Sunday, March 8, 2009

Episode 4: In Which DFM Finds Out That He Has Broken Three Of The Five Korean Dining Etiquette Rules And Sees Some More Sights

Today I went to church with my new friend Nelson.  Nelson is from The Philippines, and is a personal assistant/valet to some Italian diplomat and this is his second time in Korea.  The church is built to cater to foreigners new to Korea so everything was done in English (although many people have been there for years).

After the service, Nelson, his friend Filipino friend Noel Perez - who works as an architect for a large Korean firm - and I went exploring.  Nelson was the most experienced of the group, so he was the leader.  We first went to Namdaemun market, which translates to South-big-gate market.  Because I hadn't planned on sight seeing this early in the day I did not bring my camera, but there a large gate near the market entrance that was having construction work done on it and was covered with a tarp that had the image of the gate on it (I'll go back later and get pictures of everything I write about in this post).

I walked around the market, which was a lot smaller than I thought it would be (apparently Dongdaemun - North big gate - is much larger), and picked up a few souvenirs.  I was a bit scared at first because of the pushy/tourist nature of the Itaewon markets near my place, but this is just a flea market like you'd find in any city.  The shop keepers are very kind, and are more than willing to let you peruse their wares without being overly pushy (they still want to make a sale, obviously).  Nelson remarked that when he came here five years ago hardly any of the shop keepers spoke English, but that he was surprised with how many had picked it up since then.  I bought four more mandarin oranges for under a dollar, which appeased my grumbling belly (mandarin oranges are called gyul in Korean, and apparently they're referred to as tangerines.  The Koreans get quite offended if you call them oranges, or at least one man on the street did when I told him I was eating oranges).  

I also picked up a pair of beautifully crafted ceramic ended stainless steel Korean chopsticks.  Korean chopsticks differ from Chinese chopsticks in a few key aspects.  For starters, they're steel.  Apparently this tradition was started by an ancient Korean king who only ate with silver chopsticks, since the silver would tarnish in the presence of poison.  Peasant Koreans used baser metals for obvious reasons.  Second, Chinese/Japanese/Vietnamese chopsticks are square or round, but Korean chopsticks (jeokkarak - pronounced "chalk- a-rack") are flat and thin, like a slim rectangular prism.  It makes them rather easy to hold onto, but a little weird to use at first until you get used to how to hold onto items between the thin edge of one stick and the flat side of the other.  My ceramic tipped jeokkarak are more for decoration than anything, since the heavy top and long nature makes them slightly awkward to use, but I still manage.  I also have a cheap $2.00 set that came with a stainless steal spoon and they are much easier to use.  (All jeokkarak sets seem to be sold with an accompanying spoon with which to eat soup, etc.)

(Here is my daily lunch with my new chopsticks/jeokkarak.  It is a bowl of bap - or rice - with some kimchi - the spicy red cabbage that Koreans adore - and a dried sheet of gim/kim - seaweed, which I use to wrap the rice and make gimbap/"kim-bap."  In this picture alone I am breaking two major Korean dining etiquette rules.  A, I am eating rice with chopsticks.  Koreans eat rice with a spoon  - which is another reason you always get a spoon with your jeokkarak - and B, I have left my jeokkarak standing up in my bowl of bap.  In Korea you only place the jeokkarak standing up in the bowl of bap when you are presenting it as a final meal to the already dead... Oops.  This picture was just for demonstration purposes but I did unintentionally break one major etiquette rule my first day at the gosiwon.  John, the then manager and my sightseeing buddy that day, was very understanding about the differences in culture but he was visibly uncomfortably by the sight of me making my gimbap with my fingers.  He asked me why I didn't use a spoon.  Since then I've always used a spoon for making gimbap, and read in my Lonely Planet guide that you can only use your hand for holding the seaweed, not for stuffing it with the rice.  Another lesson for you:  Always read your guide book before you come to the country.)

Next we took a bus to Noel's place and had some lunch.  Noel and Nelson cooked me a scrumptious Filipino meal of fried sword fish, rice, and a bowl of stew made from potatoes, bell peppers, beef and some sort of sauce.  It was the best meal I've had since I've come here.  All of the ingredients were handpicked by Noel and Nelson from the market/butcher's shop near Noel's place that day on the way home.  Plus, there was also a plate of the largest red grapes I've ever seen.  They were quite easily the size of ping-pong balls.

After lunch, Noel was called into work, but he told his boss he was entertaining a Canadian guest.  This seemed an adequate excuse, since he said his boss said it was all right for him to stay home.  Nelson tried to open up the highly secured door (Noel's apartment is paid for by his company and is about a million times better than my broom closet).  Apparently Nelson opened up the door wrong, because the security system started screaming.  After about ten minutes, we eventually figured out how to turn it off, and left before the security company came and took us away.

(This is me in my broom closet of a room.  I am sitting on my cot-sized bed, with my back against the wall.  My feet are touching the other wall - you can see that my toes can push my keys against the wall it's so close.)

We took three buses to get over to Namsan Park, and rode the bus to the top of the mountain. (The bus system is as good as the subway system and we never waited for more than ten minutes for any bus to arrive... and this was a Sunday!)  There, at the top of the mountain, we watched a performance by actors dressed up in traditional Korean costumes and wielding traditional Korean swords/lances, etc.  At the end there was a massive weapons demonstration, and many wooden sticks and rolled up straw mats had their "heads" cut off.  The final act was a large staged Tae Kwon Do battle.  

There was also a large wood patio type structure with hundreds, if not thousands, of pad locks attached to the chain link fence around it.  A sign called it the BE&CH of Love.  I can only imagine that this is supposed to be a clever play on the word Beach.  Nelson met another friend at the BE&CH of Love and she told me that Koreans like to buy a lock from inside, make a wish, and then clamp the lock to the fence.  Supposedly this guarantees the wish will come true.  I wondered why they didn't just buy handcuffs instead and chain their girlfriend to their body if they were so worried about her....  Then she'd never get away!  

The benches on the BE&CH of Love were all broken.  Well, not broken exactly, but they were bent in the middle so that young couples will slide together in the center.  It looked rather uncomfortable to me though.

By this time I had been out walking around Seoul and riding buses for 7 hours.  I was starting to really feel the effects of my constant early waking, and so I bid Nelson and Noel adieu and went home.  

Another benefit of my adventures this day was that I was able has picked up quite a bit of Korean from Nelson.  Nelson has become rather fluent over his time here and was able to explain to me the subtleties of saying good-bye.  If you are the one leaving, you say "anne-yo-hee keh (like eck!)-say-oh."  This means "stay and be well."  If someone is leaving your house or anywhere that you're staying, then you respond "anne-yo-hee ka-say-oh." This means "go and be well."  I kept mixing these up at first, which brought me a lot of strange looks from the locals.

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