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Seoul Saga

By Meghan E. Miller

June 20, 2009

A few days into my stint in Seoul, and I am less than thrilled with Korea.  It is cold and dry with an extra garnish of thick yellow dust blown over from the Gobi desert in China. The Koreans, knowing very well that dust from China carries a rich mix of heavy metals and noxious chemical pollutants, have whipped out the super fashionable surgical mask made famous by recent SARS and bird flu scares. And when your face mask features Hello Kitty, why not? It occurs to me I have been a face-exposed visitor in not one, but two masked countries after my recent work in Dubai.

Seoul, I have quickly learned, is expensive. My Korean won disappears so quickly, and I often wonder why somebody doesn't chop off some zeros from their currency (1,000 won is about $1 US). I cannot afford to hook up internet in my hotel room more than once every 10 days or so, resorting to furtive roaming with an open laptop, searching for wireless signals in the mall. Teeny coffees run me 4,500 won apiece, and a mango can be 7,000 in the supermarket!

To pretend I'm in California, I keep the thermostat up in my hotel room and have found the warm spots in the tent, but have given up any attempts at fashion in favor of practicality: jeans and a jacket and sneakers day in and day out, especially for the trek to work. I love working in cities where I can be a pedestrian, where I have the freedom to walk away restlessness and explore the minutae missed in a car. 

Being a pedestrian here, though, is a different game. You are not all that much safer on a raised curb than in the middle of an intersection, where cars seem to rule with robust authority and the city's overcrowding prompts the ridiculous practice of parking, and therefore driving, on sidewalks. Motorbikes and scooters, it seems, are above any laws whatsoever. Now, as a girl who tends to believe (perhaps stupidly) in her exceptional agility, I am often quite brave at sprinting across streets and dodging traffic. Not here. I have to budget a minimum of ten extra minutes to account for crossing streets, the gigantic 16-lane boulevards whose green lights are so rare and fleeting they could be myth. Cars line up at intersections like officers in a firing squad, occasionally darting through red signals, feigning innocence as they barrel on.   

In truth, I am much more in danger of being sideswiped by a roving Jehovah's Witness. Generally, English is a rarity in Seoul, and though the Koreans' kindness invariably shines through our miscommunications, I abandon nearly every attempted conversation in exasperation. Most likely banking on this frustration, the Christian missionaries here are beautifully fluent in my language, presenting themselves as "volunteers for English speakers." Because of these "volunteers," I now have an ample supply of religious leaflets and church invitations.  I have learned to avoid the corner coffee shop with the huge yellow banner reading, "CAUTION: I'm crazy about Jesus!" I can't seem to get up the mean nerve it takes to slam doors in people's faces or refuse them completely, though.  Maybe I need an edgier style, since I probably look too approachable.

Day Off in Insadong

On Monday, my one precious day off, my friend Veronica and I braved the crowded subway all the way to Insadong, the hub of traditional Korean culture in northern Seoul. We wandered the streets of the Buddhist-influenced neighborhood, passing monks and nuns, both with shaved heads. Everything was aesthetically pleasing, peaceful, minimalist. Paper shops produced fine, fibrous folds of paper sprinkled with leaves, flowers, splashes of color and accents of calligraphy. Pale green Korean ceramics, in all their simple beauty, were stacked in precarious teacup towers. Rice was ground into a fine powder, mixed into a gelatinous goo and pounded with loud grunts and shouts by a man wielding a wooden mallet. Mmmm... the cakes produced were subtly sweet,

Hungry for lunch, we sought out Sanchon, which means Mountain Village, a renowned vegetarian restaurant specializing in Buddhist temple cuisine. The lunch was a fixed-price set of multiple dishes served in a celestially-lucky quantity of thirty tiny bowls (we counted), and included tastes and textures we had never experienced in our lives. Reading from the menu, it seems we had "mountain porridge," "fried kelp," "millet jelly," "steamed beancurd and burdock seasoned wild mountain roots" and "watery kimchi." It was outrageously fun to experiment without the fear of ingesting some unexpected and unappetizing meat or animal part, a common risk for the traveling vegetarian.  After rising from our floor-level dining table and replacing our shoes to return outside, our tastebuds were still in a frenzy.

