Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Korea road trip

Oh, Korea, the land of mountains and apartment buildings. The land where the most high-tech toilets – with electronic bidets – stand right next to the old school squatters in public washrooms. Where public service employees are unbelievably polite (airport security officers will bow to you before searching you), while the average pedestrian will show no concern for your personal space and will push you right aside on the sidewalk while they spit. We’ve been seeing a lot lately, and it’s so hard to keep up with all the cities we’ve seen in the past few days, but I’ll try to sum it up:


A cute small town where the waters are so serene they look like glass, with monuments and sights telling more stories about the Japanese invading Korea, which seems to be a favourite pastime of theirs (both the Japanese’s invading and the Koreans’ story-telling). The story told over and over again here is the one of the brave Nongae, a geiseng (Korea’s version of geishas), who during a battle against the invading Japanese, used her skills to charm a Japanese general down to the water before killing him by dragging him into the water, drowning herself in the process as well. That’s the kind of heroine that Korean stories like to feature – a woman who is patriotic and courageous in her self-sacrifice, but only in a manner that doesn’t challenge traditional conventions of femininity. There is a shrine here dedicated to her in the middle of a beautiful garden

Jinju also apparently has a lot of schoolgirls

Although not as populated as Seoul, this large city has a population the size of Toronto. We pass some seafront newly built oceanfront condos worth some three million dollars apiece. Despite its giant urban size, it’s the nature not so far from the city that I particularly enjoy. There’s a park around here that leads to Haeundae Beach. The trail here traces the coastline through the woods and cliffs, a bit like the Wild Pacific Trail on the side of the ocean on Vancouver Island. We walk along the rubber covered path overlooking the ferocious ocean waves and find ourselves ending up on a dock at the foot of the expensive condos where there are old men fishing nonchalantly next to the “No Fishing” signs. Nearby there is a picnic of old halmunis hallabujis who are drunk and singing Korean folk songs, so loudly you can hear them from the other side of the park. My mom wants to avoid them, but I kind of want to stick around and listen to them sing. Koreans sure love to sing.

some cute halmunis. these once weren't singing

Our hotel features a hot spring spa on top of the roof. I have to say, sometimes I love luxury, especially when that luxury involves being able to dip my body in hot soothing spring water while looking at the ocean below.

For dinner, we meet up with my aunt, who lives in Busan, and my grandfather, who is actually a Canadian citizen but is staying with my aunt for a while. We eat at a Japanese restaurant that does not serve any donkatsu or teriyaki anything, but does have California rolls for twenty-five dollars. Meanwhile, a flute/guitar/guitar trio plays Toni Braxton covers in the lobby. Odd place. My grandfather asks me how we’re enjoying our mother country. He asks us if we’ve gotten into the gaming culture yet, because that’s what we are good at. I am not sure if I’m understanding him correctly.

We hike through a wooded path along the oceanside cliffs leading to a famous rock under which, according to legend, an old king asked to be buried, so he could become a dragon and protect his homeland from Japanese invasions (you see, we have to worry about that sort of thing a lot). It’s a beautiful view, and you have to work hard to get to it – up and down the perilous steps, cautiously along the cliffs in the middle of the fierce ocean wind which blows so hard I’m worried it’ll carry me off into the sea. And yet there are men standing at the heights of the cliffs, chipping away at the stones with their tools, right in the middle of the wind. Either the locals are especially brave, heavy, and wind-resistant, or they don’t have very good labour laws here regulating workplace safety.

We stopped by one of facilities belonging to Hyundai, the name that white people love to mispronounce. There were more thousands and thousands of Hyundai cars lined up in the parking lot – a surprisingly incredible sight. The facilities also contained a sort of a shrine (they called it a memorial, but I found it awfully shrine-like) dedicated to the founder of the Hyundai corporation. People around here really like him. Not only was he credited with helping to transform Korea from a poor developing country to a First World country, but he seems to be everything that Koreans love about a national hero: a patriotic (check) patient (check) hard-working humble optimist (check check check) with a firm footing in capitalism (check) but enough respect for communism to tap into unconventional markets (like Cuba, the Soviet Union, and North Korea – check), who in whatever spare time he managed to have, pursued athletics (check), poetry (check), and taking care of his entire extended family with a strict but loving approach (emphatic check).

Our family seems to have a special connection with Hyundai. My grandfather apparently was one of the founding members of Hyundai’s automotive department, which shatters my belief that my family was working class in Korea. He was the manager over the entire department, dealing with auto maintenance at a time when Korea was still getting used to the idea of cars. Then our family moved to Canada where all that meant jack squat and my grandfather become a mechanic for Greyhound.

We also took a tour of the shipyard, which was not something I ever thought I’d want to do, but it was pretty crazy, these enormous ships being built up on dry land. We weren’t allowed to take photos, but there’s no way that I’d be able to fit the gigantic structures into my viewfinder.

This used to be the capital of the ancient Silla kingdom, also when Buddhism began to be all in the rage. We visit Buddhist temples and monuments and huge statues of Buddha made up of stone and sometimes of gold. Now it’s a lot of old style buildings and mountains everywhere. Really quaint – but a whole new world from Seoul and Busan. Roosters run randomly across the median, and I feel like every public bathroom here is a squatter. Also, there are ancient burial mounds all over the place, across the street from parking lots and bread stores. Kind of surreal.

Things became even more surreal when at a small roadside restaurant just outside of Gwangju, we ran into Sandra Oh’s relatives. My family is pretty close to her family back in Ottawa, so it was pretty random to run into her cousin in Korea, who happens to be the spitting image of Sandra’s father.

For dinner tonight we actually discovered a vegetarian restaurant. In Korea. This is unbelievable. When I told my family, ten years ago, that I was going to try being a vegetarian, they just did not understand the concept and kept sneaking fish in my food (which is why now I eat all meats except fish). Vegetarianism is not a modern Korean concept – we like to think that’s what white hippies do (no offense to my white vegetarian friend). I’m pretty sure even Buddhist monks eat fish. Anyway, apparently it does exist, and this restaurant was delicious and creative. Even if they did cheat a little and serve a bit of fish at the end of the 10 course meal.