My Trip to Seoul – A guest post!

The long-awaited post about Andrea’s mom’s visit is finally here! Also, it’s the first ever guest post on ‘A Seoulful Year’.  Here, Andrea’s mom tells us about out her impressions of Seoul, likes and dislikes.

Congratulations, Mom. You’re a blogger now!!

My Trip to Seoul

First Impressions

Prior to my arrival in Korea, I prepared myself to expect poverty, discourteous (non-Western) manners, underdeveloped cities, etc…something similar to a third world country. My daughter, Andrea, told me that it was like the 1950’s there: very safe and low crime.

Well, she got the low crime and personal safety part correct, however the 1950’s comparison in my mind did not adequately describe what I found modern-day Korea to be like. My first impression of Korea while up in the air preparing to land was: “Wow!”  The infrastructure was impressive!  I saw lots of tall buildings, spacious farmland and numerous cars. I was further impressed on the bus ride to the Jamsil area where she lives; I saw modern and deco buildings, well-engineered bridges in addition to expansive roadways with four or more lanes.  I saw few gravel roads except those undergoing construction or maintenance which is to be expected anywhere. My preconceived notion of being in a third world country was gone almost immediately.

Unique modern building near Gwanghwamun in Seoul

View under Jamsil bridge – artistic structure

Upon arriving in Jamsil the first thing that hit me was the pervasive and pungent ‘unique’ odor. I looked around to see if there was raw sewage running along the streets. I asked Andrea where the odor was coming from and she said that it was from underground pipes transporting untreated sewage.  I suppose the odor leaks out through the manholes onto the streets. I found that after the initial shock of the ‘odor experience’ you do not notice it very much; or it could be that I am losing my sense of smell.  Either way, it didn’t stop me from enjoying my stay.

The airport shuttle bus dropped us at a large busy intersection near Lotte Hotel and Lotte World. It took a while before Mike could find us.  Eventually we found each other and took a taxi to their apartment approximately four or five blocks away. We could have walked there, but the traffic was horrendous, not because of the highways or the cars, but because of the drivers! In my opinion, they drive crazy in Korea .  However, I guess if you were born and raised there, it is just normal driving practice. I can’t judge too harshly because I’m just not used to it. In the U.S., driving seems less aggressive and more courteous somehow.

We finally arrived at the apartment. My first impression of their apartment was that it was the size of my bedroom back home. Everything is in one room, literally! There it all was: the bedroom, kitchen, dining /media/ living room, and laundry. Thank God for the one other tiny room in the apartment: the bathroom/shower, which by the way,  had no stall or tub. Lol. I learned that most Korean bathrooms are built this way to save space and make cleaning easier.   I guess you can say it was very COZY!!

I couldn’t sleep the first night because of jetlag and because renovation ideas were racing through my head. The next day after Mike left for basketball practice I presented my design ideas to Andrea, which didn’t come as a surprise to her,  knowing her mom. The renovation came to fruition that afternoon. First we bought supplies at the Korean version of a big box store, Homeplus. It took us a couple of hours to install and move things around but the end result was gratifying. My daughter loved it; my son-in-law was on the fence because it was a change from the norm. He eventually got used to it, though. You can see the post about the makeover here.

A Walk in the Park

The next morning, Andrea and I got up early to walk around Olympic Park, where the 1988 Olympics were held.

It was a beautiful enormous park with springy rubber paths for runners and speed-walkers, lots of winding trails and art sculptures placed throughout.  The flowers were all gorgeous and plentiful, making me feel like I was in some sort of floral canvas painting.  Also, I was taken aback by how, at that early morning hour, the park was crowded with elderly men and women walking about, some doing aerobics, some playing badminton, others utilizing the free exercise equipment found all through the park. Some interesting observations: the ajummas (middle-aged and older women) were wearing jumbo sombrero-like hats to keep the sun off their skin, while many of the ajusshis (middle-aged and older men) were walking around with stern-looking expressions on their faces. No smiles, no “Good Morning”, they just stared past you as if you did not exist.  I thought it all had it’s own distinct cultural charm.

Pagoda inside Olympic Park

I was amused to find there were “Glee Club” groups of ajummas talking up a storm and laughing every now and then. We were caught behind one such group while walking, so we power-walked past them. Andrea and I decided to go up a steep hill, me thinking: “Aww…piece of cake! Not a problem.”  It wouldn’t have been problem if we took our time going up but, unfortunately, the “Glee Club” group kept right on our tails. I told Andrea that these old ladies were not going to show me up and I WILL be at the top of the hill first. I huffed and puffed, power walking almost running up the hill because they kept getting closer and closer. We got up the hill first but they past us as we were recovering at the top.  They beat us. 😉 Don’t be fooled by the ajummas; they are deceptively FIT!

