Hostility, Honeymoons, and Home

As you may have noticed from my fancy countdown box in the sidebar, I am back home in Los Angeles as of yesterday.  It was a really bittersweet departure (let’s just say I didn’t really feel like leaving), but I must say, I’m loving every minute at home.

Before I left, I started thinking about my best (and worst) moments in Korea.  That, combined with a relatively recent post by Elise, a former college study abroad advisor, reminded me of the phases of travel.  (Phases aren’t just for whiny toddlers and hormonal adolescents.  Cranky travelers go through them too.)

This is exactly the kind of thing our study abroad office tried to prepare us for.  You know, on the “tips for studying abroad” sheet I received when I got my grant to spend my summer in Seoul learning Korean.

Since I didn’t read it (they teach you to skim in college), I can’t tell you exactly what it said, but I do recall it mentioning things like “culture shock” and the “honeymoon stage”.

Luckily for me, as a “gyopo” (foreigner of Korean descent, often Korean-American), I didn’t experience much culture shock.  It was all very familiar, so I assimilated to life as a Seoulite very quickly.  However, in that short transition period, I skipped the honeymoon stage entirely and found myself in the hostility stage right away.

My first week in Seoul was…not the best.  It was when I felt most alone, and the worst part was that I hadn’t yet discovered how to be happy on my own.  On top of that, I had tripped down the stairs my second day there and was stuck icing and elevating my foot in my tiny, hot room.  Not being able to walk places and explore the city was a huge downer.  I felt like a lonely, overheated klutz, and I hated it.

Since I was living in the hasookjip (boarding house) at the time, making friends was also a challenge.  I didn’t meet anyone until my first day of class, six days after I arrived.  Eventually (two weeks in, to be exact), I moved into the dorms, and that was largely motivated by my desire to meet new people and make more friends.

My hostile phase passed soon enough, and I was enjoying life in Korea immensely by the second week.  The remainder of my stay was positively brilliant – I explored a lot of the city, took two trips down south, made some good friends, and wrote a ton of blog posts (this is my 58th!).  You could say my honeymoon stage lasted 9 weeks.

I’d say my last two weeks were the real honeymoon stage, though.  Once I realized my stay in Korea was winding down, I set out to finish my list before I left.  I made it to almost everywhere I wanted to go — notable exceptions are Jeju Island, the DMZ, and a Korean baseball game.  My stay was full of great food, people, and places; I don’t have a single regret.

When it finally came time to leave, I didn’t want to go.  Just when I felt settled and like I belonged in Korea, my time was up.  But, as a friend told me a while back, knowing your time in a place is limited helps you appreciate and enjoy it more.  I loved my time in Seoul, and I know I’ll be back.

As great a time as I had, there’s really no place like home.  Although I wasn’t homesick, I did miss my family and friends (from Chicago and LA) at times and made it a point to keep in touch.  My time in LA is short (only 3 weeks!), so I’m looking forward to spending it with my loved ones.  I’ll be reliving some of my not-yet-blogged Korean adventures as well, so keep an eye out!

And it’s hard to believe, but Seoul was only Part 1.  Let the countdown to Rome begin!  I guess it’s time to start learning Italian…

Street Food, Seoul Style

1 am in Sinchon.

Hungry at 2 in the morning?  No problem.

Whether you’re craving something fried, spicy, or neither, Korean street vendors have something delicious to offer you.  These movable food stations, known as 포장마차 (pojangmacha), are a night-owl’s best friend.  They offer a variety of street foods — ranging from ddukbokki to mandu to teriyaki skewers to waffle desserts.  Most are open through the afternoon and evening and often into the wee hours of the morning (on the weekend, which starts on Thursday), though of course it depends on the vendor.

My personal favorite in Sinchon is “the waffle man,” as a few of us at Yonsei refer to him.  Though he left us hanging during a few weeks of July/August (he claims it was too hot to be out), he’s now back for good until the winter.  His stand’s specialty is the waffle cream/ice cream sandwich, and it’s right up there with patbingsoo in my book.  (His waffle desserts, specifically.  Other stands just aren’t the same…)  My favorite flavor so far is the sweet potato (goguma) cream, though the walnut and chocolate ice cream flavors are also good.

Waffle ice cream sandwich – walnut, chocolate, blueberry (bottom to top)

I’ll certainly miss seeing these around when I’m back in the States.

