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Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Noticed and Overhead in Korea (on my Korean trip October 1-8, 2010)
Tiny roofs upon a roof
Heedfall, sign at left
Signing a ceramic vase
A large photograph, bottom row, center
The comfortable lobby in my hotel
The comments in the pages below are based on just a week's stay on my visit to Seoul, Korea in 2010. Accordingly, my observations are meant neither as representations nor criticisms of Korean culture, but rather are written out of humorous observations of quickly perceived differences in a near virginal euphoria as I encountered this complex society. One might as easily have noted similar differences—perceived oddities in a newly encountered culture—by any Korean first visiting the USA. At no point do I intend my comments as applying to the society at large, which I highly admire and have just begun to explore as a culture. These jottings represent just what they suggest by their collective title: things briefly noted and observed—and, I should add, for the most part joyfully experienced.
Noticed and Overheard in Korea
by Douglas Messerli
FOR FINGERS ONLY
It appears to me that Koreans are stingy with towels, cloth or paper. Although Western-sized towels are likely available in the larger hotels (they were available at the Hotel Seoul KyoYuk MunHwa Hoekwan where we writers' invited to the 2010 World Writers' Festival stayed.) But in smaller hotels, certainly in the tourist hotel where I stayed the first evening, the towels provided were the size of very small American hand-towels, insufficient to properly dry Western sized bodies (or, for that matter, Korean bodies of today). The more rustic Seoul Art Space, where I stayed the final few nights, expected their guests to bring their own towels, and we had each to insist that we be provided with one; somehow I received two very small towels, but gave one up to my neighbor, Antonio Colinas, who had not so insisted. To be fair, the Art Space may tell its regular guests beforehand what to expect; we were sudden and unexpected visitors.
This lack of towels, however, extended also to many public facilities. In a number of public bathrooms I found a sink and even soap, but nothing with which to dry one's hands. Even in Dankook university there were no towels to be found, which does tend make one a bit shy about washing one's hands in the first place, and certainly makes for an unsanitary experience. A few of these public bathrooms did offer hand-driers (which I also abhor, but will use if necessary), but the majority offered nothing.
Table napkins are even smaller, more for the fingers than mouths or hands, and are as thin as facial tissues.
Seoul, October 7, 2010
THE DECLARATION OF THE ROOF
It was fascinating to me that most of the high-rise apartments in Seoul, of which there are hundreds, are all aligned horizontally to the streets and highways, their vase rectangles of concrete, each marked with a number, possibly determined by their position in a sequence from left to right or vice-versa: 102, 103, 104, etc., facing the traveler.
Whereas most Western apartment buildings, influenced obviously by the Bauhaus architecture and modernism in general, are topped off by a flat surface as if to emphasize their sleekness, almost all such buildings in Seoul, when they are not built as spectacular architectural statements, bear mansard-like roofs or, even more often, are topped by a small model of a house (presumably containing the equipment that runs the elevator), themselves crowned by a traditional roof in the manner of the American Red Roof Inn motels. Accordingly, it is as if each architect has placed atop his or her construction a little cap or a tri-cornered hat, influenced, quite obviously, by the roofs of the great Korean palaces. Indeed, sometimes the arcs of the palace roof is itself imitated.
These decorative elements atop what are otherwise simply rectangular boxes have the effect of rendering these buildings, at least to Western eyes, as slightly kitsch, as if there has been some attempt to prettify a form that so shouts out its utilitarian function: a number of stacked floors containing variously sized cubicles in which humans are housed. This may be your home, but it is definitely not a palace—despite the declaration of the roof.
Seoul, October 7, 2010
ALL AT ONCE
Although there are different "waves" or "phases" of Korean meals, there is no sense of different "courses" as there is in the West. