Mon Dec 7, 1998
Here is your intrepid world traveler on his way to South Korea for a week on business.
I have arrived in Korea . After a 1/2 hour bus trip, I got to my hotel. Its 4AM body time but not late in the evening here. The guitar I brought to keep up my practice traveled fine. The TV has Korean, Japanese, American, French and German channels! I am eating a rice and mushroom dish at a Japanese restaurant in the hotel. I have about 11 hours to be ready for work. Should be fine.
I brought a guitar with me for in-room relaxation (much better than TV). It traveled fine and is very nice to have along.
Near the end of the flight (at about midnight Seattle Sat 12/5) we just passed over Japan and the in-flight information system said we were 35 miles from Kanazawa. Too bad I couldn't just drop down for a quick visit to Mom & Dad!
I am down for the complimentary breakfast, and what a breakfast it is! I have never seen such a thing. They are obviously catering to the wide international clientele they serve. Bacon, eggs (fried, hard boiled, scrambled), ham, fruit (Japanese apple-pear, persimmon), preserved fruits (Mandarin oranges, peaches, lychees), fruit juices, teas, excellent fish, sushi makings, dry cereals, pancakes, waffles, breads, pastries, miso soup, and other things. And all in a gilded dining room lit with chandeliers! I had to try out just about everything.
Tue Dec 8
Good morning or whatever it is over there,
This place is interesting. I haven't gone out anywhere as a tourist, but there is a lot to see of everyday life in the immediate area. Seoul is crowded of course. It seems to me like a Japanese version of Sao Paulo. Narrow streets, hilly, plenty of cars but few parking spaces. (I saw a lift in front of one building that allowed two vehicles to use one space.) It is rather drab now that it is winter.
Medison's research center in in Seoul, but their factory is in a town outside the city. We are going there by car today. (They drive on the right side of the road.) We started early to beat traffic. They have good freeways. Seoul has a major river that cuts it East-West. We have been traveling on road up-river. At one place the freeway had ended and a road that wound beside the river became a bottle-neck. Last Saturday a new freeway opened and we are using it now. At first it went through a series of about 5 tunnels. Then there was a bridge that traveled over the water along the river. There were signs to drive carefully - if the car fell into the river, it would affect the Seoul water supply!
(I just caught the smell of a farmer burning rice chaff in his field. My how that brings back memories of Japan!)
We are making very good time. We may get to the factory before it opens. We stopped for breakfast of a soup of rice, bean sprouts, an egg, well peppered with sesame. It was good. The dish is called "good for morning hang-over" or something like that. It does wake the mouth.
This road has many, many cafes along it. They are usually constructed with some theme: a castle, nautical, log construction, metal and glass, chalet, windmill, thatched roof with mud walls - all very inventive.
Some random observations: -A fair number of motorcycles are in use modified for delivery purposes. -Gas stations in Seoul have pull-down gas hoses and an all-open pull-in area (like Japan) to maximize space usage. -Seoul is hilly - there are many stainless or aluminum hand-rails along the edges of sidewalks that have immediate drop-offs at their edge.
There are many greenhouses along the way. Although the Korean economy has slowed, there is a lot of road construction going on. The flavor of the area is somewhat (again) like Japan, but it is not the same. Obvious things like all Korean product brand names along the way. I have noticed a fair number of Christian churches - at least building with lighted crosses on them.
Restaurant observations (at least the two cafes I have gone to with the Medison guys): They use metal chopsticks (trickier to use than wood) and a large long handled spoon. These are sterilized in an ultraviolet sterilizer. Cups are small - about standard measuring cup size and also made of stainless. Water comes in a plastic rubbermaid-type flip-lid pitcher. There are usually a number of condiments (spicy cabbage, spicy radish & others) that are in common dishes in the middle. You eat out of them with your chopsticks as you go during the meal. Many restaurants have both tables and a raised kneeling seating area (heated floors). Napkins are often a couple of toilet paper squares. Yesterday we were using them right from the paper roll.
Wed Dec 9
Good Wednesday Morning from Korea,
I had a couple of good and interesting meals yesterday. For lunch we had cold noodle soup. It was quite good, although I don't think I could describe it. We ate at a little restaurant that had two (count them!) tables. (I think it also had another kneeling seating area, but not much larger. We waited quite a while for our meal. One of the people from the place had gone out not long after we got there and then shortly after she returned, our food was brought to us. We think they found one of the ingredients missing and had to go out to get it. We laughed over that one.
