Adventures of an American Seoul-Sister

Adventures and Observations of an American Seoul-Sister

Friday, January 28, 2011

In the Land of Dragons: Painted Dragons

South Korea is dragon country.  Dragons in South Korean lore are not the flying, fire-breathing, princess-eating, gold-loving types.  In fact, the notion of dragons in South Korea is nearly opposite of the European idea of dragons.  South Korean dragons bring good luck.  Instead of lighting castles on fire, Korean dragons are meant to deter fire.  Most of the dragons in South Korea don't even have wings.  They are slithery serpeants with legs and feet.

This is Part One of In the Land of Dragons: Painted Dragons.  Dragons are painted as protective spirits on eaves, beams, and ceilings of important structures.  These photos were taken during my visits to various temples, shrines and palaces in South Korea.

Smoke breathing dragon face in the beams of Chungnyeolsa Shrine
Painted dragon incorporated into the royal furniture at Suwon Palace.

Suwon Palace

A ceiling at one of the gates at Suwon Fortress

Dragon-faced window panels at Suwon Fortress

Faded dragon-faced wall panels at Suwon Fortress

Eaves outside main entrance at Tangeumdae Buddhist Temple

Ceiling of small forest temple outside of Chungju

Outside of the main door of a Buddhist Temple near Chungnyeolsa Shrine.

The back of the same dragon at the main door of the Buddhist Temple near Chungnyeolsa Shrine

A beam inside the Buddhist Temple near Chungnyeolsa Shrine

Part Two of this article will feature Stone Dragons. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Power Wheels: Casket Cart

One of the first things I thought when I got to Vietnam was "OMG!  That's a lot of motorbikes!"  The streets host a constantly-honking, thick-n-steady stream of motorbikes careening haphazardly forward, spilling unto sidewalks, lurching around eachother, and causing what appears to be general mayhem but that somehow manages, despite appearances, to be a smoothly operating traffic system.  I've heard that taking a motorbike ride can be a harrowing experience for a car-coddled American.  I have enough trouble just crossing the street! 

Mixed amongst the motorbikes are rickshaws, bikes, and peddled three-wheelers.  One thing that constantly amuses me is how much these little transporters can carry.  There are things strapped to motorbikes and bicycles that most Americans would take one look at and think, "I need a bigger trunk for that--or a moving van."

So, I intend to make "Power Wheels" a regular series featuring the amazing and amusing feats of Hanoi's wheeled wonders.  The first of this series begins with:

Casket Cart:  I hope there isn't a dead body in there.

Town and Country

Chungju is a mix of town and country, a perfect blend of urban and rural.

Towering into the skyline are a series of apartos.  These multi-story skyrise apartment buildings are the height of a prestigious South Korean lifestyle.  To my American eyes, the identically-built structures, identifiable only by the number painted on the side, look like 1970's low-income or Cold-War-Soviet projects--not somewhere that I would ever want to live.


Just as these apartos come on one-shape/one-size-fits-all form, other buildings mimic each other in a similar sameness of dull, concrete-grey, pseudo-marble boxes.  In each box you can find, either a technology superstore, climbing goods stores attempting to pass as haute couture houses, or a series of coffee shops and PC Bongs (internet gaming house).  If you are looking for something else, then just trust that you have ventured into the wrong country city or possibly, the wrong country all together. 

Another series of apartos

All of these buildings give a modern, urban feel to Chungju, but there is a rural element just outside their doors.  Between and among these buildings, there are many green gardens.  Tended mostly by weathered, bent-backed old folks, the gardens produce a year-round supply of fresh vegetables.  One such garden, thriving below my window, grew a steady rotation of Korean radishes, sesame leaves, lettuce, tomatos, corn and red chili peppers.  It's care-taker arrived most mornings at 5:30 to pick, weed, hoe, and plant. 

Fall garden below my window.

Old man clears the fall garden and plants his winter crop.

If these gardens can flourish amongst all these ugly buildings, I wonder why American cities don't host more gardens of their own?  South Korea is proof that urban living does not have to mean a total abandonment of rural values.  Enjoying a country lifestyle does not have to mean a shunning of modernity and urban comforts.  I wish that my own country could adopt and adapt to the South Korean style of town-and-country living (minus the hideous buildings, of course).

