I worry too much.
Will my bag make it? (Yes, despite my lack of confidence with
Delta at JFK, the transfer
to KAL occurred flawlessly, and with no small measure of relief, my bag appeared on the
belt at Incheon airport, on schedule. Sorta like everything else in this country... )
Will I have trouble entering as a tourist? (No problem.
The immigration agent
DID stare at me intently, then at my passport, then back at me. I removed
my glasses and grinned, she smiled back. Guess all us caucasians look alike...)
Will I be able to get to the hotel? (Incheon airport is about 40
mi outside of Seoul, and
the cab rides seemed outrageously expensive. Fortunately, there are several bus
routes that serve the hotels exclusively, running every 20 minutes. And it only
cost 13,000 Won - about $15)
The city itself is safe and runs efficiently, although the people are reserved and introverted.
So that makes it kind of like San Francisco, run by Germans.
On Tuesday when I got to work, a man was yelling loudly on top of a
large pile of boxes in
front the building. He was also waving a banner on which the only English characters were IBM.
On Wednesday morning, an announcement in Korean came over the PA.
We were told that the
elevators were off, and to get lunch we'd have to walk down from the 23rd floor.
When I asked why, the students' English suddenly got very bad, but here's
what I could piece
together: IBM donated printers and computer equipment to a non-profit organization, and
later withdrew maintenance support, so the non-profit dumped the printers on the curb, and
sent protesters along with them. The police closed the elevators in the building as a precaution.
Everywhere you turn, there's a restaurant or a convenience store (I
even saw a couple of genuine
7-Elevens -- hmm, wonder who runs them in Korea?). Then there's "Street Food": unlike street food
in other places, Korean vendors must be regulated, because all the vendors were bright, spotlessly
clean and hygenic. (Jane commented that she was still happy I'd had my hepatitis A shot ...) And,
day or evening, they always seem to be mobbed with customers.
They love their cephalopods
Every time we went to lunch, at least one of the dishes would have tentacles.
evening, I stopped by a convenience store and dought a bag of chips as a snack. Standard
foil bag with a picture of the contents and a whole lot of Korean writing. It wasn't until I
got back to the hotel that I noticed a small cartoon character that told me the flavor of the
chips - octopus.
In praise of Kimchi
Kimchi is a typically Korean dish made of fermented cabbage. But
here in its native home,
there's kimchi, and then there's kimchi, and then there's ... well, more kimchi. It is served with
every meal (panchan-style, meaning multiple side dishes) and pretty much borders on a national
obsession. It comes in flavors ranging from mild to drink-a-gallon-of-water hot, textures from
crispy (for freshly-made) to mushy (for the stuff that has fermented for months or years), and
can even be bought for export in the duty-free shop (don't worry, I didn't.)
And Koreans ascribe almost mystical properties to it. According to my students, kimchi can ...
One of my students told me that he has two refrigirators. One for the regular food, and
- spice up almost any dish (okay, I'll buy that...)
- help stave off imminent colds (well, cabbage DOES contain vitamin C...)
- cure Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome [SARS] (huh?...)
- and even cure cancer (now, wait just a minute !! ...)
Wow. That's taking your cabbage seriously.
Speaking of taking things seriously, education is a high priority here.
On Wednesday my students
announced that while I could come to work at 9:00, they would be showing up after 10:00. Why?
Seems Thursday is when college applicants in Korea take their entrance
exams, between 8 and 10 am.
This exam is taken so seriously, they even shut down air traffic at the airports so as not to distract the
students. (It's apparently a one-time, all or nothing exam - no retakes.) Student's (and, indeed, whole
families') reputations ride on those two hours.
And once the exams are over, the fun begins. At lunch on Thursday,
the TV was carrying images of kids
celebrating and carousing. My students said that an exam ticket can get you discounts or free admission to
plays, movies and amusement parks.
The Old: Geunjeongjeon - the Royal Palace, beautifully restored
The New: An office building with a blooming flower motif
The Taxing: This spectacular building
headquarters of the National Tax Authority - no kidding!
The Sublime: A beautifully sculpted riverwalk
three miles through downtown Seoul.
In Beijing, taxis are the way to get around. They're clean and reliable
(although the drivers
don't speak any English), the ride to work is $4, and even the airport is only about $15..
In Seoul, it's a different matter. While every bit as clean and
reliable (and with just as little
English spoken), taxis are considerably more expensive. I'd read that the ride from Inchon
Airport was around $100 (that's why I took the bus). On Monday, when I got in to the cab,
the meter STARTED at $5, and by the time I got to work, the fare was up to about $25.
I quickly investigated alternative means of transport.
Beijing has a subway - I rode it, once. The system is modern, but everything
seems to be done
manually - there aren't even any turnstiles, instead, you give your paper ticket to a uniformed human.
And since there are only two lines, your choice of destinations is a bit limited - for instance, I couldn't
use to get to work.
Aw, 'cmon, it's not that tough: the smiling couple figured it out, and so can you.
Seoul, on the other hand, has a large and hi-tech subway system.
It looks intimidating at
first, but they cleverly used a universal language -- numbers. Each line, in addition to having a
name and a color, also has a number, and that number serves as the prefix of a three-digit
code for all stations on that line.
So for instance, here's my shorthand for the route to work :
(425) > (423) x (331) > (344)
... which is a whole lot easier than saying,"Take the Blue line at Hoehyeon
change at Chungmuro for the Orange line towards Suseo, and get off at Dogok".
A single-use Metro ticket, magnetic stripe on the back.
Seems like no matter how far I travel, and how exotic the destination,
there are always little reminders
that we're all pretty much the same. Teenage girls, in particular, love to shop, no matter what the culture:
- While doing a bit of touristing on Friday before flying home, I stumbled
across a street market. These
are found everywhere in Seoul, but this one was different -- instead of selling housewares or food, this
one sold brightly colored name-brand women's clothing, shoes and accessories. And was populated
almost exclusively by high-school-age girls. "Mall Rats", I think we call them ...
- While at Inchon Airport, seversl urgent announcements came over the
PA in three languages requesting
two passengers to please go to their flight immediately, as it was about to depart. Moments later I saw the
two missing girls, shepherded by uniformed airline personnel, running as fast as their high heels would carry
them, clutching three Duty-Free bags apiece. One of the airline people was looking at the other with a
distinct "I told you so" look.
Before my flight home from Inchon, I stopped in to the bathroom.
Look, I don't care how fond you are of gadgets, you don't need a nine-button
panel for your toilet. This device was unplugged, which fortunately did not prevent it
from functioning as a regular toilet. (You have to plug in your toilet?!?)
There's such a thing as taking gadget mania