4.07.2008

Reminscences of the Asian Vaca: Part I, Seoul

Three months late (very sorry!)…

Seoul, South Korea

Christmas 2007

After two months or so, the excitement of being in a new place with new people, speaking new languages and doing new work, had all but just evaporated. By the end of the first semester, I was feeling tired and worn down, a bit disappointed with my job and most definitely homesick. My trip to Seoul couldn’t have come at a better time.

While I was gingerly munching on unidentifiable, smoked fish (courtesy of VladAvia) from 35,000 feet, South Korea was busy electing its new president. My aunts and uncle picked me up from the airport, and as we drove around Seoul that night, I couldn’t decide what was crazier: the fact that my relatives were able to watch news of the election on a TV inside their car or the glorious lights of Dunkin’ Donuts, Bennigans, Krispy Kreme, Starbucks…*

465 miles from Vladivostok, Seoul might as well have been on another (delightful) planet.

* Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not exactly exulting in the Blob-like spread of American capitalism, but there’s only so much microwaved and mayonaisey fare one can have from the Vlad’s own Magic Burger and Magic Bell before the idea of a Big Mac starts to sound REALLY nice.
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That first night in Seoul with my aunties and uncle, we
stopped by at the fantastically Christmas-lit Chunggae
Chul, where crowds of jubilant Lee supporters were already
gathered to dance and sing and drink their new president
into office.


After devouring course after course of phenomenal
Korean foods, we drove all around the city: up to
the top of one of the many city mountains, down
past the presidential Blue House, by Dongdaemun
(East Gate), and stopped for a good while to admire
the recently re-opened (and even more recently,
tragically destroyed!) beauty of Namdaemun (West
Gate), South Korea’s National Treasure #1 that was.

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Though I wasn’t able to afford the ridiculously expensive ticket home to the States for Christmas, Seoul provided a remarkable antidote to my homesickness in a way that I don’t know even a few weeks of California sun could have matched.


I stayed at my aunt and uncle’s flat in Gangnam, alternately proof-reading my cousin’s college application essays, soaking in the lightning-fast internet, and chatting with my auntie about life. Most mornings I spent running around the city with two of my aunts, shopping, museum-hopping, taking in the traditional sights, and, of course, eating inordinate amounts of delicious Korean food.

This was my second trip to Korea—the first took place just before I started college in Chicago, and I spent most of it feeling bewildered and estranged from everyone and everything. Nearly five years later, I couldn’t have had a better time.

When I wasn’t being ridiculously spoiled by my aunts, I was catching up with delightful friends from college over Green Tea shaved ice in posh Apgujung cafes or roaming the packed and festive streets of Insadong and Myungdong with a hodgepodge gang of pals from Russia (two Korean girls studying Russia in Vlad, one of the girl’s Russian boyfriend, a Japanese teacher at my university, my English dorm buddy, and two of the other Fulbrighters from Irkutsk and Kazan).

Though Christmas everywhere seems to have become more commercial fanfare than a celebration of Christ’s birth and any subsequent joy, peace, or love (see Schultz, Charles M. A Charlie Brown Christmas, 1965.), I guess it was still a bit surprising to see the extent to which the holiday was treated almost entirely as an opportunity to buy elaborate cakes from one of the 189739423 smiling Santa-hat-wearing teens chanting “크리스마스 캐이크!” (transliterally: Ch-ri-s-ma-s ca-k-e) on every street corner or to indulge in some other goods peddled on nearly every square foot of Seoul’s popular neighborhoods.

Christmas is also evidently another holiday (in addition to Valentine’s Day and White Day) to go out on the town with “that special someone,” so while the lot of us were wriggling our way through the crowds of Myungdong on Christmas Eve, it didn’t take long for us to realize that there was some method to the madness: carefully observed, the mass of people was easily divisible into pairs, often identically dressed—just to facilitate such recognition, of course.

I had my own bounty of ho ddukk (sweet honey-filled deep fried dough cakes) and shopping to keep me warm, anyway. But it was refreshing nevertheless to run across a group of adorable teenage girls—a number of whom were dressed in padded Santa suits—giving out hugs and smiles (without any desire to sell us Christmas cakes!) to simply spread the holiday cheer. The idea of anyone in Vladivostok offering strangers even a kindly “hello” is already quite unheard of, so you can imagine our surprise to receive giggling hugs from these jolly schoolgirls. But then, the level of hospitality and warmth (albeit at times commercially motivated) from everyone in Seoul blew all of us who had grown accustomed to life in Russia well away.

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