Urban garden: corn and concrete

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Lost in Translation: Episode 2

Funny foods:

This chocolate is better than crunchy; it's CRUNKY and boy, can it dance!

For My Body: No Sleep Gum because it's good for you like a caffeine overdose, chrystal meth, or cocaine.

Now, here's a truly evolved food brought to you by Darwin:  Dick Stick!  Sounds appetizing, doesn't it?  I mean, who wouldn't want to pop a Dick Stick into her mouth?  Right, ladies?  Ummm...NO!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Black Market Bounty

The black market is thriving in Hanoi.  The streets are positively cluttered with black marketeers selling everything from post cards to beef.  In fact, just outside my front door are five or six little old ladies selling fruits and vegetables.

Of course, the first thing is to determine which little old lady is going to give a fair price.  The ladies just outside my door are outrageously prices, so Kris and I head to the Old Quarter for my produce.  There we find one grayed granny with everything we need laid out in plastic baskets on the sidewalk.  After a minimal amount of bargaining, we agree to buy a bag stuffed with goodies for around $2 US. 

Except, half way through filling our order, the tiny gray-haired woman jumps up quicker than lightening, grabs all the baskets and runs into a darkened hair salon across the street.  We are left bewildered on the sidewalk, saying "WTF?!"  But it quicky becomes clear to me what is happening when a moment later a police van cruises down the street.  Once the cops are gone, the lady comes back with a smile and rearranges her goods on the sidewalk. 

We got our bag of groceries and several more along the same street from similar black market grannies.  At the end of the shopping excursion, we had bought a variety of fruits and veggies totalling about $6 US.  We also got a new copy of the Lonely Planet Guide to Vietnam for $5. 

South Korea's Top 10

South Korea has some interesting traits, many of which I really liked.  Here's my top 10 (in no particular order).

1.  Color has no gender.  Boys and men wear pink, ride pink bicycles, carry pink backpacks...  It doesn't make them girly.  It's no big deal.

2.  Hand-holding with friends is okay and quite common.  You needn't be boyfriend and girlfriend to hold hands.  It's quite normal to hold hands with any friend at an time.  Even boys hold hands or cuddle affectionately at any given moment.

3.    No gym membership required!  Almost every park is outfitted with exercise equipment, including different weight and stretch machines.  My favorite of these is the walking path paved in squishy, impact-absorbing material like on a professional running track.  No joint damage during jog time!

4.  Radiant floor heating.  As in traditional Korean homes, the standard (assuming it is in operational order) is to heat the floor through a system of hot water pipes running under the floor boards.  Since heat rises, this makes wonderful sense.  Plus, my cat really liked all the warm spots that this generated on the floor.

Moomarelli stretched out on a warm spot on the floor.
  5.  Seaweed and mushrooms are available in several varieties and are inexpensive.  Some of the mushrooms available at a Korean grocery store I've never even heard of, and some are available in the US for expensive "gourmet" prices.  Back in the USA, I was a wild-harvester of seaweed and really love to eat it.  So, I was very happy with the variety of seaweed available in stores.  And, talk about cheap!  A pack of 10 nori sheets goes for about $5 stateside, but in Korea $5 will get you 100 sheets.

6.  Coffee and pasteries.  Yum!  Nearly every other business in South Korea is a coffee shop.  The trick is the pick one that is not too expensive.  At some shops, the price for a single latte can be as much as $6.00.  Yikes! To go along with that cherished cappucino, French pastries are abundant.  Many bakeries feature French-style goods and sport names like "Paris Baguette" and "Tous Les Jours."

7.  Vintage clothes are easy to find in used clothing stores.  In Seoul, you'll pay a pretty penny to purchase vintage and retro, but in smaller towns like Chungju, you can purchase a vintage dress or sweater from $2 to $10.

8.  Hanbok.  I love folk clothing and the hanbok is no exception.  This lovely dress comes in vibrant colors and is positively charming.  Almost everyone has a hanbok.  However, it is also true that hardly anyone wears it aside from very special occasions like traditional weddings.  Hanbok shops are everywhere!  Used hanbok go for $5 childrens and $25 adult.  New hanbok are a couple hundred dollars.  Colors are chosen according to age, status, employment...

