything was flattened.
So it's astonishing to see how they rebuilt - intensely rapidly, in a somewhat coordinated fashion. Seoul and its outskirts are blanketed by row after row of apartment complexes. It seems nearly Soviet, in that public-works meets utilitarian needs-addressing fashion that dictates collective block housing over homes with yards, even cookie-cutter. Personally I think I might prefer low-rise housing; more possibility for exterior individuation. But granted limited space, time and resources, these folks have housed a ton of folks in some modern convenience.
Above is a timeline on the side of a new construction project in Kangnam; it shows that the area was rice paddies in 1970, low-rise housing in 1976, slightly taller buildings buy 1982, and by 1988, it was a street with high-rises, resembling Manhattan. Can you imagine watching that happen in your home town? I'm told there's been some massive property value increases. I believe the same sort of thing is happening in big cities in China now too, particularly Shanghai.
Construction continues on a series of buildings, the "Parkview," about forty minutes South of Seoul by bus.
Three digit numbers painted large on the side of buildings help you figure out where your friends live. This complex sits near the Seoul Olympic Park.
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