Reunited At Last, Part 2 – Lotte World

Last Saturday, Seoyeon and I got together one last time before I head back to the States.  This time, she came to visit me in Seoul, and we spent all day at Lotte World, an entirely indoor amusement park.  I’m not a huge fan of amusement parks anymore, although I used to love roller coasters and spent more than a few days of my childhood at Disneyland and California Adventure.  But, I couldn’t say no when she asked if I wanted to go, and ended up having a good time.  Seoyeon had a blast, so the hours we spent walking around and standing in line were well worth it.

We were there all day (we got there at 10:30 am and left at 9 pm) and rode a number of rides — some more than once.  I can’t say I would recommend Lotte World…unless you’re easily amused, traveling with kids, or in one of those cute relationships known as a “couple” (I only mention the latter because there were cute couples everywhere).  Here’s the day in photos.

Welcome to Lotte World!

Caught red-handed.

Bored in line = picture time!

Mirror, mirror

Leaving our mark

The rock wall!

Seoyeon: Avid Tree Climber

– the “Art Gallery” –

Roman Holiday in Lotte World!

It was even more fun than it looks.

Bumper cars…Seoyeon’s new favorite. She’s a natural driver. Who knew?

The indoor hot air balloon that we didn’t get a chance to ride.

Foodie Friday 3 – Alt Swiss Chalet

I met up with an old elementary school classmate last week, and we went to a Swiss restaurant in Itaewon for lunch.  It’s tucked away on a quiet side street, making it one of Itaewon’s hidden treasures, if you will.  My friend says it’s one of Seoul’s only Swiss restaurants, and I don’t doubt it!  Their specialty is fondue (would you expect any less?), so I was really, really excited.  I love cheese.

Side note: Cheese and chocolate are the two main reasons I could never be vegan.  Sometimes soy just doesn’t cut it…

Anyways, the restaurant is called Alt Swiss Chalet, and its wood-covered walls and cowbell decor make you feel like you’re no longer in Seoul.

We ordered a cheese fondue set and a pasta each (sorry I can’t be more specific).  I had a Swiss-German pasta with a texture somewhat similar to gnocchi (but in pasta form).  It was delicious – hands down the best pasta dish I’ve had in Korea.

Cheese fondue set

Swiss-German pasta

The great food and fun conversation (three years worth of catching up!) made it a lovely lunch.  I’m already looking forward to the cheese, wine, and carbo-loading that awaits me in Europe!

노량진수산시장 (Noryangjin Fish Market)

As my time in Seoul winds down, I’ve been making a more concerted effort to get to the remaining items on my list.  So, last week, a classmate and I went to the 노량진수산시장 (Noryangjin Fish Market) for lunch.  홰 (sashimi) is my friend’s favorite, so I knew she would be a good companion.  I, on the other hand, am not the biggest fan of raw fish (it’s a texture thing).  But, since I hadn’t tried it in a while, I figured the freshest sashimi in Seoul deserved another chance.

Hundreds of vendors fill the market, which operates day and night (24 hours, to be clear).  Apparently it’s a popular drinking spot, which makes sense.  If there were this many 포장마차 (‘normal’ street vendors) set up in a single warehouse and open for 24 hours, I would go drinking there all the time too!

Of course, there’s much more than just fish on sale.  You can find (almost) every sea creature you can think of, from shellfish to sting rays to sea cucumbers.

One end of the market – the empty warehouse side

After we had enough of looking around, we got down to business and picked a vendor to buy fish from.  By that point, it was after 2 pm, and we were getting hungry.  The process was quite simple — find a tank with moving fish (who wants a frozen fish when fresher options surround you?), and start bargaining.  That we did, and soon we were walking away with a large plate of sashimi and a bag of leftovers from our two fish (for a soup).  We paid 30,000 for the fish — one __, and one ___.

The deal at this market is that your fish vendor hooks you up with a restaurant that will cook/serve it for you with side dishes, sauces, and all that good stuff.  We had gotten a recommendation for a restaurant from our teacher (who buys fish at this market every weekend!), but decided to stick with the restaurant the vendor was sending us to — there was a guy to lead us there and everything.

Upon arrival, a waitress quickly seated us, tossed a few sauces, wasabi, and a plate of lettuce on our table, and asked, “You want 매운탕(maeuntang, spicy fish soup), right?”  We nodded/mumbled yes, and were left staring at our huge plate of sashimi.  I don’t think either of us realized quite how large those two fish were.  (There are two different kinds of fish on the plate pictured below.)

