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Diary of a Scared North American in Seoul









The first time I was in Seoul, in the summer of 2000, I was scared. I walked two blocks from my hotel and quickly retreated to the solitude of my hotel room.

"My god," I thought. "Everyone on the street is Korean except for me."

As a middle-classed, Caucasian, Canadian-born male, I'm used to blending in. Even in my current place of residence, Seattle, no one would guess I'm not American unless I showed them my H-1B work visa.

As Canadians we're comfy with the idea that our country is made up of different people, all free to maintain and celebrate their culture. Your comfort level radically changes, however, when you're no longer the Tim-Hortons eating, Chevy-Cavalier driving, vastly boring norm.

Being so radically different in Seoul was scary, disorienting, but ultimately exhilarating. I wanted to go right back. I booked another trip to Seoul for the fall of 2001.

A couple months before my trip, I entered and won a photography contest sponsored by the Seoul municipal tourism web site. I won a weekend stay at a luxurious hotel called the Sheraton Walker Hill. When I won the contest, I did a typically Canadian thing. I felt guilty. I couldn't believe my photos won over the better works of the Japanese and Chinese runner ups.

To assuage my guilt, I offered the Seoul tourism people my services as a professional writer. Min Sook, the site web master, offered me a regular column. I felt guilty about that. We settled on a travelogue piece. I would write a feature for their site called "A Scared North American's Guide to Seoul".

In pursuit of that, I kept a diary…


October 22, 2001

I'm alive


I made it to Seoul alive. I went to bed last night at 8 pm, woke up at 1 am, watched The X-Files and Star Trek reruns until 3 am. I put it on BBC world service and managed to fall asleep.

Okay, so I found my Starbucks in Myong Dong. 3,000 won for a grande light note drip with room (for you non-Seattle people that means "a regular coffee"). For you non-followers of international exchange rates 3,000 won is about CAN$3 or US$2.50.

I found a Seattle's Best Coffee too. I will investigate that tomorrow.

My hotel, The Shilla, is great. You get four bathrobes and a tub you can easily drown three people in. Alas, I'm only in there for three nights (at 240,000 won a night... you do the math). I then check into a place called Hotel Mirabeau. That's 90,000 won a night (math again). The hotel was named after an ancient Korean kingdom called "Shilla". Basically everything in Korea is either named "Shilla", "Sejong" (after King Sejong who invented their devilishly simple writing system called hangul), or "Olympic" (after the '88 Olympics).

Okay, that's all.


October 23, 2001

Still alive


I checked out the Seattle's Best Coffee in Myong Dong. The coffee there is 3,300 won for a grande. 300 won more than Starbucks. Now that might seem like larceny or a crime against humanity but the bathrooms at Seattle's Best Coffee are much nicer. Sometimes you have to pay more to get more. On the downside the music they play is not nearly as nice as the music they play in the Starbucks (SBC = Abba, Starbucks = Aimee Mann).

At neither Starbucks nor SBC when I say "grande house blend joo seh yo" (which means "please give me a grande house blend coffee") do they understand the "house blend" part. I have to point to the international sign for house blend (which is a blackboard with "house blend" written on it).

I went to Building 63 which is the tallest building in Seoul. It's on an island referred to as the Manhattan of Seoul. Building 63 is so named because it has 63 floors. Sort of. In a Donald Trump-ish move, they count 3 basement floors as floors. So really, the top floor is 60. In any regards, like most tall buildings around the world these post-September 11th days, this one is now guarded by two soldiers with machine guns. Korean soldiers with machine guns are scary.

The American embassy is likewise guarded by soldiers with machine guns. Last year the American embassy was guarded by men with large bamboo whacking sticks. I try to avoid walking past the American embassy as I know I look suspicious in the best of light and any man concerned with protecting the lives of Americans can only conclude I'm there for no good. Although when I think of it, I was more afraid of walking past the American embassy when it was protected by two guys with sticks. Surely people are above shooting me for merely walking in a manner dangerous to the public good. But people might not be above just clobbering me from behind with a stick. It's happened before.

After Building 63 I walked along the Han River. There were some girls in school uniforms practicing Korean drumming. Korean drumming is something to see. The school girls were quite good but I'm sure that court order is in effect on this side of the world so I kept my distance. I did want to shout "play Cinnamon Girl!" but I resisted.

I got back on the subway to head back to my hotel to dry off. Last time I was in Seoul in the summer I just sweated and sweated and sweated. It's nearly the end of October and it's still hot here. Or maybe it's the humidity. I can only imagine that winter is the same. There might be 6 feet of snow on the ground but I'd still sweat.

I decided to take a new line home. The wonderful thing about Seoul is they don't stop building subways. In Toronto they dig three holes every decade. In one they put a subway station. The other two they fill with a more expensive brand of dirt than the dirt they extracted. Here in Seoul they seem to build an entire new line ever few years.

I'm convinced if you ever need help in Seoul pull out your Lonely Planet travel book and look at it. Then look at a subway sign. Then look at your guide again. Keep doing this until someone comes along and asks you if you need help finding some place. I was not fully lost in this new subway line but this man, who later identified himself as the Reverend Oh, helped me find which train I was looking for. I had to get to a transfer station called Yaksu. That happened to be his stop so we talked along the way. He praised Canada for the first half of the trip. I praised Seoul for the second half of the trip and then launched into my elaborate theory about Koreans being the Canadians of Asia. For his help I gave him one of the packets of Pacific North West salmon I brought.

On the way back to my hotel I picked up some Coke and milk. Seoul has the best milk in the world. It's really sweet. Koreans have perfected at least 3 things: pottery, making 4 lanes of traffic where only 3 should legally exist, and getting cows to produce really good milk.

Right. So I dried off and about 6 pm went back downtown to meet the Seoul tourism people at city hall. Min Sook (the web master) and her Chinese translator (I forget her name but I'm sure it had a "y" in it) took me to this Korean restaurant in an area called Hye Hwa. Hye Hwa used to be the location of the Korean national university and it was the locus of the student democracy movements back in the '80s. Anyway, it used to be this real tear gas alley but now it's sort of the art, theatre, and funky restaurant part of town. No matter how much I try I can never pronounce the "Hwa" in Hye Hwa properly. When Min Sook says it, it sounds like butterflies are moving her tongue. When I say it, I sound like a donkey.

Today I think I'm going to the Seoul Modern Art museum. That seems to be the whole of my plan.


October 24, 2001

When 8-year olds attack


Yesterday I went to a place called Seoul Grand Park to check out the Modern Art Museum. I didn't get there until about 2:30 pm as I spent most of the day looking for a new bathrobe at the Lotte department store.

As I was walking from the subway to the park, there were all these school kids heading back to the subway. Like school kids everywhere on a field trip, they were all forced to walk chain-gang style. As I passed cohorts of children they would wave to me and say "hello" and then I would say "an nyong ha se yo" (which for you non-Koreans and those not used to my endless prattle about Korea and all things Korean that means "hello").

Anyway that was pretty cute. So when I got up to the park's main entrance and looked at the map, I realized this whole park was huge. I didn't realize it was an amusement park, zoo, and modern art museum (everyone sing "one of these things does not belong with the other"). I had to meet Min Sook the web master at 6:30 and as always I was a sweaty filthy wreck and needed some time to shower and change anything I was wearing that was sweat absorbing.

I turned around and went back to the subway. I was standing along the wall, reading my Mordecai Richler book (Son of a Smaller Hero) when another chain gang of children lined up in front of me for the subway. A couple turned around and said "hello". Still pretty cute. Then about 3 came up and asked me where I was from. Probably not aware Richler was a Canadian author I showed them the Canadian flag on my backpack and told them I was from Canada. Undeterred by this, they asked me my name and such. I opened my backpack and pulled out my clutch of Canadian flag pins. I had about 20. I gave the three kids each a pin. That was my big mistake. Their unexpected cries of joy attracted 3 more kids. I gave them pins. That attracted 6. Then 12. Soon I was mobbed by a gang of kids and handed out all my pins save for about three. Luckily the subway came.

