Sunday, March 8, 2009

Episode 2: In Which DFM Tries To Get Away From Foreigners Only To Wind Up In The Middle Of Them

I woke up early again on Day 2, because I hadn't yet broken in the internal clock to Korean time.  I thought 4:30 might be a bit too early to go out exploring, so I waited until 6:00 AM to get up.  My hosts were already preparing for a big day at work and were busy making breakfast.  I did not yet own any food, but my hosts let me use some bread.  There was no butter or even a toaster, so I fried up some toast in a big pot.  I sat down to enjoy my fried bread, but was thankfully offered some scrambled eggs and milk to go with it.  Naturally I accepted since the only thing DFM likes more than food... is free food.

My hosts were going to come back later to move me to my new home, so I decided to pass the day by exploring my new city.  I found out later that my neighbourhood was called Haebangchon.  Apparently many foreigners live here, and this is the location of the American military base in Seoul.  My street was very steep and it was a real workout to go up and down the street (even harder on the way down because you had to fight to keep control).  Also, this street contained no sidewalks so pedestrians had to walk along the side of the road and this made passing lampposts very dangerous.  At the bottom of the street are a large number of big pots that I think are used to make kimchi in.  They're stacked up three high and the pots stretch for 20 or 30 yards down the side of the road near the American Yongsan military base.

(I leave my place and the first car I see has a Calvin pissing decal on its fuel door... unbelievable.  I guess you can find rednecks everywhere.)

(With Korea's insane emphasis on status, it's no surprise that I would find one of these elite high priced playschools, but I did not expect to find one on the first day.)

(I did not take this picture, I lifted it from the blog Nicole in Seoul, but these are the exact pots to which I was just referring.)

I stepped in to a small corner store and picked up a packet of milk chocolates in a size that you would typically find at a movie theatre, but the price was roughly only $1.25.  On the package it contained the English slogan "let's have time to enjoy chocolate with the flavour of milk."  While the Engrish is not as bad as in Japan, it's still funny when you find it.

(Speaking of Engrish, here's a Korean proverb for you:  "Don't throw anything in a urinal because that is your conscience.")

At 9:30 AM my host came back home on a short break from her new job driving school buses and took me in a cab to my new place.  Cab drivers are the second scariest part of Seoul and this one tried to back up the wrong way on a major street.  Other cab drivers tend to view traffic lights as merely a "suggestion."

My new place is called e-taewon house, located in Itaewon.  It's referred to on the card as a "bed & breakfast," but is much different to the bed and breakfasts I'm used to.  This place is more like a University dorm room.  There are long hallways filled with broom closets.  Customers stay in the broom closets.  While there isn't enough room to fit a chair in beside my bed, perks include the ridiculously low price of $180/mo, free laundry (detergent provided), a TV with cable in your room, high speed Internet use, and all the rice and kimchi you can eat... and then some.  The Korean word for this type of B&B is a gosiwon.  Gosiwon is pronounced "koshy-won" and when said quickly sounds like "cushy one."  

My previous host/landlord kept referring to my new place as "taking me to the 'cushy one'" and so I had trouble figuring out how there could be any free spots in such a "comfortable," cheap room.  Gosiwon is an important word here in Korea, because every Korean seems to understand exactly what it means and it allows me to answer the question "where do you live" in only one word: either Itaewon, or gosiwon.  The nods/sighs of approval at these answers make me feel like I know how to speak Korean and give me confidence.

Some downsides to my new gosiwon include a common bathroom/shower located right next to the entrance and a sink without plumbing.  The water from the tap runs down a plastic tube and spills out onto the floor (all bathroom floors in Korea seem to have a drain in the middle of them).  This makes brushing your teeth an adventure, because anything you spit into the sink will then run onto your feet if you're not careful.  The water for the shower is very warm and the shower head produces a decent amount of water pressure though, so it's not all bad.

After moving my stuff in I decided to explore my new new surroundings.  It turns out that Itaewon is one giant tourist trap.  While there are a lot of nice restaurants/bars/stores etc. which cater to Westerners, it is also quite overpriced.  Being a foreigner it is even worse, since I was later told that many of the less reputable shop owners have two prices: the real price, and then the price for white people.  As an example, I purchased a prepaid mobile phone from a small store and was given the cheapest phone.  The phone was $60, which seems rather cheap compared to what phones cost in Canada, but some friends I met later told me that I can buy prepaid phones in other parts of Seoul for only $30.  I will sell my phone back afterwards and recoup some of the initial cost, but I did learn a lesson that it always pays to take a local along with you when you shop in Seoul.

An interesting fact about mobile phones in Korea is that no foreign phones can be used in Korea, and no Korean phone can be used overseas.  For some reason all phone service providers run on a different system (I'm not sure how phones work, but foreigners I've met tell me that this is true).