9.  Buddhist temples painted in vibrant colors.  The eaves and ceilings are painted with such detail!  The most common themes for the eaves are flowers, chickens, and dragons.  The carved doors are painted in bright teal on the outside and lined with paper on the inside to allow light to pass through and create beautiful shadows. 

Notice the chickens?

Door from outside.

The same door from inside.

10.  Lotus gardens.  The lotus is a much larger flower than I had thought.

Lotus leaves are as large as my torso, and the flowers are about the size of my head.


Monday, January 10, 2011

SIM City

One weekend, Darby, Kris, and I took the morning bus to Seoul on a  cell phone-purchasing mission.
Upon arrival in Seoul, we hopped on one of the busy city buses and headed into the neighborhood of Itaewon.  Itaewon is known as the "foreigner district" of Seoul (and possibly all of Korea).  It is one of the only places in Seoul where you can see up to 12 westerners on the same street at the same time.  This familiarity should be comforting, but for some reason that I can't quite pinpoint, I find the foreign presence a bit eerie and unnerving.  Hmmm...maybe it's the huge military complex across the road.

Anyway, we were counting on Darby to guide us to the tiny, back-alley, Nigerian-owned convenience store that has the cheapest cell phone deals in the country.  However, considering she'd only been there once, and that the neighborhood is littered with back alleys, it is no surprise that we got a little bit lost trying to find it.  We did get to wander around a great little area full of antique shops, so the search was nice even though we never made it to the destination.

We never did find the store that day, but returned the next weekend and found it with the help of a map, hand-drawn by a co-worker who is more familiar with the area.  The Nigerian was a nice and attractive man.  His store sold a smattering of foreign goods (dried chickpeas, Nutella, Campbell's soup, coconut milk, Guiness...) and an array of recycled cell phones.  Appartently, it's quite easy and standard practice in Asia to recycle a cell phone by simply switching the SIM card hidden behind battery in the back of the phone.  What a revelation!  The SIM cards access different satellite signals and come with a generous first helping of minutes.  I bought a Barbie-pink phone (the cheapest he had that day) with about 100 minutes for $25.  If I'd been there a day or two earlier, during his special cell SALE, I could have got the whole sha-bang for $10.  If I'd had a compatible phone, I could have just switched the SIM card for about $5.

The moral of the story is: When in Asia, skip the house phone, and just buy a new SIM card for your existing phone.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

So Long Seoul. Hello Hanoi.

My time in South Korea has come to an end, and I now find myself in the beautiful and bustling city of Hanoi, Vietnam.  So far, I love it here.  My first impressions are:

The city is so rich with color that, after gray-toned Korea, my eyes are nearly burning.  In Korea, the buildings are mostly gray faux-marble, box-shaped structures with little variety in shape or height.  In Vietnam, the building are either tall, skinny buildings of various heights with random shapes jutting out of them, or they are huge and fanciful Parisian estates.  They come on all colors of the rainbow, the most popular being a bright mustard color. 

As an American, I'll smile at anyone and anything even when I'm not happy.  Koreans don't smile as generally and opening as I'm used to.  This isn't necessarily a bad trait of Korean culture.  It's simply different and slightly unnerving to constantly see people that look sad or angry (even when they are not).  So, I'm thrilled to see smiling faces in Vietnam.  The Vietnamese seem to be a genuinely happy and amiable people. 

Another bonus is that Vietnam has a performing and visual arts community--something that was lacking in the small town of Chungju, South Korea.  I can attend traditional or modern performances at many venues or view paintings displayed by sidewalk vendors just by taking a short walk out my front door. 

Finally, the Vietnamese alphabet is similar to the English alphabet, so it is much more intuitive for me than Hangul (the Korean alphabet).  I did learn to read Hangul, but at a slow kindergarten-like pace.  My young students got a good laugh every time I had to read their Korean names aloud.  With any luck, I'll pick up some basic Vietnamese rather quickly.

You can still follow the last of my Korean adventures at  I have a few more sightseeing posts that I want to share including some pictures of gorgeous Korean palaces.

I would really LOVE for you to sign up to "follow" this blog.  I had 16 followers and over 1000 hits on ChungJuicy and hope to beat those statistics on VietNaomi.  As always, I love reading your comments and encourage any suggestions about content.