We all got on the subway. Again they crowded around me asking my name, why I was in Korea, how long I was staying, and why my hair was that color. Their English was very good, perfect pronunciation. They quickly determined that the extent of my Korean, besides "oo yoo joo seh yo" ("please give me some milk") was being able to say "yes" or "no" ("neh" and "an ni o", respectively). I think they then got great amusement asking me questions in Korean like "are you stupid?" "tell me your nose isn't bigger than Mount Namsan?" to which I'd respond, randomly, "neh" and "an ni o".

(On a side note, Koreans are such polite people that they have to say three words just to say "no".)

The gang of boys rushed away and then rushed back, wanting my opinion on events in Afghanistan. Between the rushing three little girls tugged on my backpack and asked me my name and where I was from. They were much quieter and very shy. I told them I was from Canada, I liked Korea very much, and my named was "Karl". After mentioning my name, one of the little girls started making a violent stabbing motion with her hand. Now this is typically a common physical reaction ex girlfriends have when you mention my name to them... mock acts of violence they'd like to enact on me... but in Korean my name "Karl" (actually "kal" ... as ending a word with an R and L right after each other in Korean makes as much sense as having two Ch's right after each other in English) means "knife". I've long suffered with this name "Karl", possibly one of the worst first names after Melvin, but in Korea it seems pretty darn cool. Knife. Knife Mamer. Yet another reason why I think me and Korea get along just fine.

I got back to my hotel, changed, and then met Min Sook and we went to Seoul's south side for dinner. I took her to this Swiss restaurant called Movenpick. Toronto people will recognize Movenpick as one of my favorite restaurants but Seattle totally lacks this Swiss chain. It's weird that when I come to Seoul, I end up dragging people to all the restaurants and stores (Club Monaco, Roots) I miss in Toronto. Dinner for two at the Seoul Movenpick was like $30. In Toronto, you'd pay double. Min Sook had some Thai food. I couldn't convince her to have the rosti, which is like Swiss french fries covered in sour cream. Who wouldn't want that?

I've been having an easier time at Starbucks. They've changed the coffee from "house blend" to "Guatemalan". Now when I say "grande Guatemalan joo se yo" they know exactly what I want. I've really wrestled this whole Korean thing right to the ground.

One thing I've noticed about Seoul is lots of the stairways lack handrails. Korea is about 70% mountains and the rest is underground in the form of malls, subways stations, and little tunnels that let you pass safely under 14 lane intersections. What's left of above ground is, as best I can tell, reserved for farming, cars, and Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets. So anyway, you do a lot of stair climbing and more handrails would be grand.

Yesterday I was in Myong Dong watching a string quartet do Mozart's Eine Kleine Natch Musik (I don't know if I spelt that right). Some slightly drunk guy was standing behind the musicians trying to conduct. (In North America, he'd be out on the street directing traffic.) After they were done, he walked over to me, pounded me in the shoulder and said "Hey guy how you doing!" and then walked away.

Today I change hotels, meet my Korean-American friend Rucia. She's in Seoul for a few months working on her thesis. It's about the status of women in the Korean music industry. She sent me an impassioned email begging me for English fiction books. She was unaware of Kyobo books

"Rucia, you are aware of Kyobo books right?"

"Where is that?"

"Right in downtown Seoul. Next to the HUGE statue of that admiral guy with the sword. Near the American embassy."

"I've never seen that."

"Rucia, how long have you been in Seoul?"

I packed a couple books for her She's Come Undone and The Santaland Diaries.

Later today I meet my Korean friend Sunny's friend Ha Rim. I'm not meeting Sunny as she now lives in Singapore. I refer to her as "the Merciful Sunny" because last time I was in Seoul and hung around Sunny, Sunny's English was perfect and I felt at ease talking with her. Sunny has this knack for predicting my jokes. Last time I was in Seoul I took her to Apkujong for pizza, to Pizza Uno. I was looking out the window and I noticed that on each corner of the street was a pizza parlor. I directed Sunny to look out the window.

"We're here in a pizza place. On the other three corners are a Pizza Hut, Pizza Palace, and Kimchi Pizza."

Before I could say it, Sunny burst out "we must be in the pizza district!"

Anyway, Sunny's friend Ha Rim is coming into town about 8 pm from some placed called Chunan, I think. It was her birthday on Monday so I think today I have to find her a birthday present. A Canadian flag pin might not be appropriate.


October 25, 2001

Counting on me


The nice thing about being a honkey traveling in an Asian city is you can be a tourist without shame. If I was to visit Chicago or Billings, Montana, I'd try to blend in... only pulling out my tourist subway map under cover of darkness. I can stand like a total idiot with my camera taking photos of Starbucks and Seattle's Best Coffees. There's this general need to blend in. In Seattle, no one knows I'm not American until I open my mouth and say things like "oot" "aboot" "in hospital" "grade 4" "zed". Here I can pretty much only be a tourist. So let it all hang out, eh.

Today as I was going to Starbucks to get my morning coffee a man on a motor scooter buzzed by me, stopped, and buzzed back up to me. He had a stack of newspapers on the floor of his scooter. In English, he asked what is the counting unit for newspapers. It took me a second to realize what he was asking about. Koreans have two number systems. A Chinese system for theoretical numbers or big numbers (like hotel bills) and then a pure Korean system for small numbers of real things... cups of coffee or cartons of milk. For whatever reason, the Chinese system is much easier to remember and the Korean system is hard to remember. To add another level of complexity, you just can't say "give me two coffees". You have to follow the number with a counting unit. "give me two {insert counting unit here} coffees". There are a range of counting units for different things. You use one word for pencils and another word for cartons of milk and another word for glasses of water. Something like that. It's the equivalent of the french gender for nouns. La Maison. Le Big Mac. You dig? Anyway, like french gender rules, I assumed Koreans used these counting words to complicate what is generally a straightforward language with few irregular verbs. I had assumed English was free of these types of thing. How wrong I was. As the man on the scooter revealed...

"What's the counting unit for newspapers?"

"Oh umm... I think you just say one newspaper, two newspapers..."

He looked a bit frustrated. He tried to ask the question another way. He tried a third way... he got a bit more frustrated (not in an alarming way... just one could see through all the face twitching he was having a hard time making himself understood). I took control of the situation. I pointed to one of his newspapers. "Shin moon" I said. That's Korean for newspaper. Although I was not answering his question, he understood I was one of him. He took another breath and managed to make clear what he was asking.

"Oh... I get it... right you have one copy of a newspaper, two copies, three copies."


So there you go. I never realized it, but English has its own confusing forms of counting words. "I'll take one copy of the Saturday paper." "There's a bigger school of fish over there." "Give me two damn coffees." See?

I was humbled.

I met Rucia yesterday. Unfortunately one of the English books I brought for her she had read already. Rucia's been here a few months and the people she hangs around with are locals. Which is great but sometimes you need to talk to people and make cultural references. Min Sook's English is great but I can't just sit there across from her and say "whazzzzup!" and expect her to know how to respond with anything but quiet disgust. With Rucia, we can say "whazzzzzzup!" "I'm a wild n crazy guy!" or "Enduring Freedom is in da house!" until they become clichés. We didn't do any of that of course. This is just an example.

Rucia's thesis, as best I can figure it, is to spend a whole week with a female Korean classical music student, interview her, video tape her, and then repeat the process.

"You know, Rucia, that sounds neat and the video taping part is mildly erotic in some indefinable way but what's the point of all this?"

"I'm not sure."

"What do you mean? I thought you had to have a point when doing a thesis?"

"Well I had one, but now I'm not sure what my point was."

"You got a grant from Dartmouth to do this didn't you? I suppose you could take all the interviews home, sift through them, and try and find some common element, and then figure out why they all have that in common."

"I could. Hey have you tried these?"

She pulled out a paper bag filled with some yummy pastries filled with a nearly tasteless yellow goop. We agreed the yellow goop, while adding little, was a nice break from the Korean habit of filling pastry with a red bean goop.

Rucia wanted to visit Insa Dong. Insa Dong is a couple streets of arts 'n' crafts shops, like little boutiques where you can buy traditional Korean things. If you want to meet fellow honkey tourists, this is the place. Well, if you want to meet fellow honkey tourists and catch a disease, you go to Itaewon.

Last time I was in Seoul, major renovations were going on and Insa Dong was really just a couple streets of mud. Based on memory alone, I knew how to walk from Myong Dong to Insa Dong. Rucia was skeptical at first that I knew the way but I got us there. It's pretty easy, actually. From Myong Dong you walk to City Hall, hang a right, walk to Kyobo books (pause to use the washroom and refill your water bottle), hang another right, and then hang a left at the Burger King on the corner (the Burger King is kitty corner to this park with a statue of some historically important dude).

