Naked Culture Shock

22 03 2011

A couple weeks ago, Mychaela planned on coming to visit and stay for the weekend. She has a really nice apartment in a high-rise that has a roof with a killer view of her neighborhood. As we’ve discovered here in Yongin, I can’t exactly say the same for my living situation. There are a few major pros and cons, but there is one huge difference that I’m perfectly okay with: I live in a real neighborhood. The kind where you get to know your neighbors and know which students from your school live nearby. The kind where there’s a neighborhood cat and the new baby next door whom you can hear so clearly sometimes it was as if she were in the room. The kind of neighborhood that has apartments that are visited by religious missionaries… but more on that later.

Friday night, we had planned on meeting at Bojeong Metro station at 7:30, then come back to my apartment to drop off her wonderful gift (A PILLOW!!!). Friday night traversing Seoul by subway apparently takes 3 hours, not the 2 hours it took me on a Sunday night. Mychaela finally walked through the gates at 8:54 PM, just 6 minutes before I was ready to leave the station and go home. While waiting, I had been chatting with an older Korean gentleman who appeared to be waiting for someone as well, speaking English really well. He said that he worked with US soldiers during the Korean War and became a teacher afterward. His daughter lived in Philadelphia, teaching Korean at a school there. “You two would be great friends, but you seem to have traded places.”

Bicycle chain heart: North Seoul Tower

We got back to my apartment to realize that we were both exhausted from a trip much longer than expected. We got dinner at an Italian place and had a Korean beer in a “German Beer Garden.” (False advertisement!! They only had Cass, which is the Korean version of Coors.) We crashed at my place and got up to make plans for Saturday and all its wonder. We had planned to go into Seoul later in the day so that we wouldn’t spend 10 hours walking around. The irony of that statement would later come back to bite us.

We grabbed lunch at my favorite cafe, Coffee Verdi, and saw a few of my students. They’re still in the “She’s a real person who exists outside of school” realization phase. We caught the bus to Ori station, where we decided that traffic was so bad that we’d just take the subway. First destination was to Seoul Station, where Lonely Planet says it should be a 15-20 minute walk from the station to the tower. Lonely Planet lies. [I feel like I should edit those books for a living. I could re-write the Indonesian version with a little help from my Fulbright and Indonesian friends. That book was a mess.] That short walk was actually about an hour from the station to the tower. For the distance and the fact that it was 90% stairs, we made really good time. The view was worth it! We got to the tower around sunset, which was the one thing LP got right. Transitions in major cities are always really cool to see. That was always my favorite thing about Jakarta: seeing the sun go down and the lights turn on. Flashy.

Photo Island view of Seoul

 

Locks of Love at North Seoul Tower

The North Seoul Tower is known for its locks on the fence. Couples in Korea see this as their Mecca. The migrate toward it, hike up the hill, sign their lock and latch it to the fence. Some messages are really heartfelt, others are friendly, others have Bart Simpson on them. There are strange benches, which at first I thought would be weird to sit on, as it would look like you broke the bench, but in reality, they were designed so that when a couple would sit on them, they would inevitably lean together, inducing snuggle.

After it got dark, we walked down the hill on the road that has the buses we apparently didn’t know about. We checked out the Namdaemun street market, which is a 24 hour market up and down the streets of the neighborhood. Fake bags, ginseng gift shops, fake sunglasses, delicious food, and a boatload of optical shops and camera stores. Once I save up, that DSLR will be mine. Oh yes, she will be mine.

The chaos that is Myeong-Dong

I had heard the week before that there would be a fundraiser for a women’s rights group in Itaewon, the multicultural hub of Seoul. The fundraiser was to have a burlesque show and dancing. It could be fun, and if not, the money goes to single moms. (I really don’t mean that in a stripper joke sort of way, either.) Turns out, every single foreigner in Korea had heard about this show. The place was packed and we all had to get pretty up close and personal, and unfortunately that included with the drunk US Army guy with the bottle of Cuervo who incessantly shouted, “I LOVE VAGINAAAAAA!!!!” All in all, it was pretty fun. My favorite act was a girl with a hula hoop. She killed it. Check out the video of Betty Hoops:

I really appreciated her friends’ comments after her performance. “Where did she learn to do that?” “It’s a Northwest thing. Everybody can do something awesome like that here.” Haha, we do all have really random hidden talents!

