Friday, March 25, 2011

"Thank you, fermented cabbage!"

...or, as the famous Korean pop singer Gogi Loaf sang, "I out of sam ain't bad."

We're just now halfway through our two-week spring break. (Actually, if you count the weekends, we'll be precisely halfway through at midnight tomorrow-- Saturday-- night. But I don't know if you count the weekends.)
Yeah, I'm as surprised as you are; I've never been a fifteenth-century king before.

I came into break determined to go places and do things. On Monday, Vanessa, our Chinese teacher from China, and I went to see The King's Speech, which is as good as they say. Then we went to Dos Tacos for dinner and Oktoberfest for beer. (A couple of years ago, if you'd told me I'd be in Korea, going to a British movie, a Mexican restaurant, and a German beer hall with a Chinese woman, I'd'a told you that you should book the padded room next to Glen Beck's.) The Korean waitresses in their Bavarian dirndls were very cute, by the way, and the beer-- brewed on the premises-- was wunderbar.

Vanessa and I had barely talked in the year and a half we've been colleagues; she's shy around people she doesn't know well, and I am too, so of course we hadn't gotten to know each other. But on Monday we never ran out of things to talk and laugh about and had a wonderful time. It's nice to have a new friend.

Other than that, though, until today I hadn't done a dang thing but run, do schoolwork and housework, read, and nap. Untanned, rested, and ready, that's me. Until I ran into Chris and Vanessa this evening in Faina's apartment, where we'd all stopped in to tend her cat, I hadn't spoken to anyone in four days.

I've been reading a book called Predictably Irrational, about the ways in which we all defeat our own best interests by our illogical behavior. (Stick with me; this is relevant.) This morning I reached the chapter about how we get frozen by having too many choices. I realized that is exactly what happened to me this week; each day I couldn't decide whether to go to a movie or a bookstore or a palace or on a hike and ended up talking myself out of all of them.

"Aha!" says I. "Today, by Jove, I shan't be deterred by such irresolution!"

So I set off with three goals in mind: to relax at the jjimjilbang (whirlpool/sauna complex) at the Central City mall; investigate getting a smartphone at the Seoul Global Center office near City Hall; check into free Korean classes at the Korean Foundation Cultural Center, also near City Hall. (My nifty new Seoul guidebook told me about options one and three.)

Central City, like the COEX Mall, seems to have been laid out by moles with architectural degrees. It just winds all over the place, with no maps, no information booths, and inadequate signage. I never did find the jjimjilbang.

But I hit the jackpot at the City Hall stop. I really hadn't expected to sign up for a smartphone; I've been doing okay with my five-buck-a-month prepay on my old phone. But a brand-new Android phone came free and it only costs 30 bucks a month for more talk, texts, and 'net than I can possibly use. I wish I had it to play with tonight, but I'll have to wait till Tuesday. At the end of the signup, I meant to tell the sales rep, "Kamsahamnida, Kim ssi!" ("Thank you, Miss Kim!") Sadly, what I actually said was, "Kamsahamnida, Kim chi!" ("Thank you, fermented cabbage!")

Now about those Korean lessons...

(An aside: the chaebol-- family-run corporations-- here are into everything. LG, for example, has spun off electronics, telecom, chemical, toiletries, and fashion divisions. My new contract is with LG Telecom, but the phone is made by Samsung-- quite an ad for LG phones, I guess.)

It's been a windy and chilly, but sunny, day; spirits high, I set off toward the statues of the great national heroes Admiral Yi, who repelled the Japanese invaders with his turtle boats...
and King Sejong, who ordered the creation of hangeul, the brilliantly designed Korean alphabet...
...and  was delighted to find a booth that was, for free, lending out King Sejong robes for photo ops. So cool!

I was in a wonderful mood and wandered about taking more photos. Oh, here's one now...
...and another...
...and used the last of the gift card I got from the PTA on Lunar New Year on a delicious beuloobaeri mawpin and keopi (blueberry muffin and coffee) at the first Starbucks with three floors and an elevator I'd ever been in, and browsed and browsed at the huge Kyobo Bookstore. I would have gone to the Yousuf Karsh photo portrait exhibit...
 (He took some purty good pitchers.) the Sejong Museum, but it opens tomorrow. Ah, well, I'll go back.

Then I took the ten-minute walk to the Cultural Center, which has an art museum and performance space as well as free Korean classes. I'd long ago decided it wasn't all that vital for me to know Korean beyond the alphabet and a few stock phrases, but in the spirit of "what the heck, it's free" I registered for 12 weeks of classes. Heck, if I don't get anything out of it, what the heck, it's free. Did I mention that?

I was feeling good, part of the huge city with its deluxe hotels and giant tv screens around the square, and for a split-second, as I headed west to the Cultural Center, I honestly thought that if I just kept walking I'd reach the Hudson River piers. It was the strangest sensation... maybe it's because of the Chevrolet billboards that have been popping up since GM Daewoo decided that all their Daewoos are now Chevys.

So, one week down. Tomorrow will  bring my friend Katy's birthday hash. (If you haven't been paying attention for the last four months, that's running and drinking, not a replacement for birthday cake. We're all running in pearls.) Toward the end of next week, my friend and colleague Bob and I are headed for the DMZ. If we wander over the line, I suppose Bill Clinton won't come to get us; we're are not young, pretty, or female. I'm holding out hope for Scarlett Johansson.
Meanwhile, it's been a big day. As a wise expat said long ago, i out of sam ain't bad.


George Kozak said...


I love your picture in the Kingly robes. You see, I was hoping one of my daughters would marry Prince William or Harry so I could get close to royalty, but now I can show your picture to people and say my friend is King of Korea! Funny, you don't look korean?!?

Stephen J said...

That's because you're thinking North Korean or South Korean; I'm West Korean.

I think your daughters might be a little young for me, though...