In Insa Dong we watched them make this neat treat at a food stand. It's like hand-made candy floss. We didn't buy any but we bought some other treat Rucia was sure was particular to Korea: fried dough powdered with cinnamon and sugar. I'm like "oh in Canada we call this a Beaver Tail." Next she tried to introduce me to another Korean delicacy called "kettle corn". I said thank you to the woman selling the fried dough. I said "kam sa ham ni da" but I guess I slurred my vowels a bit and she made a point of sounding out the a's properly for me. "kAm sA hAm ni dA". I'm sorry I was tired.

After that we went to the photo sticker machine district. That's near a collection of private English schools. Again I remembered how to get there from memory (the street right behind the McDonald's at the corner).

Rucia helped me buy some stamps ("oo pyo") for all the postcards I've been writing but haven't been sending for lack of stamps.

After our adventure I went home and again changed out of my sweaty clothes. Ha Rim was going to meet me at my hotel at 8 pm. She stays with her aunt in the Shincon district, which is where my hotel is. Since she knew the area, I let her pick the restaurant. She picked Bennigans. I had fish 'n' chips. I just finished a book called "The Van" about two Irish guys who buy a fish 'n' chips van and I've been craving fish 'n' chips for weeks now. After we went for a walk around the district. We found a place called "Seattle Coffee" and they did the honor of actually having a picture of the Indian Chief Seattle in the logo. It was closed but I made Ha Rim take a photo of me pointing at the sign. Those who truly know me, know I enjoy nothing more than photos of myself pointing at signs.

Tonight Min Sook the web master is taking me to some Korean drumming thing. Natas? Namda? Nimda? Something like that. Anyway, like I say, these Korean drummers rock. I should buy a lighter so I can hold it up in honor after their second encore.


October 26, 2001

Made it


Well I finally made it to the Seoul modern art museum. It's quite a hike from the subway. I found a subway entrance/exit that was free of small children. When I finally made it to the modern art museum there were about 50 kids all lined up to get in. They looked about five or six years old. They all wore matching yellow uniforms and had these multicolor backpacks that reminded me of the Partridge Family bus. The backpacks seemed huge for such small children. They were about 70% of their size, although I'm sure the heaviest object it contained was a stuffed animal.

I walked past and more rounds of hellos. These kids are so fricken cute, there's no doubt about that. If you think your own children are cute, you're wrong. Damn it, I want my own Korean toddler. If anyone can help me in that regard, you have my email address.

On my next trip here I should forget the salmon, maple syrup, Sarah McLachlan CDs, and little packets of Seattle's Best Coffee and bring toys or something. More flag pins though.

Walking past the kids, it struck me as a little odd taking a class of grade ones or kindergarten kids to a modern art museum. Upon exploring the building, I found it had a children's art museum attached to it. So, my gallery viewing was uninterrupted.

I went home, showered, changed, and met Min Sook.

Min Sook took me to see what I thought was traditional Korean drumming. Turned out it was a group called "Nanta" (which apparently is Korean for "all night housin' party"). I saw these guys last year when I was in Seoul. I was up at HyeHwa one weekend. As you will recall, gentle reader, that's the arts 'n' theatre part of town. Nanta combines Korean drumming with Korean cooking, music, comedy, and dancing. It's sort of "River Dance meets Stomp meets Tampopo".

They were back from a tour of North America. I saw them on CNN as well.

Before the show we went for dinner. This time to a Japanese restaurant (il shin jeep) called "Just Tempura" or something like that. I had fish 'n' chips again. Well, fish and noodles but you get the picture.

For days now I've been trying to explain this song I sort of learned in Korean class. My teacher assured me that every Korean knows it. I completely forgot the song and could only describe it. Something about the moon setting below Mount Namsan. Anyway, I remembered part of it yesterday and sang what I remembered. Min Sook recognized it and agreed all children knew this song. I made her sing it about 9 or 10 times so I'd remember it in future. I've forgotten it now.

Min Sook asked me if North Americans had such children's songs. "indeed! like Mary Had A Little Lamb". I launched into it

"Mary had a little lamb / it's fleece was white as snow --"

Then I realized I had forgotten the rest of the words to the song. I tried to cover up claiming it was a Canadian song and my memories of Canada were growing increasingly hazy. I changed over to "Row Row Row Your Boat". I remembered that one. I then launched into "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" and got down to "97" when Min Sook realized where this song was heading and changed the topic to tongue twisters.

When I was at Seoul Grand Park (not a misnomer as this park is grand and a park), there were a number of couples having their wedding pictures taken. There are a lot of high hills, rivers, bridges, and trees turning fall colors so it's certainly a good place to have your wedding photos taken. Better than the Starbucks in Myong Dong, which would be my first impulse. Anyway, it seemed odd people were getting married on a Thursday. The wedding industry is big here (there's a wedding service called "Kranki Wedding Services" ... cranky... the truth in advertising laws must run deep here) so I thought maybe people just got married whenever they could as halls and photographers and prime picture taking spots are booked years in advance. I asked Min Sook if people really got married on a Thursday.

"No, they get photos taken before their wedding."

"Oh, in North America they take photos on the day of the wedding."

"Yes they do that too but they also take photos some time before the wedding and then after the wedding."

I had to think this one through a moment. Three wedding photo sessions. It seemed excessive but then I've attended my fair share of Italian weddings so I know a little something about excess. This made me venture a guess as to why three photo sessions.

"Errr, these wedding photo events, do they have a party after each and the bride gets wedding gifts?"

"No. They just take the photos."

I'm checking out of my hotel in Shinchon and we're going to some placed called Mount Seorak. I hope it's cooler there. There will unlikely be a Starbucks or email. So like, y'all get a break.

Sunday night I check into a new hotel. I've reserved a Korean style room ("ondol bang"). You sleep on the floor. Bang means "room" and "ondol" means "since heat rises and you walk around without shoes and you sleep on the floor, it makes far more sense to heat the floor instead of putting radiators waist high along the walls".

Neat eh?

One of the things about ondol rooms in hotels is they're more expensive than standard double rooms. I find this odd because ondol rooms have less furniture. Since they don't have a bed or carpeted floors, one can imagine housekeeping has to spend less time vacuuming and making up the bed.


October 29, 2001

I'm back suckers!


Those who have been reading my emails know Min Sook took me to Seorak Mountains. This is on the east coast of Seoul... nearly directly east of Seoul. As best I can figure Korea is no wider than a drive from Toronto to London (that's London, Ontario for you non Canadians... say like Seattle to Vancouver, BC). But as I've noted, Korea has a lot of mountains so highways can't be the most direct. Anyway, it's about 4 hour bus ride out there, in good traffic. Traffic was good. About half way the bus stops at a road side rest area. There are washrooms and food stands and stands that sell nearly any imaginable accessory for your cell phone. Min Sook wanted to know if I wanted anything to drink. "Sure!" "What do you want?" "Oh, surprise me... get me one of those weird Korean beverages." Now, as my friend Susan will testify, I love those exotic Asian drinks in little cans... they do things like mix red bean, coffee, and 7UP and put it in a can so small it's impossible to quench your thirst. Susan's fridge is usually loaded with them and whenever I go to her place, I'm always like "oh take your time getting ready Susan I'm just going to go thru your fridge".

Min Sook brought me back a strange green can called Aloe. It had a cactus on the label. Cactus in a can, I guess.

"Is this good?"

"I hate this drink."

"So you bought it for me?"

"You said you wanted something weird."

I did say that. But it turned out to be pretty good. It really tasted like 7UP mixed with apple juice with some chunky bits in it that were, I hope, the aloe cactus.

At some point, the highway just sort of hits an unbroken mountain range and there's no tunneling thru or going thru a nearby pass. The bus climbs up the mountain on a winding road for about 15 minutes and then works it way down for another 15 minutes. The bus, at no point, went over the edge so we made it alive in the Seorak district by 8 pm. There's a theory that you can measure a nation's progress from Third World Status to First World Status by the number of fully loaded busses that go over cliff each week. I'm happy to report Koreans lose a rare commuter.