For dinner we had barbecued pork. And what an interesting arrangement! The place had a room full of 1 foot-high kneeling-type tables with metal rings in them in which to put charcoal barbeque brasiers. Over each was a metal fume hood that could be raised and lowered by a little built-in motor.
All the usual condiments were on the table (especially kimchee - sweet & sour cabbage). Also there were some whole salad leaves (lettuce & sesame). We were given a pile of sliced marinated meat and barbecued it ourselves as we ate.
The way things were done: Lay a couple of (kinds of) leaves on your hand, put a square of the barbecued pork on top, then a sort of spicy sesame thin grated cabbage condiment, some bean sauce and maybe a clove of garlic. Roll it all up tight and stuff it into your mouth in one bite! Very tasty and a lot of fun.
My hotel room looks out out on Nam San mountain (a small mountain by Pacific Northwest American thinking). There is a cable car that goes up to the top. Seoul tower is build on it - a narrow cylindrical tower that has a revolving restaurant in it and TV transmission towers on top of it. Although the country is drab right now because all the trees are bare, it is a nice view because it is of trees and not just of buildings.
In regard to a question: We don't all eat from the same bowl at a restaurant, We have our own bowl, but the condiment bowls are in common and we use our eating chopsticks to pick up items from them. Since the chopsticks can be used to lift things from the top (instead of having to get underneath them like with a fork) the method is fine. However, it might strain North American eating conventions.
Wed Dec 9
Another day (Wednesday) in the life..... Today has had a surprising amount of adventure for being an ordinary sort of day. After the long day yesterday, I went to work a bit later. Work is only about 5 minutes walk from the hotel. Today I walked it myself. It is cold, dry and windy these days in Seoul. I am glad for my coat.
My hosts have been Hyungham (aka H2) and Yung Jun. H2 is fluent in English and Yung Jun understands a lot but is still reluctant to say much. H2 has spent the last ~6 months at ATL. Yung Jun works for him - together they are are the Medison acoustics measurement department.
For lunch we went to a place that had only one thing on the menu - boiled chicken soup. A very young (maybe < 2 lb.) chicken is stuffed with rice and a gensing root. It comes in a slightly thickened translucent soup. There is also a nut of some kind, a kind of berry and onion (leek?) slices. It is delivered to you in a stoneware pot that is so hot that the edges of the soup are at a full rolling boil. (Yesterday's "hangover" breakfast soup also came in a boiling pot.) The standard long-handled spoon and metal chopsticks are used to ladle out some of the soup into another shallow bowl to cool. Also the chicken is broken apart. Chopsticks are used to pick out the meat and the bones are put into a another container. The meat pieces are dipped into a mixture of salt and pepper and eaten. With the bones gone, the soup can all be stirred up. It was good food, but the bones slowed me down and I was the last one done.
Coming back from lunch we passed a open market area. This one is famous for dried fish and seafood. The buildings are food warehouses and stores and the whole block area has turned itself into a volume sales daily street market. There were all kinds of dried fish - large to anchovies. One stand had more than a dozen kinds of anchovies - bigger, smaller, dried different ways, etc. There was squid, octopus, many kinds of seaweed and many things I couldn't distinguish. Also noodles, dried fruits, partially prepared seafoods. I saw pigs nose, pigs feet and manta (stingrays)! Very interesting.
After work the guys took me to a restaurants area that is popular with young people. They called it college street (though there is no actual college). I saw a western saloon, a place for mexican food, a live jazz place, lots of lights (neon, etc), lots of people. KFC, Burger King, MacDonalds and a few others were also represented. There were plenty of fancy and ordinary eating places to fill the place in.
We went into a Japanese place. I had a tempura & noodle soup meal. It was quite good. At the end of the meal, the chef sent us a complimentary dish that had a couple of (just about) whole fish (with mean looking teeth) covered in a sauce. There was a little bit of meat here and there on them, but mostly it was for effect and flavor.
We then went to another area. It was a street that would have been very interesting to see during the day because it was full of galleries. There were a few stores open that had souvenirs. I think mostly pottery, and paintings were sold on the street. They had some pretty porcelain.
It was getting late (~9:30), so we started to head back. H2 started to tell me about one of the other engineers from my work that had been in Korea. Greg is a gung-ho type and had tried all kinds of things. There is a kind of bug grub that they eat here and Greg had even eaten that. A few minutes later H2 noticed a street stand that sold the stuff. The grubs were hot, already cooked and were in a sauce. He bought a cup of them and he & I ate them with toothpicks. They had a nutty meaty flavor. After a few, I decided I could get to like them.