I also learned that white tourists are every bit as annoying in Seoul, as Asian tourists are annoying in Banff, etc.  While Asian tourists often make an attempt to learn English before they come, most Western tourists don't make the same effort.  Ironically, I myself know very little Korean, and am also white.  My brother always says I'm  grumpy old man, and now apparently I'm a grumpy old, racist man who thinks he's Korean.

Motorcycles in Seoul are as bad as cabbies.  Whereas cabbies will ignore stop lights when they feel they are unnecessary, scooter couriers will ignore all the rules of the road.  I've seen them traveling on the wrong side of the road, down the center of two lanes, and even on the sidewalk.  Bikes on the sidewalk can be scary back home, but they're nothing compared to a scooter traveling 40 km/hr right at you.  A friend I met this day told me that the motorcycle/scooter couriers are very dangerous (even by Seoul driving standards) and that they are quite poor and have no insurance.  I wasn't sure how to process that information or relate to it exactly, but it seemed important enough for him to feel he needed to tell me so I"m telling you.

Of course not all Western stereotypes of Seoul were accurate.  Looking down from the top of a hill the air is hazy, but on the street it actually feels quite clean.  In Alberta I have to take a shower after I go out walking because of all the dust in the air, but here the air smells and tastes fresh even during rush hour (although the Chemistry accident in Grade 12 that burnt my nostrils and caused me to lose my sense of smell may have something to do with that).  I referred to an article in the LA Times last episode which said Westerners are stereotyped as sexual deviants and considered unfit to date Korean women (it's like we're the new negro, except real black people still have it worse in Korea too, according to the article).  I asked my new friend if I would be discriminated against if I were to date a Korean.  "As long as she's over 13, it doesn't matter" he replied.  Further proof that you must always think critically when you read judgements about a group of people.

(Here's a stereotype about Asians that is true:  They have weird taste in cartoons.  This is the actual sign for the police station in Itaewon.)

Heading off the major tourist streets and into some of the scarier back roads put me on guard, but I had nothing to worry about.  Seoul in general and Korea specifically are very safe for tourists I've found, and apart from the crazy motorcyclists who rip up and down the back alleys without warning, there's nothing to worry about and the food is great.  I bought four massive dumpling looking objects for $2.25 from a man sitting in the back of his truck.  They were absolutely delicou, but I could only finish two of them, and I had to save the other two for breakfast the next morning.  I also bought 6 mandarin oranges for $1.25.  I had planned to go home but then turned down an even smaller side alley and made the Itaewon cardinal sin: I looked at a shop owners product for more than half a second.  That was it, I was reeled in with her smooth talking sales pitch.  By this time I had learned how to walk away (I promptly lost $14 in the first store I entered this day), but I was intrigued by the price of $2.00 for what looks like a chicken kabob. (In case you hadn't figured it out I'm making a rough conversion from Korean Won to Canadian dollars here.  Americans, you're on your own.)  

I have since tried to figure out the Korean name for this dish, but no one has been able to tell me.  All I know is that chicken is called dalk in Korean (pronounced "dock"), and that dalk kabobs are cheap, spicy, and delicious.  They're also available almost everywhere and are made by skilled street vendors for less than the price of a coffee in Alberta.  The spicy sauce burns your lips and makes you lose your appetite too, so one is often enough, which is a bonus for an old miser like myself.

With my new-found side street treasures, I hurried on home to eat up and ensure that I did not spend anymore money.  While sitting in my broom closet I did some research on Itaewon and found accounts of travelers who had run into the Russian mafia.  According to the account I read, four or so surly looking men will attempt very strongly to persuade you to enter their club for an exotic poll dance and more.  Once inside you will be brought food you did not order (or perhaps just billed for food you did not order), and will be given a sub par poll dance and then forced to watch while the dancers flirt with the Russian men.  Leaving without paying is of course not an option for those wishing to keep their knee caps.  Since I generally tire myself out in the afternoon I get to skip the evening madness that is the 24 hour city of Seoul, so I don't run into the mafia too often.  I did however ask around to inquire if this was common and was told that there definitely was a mafia presence on my street.  I wasn't scared, but my old man Korean racism kicked in and I felt the Russian mafia should not be allowed to operate on my street since their behaviour is lacks class and I find the accent less than soothing.  If I'm going to be robbed, I prefer to be robbed by the sweet sounding Italian mafia who might kiss me before they put a horse's head in my bed.  Yes, that's much better.

(You might have to look closely, but this gas station has no pumps.  Instead, the nozzles hang down from the signs up above and can be pulled down with a small rope/chain attached to the handles.)

(I guess no one told the Koreans what Athlete's Foot means in North America.  Or perhaps they just don't know who John Madden is? ...Boom!)

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