We checked into a hotel owned by the Seoul government. It's a retreat reserved for city employees. It's pretty nice. There's a hot spring, tennis, and free bikes. There's a library with numerous titles I couldn't recognize save for Joseph Heller's Catch 22 in hangul. The library also has free videos you can borrow. Each room is equipped with a VCR. Our room was an ondol room, which as I've noted means you sleep on the floor. I've been looking forward to one of these rooms so that was cool. Since it was late and we were tired we signed out a copy of The Sixth Sense and loaded up on snacks from the convenience store. Well I loaded up on snacks and Min Sook got some dried squid. Korean snacks are the best. I got Coke, chips, chocolate chip cookies, the Korean version of Twinkies, and the Korean version of chocolate King Dongs. Koreans have a thing for over packaging. For example, each and every cookie in a box of cookies is individually wrapped. The odd thing is, despite all this wrapping, all the junk food has a certain not-quite-fresh taste.

I've been wanting to see this Sixth Sense movie for a while, despite knowing the surprise ending (the woman is really a man). So yet again, here was another thing I've been keen to do in Seattle that I have to come to Korea to do.

The next day we caught the shuttle bus to the mountains. I didn't really understand what was the point of mountains and hiking until I got there. My friend Susan is always trying to convince me to go hiking with her but I feel in Seattle there's too much coffee to drink that I can't possibly find the time to hike.

Let me tell you, this Mount Seorak place is great. I didn't think anything could quite beat sitting in a Starbucks in Myong Dong reading and drinking coffee. Oh how wrong I was.

If you've never hiked before, basically want you do is walk up the side of a mountain. It's pretty easy at first but then the path gets steeper and you get more tired. Hiking is not a sport for cranky people. There's this wonderful custard-colored shear face huge rock spire thingy at the top and that is the goal: get to it, take a picture, and turn around. Hundreds of years ago there was some crack down on Buddhism and all the monks retreated to these mountains, so the place is loaded with temples and the like. We nearly made it to the top but the climb nearly killed Min Sook so we headed back down. Getting down a mountain presents its own challenges. Everyone makes movies about people who climb UP a mountain but no one makes a movie about climbing DOWN a mountain. It's all about motivation and heroics n stuff. "Why did you make the ascent?" *puff out chest* *look philosophical* "Because it's there!" "Why did you come down?" "Cause there's a McDonald's at the bottom."

Well in this case there was a bibimbap restaurant.

We headed back changed and then caught the shuttle bus to the beach. Not only do Koreans head here for this mountain for hiking but they also head here for the beach. Now Seoul is on the west coast and it seems like it wouldn't be so hard to just go a few kilometers south and west and hit the beach. I asked Min Sook why people don't do that. She said the west coast doesn't have nice beaches. Just a lot of rocks.

We walked through an open air fish market. Min Sook bought me a tempura shrimp. She claimed this was a real treat. Any meat covered in batter and on a stick is a treat. The corn dog, in my opinion, is nature's most perfect food. When I bit into the shrimp, I realized some meat-on-stick foods in Korea still have their heads, claws, noses, tails, and legs. I will eat anything except clams/oysters and chicken's feet. Clams freak me out because basically all they are is a living digestive system. Eat. Poop. Eat. Poop. I can't eat anything that might have been in mid-poop. You know?

The last time I ate a shrimp with its shell and legs intact was by accident at my friend Pat's post-prom party. My date had spent the entire night ignoring me and chasing after my best friend. Being in an emotional state, I failed to notice Pat's shrimp were unshelled until I put it in my mouth and bit down. Since my date was in the room (trying to climb on top of my best friend) I swallowed the crunchy thing as it was likely the only time she'd turn to notice me was when I was spitting it out onto Pat's carpet.

Anyway, the prom shrimp experience was another indignity to a night of indignities. This painful memory all came flooding back to me in the fish market and I looked around for a place to dispose of the shrimp. Finding none, I confessed to Min Sook that while this was certainly the best shrimp head and shrimp eyeballs I had ever eaten, this wasn't my cup of tea. Waste not want not, she finished the rest of my shrimp. I turned away until she was done.

Although the east coast is famous for its seafood, we decided to find a bulgogi restaurant. Bulgogi is like barbequed beef that you wrap around lettuce. It's Korean fajitas. A cab driver took us to a place a bit further inland. There was a table of cops in the restaurant. Maybe this was a good sign. We sat and ate. Of course you don't really sit in the western sense. Table. Chair. The tables are all on the ground and you take your shoes off and sit cross legged at the table. I think the thing is males sit cross legged and females sit with their legs wrapped around their back mermaid style. The latter is far more comfortable. I tried cross legged for a bit but then apologized to Min Sook that I had to sit like her. My back was killing me. I blamed it on an Extreme Yoga injury.

Eventually one of the cops asked me where I was from. He was very nice. You don't get many honkeys out in this part of Korea and he wanted to know what I was doing in Korea. He asked Min Sook if she was my wife. She turned red and said no I was her "chingoo" (friend). I wished I had some salmon to give the cop but I left my various gifts in my other bags which I left in storage at my new hotel.

I could only offer him a Canadian flag pin from my dwindling supply. When we left I gave him a deep bow to show my respect and said "an nyong he kay say yo" which means literally "stay in peace" but figuratively "good bye". When you leave, you say "stay in peace" and when someone is leaving you you say "go in peace". Since I'm a tourist and almost always fleeing the scene, I only ever bothered to learn how to say "stay in peace" in Korean.

Now when I bowed to the cop, I realized totally blew the bow. When you bow to someone to show respect you're supposed to keep your hands at your side. I think I was picking my teeth. But you know, Koreans will cut you a lot of slack because you're stupid.

After dinner we got more snacks and took out My Best Friend's Wedding. By this time Min Sook had learned the ancient art of movie snacking and eschewed the dried squid for vanilla wafer cookies, coconut crisps, and a bottle of Coke. It gave me great satisfaction. If I can change the snacking habits of just one person in this world, I've really done something with my life.

We spread our yows out on the floor and watched the movie. A "yow" is the cushion you sleep on in an ondol room. It's like a Japanese futon but less full of the ton stuff.

I think I was asleep after the first 45 minutes. Anyone know if she managed to break up that wedding?

Sunday we went down to the beach again. You know, this is the first time I've actually been to the Pacific ocean. I've only lived in Seattle for 2 years and I've never been to mountains or the ocean. I collected shells. Min Sook raised the tongue twister issue again.

"There's some English tongue twister about sea shells?"

"Yes, she sells sea shells by the sea shore."

"You have a lot of these in English."

"Oh yes."

I went on to explain other word games like palindromes and anagrams.

About half of the beach was turned into the Korean version of Rommel's Atlantic Wall. There was barbed wire, gun emplacements, and camouflaged machine nests. It seems most beaches along the north east coast are protected in this manner. It's a reminder that Korea is still technically at war with the north. If you wanted to invade by sea and make a drive for Seoul, this is the place to do it I guess.

Sunday 1 pm we caught our bus back to Seoul. What was a 4-hour bus ride going out of Seoul, turned into 7-hour bus ride coming home. The traffic was horrible. Next time we take the train.

I checked into a new hotel, near city hall. I got another ondol room. The man at the reservation desk and the bell hop both took pains to warn me that I really reserved a Korean room and that mean sleeping on the floor.

"Oh yes," I informed them. "I know. I just thought I should try a Korean style room... you know if I wanted to sleep in a Holiday Inn I could do that in Seattle."

They seemed convinced and let me into my room.


October 30, 2001

Slow news day


Not much to report today. I went out to the World Cup stadium and checked it out. It's nearly done, just some landscaping to do on the outside. When I got there, they were practicing some sort of airvac medical emergency drill. There were three medical helicopters hovering all over the stadium. The washrooms at the subway station are pretty nice. (I told you there wasn't a lot to report today.)

I went by the Canadian embassy and donated my copy of Son of a Smaller Hero by Mordecai Richler to their small canlit lending library. They have a small library of Canadian books and videos there. Perusing their selection, they have the movie Exotica and Nino Ricci's The Lives of the Saints (which strangely enough got re-titled The Book of Saints for its American release -- they did the same thing to that Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone).