We started off with the sashimi while our maeuntang was being prepared with the leftover parts of the fish.  By the time it was served, I was definitely ready for something cooked.  Unlike mushrooms, I have yet to grow out of my dislike of raw fish (for the record, mushrooms were a texture thing too).  At least I tried.

The maeuntang was SO GOOD.  It was pretty spicy, but not unbearably so.  The flavor of the broth complemented the greens, radishes, and fish really nicely.  There were tiny bones everywhere, which was a constant annoyance (ultimately a trivial one since it didn’t detract from the deliciousness).  I can’t remember the last time I had maeuntang, and I didn’t recognize the name so I know it’s been a while.  I’ll have to find some good maeuntang in LA’s Koreatown before I jet off again.

We passed the 63 Building (pictured above, on R) on our way back to the subway.  It’s so pretty!  And there are supposed to be great views of Seoul from the uppermost floors, rivaling the panoramas from Namsan (Seoul) Tower.  I think you can see the observation floor (the row of windows near the top) in the picture.  It’s on my list, but I don’t think I’ll make it there this summer… next time!

The Perfect Café – Part 8 [Café Poem]

A fellow KLI friend and I discovered this perfect study cafe one afternoon in Sinchon. It’s called Cafe Poem, and is quite small compared to some of the other cafes in the area — it’s only one floor! But, it’s got good seating, outlets and extension cords (!!), nice big windows, and great music (mostly R&B, which is right up my alley).

My friend and I have been twice now, so we’ve tried a number of their drinks. I really enjoyed the green tea, and the cafe au lait I had wasn’t half bad either (although it wasn’t nearly as pretty looking as my friend’s cappuccino…).


Cafe au lait

Iced vanilla mocha

Green tea

Green tea

Prices were normal by cafe standards (4-8,000, with most around 5 or 6), and you only have to buy 8 drinks to get a free one with their stamp card! (Unlike Cafe Caribou, a large chain, which rips you off and makes you buy 15 drinks before giving you a ‘free’ one. They have a branch in the dorm building, of course.) Another plus is that the barista is friendly and nice — a 친절한 직원, in Korean. My first time there, he offered me an extension cord when I pulled out my laptop! That sure won me over.

I’ll try to go back once more before I leave, just cause I like the place and want to support it. I probably won’t get a chance to study there though, given that my final exams are on Wednesday and Thursday and Typhoon Bolaven is supposed to roll in with its 130-mph winds and heavy rain this afternoon (it’s kind of a big deal). Ah, well. Studying is overrated.

Leeum: Samsung Museum of Art

Two weekends ago, after the fantastic brunch I posted about previously, my UChicago classmate and I explored Itaewon by foot.  Neither of us really knew what Itaewon had to offer, so we wandered around aimlessly with the hope of discovering something interesting.  As it turns out, we did!

We spotted a sign for Leeum, the Samsung Museum of Art, in one of the alleys branching off from the main road.  The name sounded really familiar…and then I realized I had included it as a “must-see” in my oral presentation on sightseeing in Korea (for my Korean class in Chicago, of course)!  Neither of us had anywhere to be and we were right there, so we couldn’t pass it up.

Before even entering the museum itself, two giant spiders (like in Harry Potter, but bigger) loomed up out of nowhere.  We hadn’t seen them from the sidewalk because they’re located on a large deck above street level, so when I first caught sight of them, I was pretty awestruck.  It’s hard not to be when you come across a sculpture of a spider more than four times your height.  The piece is entitled “Maman” (French for mother) and is by Louise Bourgeois, a French-American artist and sculptor.  Back in high school, I went to an exhibit of her work at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) for an art class, which equipped me with some insight into the themes that link much of her artwork.  She bases almost all of her pieces on past experiences and memories from her childhood and is known today as the “mother of confessional art”.  The spiders are pretty incredible to behold.

Inside, we bought tickets that granted us access to the entire museum and were directed to start on the fourth floor of ‘Museum 1’.  Leeum is split into two parts — ‘Museum 1’ is the traditional art wing, while ‘Museum 2’ showcases modern art — so I got to see celadon pottery and large installations in the same visit!  It also turns out this museum is a bit particular about how visitors go about — there were arrows at every turn and plenty of staff on hand to instruct you which way to go.  At least you know you don’t miss anything!

Here are some photo highlights from the afternoon:

A tiny ancient pillow… Ceramic pillows? Who knew!

The awesome spiral building that houses ‘Museum 1’ and the light installation that you can see in the picture of the lobby above.

Another cool installation.

No pictures allowed!

Some rules are meant to be broken…

“PDA not allowed”

A Takashi Murakami piece.

