Saturday, May 1, 2010

the hills are alive with the smell of ddukbokki

well, it's five AM on Sunday morning, and i'm still fighting against the horrors of thirteen hour jet lag, particularly exacerbated by that screaming baby on my flight who had the extraordinary lung capacity to keep going all night. my biological clock, by the way, has been smashed to pieces. to quote Patton Oswald, i'm going to instead have an imaginary baby called Ten Hours of Sleep a Night.

so i write to you from the future, although my body *feels* like it's 4PM Saturday afternoon. my experience in Korea so far has been pretty mind-blowing. Up until now, every thing i ever knew about korea was from my parents' stories (who had left the country when it was still a developing national with an impoverished economy in the 1960s and 70s), and from the Korea soap operas. so far the Korean soap operas haven't lied - everyone does look identically pretty and young, and people do spend a lot of time passionately yelling at each other. but it blows my mind to see it all in real life. Korea is a totally fascinating world where paradoxes meet: hyper-capitalism thrives right alongside third world country standards of social welfare - where you see people in trendy designer suits sporting trendy designer handbags stepping around shoeless emaciated beggars dragging themselves on a board along the bustling street. Magnificent ancient Asian gates and huge statues from Korea's folklore stand alongside ultra-modern skyscrapers and giant billboards selling shoes. You breathe in the strong smells of the city that alternate between delicious street food like ddukboki...and sulphuric sewer, equally strong.

and all the korean people. i suppose it's not that surprising to see a lot of korean people in korea, but i have never lived in any place with so many korean people. i've been to north york where the overwhelming majority of people were asians, but there is nothing like being awash the sea of homogeneous faces like the streets of seoul. so many hipsters glasses, even on the old ladies. we've started playing a game of "Spot the White Guy", where you find the one caucasian pedestrian on the street, and then you wonder if he's a tourist, someone's world-savvy spouse, an english teach trying to find himself, or just plain lost ("hey, wait, this isn't Spadina...").

we've been getting a lot of stares ourselves on the streets. my sister thinks it's because we aren't dressed fashionably enough. my father says it's because we're just so beautiful. my mother is convinced that it's because of my tattoo - she claims only gang members have tattoos here. me, i think that they just know that we're ee-seh, just like i see chinese tourists and our eyes meet, and we just know in an instant of a mutual recognition that we both really, really, really suck at speaking in korean.

we did a two-hour tour of Seoul yesterday, which is just really huge, about two or three times the size of Toronto. we walked through the crowded street markets of Insadonggil, where i discovered that in all twenty-five years of my existence, i never learned how to say "Excuse me" in Korean, because nobody ever says it when they ram into you unexpectedly. we went up the in-city mountain Namsan past throngs of schoolchildren all in identical uniform all enjoying the escape from the city into nature as well as the breathtaking view at the top which lets you survey the whole cityline. we've walked past all sorts of delicious street food vendors, and yes, we went to McDonalds where i ate a bulgogi burger. i'm working up the courage to try the kimchi bulgogi pizza...

Mr. Pizza: Love of Women.