I went to Kangnam to investigate Korean DVDs at the Tower Records. Kangnam means "south river" because it's on the south side of the Han river. During the dot.com boom, Kangnam was Seoul's Silicon Alley. My Lonely Planet guide book and a map from www.visitseoul.net both indicated there was a Tower Records there. I marched up 'n' down one street, up 'n' down another street, and couldn't find it. It's a pretty big building so it's hard to miss. In desperation I played my "lost tourist with his Lonely Planet guide book" gambit and this nice man in a suit stopped to help me. He told me they tore it down. I didn't ask why. He walked me to another shop where he thought one could get Korean movies on DVD (han guk yahng hwa) but they didn't have any. For his help I gave him a can of Canadian maple syrup. I noticed most people I give this maple syrup to -- after asking me several times "what is it?" -- ask "what do you do with it?"

I tell them they can put it on pancakes or waffles. This is of little help as pancakes are not a staple of the Korean breakfast diet. I should really investigate Korean recipes and see what maple syrup would go good with. Maybe next time I'll tell them they can put it on vanilla ice cream.

Anyway, I ended up going to a place called the TechnoMart which is 12 floors of consumer electronics. Yes. Heaven. If you want to see what's coming to North America big box electronic shops in a year or two, this is a great place to go. Those hang-on-the-wall TVs are thinner. Cell phones are smaller. Laptops are more silver.

I convinced the 18-year-old kid in the DVD section that I was really, really looking for Korean movies on DVD written/acted/made by real live Koreans and not the latest Hollywood blockbuster. He helped me locate the six actual Korean movies they had in stock (one was under the leg of a wobbly chair). He kept trying to get me to take Shiri but I had seen it already at a film festival. He did make an excellent suggestion Attack the Gas Station ("joo yoo so" is Korean for gas station ... oddly our teacher has never taught us the verb "to attack").

A comedy, he told me.

With gas selling in Seoul at $4 a gallon, it might be wish fulfillment. The Korean version of "Rambo goes back and wins Vietnam". Korean youth rally and lower the price of gas to $2.80 a gallon.

Koreans make pretty good comedies and pretty good love stories. Koreans are not outwardly passionate people. They'll never be Italians. They'll never even be Swiss. So I think when someone is given a budget they sublimate those feelings into really poignant romantic dramas and comedies that employ Roberto Benigni style antics.

Korean movie theatres have something similar to Canadian radio. Like Canadian "cancon" laws, a certain percentage of movies at Korean movie theatres have to be Korean ("hancon"? ha... I'm sure I only person who finds that pun funny...) At first Koreans only made cheap sex films but a Korean movie a few year called "Shiri" scored big at the local box office and the Korean movie industry has really taken off.

Anyway, last night I just got some more postcards at Kyobo books, read a bit at Starbucks, and then hit the "yow". Yow know?



October 31, 2001

I knew it!


Yesterday I met Rucia after lunch at Starbucks. As you will recall, gentle reader, she's the Korean American woman here in Seoul madly spending her grant from Dartmouth to interview female classical music students. She finished the David Sedaris book I gave her (Santaland Diaries) and forced me to take it back. Damn. I'm trying to unload stuff so I don't have to buy a new suitcase to haul all the Aloe cactus-in-a-can drinks I bought.

We went to Shinchon, to the Hyundai department store. When North Americans think of Hyundai, they think the Hyundai Pony which a garage mechanic friend described once as "the world's first disposable car". Unlike KIA or Daewoo, I think Hyundai will always have a tarnished image in North America for selling such horrible cars in the late '80s. In Korea, Hyundai is actually this massive corporation that not only builds cars but makes these towering 14-floor luxury department stores and super-slick apartment complexes. Rucia is going back to her home in Texas in a couple days so she needed a lot of last minute gifts for friends and family. Dried squid was high on her list as well as curry-flavored Pringles (apparently unavailable in North America) and makeup for her sister. In Rucia's small home town of Cooter Creek, Texas the local Walmart does not carry a wide range of cosmetics suitable for the Korean complexion.

Anyway I needed to buy some playing cards as a gift for my coworker Lucas who is, hopefully, watering my plants on a daily basis (remember, Lucas, the mint is a fussy bitch and needs to be watered daily ... if you can come in on weekends and water it, that would be great too).

Rucia helped me find the cards and then we wandered around for her stuff. She went to the makeup department. She talked in Korean for about 45 minutes to a makeup woman about what sort of makeup goop would be best for her sister. I think the majority of the 45-minute talk was the woman trying to convince Rucia that it would be immoral to leave Korea without purchasing some $50 20 ml bottle of some cream called "Gee You Look Just Like A School Girl". While the woman was wrapping up the makeup ($80 worth of powder) Rucia turned to me and said "I don't like this woman's smile. I don't like it one single bit. It's more like a sneer. It just bothers me. She's the kind of person who if you turn your back she'll steal your silverware." I sort of looked at Rucia with disbelief. Not only because Rucia is the sweetest person in the world and I'm unaccustomed to her complaining about anyone, but because she was raging about a person right in front of her.

"Rucia be nice! She's right here in front of us!"

I, at least, have the good manners to tear a person down when they turn their back. It's the Canadian way.

"It's okay... I do this all the time with my brother in Texas although we speak about the person in Korean."

"Yeah yeah but I mean that's Texas. Not many people speak Korean in Cooter Creek but how do you know this makeup woman isn't working here to put her way through an MA degree in English lit?"

Later I chided Rucia for confirming what English-only people suspect ... people speaking in another language in front of you are probably talking about you. Having a lot of Italian friends, I've endured this sort of humiliation. You're at their place for dinner and suddenly the conversation shifts to Italian

"Vespucci con brio, Karl?"

"Stronzo cornoto Karl! Neh costruzione con fiero mais costruzione con vespa!"

Eyes turn to you. Then the table breaks out into laughter.

At 6:30 pm I met Min Sook and we went to HyeHwa for dinner. HyeHwa has a lot of cool restaurants. We walked around a bit. TGI Fridays was our safety but found a place called Halala Pork. At first I read the sign as Halal Pork. Halal is the Arabic version of Kosher. Kosher Pork. Cool. How multicultural. It wasn't until later that I realized this was an oxymoron. Min Sook described this place as offering "Korean bacon". Now, after "Karl, I have an attractive medical student sister who loves dorky guys like you" nothing stokes my fires like hearing someone utter "bacon".

It was pretty good. You barbeque your own meat with this little Korean George Forman grill set in the middle of your table.

Near HyeHwa there's a park where you can usually catch free public music/performance art exhibitions. We weren't disappointed. A troupe was performing some modern dance and we watched that for a while. It was pretty crowded so we stood by the edge of the stage. Near the end of one of the performances, I noticed what looked like another performer standing near us. She was pretty tense, waiting for her cue to leap on to the stage. I began to wonder what sort of kinetic dance routine she was about to perform. She was pretty wirery. After the performance was done, she rushed up the stairs and onto the stage. It was then I noticed she was carrying a mop. I braced myself to watch her do some interpretive dance number to a techno version of Carol Burnett's "I'm So Glad We Had This Time Together". With a dancer's poise and precision, she proceeded to mop up the sweat left by the previous dancer and then leapt off the stage. It was a great performance in any regard.


November 1, 2001



Yesterday I went to the Olympic park. Last time I was in Seoul, I visited the Olympic stadium. There's actually two venues, the stadium and the park. The park is where they held gymnastics, swimming, cycling, and fencing. Pretty much all of the sports except track and soccer... which was played in the Olympic Stadium. Anyway, all the guide books say visit the Olympic Park because it's more interesting. And it is. The stadium, ultimately, is just a big round thing in the middle of a large parking lot. The Olympic park is filled with fountains, sculpture gardens, and more couples having their wedding photos taken. It's a nice place to walk around. What the guide books don't tell you is they recently built a subway station right freakin' next to the park. The closest station in the guide books is about a 20 minute walk away. Now that's fine but after you've spent nearly two weeks walking, climbing, standing, and dodging, it gets to you? You know?

