Monday, August 4, 2008

Food, Friends, and Adventure!

Fountain at Gyeongbukgung Palace

The building in front of The Blue House
A tip of The Blue House. Can you see it?
David, Christine, John, and I
Caleen was there too!
A shot of one of Seoul's downtowns!
A fountain in downtown Seoul
The entrance to Gyeongbukgung Palace.

Hello Everyone! It’s been quite a week, so I hope you’re in the mood for a lengthy update! Caleen and I just had a wonderful four-day weekend, of which, three were spend in Seoul! It was so amazing! I’ll tell you all about it, but before we dive into that adventure and how things are going back home, I’m going to start on a tangent. It’s better to get through it now, so things don’t become too disjointed or incomprehensible later on. :)

Before and since coming here, many people have asked Caleen and I about Korean food and what we were going to do concerning our diet situation. For those of you who don’t know, Caleen and I have been on highly restrictive diets (for health reasons) at some point over the past year, and we’ve just been trying to be cautious since then. Anyway, when people have asked about it, we would generally tell them how we thought sticking to our dietary guidelines in South Korea would be relatively easy in comparison to living in the U.S. We knew that rice, not wheat, was the main staple here and that people ate lots of vegetables. We were sure we would have nothing to worry about. However, we couldn’t have been more mistaken. I’m not sure if we have mentioned it before, but the food here hasn’t been the easiest to get used to. We’re all for eating vegetables and fish, but we’re not huge fans of unrecognizable, pickled foods that are covered in a spicy, yet somehow bland chili sauce. To put it simply, our dislike of a lot of Korean food has driven us to eating things that we oughtn’t, like sugar and wheat. It also doesn’t help that Koreans have these strange and beautiful desserts that are offered to us regularly, like sweet potato cake and odd, disc-shaped-custard-filled treats. They’re so great! The sweet potato cakes are moist, decorated with slices of sweet potato and dark chocolate, and covered with whipped cream frosting and powdered chocolate. How could you resist?!?

We also don’t have many alternatives in the event of a sugar-craving attack. They have a dismal selection of the sugar-free foods that we would normally eat when we were craving things. In fact, we’ve only found three. The first is the nastiest chewing gum you’ve ever had. It’s made with xylitol, which is great; but it also tastes like a cheap menthol and eucalyptus cough drop. To my bewilderment, Caleen chews it all the time, which I think speaks volumes about her sad gum-chewing addiction. The second is Diet Coke, which normally gets the job done, but the third alternative is my favorite and hardest to find, sugar-fee dark chocolate. As far as I know, it can only be found in these small convenience stores called Family Mart, where there are usually few to none. The outer packaging had been opened both times we’ve found it, but we were desperate enough to buy them anyway. We’re cracking way down on our wheat and sugar consumption from now on, but I just wanted you to know that our resolve to eat well while we’re here has considerably weakened at times. If you are at all bored or feeling generous, you could join our cause by either praying that we develop a taste for Korean food and/or sending us pounds and pounds of sugar-free dark chocolate. You can buy it in bulk at Winco. :) Just kidding…

Okay. Now that that’s out of my system, I’ll talk about the things that you really want to hear - or read.

As Caleen mentioned in our last email, we are in the middle of the school’s Summer Session, which to our dismay (namely mine), has greatly prolonged our working hours to nearly 10 hours/day. Despite our feeling perpetually tired, we’ve adjusted pretty well. The middle of the week is, by far, the hardest part. We largely look and feel like zombies for all of Wednesday and Thursday, so for those days, it’s helped to crash immediately after eating dinner. That way we get about 10 hours of sleep before the next day and are less likely to think the rest of the week impossible to get through. The Summer Session is not nearly as harried as a normal work day, but the days certainly go slower. We’re definitely looking forward to our normal work schedule. Only three more weeks to go!

