Thursday, April 9, 2009

Episode 36: In Which DFM Locks Himself In A Coffin And Buys Stale Rice Cakes

I have a busy weekend ahead, so I wanted to slowly whittle away at my sightseeing list a bit more today.  Up next on the list was the Seodaemun Prison.  

When the Japanese occupied Korea in 1910 they were met with a lot of resistance from the Korean people.  In an attempt to crush the fighting spirit of the anti-Japanese independence movement, Japan built what is now called Seodaemun Prison.

The first part of my self-guided tour (I didn't have time to stick around for the English tour later in the day) involved exploring the museum.  Unfortunately I was not allowed to take many pictures, but most of what I saw and felt could not be adequately captured in a picture.  

One of the few pictures I was allowed to take, it's a torture device called The Standing Coffin.  The prisoner goes inside where my backpack is, and the door is closed shut.  I stood inside and closed the door on myself.  My shoulders just squeezed in between the walls and when I closed the door there was barely enough room to breathe.  Prisoners would be locked inside for three days at a time and the lack of movement would cause paralysis.

My first "experience" at the museum involved peering over through the bars into a replica of a small cell.  The cell was about the size of my old gosiwon room, perhaps a little narrower, and was completely barren.

Because I'm so short I had to get right up near the "window" to be able to peer into the cell.  I had planned to see an empty cell, but instead I was greeted with a man sitting cross-legged on the bare floor by himself in his small cell.  My heart almost stopped beating I was so scared.  I jumped back, thinking it was a real person, but then I took a second peek and saw that it was just a life-sized model.  This first experience set the tone for the rest of the tour.

I next walked through the Torture Room.  Every so often I would trigger the motion-sensing device and ear-piercing screams would go off and a light in the formerly pitch dark cell beside me would snap on and a scene of unthinkable torture would be depicted by the mechanical models inside.  There was electrocution, ripping out fingernails, sticking a sharp knife under the fingernails, lashings, floggings, beatings, violent rapes of female prisoners, and of course having your finger prints forced onto a false testimony of guilt.  Before the end of it all my stomach felt sick and I started to dread taking another step and seeing what would happen next.  Eventually I got through the Torture Room though,  and was rewarded with a trip to the Execution Room.

The Execution Room looked like an interactive display.  I approached the box sitting on the trap door and above me hung a noose.  I wasn't sure what would happen, but there was a sign on the glass that said "not for children or pregnant women."  I started to get really apprehensive.  I thought that the trap door would fall and I would get a nasty drop, but sadly nothing happened at all and I was able to wobble away on my still shaking knees.

To be honest, the rest of the visit was less exciting than this first part.  I got to wander through the actual prison cell building and even walk into a real cell that was used to house a prisoner or twelve back during the Occupation.  Many of the buildings are now considered National Historic Treasures and while I was here some restorative work was being done on parts of them so I could not explore everything fully.

This photo was taking outside of the entrance to the actual Execution Grounds.  I wasn't able to take a picture inside (a sign said no pictures) but I was allowed to take a picture of this tree.  It's called the Wailing Willow and every Korean who was brought past it would grab on and wail before passing through the doors to the sit on the real version of the box I sat on before (the real box drops though).

I generally try not to  be a bleeding heart about things, but between the War Memorial Museum and this one, and also talking to many Koreans like Young San and Joseph (from the KTX ride to Busan), I've come to realize that war is nasty business.  Living in Western Canada it has always been convenient for me to view war as something that happens in other countries.  But here in Korea, war is something that has happened here, and is still technically happening.

After leaving the prison I wandered across the street to see if I could find some lunch.  I had tried to fill up on kimbab before I left home, but the rice steamer was empty (it's a much smaller steamer than at my other place and it runs out quite often).

I found a small mart (a mini-grocery store) and bought some orange juice for my cold and some strawberries and what I thought was tteok.  I took the strawberries and tteok to climbing with me and decided to share them with everyone since people are always sharing their food with me.  (It seems customary to bring food for others and then have them bring food for you).  

At first I was worried that I had bought really old tteok that had become stale and hard, but Choi assured me that it was not tteok, but rather a Korean traditional cookie called yakgwa.  Whatever they were, they were delicious and I ate so many my stomach felt sick.  The strawberries were delicious as well and I got a few compliments on them.  

My gesture also seemed to gain me some cultural points, as Choi started to teach me the words reserved for friends so that I could become one of the gang.

At one point I saw Ji-Hyeun staring at something with the owner of the Suwon climbing gym, who was a guest of Choi's that day.  It turned out to be a large trophy that the gym had won by competing as a team in the annual Suwon climbing tournament.  The owner of the Suwon gym invited me to climb at his competition as part of the Ace Climbing Team, but unfortunately the competition was to be held sometime in late May after I would have already left for home.

After climbing I went to buy some new shirts for work because I didn't like the last ones I had  bought.  This time I went to another large Korean department store called E-Mart.  I found some nice looking shirts, and even a pair of pants, but unfortunately the sleeves aren't really meant for rock climbing arms, and they feel really tight when I move my arms above my head.  I guess this means no more "nopi!"(high! or "lift me up!") for the children.

It took me quite a while to find a pair of jeans that weren't pre-faded and/or had decorative holes in them (WWHHD: "I hate those pants more than life itself...").  In fact, it took me two hours of searching over the same few clothes for men and eventually I became late for my meeting with Hyeun A to learn more Korean.  I took a taxi from the store, but it was rush hour now and the car barely moved.  It cost 10 times as much as a subway ticket to take the taxi, but I did make it home a bit quicker, so it was worth it.

After dropping off my bags, I ran all the way to Hyeun A's office about ten minutes away.  I wasn't really thinking clearly by this time and managed to make a wrong turn again (where there was no turn).  I knew I was close but couldn't recognize exactly where I was or where I had gone wrong.  I phoned Hyeun A and over the course of the next half hour, Hyeun A, Lee and I played a frustrating game of hide and seek, except everyone was seeking, and turned out to be just tracing each other's footsteps in a circle.  Eventually I found Hyeun A, though, and we had our lesson.

I've been in Korea for long enough now that I'm starting to become more accustomed to hearing all the different suffixes that are used and why they're used.  I've also surprisingly picked up enough odd words from the children I teach that Hyeun A no longer needs to translate my lessons from Hangul to English.  I can now use the few key words I know to remember what each new sentence (written entirely in Korean) means.  It was quite a big moment for me, and I celebrated by running home and watching the newest Sasuke tournament (long time readers of the blog should recognize this as one of my favourite shows).

This latest tournament was historic in that it is the first time since the course was redisigned, five tournaments ago, that someone has reached the final stage.  Even though I was supposed to wake up early the next morning I was so excited I watched the whole 3 hour show until 2:30 AM.  It was so exciting I'll probably watch it again as soon as I get a free moment.

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