This brings me to the subject of Koreans and walking. In North America, there's a generally agreed upon convention that you walk on the right. The best I've been able to figure it, Koreans walk on the left but it's not a hard and fast rule. The person in front of you always walks too slow and the person next to you walks too fast. No one seems to have much awareness of people around them. You just make a beeline for where you want to go and if someone is in your path well, you figure it out at the last possible second how to get around the person. Usually, you bash into their backpack for good measure. My teacher claims Koreans believe bumping into a person means you've bumped into them in a previous life. I have a hard time believing so many Koreans bumped into sweaty white guys in previous lives. But if this view is true, it explains how Koreans manage this pedestrian chaos without coming to blows. Fist fights seem to be reserved for the floor of the Korean parliament. Anyway, since I'm used to the North American style of walking -- look 200 meters ahead, judge your collision threats, and plots a path around them -- I find I pretty much walk a zig-zag pattern. It's like you're trying to sail into the wind. You have to tack from one side of the street to the other. In short, it takes me about twice as long to walk anywhere.

The Olympic Park subway station has a bizarre collection of international warning signs. There's no language on the signs, just icons with what should be readily apparent meanings. Sure. But readily apparent to whom? There's the standard ones like "no smoking" and "mind the gap". But then there's one featuring a man sliding down a stairway on his butt. Since there's no line through it, the sign is not prohibiting stair luging. I think it's trying to warn me about the potentially dangerous combination of stairs and gravity. Thanks for the tip. Another sign depicts a woman's shoes and umbrella on escalator steps. There's a double set of lines through the sign and little motion marks at the tip of the umbrella. This sign seems to indicate taking the tip of your umbrella and jamming it between the escalator stairs is prohibited.

My favorite sign is the nearly universal Exit signs they have here. It says "Exit" and it depicts a man utterly sprinting for the exit.

There are a lot of really neat posters here advertising plays, movies, concerts, Korean drumming festivals, etc. You know the kind. Everywhere you go in any North American city, they're pasted to construction hording walls, bus shelters, slow moving elderly, etc. But here in Seoul, they don't paste the posters. They tape each up with a couple bits of tape. In North America, they cover the entire back of the poster with paste and slap it on a surface. This makes tearing down the poster impossible. This makes sense. The art of the poster is such that you want to make the image eye catching and cool. The blowback is if it looks good on a grime-covered bus shelter, it will look cooler on your dorm room or office wall. Since Koreans aren't stealing these poorly fixed posters, I can only conclude poster theft laws are severe here. A bullet to the back of the neck type of thing.

After the park I went to the Lotte World shopping center. I'm really worried Lucas will hate the cards I got him. I figured I'd see if they had a better selection there. Lotte World is a department store, Disneyland, folk museum, and Kimchi museum all under one roof. Like all Korean department stores, Lotte World is about 14 floors. I decided to ride the elevator. Last time when I was in Seoul, riding department store elevators turned out to be an unexpected thrill. Elevators were operated by elevator women. Imagine the most beautiful woman in the world, then double it, then dress her like a Parisian society lady complete with hat and lacey gloves. Attired and genetically blessed as such, her job is to press floor buttons and with the swish of a lace-covered hand, warn you about the dangers of a closing elevator door.

But alas... the department stores have done away with them. Someone must have realized, after careful study, it was an unnecessary expense. Still, all in all, service in Korean department stores is great. Each little area is staffed with three sales people. Like, the little Ralph Lauren section, which has all of three racks, there's a sales person at each rack.

I met Min Sook at 6:30 and we went to Apkujong on the south side for Chicago deep dish pizza at Pizza Uno. After we went to Koex mall to see an English movie Bounce (it starred that guy who was in that other movie and that woman who was in that other movie with him). Min Sook wanted to know if I wanted popcorn but I was full after pizza. I did peruse the popcorn stand to see how its different from North America. As you might have guessed by now, you can get squid. I'm not sure if they put butter on it, however.

English movies in Seoul are not dubbed. They have subtitles.... although the subtitles are actually side titles. They run the hangul subtitles along the right-hand side of the movie.


November 2, 2001



It's turned a mite chilly here. I've been looking forward to that. I change hotels for the last time, to the Sheraton Walker Hills ... the hotel stay I won in the Seoul tourism site photography contest. All this hotel changing might seem excessive but if you knew the number of times I've changed offices at my job in the last two years, you'd know I'm used to it. I've got two gift certificates, each good for a night at the Sheraton Walker. The gift certificates include a fruit basket and optional balloons. The gift certificates seem to be intended for newlyweds as they have "Wedding Package" and "Romance" written all over them. I will, of course, be alone -- just me and a trench coat -- unless arrangements can be made. I have exactly 2 hours to find a bride.

I went on a souvenir hunt yesterday. One of the problems with buying souvenirs for my Korean friends in North America is they have all their Korean stuff already. A woman in a hanbok in a snowglobe doesn't thrill them. My honkey friends are easy.

"Here, I got you this key chain."

"Yeah, great, big spender. How many cans of Pepsi did you have to drink to get this?"

"What are you talking about?"

"You're giving me a key chain with the Pepsi logo on it.

"That's not the Pepsi logo."


"It's the Korean flag."


As you will recall, gentle reader, last week I went to see these Nanta comedy cooking drummer people. They had a gift shop at the theatre but I didn't get a chance to check it out. I realized this Nanta drumming is about the biggest thing to hit Seoul since the Olympics. Maybe there would be something there that might delight my Korean friends.

The shop was pretty small and I kept having to dodge around the sales woman who was trying to unpack new stock while I was trying to browse for gifts and doing my best not to look like a shop lifter. As I was giving no quarter and keeping both hands visible at all times, she gave up and sat at her cash. She changed the CD playing over the shop's sound system. It sounded familiar. I looked at the CD case she had on the counter.

"Oh Portishead. You like Portishead?"

I dug through my backpack and pulled out a Sarah McLachlan CD. Here was a golden opportunity to unload some of these CDs I brought. They weren't quite the movers I had hoped they would be.

"Canadian music." I explained.

"For me?" she asked.


She opened a drawer and pulled out a Korean CD. A soundtrack to some movie, sung by a woman singer. The woman on the cover of the CD looked a lot like the Korean version of Sarah McLachlan. Same short sassy hair cut. Same tank top. Same nose ring.

"For you." she said.

Now I felt bad. The CD I gave her I burned on a 25 cent CD, the case was cracked, and there was a visible coffee ring stain. Here she was giving me a brand new, legally obtained CD. I dug around my backpack again and gave her a packet of Pacific Northwest salmon I brought. I left before she handed over the keys to her scooter.

I met Min Sook for lunch. At my urging we went to Lotteria. Lotteria is owned by the Lotte corporation. Lotte Corp is a maker of fine hotels, department stores, chewing gum, snacks, main battle tanks, textiles, escalators, wet naps, dried squid, jet skis, school supplies, death rays, and amusement parks. Lotteria is the Korean version of McDonald's. Instead of Big Macs they serve Bulgogi Burgers. The lunch crowd was streaming in so I held a table while Min Sook ordered. "Get me a bulgogi burger meal," I asked.

Min Sook came back with our food. She had a bulgalbi burger which is basically a McRib. Having many opportunities to gauge my appetite over the last couple weeks, she realized the tiny bulgogi burger and small fries might not be enough. She also got me a side of fried chicken. I told Min Sook about this wonderful restaurant they have in Seattle called Jack in the Box and this place reminded me of that. Jack in the Box has been one of my more enjoyable discoveries here in the Puget Sound region. I'm given to understand a few years ago Jack in the Box served tainted beef and killed about 96 people. I figure if a tainted burger has your name on it, there's not much you can do.

I spent most of the afternoon trying to find the Seoul metro art museum but failed. I did find the Seoul historical museum but it was closed for renovations. I found the Korean agricultural museum but the subject matter didn't thrill me. Growing up in Windsor, I became acquainted with a number of farmers and I feel I've learned a sufficient amount about the agricultural business. I know farming doesn't interest me in any possible way. I learned that farmers never get the right amount of rain. Either they receive too little rain or they get too much rain which makes the fields too muddy to pick crops. In other words, farmers work a day job at an auto factory to afford this expensive hobby of planting field upon field of things doomed to either wither to low-grade potpourri or rot in mud. When, once a decade, they get the right amount of rain, farmers spend every waking day praying a tornado or hail storm hits every cucumber farm in the county except theirs. This ensures their crop can be sold at a high price to pay down interest on loans so large even an Argentinean finance minister would question the wisdom of incurring such debt. The only way to actually make something that looks like a profit in the agricultural business is by turning to crime.

