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A Korean Vacation

My host for the weekend was a friend from elementary school, Jung-whan (John) Choi. John is just finishing an advanced degree in mechanical engineering, and will soon be starting work at Hyundai motors designing cars with more efficient emissions systems. After spending a few days in Seoul, I have come to the conclusion that John's job is perhaps the most necessary job in South Korea. There is approximately one car for every man, woman, child, and insect in Seoul, and the city is surrounded by mountains, which creates a great big cloud of smog that perpetually hangs over the city. Apparently, there were few cars before the 1988 Olympics hosted by Seoul, but shortly afterwards, there was an explosion of cars (sometimes quite literally--design had a long way to go). Now, by some estimates, if you lined up all the cars end to end, there is more car than length of road in Seoul, which explains the constant traffic jam / parking lot that is downtown Seoul.

I was fortunate in that John's father, who is head of international relations for a major Korean bank, was able to lend me a car and driver for the weekdays I spent in Seoul. Although driving around his boss' son's bratty friend from America was probably outside his job description, the driver, Mr. Lee, was thoroughly professional, helpful, and courteous. Furthermore, he knew Seoul better than I know my apartment, so he was able to successfully navigate the traffic with only a few hours of minor delays here and there--quite fluid for this town.

Seoul is as American as a city in which few people speak English can get. There were more American chain restaurants in Seoul than in Tokyo--I saw a TGIFriday's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and countless other American restaurants, and unlike Tokyo, their menus were identical to those in the US (except, of course, they were written in Korean). Imagine my surprise in Tokyo when I visited a Denny's and found all Japanese food in the menu. Imagine my further surprise when I visited a Sizzler, and the menu was exactly the same as in the States.

I did eat Korean food, and lots of it. A Korean-style meal, apparently, is one in which the eater is served a few main dishes, and very many different dishes. The residents of Seoul enjoy their food, like their city, to be a melange of different items, widely varying, and all with the potential to be completely satisfying in and of itself. The one drawback to Korean food is that the wide variety of food they serve is all served very very spicy, sort of like drinking a shot of brandy and then lighting your mouth.

On Thursday, I did all the touristy stuff around Seoul that was required of any tourist. I saw the National Folk Museum, the Imperial Palace, the Blue House (where the President lives), the Radio Tower on the top of Namsan (a mountain at the southern part of the city), and went shopping at Lotte, Korea's Saks Fifth Avenue. My guide for the day was John's mother, and despite her protestations that she spoke English poorly, Mrs. Choi was an elegant and eloquent tour guide, who showed me exactly what I wanted to see in Seoul, without my even knowing I wanted to see it.

On Friday, John and I escaped from Seoul, and visited a folk village in the country, sort of like Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. Since it was quite a bit outside Seoul, we encountered many people from rural areas of Korea, who had apparently never seen a foreigner before, especially the children. One group of children ran up to me with pens and paper and asked for my autograph. Another group of junior high school girls was timidly following John and me. I asked John what they wanted, and he said they were just curious. He then said he would take care of it, and he then turned to them and announced in Korean, "Hey everyone, do you know who this is? It's Brad Pitt!" Now, I look about as much like Brad Pitt as Pee-Wee Herman does, but to these girls who had never personally seen a Western face, combined with John's authoritative tone, they bought it, and immediately starting asking for autographs and if they could take their pictures with me. I tried to explain that I wasn't really Brad Pitt, just some minor heartthrob, but their English was limited to shouting "OK! Hello!" repeatedly. I felt like a rock star. Or maybe just like Mr. Pitt.

On Saturday, I stopped the sightseeing, and simply "hung out" with John and his friends (one was just finishing medical school, and the other was already a medical intern). I wanted to see how young Korean guys hung out. Well, we played basketball, played pool, saw a movie, and went to a coffeehouse...not much different from how young American guys hang out. Except, of course, for the bathhouse. I had never been to a bathhouse before, just read about them. It was (of course) segregated by sex, so John, his friends, and I went to the men's locker room, stripped down to nothing, and after showering, tried out the baths. There were three of them, at varying temperatures--way the hell too cold, way the hell too hot, and a just-right jacuzzi. (I felt like Goldilocks.) We also tried the sauna, in which I stayed for approximately thirty seconds. I have no idea how hot it was, since the thermometer measured Celsius, and I didn't have the mental wherewithal to convert, since my brain was being fried like eggs on a skillet, but let's just say that it was very very very very hot. Almost, but not quite, as hot as the food.

The strangest thing about Saturday was that everywhere we went--the coffee shop, the movie theater, the pool hall--they were playing the same CD. It was a compliation CD, and the first song was "Lick It," rather blatantly about foreplay. The second was "Don't Want No Short Dick Man," and the third was "They Call You Mr. Personality 'Cause You're So Ugly." I don't know if these songs are popular in the States right now, but they sure were popular in Korea. Everybody know all the words and would sing along, but upon questioning, John and I realized that nobody quite understood the words. I wondered how many little children were singing their favorite new songs that day, without realizing the invitation they were issuing...

Overall, I found Koreans to be refreshingly open and direct. For example, on the plane flight, the announcements were all spoken in English, Japanese, and Korean. The Japanese was, "Honored guests, we humbly request that you take your seats." The English was, "Please take your seats." The Korean was, "Sit yo' ass down." (Korean translation provided by a nice Korean-American man sitting next to me.) The Koreans are a tough, straightforward, people. I suppose that 500 years of being invaded by Japan, the China, the Japan, then China, then Japan (and now by American culture) has instilled in the Koreans a sense of toughness. Even though Seoul is a modern urban jungle like any big city in the States, it has maintained some of the flavor of its millenia-old history. Seoul is a city on the rise, under construction, and under strong management. If the people I met were any indication, the future of Korea, which will be a difficult climb at any rate, will be just fine.

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