This year, Katie, her boyfriend, and country bumpkin friends (I kid, I kid), and I went to Korea. It turns out I’m big there. Seriously, I’m really big in Korea. Koreans just came up to me and talked to me, shook my hand, touched my hair. I seemed to be the only one they did this to. It wasn’t that foreigners are big there, just me. The amount of Andrew-worship going on was massive. It makes me wonder if I went to the wrong Asian nation! I’m sure right now there is a horribly acted sappy drama being produced in Korea about my life, I’m thinking the title would be Andrew Sonata.
So Korea, it was pretty cool. I have read that it is a fusion of China and Japan, but to see it is something else entirely. It was amazing. The language itself structurally sounds like Japanese with some very strongly Mandarin sounds thrown in. It really sounded like everyone was speaking gibberish Japanese.
The people looked a lot like a cross between the Japanese and Chinese peoples, and the city was a highbred of the two as well. There were street markets like in China, but prices were more fixed and venders more respectful of your personal space like in Japan. Though, Japan is still the only Asian country I can honestly say does not take advantage of ignorance. I still got horribly overcharged in Korea simply because I was new to the country and had not shopped around to get a real idea of how much some goods and services should cost.
We spent all of our time in Seoul. I regret this. Unfortunately I did not do my homework as well as I should have so I went to Korea without a whole lot of knowledge as to where I should go and what I should see. Katie’s friends all live out in the rustic hinterland so any kind of city dazzles and charms them. I, on the other hand, of more of the belief that if you have seen one major Asian metropolitan area you have pretty much seen them all: they’re all neon and noise after about a day or three. I am more fascinated by temples in the mountains than the fact that you can actually eat at an Outback Steak House. Though, in fairness, Katie and co. are surrounded by nothing but temples and mountains and Osaka has an Outback. To each his own.
I really liked Katie’s friends, but I kind of wish we had went alone. I don’t enjoy vacationing in groups because the decisions the group makes are rarely inspiring. They tend to be compromises where no one walks away completely satisfied. Being nearly a hermit, the added benefit of a companionship doesn’t do much. Plus a big reason I went on this vacation was to spend time with Katie who I hadn’t seen in several months. Also we saw some pretty deep stuff and I would have preferred to be alone and try and figure it out. I am not a group vacationing kind of guy. I guess I could not be Japanese.
The hotel we stayed in the first few nights had huge plasma screen TV like 42 inches or so. On it I watched, I kid you not, competitive Starcraft! After all this time they still love Starcraft in Korea, and I watched some great matches, though only one player was zerg most played the terran, but I digress. The greatest thing about Korea is the way they heat their rooms, from the floor. Traditional houses were elevated with fires burning in the foundations, modern versions just have heating coils built into the floor. That is the way to heat. You put your feet down and they are toasty. Cold air forces the warmer air up so you do not end up with areas of low heat. The large surface area of the floor means that you do not have to heat it as much to heat the entire room. It may actually be (from a BTU standpoint) less efficient to heat a room in this manner, but it was a lot more pleasant.
We were in Korea for New Years. That was absolutely crazy. We went to a main part of town around an ancient bell whose significance escapes me. There was a live concert with tons of pop bands. The president of Korea was there. I have seen THE president of Korea but not even my own congressmen. There is something disturbing about that. I was probably on at least Korean TV as cameras were everywhere and I had the good fortune of standing next to an adorable little girl perched on her father’s shoulders. In other words, TV GOLD! As the camera was panning over the crowd I threw up the Vulcan live long and prosper hand sign and it hit me. This could go out all over the world, and I may have, accidentally kind of sort of told my grandparents that I would not go to Korea after the North detonated their bomb. Yet there I was standing a hundred yards from the President of the South, with a couple thousand other people. All perfect terror targets, if one were so inclined, and it was going out to the world to see. Oops. Sorry.
There are a few times in my life when I have thought to myself, “This right here is pretty dangerous! Maybe I should not be doing this.” Seoul on New Year’s was one such time. Firework laws are lax in Korea so everyone has Roman Candles and they are just shooting them up into the air. There are literally thousands of people shooting these things leading to the countdown when people go nuts. The air was filled with the smell of gunpowder and ash rained like snow. There was so much smoke and debris in the air you could not see the tops of buildings. Then the police leave and the entire street is turned over to party goers shooting off fireworks, playing drums, and screaming. It was chaos. No one I saw get hurt, it was an orderly kind of chaos, but I trust myself with fireworks, it the other idiots out there that worry me. Poor Katie got some ash in her eye, though I seemed to be the only that cared. That is until I met a delightful high school girl who talked to me for over an hour as we waited for our train and rode it home. Her English was really good (as most people in Korea’s English was) and she was very funny. She seemed relatively uninterested in the others of my group, because I’m big in Korea. I thought her an “English joke” because she taught me a Korean joke. The Korean joke was slapping the knees then the face. HILLARIOUS!
The joke I taught her was “Here is the church, here is the steeple, open it up and here are the people!” Along with the corresponding hand gestures. I figured it might work due to the high levels of Christians in the country, also all the words are easy to understand. Okay, not really much of a joke, but it beats the joke that one of Katie’s friends tried to teach her, “What do you call a fly with no wings? A walk.” That proved way too hard for her to understand. Perhaps my joke did to, as it got reduced to me and the girl wiggling our fingers and screaming in a slightly maniacal voice “PEOPLE!” Which, in all honesty, does make that rhyme funnier. See that is why I am big in Korea, I tailor my humor to their tastes.