I ultimately went to Kyobo books and bought two orange ink pens.

At 5 pm I met Min Sook. We went to her old university to see a concert. It was a couple of German guys (a pianist and a stand up bass player) doing jazz arrangements of Bach pieces (including his Cello suites). It was really good. The auditorium was quite large and the concert was sold out. Standing room only, in fact. Koreans seem very partial to Bach. About 40% of cell phone users here seem to have Bach's Minute in G as their ringtone.

As we were walking from the Hye Hwa station to her university, we passed the usual collection of people trying to sell you things on the street. Street vendors are manic. They'll chase you down for half a block, bind you in piano wire, whatever it takes. Even the people who simply hand out flyers are not exactly shy. Some vendor jumped in front of me and in English wanted to know where I was from. I stopped and started yapping about Canada until Min Sook dragged me away. Upon reflection, the man was dressed rather strangely. He had pants tucked into rubber boots and greasy hair. I'm sure here in Seoul I'd try to give a Canadian flag pin to a man in a hockey mask holding a chainsaw if he asked me where I was from.

We got to the concert auditorium a bit early so we sat and compared university life. Min Sook wanted to know if I went to a good school in Canada.

I laughed for about five minutes.

"No. It was terrible. We called it LCU: Last Chance University. If you couldn't get into any university in Canada the University of Windsor would surely take you. What sort of marks did you need to get into this place?"

"I needed to be in the top 5%"

"Oh. I needed to show I had most of my teeth. In my last year in high school I knew I was only going to go to the University of Windsor. In high school, the government lets you apply for up to three universities. So on the form I wrote: University of Windsor, Harvard, Oxford. I just wanted to get rejection letters from Harvard and Oxford."

I told her about how my university was so pathetic that during football homecoming everyone piled into cars and drove to the next city two hours away to take part in their homecoming events. I tried to explain the principle of homecoming to Min Sook but realized I had no idea what it was. It had something to do with football and mixing Jell-O with vodka.

"Oh, I hear in North America, football players are popular with girls?"

"Yes, them and hockey players."

"In Korea, we have university football as well, but the players are like gangsters. They're just brutes."

"Yeah, well, same deal with the hockey players in Canada."

Min Sook revealed between studies she was a pro-democracy radical, participating in anti-government protests. She was even jailed for her activities. Sort of like the Chosun Seven. Always curious about prison life, I asked her if she had a cellmate named Bubba.

"What's bubba?"

"Never mind."

Min Sook found it somewhat ironic that she was jailed and tear gassed for anti-government activities in her youth and now she was a civil servant.

"Yeah well you and Tom Hayden, eh."



November 5, 2001



I woke up this morning thinking "where am I?" It took me while to recognize that this room full of Fornasetti ties, a 14" color TV, and a stack of back issues of Byte magazine from 1987 was my own bedroom. Pity. The Sheraton Walker was so nice.

Friday I changed hotels to the Sheraton Walker Hill. As the name implies, the hotel is at the top of a hill. It has, I gather, Seoul's only licensed casino. There were a lot of hardcore gambler types, mostly Japanese men in black jeans, cowboy boots, and bolero ties. The casino is only open to foreigners. Korean citizens can't set foot in the place. I never actually set foot in it either. I'm not much of a gambler.

After checking in, I headed out again. I stopped by the reception desk to get some scotch tape. My book, Another Road Side Attraction, was getting a bit torn up around the cover area and I wanted to tape it down. I actually only had about 12 pages left to read but I didn't want to read it coverless. Now the crazy thing about this super deluxe hotel (with a room rate of $500 a night -- luckily I wasn't paying for this stop over) is you get this crazy level of service. Like in the dining room every time you take a bite from your fork and put it down, they take it from you and give you a clean one. Every time you take a sip of water, they give you a new glass of water. You get a level of service that is almost repressive and creepy, especially to someone used to a culture where "Smiles - Free" on a menu board is the height of good service. What's important to note, however, you get this service from a collection of tall, beautiful women. Somehow tall, beautiful women doing everything short of throwing rose petals in your path make these intrusions more bearable. It's like this hotel is run by Harry Mudd (oh go look it up).

Anyway, one of the women at the reception desk pulled out the roll of tape I asked for. Me and the woman on the other side of the desk fought for control of the tape. She wanted to make the repairs to my book and so did I. In my efforts to keep from elbowing her in the breasts as I tried to tape and she tried to hold down my book and guide my hands and take the tape from me and do it herself, I did a poor job of taping up the book. What an odd, frustrating, highly erotic struggle.

I said kam sa ham ni da and an nyong he kay se yo to them on the way out. They squealed with mock delight at my mastery of the Korean language. They had to know I was there solely by virtue of winning a contest. They could let the "treat you like Mr. Big Shot" act down. It wasn't like I was ever going to stay at this hotel again. Not with the NASDAQ the way it is and the hotel's distance from the subway.

The hotel is about a 20 minute walk to the subway, which isn't 100% bad but it's at the top of a hill. Luckily there's a shuttle bus that runs every 10 minutes to the subway and other destinations. I caught that.

I went to the Koex mall to check out souvenirs, found none, and then headed downtown. I managed to finish Road Side Attraction. I found myself, suddenly, without literature and an afternoon to kill before I had to meet Min Sook. I bought Fast Food Nation, a nonfiction book about the history of the fast food industry, at Kyobo books. I bought an English-language newspaper and then went to the Starbucks in Myong Dong and read. I then met Min Sook at 5:30.

While waiting for Min Sook, I saw something that surprised me. Shocked me. Disturbed me because I've never seen it before. I saw a cop give a car driver a ticket! Then I saw a news crew filming the take down. It had the mark of a pure photo op. YOU SET HIM UP, SKINNER!

Min Sook came along as the film crew was packing up their equipment. I pointed out to her the crew and the ticket incident and wondered if this was some annual event "Seoul police really do issue tickets so if you swerve across 3 lanes of traffic and tail gate then at least use your signal a microsecond before you make your dangerous lane change or at the very least signal your abrupt lane change by leaning on your horn and throwing your cigarette butt in the direction you're likely to go."

Min Sook indicated this was the first day a new cell phone law went into effect. Drivers could no longer talk on hand-held phones. They needed dashboard mounted units. Ah! Somehow regulating any form of cell phone use in Seoul is like trying to regulate when, where, and how often people can breath.

We went to Insa Dong for dinner, to another BBQ type restaurant. I love these places. This time we had kalbi, which is Korean ribs. I tried to find that photo sticker booth district again but I got lost. I knew where one was in Myong Dong -- gosh not to mention a Starbucks. Tired of walking, we caught a cab to Myong Dong. I commented to Min Sook that in the paper I bought some Western woman had written a letter to the editor complaining about a crazy taxi driver she had. The woman seemed to think he drove like a mad man while the rest of Seoul's drivers moved in orderly fashion. She ultimately wanted to know who to complain to so this aberration could be fired. I can see this woman writing other letters to the editor complaining that all the food was too spicy, all the prices were in Won not Pound Sterling, and no one had blue eyes. I noted to Min Sook that however crazy these cab drivers drove, the least dented-to-hell vehicles on the road were cabs. That said something.

I made Min Sook endure a photo booth session with me. The thing about these photo booths is they don't just give you instructions on how to use the various features. They scream the instructions to you in the manner of an excited 12-year-old girl. While irritating to me, I could imagine if you were a 12-year-old girl and you're in one of these booths with your eight best friends and you're all getting along for a change, it's nearly required to have a machine scream.

We clicked around the various photo themes until we found one with Jack Nicholson gazing up from the bottom of the sticker frame. The decision was made.

Sticker photos in hand, we got coffee. We noticed the napkins at Starbucks said "printed in USA". Were there no domestic napkin makers? Napkins may be one of the few things in Korea that can be imported without massive tariffs. Non-domestic cars like Fords, Nissans, BMWs have something like a 100% duty imposed on them. Naturally everyone but the super rich drive KIAs, Hyundais, and Daewoos.