Gettin’ around Seoul and staring contests

We traveled all over Seoul via subway. I had never taken a subway before (let alone ridden a bus) in the U.S., but I did it in Korea and it was not bad! I actually enjoyed it. The subway system was modern, clean and efficient.  Most people just ignored each other and played on their gadgets.  I read my Kindle. After a while, I learned to ignore the Koreans staring at me. Because I was different, they stared. A lot. At one point, I was a little fed up and purposefully stared back at an ajumma thinking she would look away, but her expression didn’t change and to my chagrin, she did not back down!  I guess I lost that battle, and here I thought I was tough…Lol…Yes, I admit it; an elderly hunched-back Korean ajumma beat me in a staring contest. Lol. The stares didn’t bother me after awhile. It just seemed easier to ignore it than make a fuss. I just resigned not to take it personally and accept that while in Korea “personal space” is nonexistent.

The Dongs, Moons, and Shi-jangs (neighborhoods, shopping areas, and outdoor markets)

We walked a lot of markets, museums, and neighborhoods. Most neighborhoods and markets were named with the prefixes or suffixes of dong and moon. As in, Dongdaemoon, Garak-dong, and Namdaemoon.

My favorite market: Namdaemun

My favorite places were the markets and restaurants. There was lots to see and lots of bargains. I ate so much! It was no holds barred when it came to the food. The side dishes were a feast in itself. Koreans did not waste food and it was apparent in the preparation of the different dishes. One vegetable could be made ten different mouth-watering ways.  It was amazing!! My favorite dessert was Honey Bread. The cafes each had their own version, but basically, it was a giant piece of lightly toasted sweet bread about four inches thick, lavished with honey,topped with a mound of cool whip then drizzled with caramel sauce on top. YUMMY!!! I think I ate this two or three times.

Street food

More street food

Many side dishes

Most of the Korean people that I met were my daughter and son-in-law’s friends. There were very accommodating, generous and friendly.  The teachers I met at the school where my daughter teaches were friendly and kind, always smiling and trying very hard to make me feel welcome.

At a Korean wedding with Mike, Andrea, and their friends.

Picture of me with Andrea’s students

The school was practical. I learned that in Korea, the students (not janitors or lunch ladies) clean their classrooms as well as take turns serving lunch to their peers and cleaning up after eating.  The kids also stayed and ate in their classrooms; the lunch ladies brought carts of food with trays and dishes. Also, everyone, including the teachers, changed into indoor shoes while in the building. The students changed their shoes at the door every morning. As a result, the school was quite clean.

Bathing and other business

The one thing I could never get used to and avoided in Korea was the squat commode.  I don’t think I could ever get up after squatting that low to the ground, making sure everything hits the track, which is oblong in shape and on the floor. Another thing in Korea, it is not unusual to use toilet tissue as napkins when dining; it’s quite a shock to see a roll of toilet tissue at the lunch table. This takes getting used to, and I think I could tget used to it after a while, but definitely not to the squat commode.

Another memorable experience,  I went to a women-only bathhouse with my daughter and had a blast. It didn’t bother me that we had to be completely naked to use the bathing facilities.  After soaking for about an hour trying out all the different temperature baths, we decided to get a body scrub treatment.  This meant being scrubbed from head to toe by an ajumma, also naked except for wearing panties.  I thought, ‘this is going to be interesting’…. I found out I was really dirty after the ajumma scrubbed me down. During the scrub down, I opened my eyes to peak at what she was doing and I was appalled at what I saw!! There was a lot of black, dirty, filthy dead skin (which looked like dirt) all over the bed I was on. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Was it really all from me? Am I that dirty? After the initial shock of my apparent lack of personal hygiene, I accepted the “dead skin” explanation from Andrea, that this amount of dead skin is normal.  The scrub is used to encourage new skin growth and to shed the dead skin faster.  Still, I kept thinking I must be really really filthy. I told Andrea that I wanted to go back every week while I was there. After bathing and being pampered with the scrub treatment, we ate at the restaurant in the bathhouse wearing our robes, relaxing, chilling whatever you call it; it was an awesome experience.

My overall impression of Korea and its people? I do not take it personally if they do not say “Hi” or smile as I pass them. They are warm, generous and very respectful people once you get to know them. I respect their culture; it is who they are. Would I like to visit again? ABSOLUTELY!! I love it there.

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