As far as our social life is concerned, things have certainly improved. (Praise God!) There’s a new Korean teacher at the school who’s been a student in the U.S. for the last 4 years, and she’s been great to get to know. Caleen and I had her over for dinner this week, where we got to hear more about her family and her experience coming to the Lord. It was a good time. I don’t think we’d laughed that hard for a long time, and we’re hoping that she’d like to come to Seoul with us the next time we go. Unfortunately for us, however, she’s leaving at the end of the month to go back to the States, so Caleen and I are a little bummed. We’ll make the most of our time with her until she goes, but until then we’re planning on stuffing ourselves into her luggage when she leaves. J

There’s also another English-speaking Korean woman, who we found out lives right next to us. She’s just moved here for work and seems in want of company. We haven’t gotten the opportunity to hang out with her yet, but she seems nice and very eager to get to know us, though I think we’re a bit more desperate to know her.

In all, we’ve been doing pretty well. We’re starting to battle homesickness and the tendency to view everything through the lens of ethnocentrism, but who doesn’t when they move to a radically different country? For now, we’re just trying to stay optimistic. We’ve even come up with the Caleen-and-Ashley’s-10-Best-Things-About-Living-In-Korea List.

1. The people of Korea are incredibly helpful. Every time we’ve remotely
needed help, someone has miraculously appeared or been more than happy to
assist us when we’ve solicited their help.

2. Caleen and I re-did the math and found that, hypothetically, we’ll be able to
obliterate most, if not all of our debt and may even come home with some money.

3. Our new friends, David and Christine. They took amazing care of us while we
were in Seoul. I’ll talk more about them later.

4. The humidity in the air makes it so we don’t really need lotion.

5. The people here are really respectful of the elderly. They bow lower to them
when addressing them, serve them first, accommodate their needs, and even speak
to them in a specialized way (honorifics system).

6. Public transportation is great, even in Chung-ju. A cab ride across town is
only around 2,500 Won ($2.50 USD).

7. Tipping is not expected or required anywhere.

8. So far, men have been very respectful toward us. Unlike walking around in the U.S., we’ve not once been creeped out by anybody (okay, once) or been hit on. It probably helps that we don’t speak Korean.

9. Eating out is usually inexpensive. Street food is usually around $2-$3, and a sit-down meal is not normally more than $8.00.

10. Because Caleen and I just work and have few friends, we lead very simple lives. We’re not constantly running in and out of the house to meet people or get things done. It’s a slower pace of life that’s allowed us to do things we haven’t been able to do in a long time. For instance, Caleen is trying to pick up painting again.

*11. Bonus!* The produce here is immaculately beautiful. Caleen thinks I’m silly for
putting this on here, but it’s true! You’ve never seen such huge, pristine fruits and
vegetables in your life! They taste good too!

I know, some of that’s a bit weak, but we can say with all certainty that every one of those are good and true things about living here so far.

Now on to our adventures in Seoul!

As we may have mentioned in our last blog (I should really read what we’ve told you already), our dear friend, Shirley Moon, helped us connect with some friends of hers in Seoul. Their names are David and Christine, and I can’t tell you how thankful Caleen and I are for their generosity and help. Once Caleen and I had put it in our minds to go to Seoul for our 4-day weekend, we gave them a call to see if they would be at all willing to help us find a hotel and give us some advice about coming to the city. They said they would love to help, so we made plans from there. However, I don’t think we ever anticipated the kind of reception we received when we got there.

Because Chung-ju is a small city that doesn’t benefit from the ease and efficiency of a bullet-train, Caleen and I came to Seoul by bus, which isn’t a terribly long bus-ride in the first place (about 1 hour and 40 min.). We were excited and a little nervous as we got off the bus. I remember thinking that if the Seoul Express Bus Terminal was anything like the rest of Seoul, we were in for something drastically different and wonderful. Comparatively speaking, this bus terminal put the Boise Airport to shame (and it was only one of its two terminals). It has 4 levels (technically 5) and more upscale shops and stands than you can imagine. When we got to the information counter, we were almost immediately greeted by David and Christine and their cute and quirky son, John. From then on, we were treated like esteemed and honored guests. David took Caleen’s luggage; John was coerced into taking mine; and off we went.

