Saturday, March 14, 2009

Episode 9: In Which DFM Meets Some Interesting People And Has His First Korean Dining Experience

I took it easy today and tried to catch up on some things that needed to be done.  I thought I was making good progress on my video, but after I finished I found out I didn't like it, so I started over again.  The Internet more or less bottomed out today at the gosiwon and there were a whole lot of impatient Koreans in an panic.

I thought I would clarify something I wrote in an earlier post about my rice being in water.  The rice is made in this giant steamer and apparently I found the rice while it had just started cooking.  I guess the standard method is to dump water on the rice and then it gets steamed away.  It tastes good, so that's all I care about.

I still had money left to go climbing (there's always money for climbing), and so I searched around for a new gym.  I settled on Ace climbing gym in Yeongdeungpo-gu (district) just on the other side of the Han river from Mapo-gu - where the other two climbing gyms had been.

On my way to the subway station I saw this moving flea market on wheels.  It looks like something you'd see some Okies on, heading for work in California.  You really can find a Korean selling anything in Seoul.

On the train, I had an interesting conversation with a young Korean man from the countryside who was coming to Seoul to ask his father's blessing on his upcoming marriage.  He was quite nervous though, because his father (who is living in Seoul and teaching at a University) is quite strict and traditional, and his intended fiance is Taiwanese. 

The directions were clearly and correctly labelled this time (not like the last time when I got lost because the directions were wrong), but I still managed to make a wrong turn.  I ended up in this large play area for a hagwon (private English school for Koreans).  

It had a new rubberized field turf surface, on which to play soccer, a two lane track filled with elderly walkers, and a number of playground  apparatus.  It also had a few kids who were eager to practice their English on me.  "Hello!  I am from Korea!  Hello!  I am from Korea!"  

I noticed that there were odd markings on the ground to the side and I inquired about them.  I was told that they were for "Korean games" and the children showed me how to play.  For such a simple concept (paint on the ground) it was remarkable fun.  The game we played (just one of many potential games) involved two people starting on opposite ends of an inward spiralling maze.  The goal was to run as fast as possible towards the other end of the maze.  When you ran into your opponent you played rock-paper-scissors.  The winner kept running on the same path while the loser had to jump back to the start and try again.  The winner of the game was the first person to make it to the end.  (Note:  when you start over again you get another chance to beat your opponent and send him back to the center when you meet up.  It's not just a one round game of rock-paper-scissors with some pointless running.)

After playing some games I asked how to get to a nearby landmark from my directions - "Dream Depot."  The children recognized this store and all of them (at least eight) lead me down the street at full sprint to find Dream Depot.  Right next door was the climbing gym and so I said good-bye to my little friends.

The people at the Summit gym were by far the nicest people I've met yet, but the climbers at Ace give them a real run for their money in this department.  At Ace I met Thomas, who is from San Francisco and is teaching at a hagwon, and Ji Hyeun, who was by far the best English speaker at the gym amongst the Koreans and would be called on to translate when need be.  She climbed a bit with me and Thomas and tried out the routes we would make.  Ji Hyeun is only about 5'4," but is incredibly strong and I was later told that she can climb 5.13 (a value on a rating scale for categorizing routes according to relative difficulty), which makes her one of the strongest climbers I know.  She doesn't like to talk about it though.  I gathered from what she was saying that Korean women are not supposed to be strong, and this makes her somewhat of a freak in a nation where women are valued for little else than their femininity.  Ji Hyeun also told me that Chris Sharma would likely be coming to Seoul after I get back from my shark diving adventure in Pusan at the end of the month, so look for that in a future episode.

Behind Thomas you can see a couple of climbers in red shirts.  There was a group of five or so exceptionally strong climbers and they were working together on problems that members would take turns making up on the spot.

After climbing, the owner of the gym (pictured in the back left raising his glass) invited me out to dinner with him and some of the other climbers as his guest.  We had a soju (Korean rice wine) toast.  Not being much of a drinker I can't compare it to anything, but I've read that its taste is akin to vodka (and probably as strong, too).  The meal involved mixing together all sorts of different sauces, spices and vegetables to make your own individualized soup.  Then you augmented your soy sauce salad-soup from the giant pot in the center that had potatoes, chicken and some sort of rice tube that looked and felt like tofu, but tasted much better.  This rice tube is called tteok (pronounced "dock") and is not to be confused as sounding like dak (apparently pronounced "tock") which means chicken, like I have been doing.

An interesting note on Korean eating habits and traditions:  It's considered shameful to have a cold and spread germs, so many Koreans will wear surgical mask cloth coverings on their face to prevent the spread of germs (you've all seen them do it so you know what I mean).  However, using your jeokkarak (chopsticks) or sukkarak (spoon) to eat your food and then using the same utensil to dip back into the central/common pot and get more food is considered quite normal and is openly encouraged.  

I had a great time with my new friends tonight, and will definitely be back to Ace climbing gym again.

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