A lot of our time was spent shopping, but Katie and I managed to demand a few museums get tossed into the schedule. We ended up going to that National Natural History Museum alone. We got there slightly after opening stayed until we had to run to get lunch. At that point we had only covered some of the first floor. Our audio guild was really well done and the museum itself was fabulous. I wish that there had been a brief Korean history outline prior to the exhibits though as Katie and I had to kind of piece together a lot of the grand narrative. After spending the 4 fours in the morning we went back after lunch to spend another 3 hours there till closing. What can I say? We are museum folk. I love Katie because she is one of the few people I know that can keep up with me in a museum: in that she reads every plaque, strains to see the backsides of sculptures, and more or less walks at an incredibly slow rate. Most people just blow through museums, but for me they are something to be enjoyed.
We also went to a very strange museum. It was called the Tainer Museum and it was completely recyclable. Now normally I don’t go for this kind of artsy gimmick crap, but I must admit the place had charm. The pillars were made out of massive cardboard tubes. Much of the structure was also made out of metal containers you see on trains. Everything was recyclable. They actually recycled the entire museum at the end of the year! We were lucky to see it when we did. It was cool. Each exhibit was done by a company, which was odd because I tend not to think that Nike is on the vanguard of environmental instillation art, but who knows? The other half the museum were paintings dedicated to women throughout Korean history. Many of the women featured had pretty dismal stories related to the atrocious acts committed by the Japanese during the occupation, or various other wars that have ravaged the Korean Peninsula. There were some nice stories in the lot as well, but mostly not. Still, it was an interesting time and some of the art was truly amazing.
The six of us where also able to catch a movie. We saw Night at the Museum (I swear I am not completely obsessed with all things museum related it just worked out this way in my retelling). I don’t quite understand Ben Stiler mania, but the movie itself was charming. I didn’t gaffa with laughter but I was never bored. Though there was one sequence that was amazingly funny.
Everything in the museum comes alive including the miniatures. The Roman and cowboy minis have to drain the tire of a thief’s car. Being only an inch or so tall they jam a long Roman spear into the release valve. The camera frequently cuts between them holding desperately for dear life wind raging all about them men flying off of the spear due to the gale force blasts, to a long shot of the car with a dull hiss of the air being released. The juxiposition was one of the funniest things I have seen in years. Worth the price of admission.
The DMZ was a very strange experience. If you have ever wondered why there cannot be piece on the Korean peninsula let me relate a story to you now: One of the more famous places along the DMZ the two countries fly their respective flags. The South Koreans (I believe) completed the tower that they fly their flag from first. When the North Koreans saw it they built a bigger tower from which to fly their flag. So the South Koreans tore down their tower and built a bigger tower, bigger than the North Koreans tower. Angered the North Koreans built the biggest tower yet. This happened something like 3 or 4 full cycles before the South Koreans just stopped building new towers. So there you go, now you know why there will not be peace anytime soon.
We went into one of the tunnels that North Korea built under the DMZ for invasion purposes. It was really creepy. The walls were jagged and rough, you could see dynamite scorch marks near the middle of the tunnel is a ton of barb wire and a huge metal door. Beyond that door is the DMZ and North Korea.
We went to an observation post that overlooked the DMZ as well. The DMZ itself is the largest nature preserve in Asia. It is incredibly odd to stand on the platform and see such unspoiled beauty and yet feel the oppressive weight of what that beauty really means. The DMZ is such an odd mix of emotions.
Through binoculars we saw Propaganda Town. It is a modern city that North Korea built, but no one lives there. It is all for show, to give the illusion of modernity.
Our tour really sucked. We spent next to no time at each place and we watched propaganda infotainment movies at many places. I’m not saying the North is super great, they are most certainly not, and I believe that it is historically true that the South has been far more active in the goal of unification. But I don’t think any country that literally gets into a pissing contest about the height of their flag tower can claim that they alone want unification or are lacking in plans to invade Pyongyang should a second offensive come.
The tours seemed like just enough time to go, watch the stupid movie, and then get your picture taken with the statue. I never had enough time to really absorb what I was seeing or read the displays, or just look out over the DMZ and try and figure it all out, or even try to discover what I even felt at the time. I was in a country still at war with, for all intensive purposes, itself. There was evidence of that everywhere. Subways had gas mask stations and monitoring stations to detect chemical, biological, or radiological components. What does that mean, I mean really? My travels in Asia constantly force me out of the luxurious life I live in American and Japan. I have seen poverty that I cannot comprehend in China and the ever present threat of war in Korea. The amazing thing is the actual threat of war in Korea is slim. I am pretty sure the North is far more likely to attack Japan before the South. Yet I felt it while I was there. Looking at the giant metal gate that blocked off the two Koreas I felt a little scared. I did not think that men would come pouring out at any moment, but the fact that the tunnel was created for just such a reality gave me pause. After all, those gas masks are down there in the subways for a reason.
When Katie and I left the museum a second time, we saw a shooting star. It was one of the brightest I have ever seen. It streaked across maybe twenty to thirty degrees of arc glowing white and leaving a tail of brilliant gold. Shooting stars and comets historically are interpreted as signs of change. Who knows?