First, we stopped at the hotel to get ourselves checked in and settled in our room. David was so cute as he told us about how reasonably priced and strategically located our hotel was. He reminded me of our dad when he gets really excited about telling us something, all quiet, but still enthusiastic. The hotel, it turns out, was pretty cool. It’s down the most narrow street you’ve ever seen in your life and centrally located in Seoul with easy access to the subway and Itaewon, a place I’ll tell you about later. It was a little more than we were expecting to pay per night (around $60), but you also have to understand that Seoul is one of the top 5 most expensive places in the world, so we were actually quite fortunate. It had two twin beds, a mounted flat-screen TV, a refrigerator, and an air conditioner, which was all I really cared about. Anyway, after dropping off our things there, we headed out for lunch in Insadong, the city’s historic district.

On our way to Insadong, David and Christine told us that not only had they intended to get us settled into our rooms and take us out to lunch, but that they’d also planned to spend the entire day with us. David had it all planned. We were going to go to Insadong for lunch and shopping first, The Blue House second, the Gyeongbukgung Palace third, and then Itaewon for dinner and more shopping. We didn’t know what half of all that was at the time, but we were eager to see it all and excited nonetheless.

It turns out that Insadong is a street as much as it is a district. There are small traditional shops, art galleries, restaurants, tea houses, antique shops, and other specialty shops crammed up and down the street. There are also people everywhere. Though the narrow street is primarily a tourist destination, this street is also fully functional during the week. So having come on a Friday, we toured Insadong though great crowds of people and moving vehicles. After eating a good, traditional Korean meal and looking at a few shops, Caleen asked if going to tea houses was at all a tradition in Korea, to which they said that it was and mistook Caleen’s question for a desire to got to a tea house. They found the most delicious smelling tea house down the road. It smelled of the most exquisitely intense sweet, baked cinnamon imaginable, and Caleen and I knew we had to have whatever it was. It turns out it had to be one of two things, a hot cinnamon tea or a cold cinnamon tea punch. Caleen and I were determined to find out what exactly the smell was, so we ordered both. And so to not sound as if all I cared about was what Caleen and I did, I want you to also know that Christine had a citron tea and that David and John shared a cold rice tea. J Anyway, in addition to this tea house’s heavenly smell and delicious teas, it was also quite expensive. A cup of tea was around $7-$8 USD, no joke. Seeing this, Caleen and I sneakily slipped my debit card into the bill folder to save our magnanimous hosts any further expense. After all, we didn’t want to seem too expectant or ungrateful.

After seeing Insadong, we went to The Blue House next. The Blue House, it turns out is where the President of South Korea lives (The White House…The Blue House, get it?). However, we didn’t actually get to see much of The Blue House. I’m not sure exactly why, but we couldn’t go beyond this gate which stood in front of the building which blocked our view of The Blue House. We could only see a fraction of the roof beyond the building in front of The Blue House, which was, indeed, blue. However, the great part about coming there that day was seeing a parade in which soldiers or mock-soldiers were dressed as warriors representing each of the Korea’s dynasties. They all got off their charter busses in full uniform, marched across the street and though the main gate. It was pretty awesome. Some dignitary or foreign official was there that day, and we had come just in time to see the parade begin outside the main gate. David kept saying over and over that he’d never seen anything like this in real life and felt we were very lucky to be there that day. We felt pretty lucky too. To not entirely cheapen the experience, it was kind of like finding a two-for-the-price-of-one sale.

Next we went to Gyeongbukgung Palace. It was the palace of the Joseon Dynasty, and it was beautiful. Caleen had already seen historical Asian architecture in China, but this was my first time seeing it first hand, and I adored every bit of it. However, I’m not sure why I was so enamored with it. It looked exactly the way I imagined an ancient Asian building would look. Perhaps that was why. Reality usually falls so far short of any idealistic prototype, not unlike the way a hastily wrapped cheeseburger with wilted lettuce and only half the cheese on it looks in comparison to the advertisement that inspired its purchase. At any rate, it was beautiful as you can see from the pictures above.