I talked at length about how in the '80s America tried to place a duty on imported steel pipe. The American government believed imported steel tubes were ruining the domestic tube industry. GATT struck the duty down. In response, America passed a law that all steel pipes of foreign manufacture had to have their country of manufacture printed on the pipes. This had the effect of requiring foreign manufacturers to buy additional equipment to create the imprinting, which added to their costs, and therefore ultimately made the steel tubing more expensive, in the same manner of a protectionist duty. This law had a politically devastating effect on Detroit's long-time mayor Coleman Young. Young was a highly respected black mayor of a major American city with a majority black population. He was, at the time, trying to build a monorail system. It was a controversial venture because of the system's vast costs and questionable safety features. Some also questioned its utility as it only seemed to run between Joe Louis Arena and a White Castle Hamburger place. It wasn't exactly a public transit system which would take suburban commuters off the crumbling highways. Investigative reporters discovered yet another controversial and highly embarrassing facet to the monorail project: the steel tubing used for the station fencing had "made in South Africa" printed all over them. South Africa was, of course, at this time under an apartheid government, denying its majority black population basic civil rights. 'xplain that Mr. Mayor.

You can see a night out with me is a guarantee of a good time and dazzling conversation.

The next day, Saturday, Min Sook met me at Starbucks at 10 am. After a coffee we went to the downtown open air market to look for some serious souvenirs and possibly a bigger suitcase to contain them. I found both. We had sushi for lunch. We decided to head back to my hotel so I could dump off my stuff and then explore the part of Seoul's grand park that I didn't explore.

On the way out, Min Sook noted my room was surprisingly small.

"This room is supposed to be part of a honeymoon package?" she asked.

"Yes. There can be no doubt about that."

"A pretty small room for newly weds, don't you think?"

I had not thought of that. I got her out of my room and the hotel immediately before other conclusions were reached.

We checked out the kiddy zoo at the park. It had a collection of exotic animals like donkeys, rabbits, and dogs. Min Sook looked at one of the donkeys and said to it "an nyong", which is Korean for "hi".

I looked at her. Speaking Korean to a donkey seemed an awfully foolish thing to do. I decided to set her straight.

"Min Sook, donkeys don't understand Korean! Everyone knows animals only understand English."

I turned to the beast.

"Hello, Mr Donkey."

Had this woman never seen Babe?

We went to Apkujong for dinner. We walked around a great deal looking for a restaurant. This one massive building had a 30-foot high crab statue affixed to its façade. It looked like some kind of seafood restaurant or possibly The Temple of the Crab (AD&D Module T4). That was our safety. We were about to go there but then found a Mexican restaurant. How bad could Mexican food in Korea be? I had to know. In Toronto, it's quite horrible. There's this idea that if you wrap ground beef and melted cheese in a tortilla and glop on a dollop of sour cream and salsa, behold, it's Mexican food.

The chefs at La Casa El Gato Decapitato clearly had learned the fine art of Mexican food from a Toronto chef, only it was hepped up with more chili. I thought I'd save the night by ordering Calamari. Now, here, finally, was squid the way it was supposed to be eaten ... deep fried in a light batter made with subtle spices. The waitress informed us they were out of squid. Unbelievable. You can't swing a dead North Korean commando and not hit 48 people selling squid! We found the only place in Korea that WAS OUT OF SQUID. Sigh.

Sunday Min Sook met me at my hotel for breakfast. The breakfast at the hotel (which was free as part of the honeymoon package) was fantastic. Smoked salmon, French toast, little jars of jam imported from England. I thought about pocketing a few of the jams and bringing them back to my friend Susan as a souvenir. Susan is hard to buy for as she dated a Korean man and now hates all things that have to do with Korea. Anyway, I wondered about the ethics of Min Sook enjoying this free breakfast (and the little jams). After all she had some part in selecting me as the winner of this hotel stay. Now here she was enjoying part of it. Oh well. We went back to my hotel room to get my coat. Not one for ethics myself, I kept showing her all the cool stuff in my room she could steal. "Want this nail file? How about a stack of Kleenex? This liquid hand soap smells great. If you have an empty Snapple bottle handy, I could fill that up."

Min Sook passed on all that. I palmed the nail file.

We did a bit more last minute souvenir shopping (panic buying really). We went back to the hotel. I changed from my street clothes into my dark gray suit, dark gray shirt, and black/gold Versace tie. We checked out and waited for a bit in the lobby for the shuttle bus to the airport. In Toronto I used to like to play a game with a friend. When bored on a Saturday night, we'd sit in the plush lobby of the Royal York Hotel and watch people walk by. We'd pretend each person was a celebrity in town to film a movie and indicated which star the person most resembled. "oh look, it's Donald Sutherland." "Hey, that's Molly Ringwald!"

Again, I point out a night on the town with me is nothing but grand fun.

Unfortunately, I would be severely handicapped playing this game in a Korean hotel. The best I could do would be "oh that guy looks like the guy who was in Christmas in August... that guy looks like him too... hey there's a third guy that looks like him as well..."

Instead we played a new game I made up on the spot: Business person or hardcore gambler?

The bus came and we got on. I held Min Sook's hand in the bus on the way to the airport.

I checked in at the Air Canada desk, got my boarding pass, and we sat for a while. My flight was for 7 pm but this boarding pass said the flight was for 6:30 pm. And it was the wrong flight number. But it was surely going to Vancouver. Well, I get there 30 minutes early. With all the possible delays transferring from this 767 to my Seattle-bound prop-driven Buddy Holly jobber I didn't care.

It neared time to get through security and such. I handed Min Sook the hotel nail file I swiped.

"Shhhh," I whispered.

We stood and I hugged Min Sook good bye. Trying to thank her for all her kindness, I burst into tears and hugged her again. More hugs and then I went through the first check point, showing the person my passport and boarding pass. Now Korea has an odd thing called "exit customs" which you have to clear before you can leave the country. Basically if you're a foreigner all they want to know is if you're smuggling out any ancient art treasures. If you're a Korean, they really grill you with odd questions like "where are you going?" "who are you meeting there?" "what will you do there?" "when will you be back?" "how much money are you taking out of the country?" One wonders if they have the right to deny your departure. In Canada and the USA basically no one cares if you leave. You're free to fuck off any time.

Anyway, I showed him my passport, boarding pass, and surrendered my departure card. I went through airport security, again showing my passport and boarding pass. I sat in the departure lounge for about an hour until boarding time. They opened one gate marked "executive class" and those with biz class tickets boarded. Ten minutes later they said something in Korean and then a huge line formed at the Economy class gate. I stood up, slung my Hugo Boss green leather backpack over my shoulder and scanned for the end of the line. They say all these flights are 70% empty cause of Sept 11 but no one told the Koreans to be paranoid wimps. These people are fearless. This flight was going to be packed. One of the gate guys noticed the lost white guy in a suit and waved me through the utterly empty biz class gate. I pointed to the economy class gate, indicating I had to use that one. He waved me with greater urgency through the biz class gate. See, sometimes the suit and tie do confer small advantages on you when traveling by plane!

Anyway, again I showed my passport and boarding pass. I flashed my boarding pass again to the flight attendant at the cabin door. She directed me to 22C.

I unpacked all my plane "kit". My lucky hound's-tooth plane pillow. My CD walkman. My 12 part Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy CD collection. My magazines. My books (a fiction and nonfiction). My sound-reducing headphones with the double plug jack for the airplane seat audio system. My Altoids tin filled with aspirin.

There was some commotion about me as the plane began to fill with passengers. A flight attendant, an Indian woman, came up to me and asked if I had a ticket for seat 22C. I showed her my boarding pass stub, ready to produce my passport as well. She looked at the stub and showed it to me, saying "this isn't your name".

The name on the boarding pass was Sook Young Lee. I found it odd I went through five layers of Korean security and no one noticed that I bear no possible resemblance to a Sook Young Lee (which might well be a woman's name). It took an Indian woman (and a Canadian I note with pride) to spot this subtle difference.

I handed her my original ticket and itinerary. She took it to the front of the plane. I sat trying not to look like a terrorist. I chanted "allah ackbar" quietly to myself while the matter got resolved. She came back. In pen she crossed out Sook Young Lee and wrote "Karl Mamer" on the boarding pass.

I looked at the stub and looked at her. "Everything is cool?" I was hoping like hell 22C had been over sold 8 times and I'd get kicked up to biz class.

"Oh yes, it's fine."

Crap. At least I made it home alive. And I miss Min Sook.


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Copyright 2002 Karl Mamer


Direct comments and questions to kamamer@yahoo.com