The museum cafe.

Foodie Friday 2 – The Flying Pan Blue

Happy Friday!

Last weekend, I met a classmate from UChicago for brunch at The Flying Pan Blue in Itaewon.  It’s known for its western-style brunches (omelettes, french toast, pancakes, etc.) and was packed when we arrived at 12:30 pm.  We were finally seated after waiting 45 minutes, and it was completely worth the long wait.  My friend got the ham and brie french toast, which she had heard was amazing (it was).  The ham and brie came inside of the brioche french toast (like a filling), which meant every bite had the perfect proportions of each.  I got the grilled banana french toast, which was also incredible.  On the sweeter side, of course, but hey, I do have a sweet tooth.  So that’s the subject of this week’s Foodie Friday… Enjoy!

Grilled banana french toast

In case you want to go and see/taste for yourself…

The Flying Pan Blue

127-3 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu

Subway: Itaewon station, Exit 2 (Line 6/brown line)

Take the first left after coming out of the exit (by the Homestead Coffee) and it will be on the upcoming corner on your right (basement level).

All-day brunch!  (pricey, but oh so worth it)

Bilbao Pizza

There’s a coffee & pizza place just steps away from the dorms, and I went for lunch with a friend last week.  That was the first time I ate at this little joint, despite walking by it at least twice a day.  The storefront looks like a tiny take-out stand that’s attached to a larger building — the seating area is downstairs on the basement level, so you can’t see it from the street.  It doesn’t feel like a basement at all though; large windows/skylights fill the space with natural light.  The decor is cutesy and vintage, similar to many of the cafes I’ve frequented here in Seoul.

As I suspected, it was on the pricier side – my pizza was 13,500.  But, it had gorgonzola, mozzarella, almonds, and honey on it (I decided to be adventurous).  Worth every cent…or 십원, rather (the Korean equivalent of a penny).  My friend got the mushroom pizza, which was equally delicious.  We traded pieces, of course; that’s the joy of eating with others!

The wonderful thing about our pizzas was how fresh they tasted (as my friend described them).  These weren’t your standard artery-clogging, heavy slices of pizza.  The crust was light and bread-y (though I would’ve preferred mine a little crispier), the sauce was tasteful, and the cheese was cheesy, not overwhelmingly greasy.  In one word, delicious.

Next time I’m craving some oven-baked, cheese-covered, dough-y goodness, I’m definitely passing up Pizza Hut and Mr. Pizza for some Bilbao Pizza.  No question about it.

Bank of Korea Museum

This past Saturday, I visited the Bank of Korea Museum.  I didn’t realize it was in Myungdong (even though I  looked at a map of how to get there), so I was a bit surprised to find myself amongst crowds of shoppers as I made my way to the museum.  Surprise aside, it was a pleasant walk since it wasn’t too hot out, and there was a nice fountain just across from the museum entrance as well as a view of Namsan Tower (otherwise known as Seoul Tower).

The museum has two floors, which cover the history of Korea’s central bank and national currency (Won) and showcase a huge variety of currencies used worldwide.

The reason I went to this somewhat boring museum was to see if there was any information about my great-grandfather, 배의환 (Eui Whan Pai), who served as Governor from June to September of 1960.  The last time I was in Korea, five summers ago, my dad, sister, cousin, and I visited the museum on a rainy day and found an interactive display that shared information on past Governors of the Bank of Korea.  It included a page on my great-grandfather, which we of course posed with and snapped photos of.  I’ll update this post with a couple of those pictures when I find them.

Anyways, I was kind of hoping to find something a little like that this time around, but the only thing I found was his signature (still very cool!).

I got to see lots of different types of currency, both old and new, which was really fun.  I made sure to check out samples of Turkish, Croatian, and Czech money, as I am hoping to travel to (at least one of) those places in the near future (i.e. during my 10 weeks in Rome!).  I’m in the midst of planning my dream trip now…

There were lots of old North and South Korean banknotes as well, pictured below!

Old South Korean currency

Old North Korean currency

North Korean currency

All in all, a good trip to the museum!  If you like (looking at specimens of) money, I’d definitely recommend it.

Old special-edition American currency

Bank of Korea Museum

110, 3-ga, Namdaemun-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul, Korea

Subway: City Hall station, Exit 7 (Line 1/dark blue line, Line 2/green line); Uljiro 1-ga station, Exit 7 (Line 2/green line); Hwehyeon station, Exit 7 (Line 4/light blue line)

Admission: Free!