The last place we went to, Itaewon, was actually the only place Caleen and I went to for all of Saturday too. It’s largely considered the Westerners’ district. The U.S. Army has a base right along the street, so there are tons of American soldiers, not to mention people from all over the world who have set up shops and restaurants to cater to them. This was a little like paradise for Caleen and I. We really missed American, Thai, and Mexican food, and I was eager to find some clothes that fit. (Clothes run quite small here, and even the clothes I found turned out to be hideous and ill-fitting, at best. They’re also extravagantly over-priced. Caleen feels the same way.) We also hadn’t really seen many Western faces since moving to Chung-ju, so seeing so many came as a surprise to us. After looking at a few shops, David and Christine took us to their favorite Thai restaurant, where Caleen got to have her Pad Thai and I got to have my Thai curry. It tasted more authentic than any Thai food I’d had in Boise, and it was really good. We also had a great time with David, Christine, and Jon there. We’d talked the whole day about Korean history and culture, and by then we were talking about the main differences between Korean social behaviors and American social behaviors. David is an international businessman of sorts (he works for Korean Air), so he’s well aware of the differences between North American and Korean culture. What he had to say was sooooooo funny to Caleen and I. Apparently, Caleen and I shouldn’t make eye-contact, smile, and say An-yeong-ha-seo to people anymore. We were perplexed that most people look so stoic when we see them, and we told them that we had been somewhat depressed that no one appeared to be very happy about life. David laughed when he heard this and told us that Koreans don’t generally smile – not because they’re all depressed, but because they all know each other. According to him, Koreans don’t feel the need to smile and make other people feel comfortable because they know what another person is thinking, even if they don’t really know them. To put it in a way in which I could better understand this idea, I imagined that this isn’t too far from how we are with members of our immediate family. We don’t always feel the need to smile and greet one another all the time, and I’m guessing that’s what he was getting at. He also told us that if we went around smiling and saying hello to everyone that people might think we were crazy. That, of course, would be more likely if we were Korean men, but he said to tone it down a bit anyway. Caleen and I laughed so hard when we heard this. We’ll see how well that goes!

After dinner, Caleen and I took David, Christine, and John to Coldstone for some ice cream. We had passed it on our way to the Thai restaurant, and David had never heard about it before. After that, they dropped us off at our hotel and said our goodbyes. We would see them again on Sunday when they picked us up to go to an English-speaking church, which proved to be a major highlight of the trip. Caleen and I hadn’t been to church in nearly a month, and we were in need of some encouragement.

After misunderstanding one another about which church we wanted to go to and getting lost on the way, we ended up at the Seoul International Baptist Church, which turned out to be a great choice for us. Everyone there was very kind, and the congregation was composed of all sorts of people – Americans, Canadians, Africans, Koreans, etc. We also really liked the pastor and his wife. They are from the great State of Texas, and that certainly came out in the way they talked. We loved it. The service went a bit long for David and his family, nearly two hours; but Caleen and I hardly noticed how long the sermon went. It was exactly what we needed. We’re hoping to go there a little more to see if we want to make that the church we attend on a semi-regular basis.

When the service was over, we had just enough time to eat lunch and sightsee around the terminal before our bus left. It was nice. We ate, drank smoothies, and then got to watch the beautiful, green Korean countryside flash before our eyes as we headed home.


Tim Gordon said...

Girls, thanks for the update. Those are great pictures. Sounds like you are getting quite the cultural experience. I tried to ship you some xylitol but since it is a food item, I could not do it.

Love, Dad

Grandma Kay said...

AHA!!! I finally got to the site. Every time I tried to get here before now, I got a page that said the site was unavailable. I'm so excited to see the pictures, read the stories, and hear about all of it. I've been praying for you daily and now can see it. What adventures you are having. Life here is far more normal than what you are going through and as weird as it all seems now, in one year when you come back, this is going to seem weird.
Love you both,

Fellowship Team said...

Hey ladies,

You may not know it but you and your blog have quite the cult following here in Boise, ID. Hope to hear about more of your adventures soon!



KristinDewey said...

we need a new update, ladies!!!