A taxi came by then, so they caught it for me, told the driver where I needed to go and sent me on my way. I was wondering at first how to know how much to pay. It turned out however, the driver had worked at Whistler, BC for a while as a ski instructor and knew English. Taxis are relatively inexpensive transportation here.
Thurs Dec 10
Another day of random observations:
The coffee here is usually kind of thin compared to our norms. Yung Jun said he thought that the Coke in the USA was not as strong. After I told him about the extra cinnamon in the Coke in Brazil, he thought Korean Coke was similar. -I didn't notice a difference.
There is an electronic player piano in the dining room in the hotel. They have nice tunes playing on it during meals. However, it is badly out of tune. So it is out of place for the room: the nice music playing on it and the attentive high-service waiters! Yesterday, I suggested to one of the stewards that it really needed tuning. "Oh," he said, " You must play an instrument." However, it has not been tuned... Oh, well. :-)
The heaters and air conditioner units commonly used here are free-standing units a little smaller than a refrigerator but less deep: about 1-2 ft from front to back. The heaters run on kerosene and only have a simple pipe vent that is sometimes punched through the window to the outside. They are just plugged into the wall socket for power. Kerosene is brought up in plastic jerry cans and pumped by hand into the unit.
The hair dryer at the hotel has written on it the brand "Modernism". Below are the by-lines " Modern Feeling" and "Unix"! :-)
Everybody has cell phones. Even though there are wired phones at their desks, they carry their cell phones with them. Yesterday at lunch someone's phone went off and everybody scrambled looking to see if it was theirs. I think they missed the call.
Coming back late from the factory day before yesterday, Yung Jun called his girl friend on the cell phone , then H2 called his wife. Then he joked and asked me if I wanted to call my wife. I declined because I didn't want to interrupt Mel's sleep.
One of the games that is somewhat unique to this area is fute-volley. The short description is volleyball played with a tennis net and soccer-ball handling rules. Workers at the factory were playing it at lunch time. I noticed that the ball does not move as fast as hand volleyball. This game would be a challenge to North Americans because of the ball handling skills needed, but it looked interesting.
There is a locksmith that has a business on the street near here. He has a little cabinet up against the side of the building with all his stuff. Yesterday was quite cold, so he had a wood fire in a 5 gallon square metal can out on the street. It seemed strange - a crackling (camp-like) file on the street in the city.
The pedestrians do not have the first right-of-way here - like Brazil and unlike Japan.
There are a lot of motorcycle shops on the main street near here. They come in all sizes of course - even one that looks like a motorized skateboard. Most of the brands are Korean names. There are a few interesting modified cycles too. I saw a bicycle modified into a motor cycle. There are a number of three-wheeled motorcycle-front-end units. This seems to make sense in a world of Mom & Pop print shops (of which there are quite a number in the vicinity) and other such businesses. The small delivery vehicle can thread traffic quicker and can actually carry product orders appropriate to the business sizes.
Fri Dec 11
Today I went to Pizza Hut for lunch - a three story glass, steel and brushed aluminum restaurant with hardwood accents. The pizza was fine. In character with the common condiment dishes for traditional Korean eating, they brought bowls of salad from the bar to be shared by the group. Also before the pizza came, they had two bowls of spaghetti to eat (7 people). The standard combination pizzas here in Korea don't come with pepperoni on them because most Koreans don't like pepperoni.
We went to the restaurant by city bus. It reminded me a lot of Sao Paulo - the stand-up swinging hand-holds, the aggressive bus driving style, the motorcycles zipping in and out so close, the cars coming within inches of each other. We crossed the street a couple of times by means of underpasses - like Japan. One of the underpasses had a shopping mall in it - like Japan. We walked through a side street that was so narrow that it may have scraped the sides of our American mini-van - also like Japan.
Dinner this evening was at the local restaurant where Medison carries the dinner tab (for their employees working late). Another good meal of Korean food. I could get used to this food style!
Sat Dec 12
From your cultural reporter,
Doors come in all sizes in Korea. The revolving doors at the hotel are about 12 feet high. Many doors are the usual approximate 7', but there are some very small ones too. I have seen and used some 4' doors. Usually they are set above the ground so that you step up and through the door. The place I am working at in Seoul is a 60 year old building. It's main entrance has a roll up metal door that is used at night. The after hours and guard entrance is one of the little doors.