We spent the afternoon strolling the lanes of Insadong, and soon happened upon a cluster of shops enclosing a courtyard called Ssamzie-gil. As I entered the first few shops, I quickly realized the uniqueness of what they contained - independent artists selling their handmade wares on an intimate scale. Many of the shops were run by groups of art students and featured handmade jewelery, ceramics, stationary, gifts, dyed fabric, and all sorts of overwhelmingly cute character items. (Like Japan and its immensely popular Sanrio brand, Korea is full of adorable little characters, of which my favorites so far are Tofu Heads and SSBA's Little Peace Activists.)

Up the spiral staircase to the airy Gallery Café.  I was served green tea in a manner involving no fewer than four ceramic vessels: a bowl of boiled water, a pot containing the tea leaves, a bowl to pour the brewed tea into, and a teensy cup from which to sip the much-poured liquid.  It was delicious, especially when paired with the sesame-rice crisps I had bought from the vendor downstairs. This all-natural snack is concocted of rice, seeds, nuts, and raisins, poured over an open flame and stirred with a paddle before being slapped onto a wooden board and chopped up for instant enjoyment.

Boiled and Eaten Alive

My first experience at a public bathhouse was as a 13-year old exchange student in Japan. We were told that the private showers at our lodge would cost extra and that the immaculate, boiling hot tubs were not only traditional, but therapeutic as well. I went for it, feeling mature and cultured at the time, even if I could stand the hot water only briefly while turning a florid shade of pink.

Ten years later, and with a greater need for the therapeutic effects of such places, I have tried out two traditional Korean bathhouses. The first was Icheon, a little over an hour outside Seoul under ideal conditions (once you take the right subway to the right station and manage to board the right bus, that is). Famous for its hot springs, Icheon boasts of its healing waters, which bubble naturally from underground and are said to treat any ailment from neurosis to hiccups.

On the way there, I pictured 19th Century seaside retreats where the ill and infirm were taken to breathe curative airs and recover their strength. I imagined a serene mountaintop sanctuary where guests meditated, drank medicinal teas, and cultivated health while making progress towards enlightenment. Looking back on my expectations, I can now laugh, but at the moment I arrived at the Icheon Hot Springs Resort, its resemblance to a water park was an utter disappointment.

Despite the family fun atmosphere, it was certainly unlike any U.S. water park; there were no tacky inner tubes or carts selling fried food. Instead, there were pools of brightly colored mineral waters "flavored" with everything from lemon essence to ginseng to mugwort.  Mugwort, by the way, is a plant with presumed magical powers in many cultures; here in Korea I’ve seen it everywhere from bathwater to rice cakes.

Infants, the elderly, and everyone in between took part in a communal and sedative soak, as though liquid calm were seeping through our pores.

For the adventurous, there were other exotic features of the spa that took a little nerve but were worth it for the story if nothing else. The first was the traditional Korean sauna, which looked out of place in the ultra-modern facility, as it was formed of circular stacked stones with a chimney on top. I had to crouch down low to enter through a glass portal that looked frighteningly like the door that covers my grandmother's fireplace, and indeed, I was met by a pyretic blast of furnace-hot air. Inside, people moved slowly in the dim light and smothering heat, laying themselves on woven mats to sweat out impurities and breathe in the scent of cedarwood. Remaining even a few moments took a mind-over-matter resolve not to leap from the sauna like the gingerbread man escaping the oven.

Following this hot house with a shudderingly-cold shower, I was ready to try the main attraction at Icheon – the so-called "Doctor Fish" therapy, a pool inhabited by tiny fish whose purpose is to feast on the dead skin of bathers in need of exfoliation. I'll admit I was squeamish and ill at ease with the idea of being gnawed at by piscine scavengers. The other bathers somehow remained still enough to let the little ones attack rough elbows and scaly knees, and as my friend Cory said, "They're doctors, I mean, they must know what they're doing, right?" Still, the moment I felt them swarming around my feet or hands, having an absolute field day with my callouses (the scars of circus work), I cut short my half-hour treatment and ran for the nearest shower. 

I didn't let the fish scare me away from the Korean baths completely, though. Having suffered from an intense migraine during the work week, I chose to visit a second spa, this one in the heart of Myong-dong, a downtown shopping hub where street vendors sell one-size-fits-all-Koreans clothing for much cheaper than in the department stores. (Luckily, my own height is along the lines of the Korean norm, so shopping this way was surprisingly fruitful.) This time, the spa was ladies-only (i.e. naked), but offered all manner of beauty-enhancing treatments to turn one from homely to comely. There were the baths enfused with green tea and lavendar, the steam shower, and the mud mask. In hopes of relieving my migraine, I opted for the invigorating head massage - thirty minutes of scalp scrating, hair-pulling, and temple-rubbing that was surprisingly effective. Throughout the visit, I was shuttled around by countless female attendants eager to wrap me in towels, dry my hair, and clothe me in the silliest pink fuzzy robe and slippers. I left in a drowsy daze, high on pampering and relaxation.

