Asia | Korea, Republic of – When in Korea…
I went to Seoul for Cheusok, which is a bit like Korean Thanksgiving. It wasnt as big a party as Id hoped as most Koreans go to their grand-parents or eldest brothers house for the weekend. Which meant Seoul was a lot emptier than it normally is. But there was still a good bit to do. We went to Kyongbokkung a big old temple right in the city centre. There were traditional dancers and old customs demonstrations and the like. Which were great.
But the most interesting thing about the whole place were the pools of fish. If you sprinkled anything remotely foodlike in the water it became a frenzy of gaping mouths. Fish cant really elbow each other out of the way, but these guys were really trying. And they were all the colours of the rainbow, as the fella says. We stood for about half an hour watching them thrash about. Twas very strange.
Seoul is packed and towering and shiny. More skyscrapers per square inch than anywhere Id ever been. And every now and then a colourful old gate on an island in the middle of snarling traffic. I went to my first Starbucks but I didnt buy anything because the place was a rip-off. There were loads of markets around the city centre, but they didnt seem especially Korean. They sold cheap jeans and watches and souvenirs to dumb tourists like me. This could have been any global city.
The place we stayed in was basic but nice. There were cockroaches, but there was also cable TV. We slept on the floor and the woman was very friendly. It was just round the corner from the souvenir stalls. One night we went to It’aewon which is near the army base. It was really strange seeing all these Western people in the one place. There were even some black guys. Very different from Taejon. I had to get back to some sort of normality.
Dog is a national dish for the Koreans. They have special dog farms where they are bred and whacked to death. The Korean authorities are a little embarrassed about this. Its not good PR. It is illegal to put up a sign over your restaurant with the word dog in English. Only the Korean characters are allowed. When a teacher friend told her class she had eaten dog, the Korean girls all pretended to be disgusted, although they undoubtedly eat dog every time they go to their grannies. So I had to try it. Just to see. The dog comes served in a variety of ways. The least expensive is dog soup, so we went for that. Dog tastes kinda stringy, a little like mutton. Tom kept making jokes about Fido and Lassie, which didnt help much with digestion. But I kept it down.
Lots of the ex-pat teaching community have Korean girlfriends. It seems that, for a certain type of Korean girl, a western boyfriend is a status symbol. This means that guys who may not have been Prom King at home, suddenly find themselves with a much better chance of getting some. This does not go down so well with some Korean parents. One Canadian guy I met went home for a month and came back to find that his girlfriend couldnt come out for dinner because she was now married to someone else. Which is cold.
The Koreans are big into their karaoke. They take it very seriously. I got fairly tanked up on soju one night and went for it. They have special karaoke houses called noray bangs [song rooms]. Each noray bang has the same song menu. There is a decent selection of western and Korean songs. Each group gets a room to themselves. The microphone distorts your voice so it seems like there is someone else singing. So you stop to listen and then, of course, there is no-one singing because it was you all along and you miss your place in the song, and it all gets very embarrassing. At least thats what happened to me. Its very different from karaoke in Ireland where everyone there gets to see everyone else so it gets embarrassing on a much larger scale.