Other things are sized differently too. Generally I am quite a bit taller than the Koreans and especially the older people. The older buildings represent the designs made during the old people's years and reflect their height. The tiny restaurant where I ate lunch after they purchased the missing ingredients (see Wed) had a very low ceiling. I could touch it with my head by raising myself slightly on my toes. It was like old times in Japan!
My hosts are tired from the (even for them) extended hours of work. This is Saturday. The 1st & 3rd Saturdays in a month are "for work" days for Medison employees. Although they do get to go home at 4 PM. The earliest we went home this past week was about 7 and two days were about midnight!
Sun Dec 13
To the patient gang,
One of the things that I have noticed (that I had forgotten about) was being looked at as a distinctive foreigner. Several times I noticed people looking at me out of curiosity - and by adults, not children. Like being in Japan again. I was not expecting it, because there are a number of foreigners in this particular area - what with all the international business done by Korea and the concentration of major hotels in that area.
Last night, I went down to use the public hot baths in the hotel. I had understood that because of a special promotion, they were free, so I had used them earlier in the week. (Very nice.) This time they said I had to pay (a nominal fee). I didn't want to pay anything that day, so even though I had changed out of my clothes, I declined and dressed again. I had not gotten much exercise this week, so I went to the gym, intending to use the treadmill. While I was getting it programmed, a gal came up to me and said I needed to change into a "training uniform" or something. That was enough. I politely declined again and gave up on hotel rules.
Since I still had not gotten my exercise, on Sunday I ran stairs. The hotel is 17 stories high and I went top to bottom twice.
I had not explored Seoul much because of the work. I asked where might be a good place to go for a walk but didn't get good answers. So I took off on my own in the direction I seem to instinctively take - up.
Nam San mountain (visible from my hotel room) was nearby. There were a number of sports fields at its base. I went past a stone bridge that was made 400 years ago. It had been moved to a park from its original site, but its age was still impressive. I came to a very large performing arts theater with a number of interesting sculptures around it. Not all of the figures depicted looked specifically asian - interesting.
I had time, so I continued up the mountain to the top. The view would have been quite good, but like many oversize cities, Seoul seemed to be overcast with smog. This mountain is a popular destination. There were various street food vendors. One man had a cotton candy machine built on the back of his motorcycle.
The mountain had originally been used for signal fires in ancient times. One of the signal fire stations had been rebuilt and was interesting.
Seoul tower was also at the peak of the mountain. I went into the base and looked at an interesting series of pictures showing early Seoul and present Seoul. There was also an interesting series of pictures of the member structures of the World Federation of Great Towers. Seoul tower was near the highest (~1000 ft). The Seattle Space Needle was a shorter at about 550 ft (but was in the group).
Coming back, I was hungry since I had skipped lunch. I bought a couple of cakes from a street vendor. They were made with a very sweet pancake-like batter. They were baked in a small oval tray that could close up in a clamshell. That way it could be flipped over and cooked on the other side. When the batter was almost done, an egg was cracked into the middle and it was closed up. It was quite good.
Coming back, I was startled when a motorcycle whizzed past me on the sidewalk. Bicycles and motorcycles do this in Seoul and I don't think it is one of the better aspects of the city,
I got back in sufficient time to catch the shuttle to the airport. It was an interesting ride because I had a map and could identify things we passed. (When I had arrived in Seoul it had been dark.) Seoul was once a walled city. The gates became important business areas and continue to be so to this day. I was able to see one of the preserved gates from about a block away.
The tallest skyscraper in Asia (at this time) is in Seoul. It is 65 stories high and has no other tall buildings around it, so it is very impressive.
One of the guys at work in Bothell warned me to spend all my Korean money because the exchange rate back would be real bad. After I bought a few trinkets in the airport, I was ready to go through the departure gate. Then I found out I needed to buy an airport tax ticket and they only accepted cash! I didn't have any US dollars to exchange. There was a VISA cash machine, but I had never used my VISA card at a cash machine and had no PIN number for it. Also, the instructions were in Korean. I talked to one of the ticket agents. After a bit, she came up with one of the tax exemption forms the US military servicemen use. It was a good effort, but it wasn't right. And with my pony tail and beard, I really didn't look military!
I went back to the souvenir shops. After some discussion, I bought something with a credit card (a little more expensive than I wanted) and they gave me cash back. I wasn't quite worried but it was not a good feeling. Next time I will know!
This has been an interesting trip. I've learned lots. I learned that Hyungham, my host, was paying out of his own pocket when we would go to lunch and dinner. I learned that I like Korean food. I have been reminded that I have a good family and it will be good to be back with them.