So am I radiantly beautiful now after so much washing? Am I scrubbed clean and glowing with all my cares washed down the drain? One step into this polluted metropolis and I understand the Korean desire for a good bath.

It’s Your Possible!

I should preface this entry by saying that in no way do I intend to ridicule the Korean people for their rather unorthodox application and interpretation of the English language. As I look back on the three months I've spent in this country, I find it pleasantly ironic that I was initially wild with frustration at my inability to communicate with locals.  In fact, I now consider the language barrier to be one of the most hilarious and winsome features of Korea.

First, allow me to boast foolishly about my own acquired language skills. Basically, I understand and can reciprocate “An nyoung ha seh yo!” and “Annyeonghi gaseyo!” (hello and good bye, respectively).  They are literally sung at you upon entering and exiting any kind of store. The unmistakable sing-song melody of these phrases has made me think of them, for all intents and purposes, as a short and cheery Korean national anthem. I’ve also mastered the extremely important “kamsa hamnida” (thank you) as well as “saranghae” (I love you), the catch phrase of any Korean pop ballad.

I do realize that my command of four phrases of their language doesn’t exactly give me license to critique Koreans’ English skills, but since I am so enamored of their English gaffes, they deserve a discussion here.

I was aghast at my first exposure to the Koreans’ perversion of English on everything from t-shirts to restroom signs. It was like when you try writing your language class essay by looking up each and every word in the dictionary – it just doesn’t work that way. 

But pasting English here, there, and everywhere seemed all the rage, very fashionable.  It brought to mind the countless Americans who get those trendy tattoos of Chinese characters and invariably claim that they mean “love” or “peace” or some other enlightened concept, while for all we know, they could have a permanent “kick me” sign on the small of their back. 

Soon, though, I realized that there was a hidden sweetness to the flubbed English.  It was as if I were reading a secret code – I was probably one of the only people around who could get the joke, find the humor. In fact, I have discovered many an uplifting phrase and inspirational message among the jumbled words, and I have come to read them almost like poetry. Maybe you will understand as I share a few of my favorites, though Microsoft Word will go nuts underlining everything in green.

Take a balances in work and love! (Sage advice found on a cartoon-illustrated to-do list)

I like languid afternoon window, PM 2:00 and you. (Greeting card message)

Life is biscuit case. (Notebook cover... profound, huh?)

Make yourself as a professional with good idea in your hand. It’s your possible! (My new red leather-bound notepad with pen included)

For your well-being life. (The indication stamped on any food or product touted as healthy)

Spring come rain fall. (The name of my favorite stationary store)

Keep a green tree in your heart for free dream. (Tote bag)

Birds are flying in the niceish forest. (On a lunch box painted with tiny doves)

Kindly note: I don’t look for girl friend or sort of lover. I would like make new friend and broader worlds. (Korean businessman who approached after seeing me in a café)

Special food for the skin to eat to maintain our bodies lively. (Cosmetics company advertisement)

Let's get out here, girl! May you being happy travel! (Passport carry-case)

Our effort on little details will help you create peaceful, harmonious family life and share pleasant conversations. (Bakery wrapper)

You get the picture. The real hub of cute, albeit erroneous English was the designer stationary shop, of which there were many. They feature a multitude of paper products, wallets, pins, trinkets, jewelry, teacups, and all manner of creative yet trivial things. Some of my favorite designers were Red Cloudy, Milimeter/Miligram, O-check Designs, Iconic Dream, and Monopoly. Even the names are adorable, and coupled with bright colors, childish illustrations, charming characters, and, of course, linguistic faux pas, I fell madly in love. The products maintained a page-torn-out-of-the-coloring-book humble simplity.

Meghan Elizabeth Miller is a performer on tour with Cirque du Soleil and has been to nearly thirty cities with the show.  She is a Registered Yoga Teacher, a native Californian, and an enthusiastic travel writer.  Meghan can be contacted at mem7883@gmail.com or her website meghanemiller.com

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