Borrowed flash at the Burlesque show

Borrowed flash at the Burlesque show

After the show, everybody performed a mass exodus from Bedlam out into the streets of Itaewon. It was about 11:30, so Mychaela and I figured it would be time to head back towards home. We get on the subway, and when we were supposed to transfer to the line that would take us home, we ran into a terrible dead end. The station was closed, we couldn’t transfer, and the train we were on definitely left already. Yaksu station. What the hell is in Yaksu? Nothing. A taxi from there would cost us $50 to get home. A dingy hotel would set us back at least $40.

Then it dawned on me. Audra’s suggestion. “If stranded, find a jimjilbang.” A jimjilbang is basically a spa, but open 24 hours, and you can sleep there. Game on. Now, we just had to find one. We walked around for about an hour trying to find one. It wasn’t too cold, my feet were fine, and I really didn’t mind. The logo for a jimjilbang is basically a soup bowl with three wavy steam things coming out the top. I feel like I’ve seen it as a ramen noodle logo before. After talking with a random Korean man at about 1:30, he showed us in the way of one of the nearly sacred, gender-segregated, traditional public bath houses. We wandered some more and finally found it.

steamy hot soup? or a hot tub?

steamy hot soup? or a hot tub?

We checked in at about 2:15 AM. We were given what looked like a cross between prison inmate uniforms and the robes of a Buddhist monk. Orange and stretchy. After walking in to the ladies’ section, we were immediately faced with about 4 stark naked, middle aged Korean women. They must have seen our obvious looks of confusion, since they instantly tried to help us out of our shoes and show us to our lockers. Once we got our inmate robes on, we wandered around, checking the place out. A giant tub with two women scrubbing the life out of the skin of another. A mother and her 20-something daughter sitting on the ledge of another, hotter pool, chatting as if it were time for afternoon coffee, not really noticing that it was 3 AM, or that they and everyone else around them were naked or nearly so. No wonder it’s such a lively tradition. You have a pure and simple goal: Relax and get clean.

Downstairs, there was a large common room with about 40 sleeping mats and foam blocks for pillows. At first, we didn’t see any women. I was a little apprehensive to sleep in a “common area” that was clearly composed only of men. As I loitered and stalled to try and convince Mychaela to sleep in the “cave” between the floors where I saw women sleeping on mats, another woman walked in, sat down near the TV, and made herself at home. We decided it was a legit common room, and not just a place for the boys to hang out and watch the boob tube. We claimed our territory and crashed. And by that, I mean me. I crashed. Mychaela doesn’t really sleep anyway. I, on the other hand, can sleep anywhere, anytime, and under nearly any circumstance…

…except when the guy on the next mat down tries to snuggle with my feet. I had been dreaming that something fish-like was trying to bite my feet, and when his hand grabbed my foot, I’m pretty sure I kicked him in the face. Fight or flight reaction? Definitely. In my dream, I was swimming away. Mychaela was awake at the time and watched the whole thing. I guess it was hilarious. Creeper-sleeper probably didn’t think so.

We made it back to Yongin at about 9 AM, where we immediately crashed, yet again. Just a short nap, right? Well, you might know me and my napping habits; they’re just like my ability to sleep anywhere. They can never be short naps. Around noon, a knock at my door woke us up. I looked like a slob in a ratty t-shirt, so I threw on my peacoat to class it up a little bit. At the door was one of my students and her family, who were going door to door passing out Jehovah Witness magazines. My hair was, well, morning hair. If you know me, you know the terror that is. They didn’t run away frightened by the sketchy fuzz ball waygook (foreigner) when she opened the door, so I’d say they’re good people.

Free Hugs Korea: Way less sketchy than Warped Tour.

Time to explore my area a little more. I’ve spent a lot of time in Seoul for the weekends, which is spendy, but really cool. Here’s to checking out Yongin and the outskirts! Cheers!

Is this for safety or being realistic? (Please see any K-drama show if you don't get it.)

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2 responses

22 03 2011
Norma Bruncke

Really enjoy your travel commentary and pictures. What an adventuresome soul you are!

23 03 2011
Ennik

I almost forget how I love the moment you tell stories about your travelling. keep on moving chica!

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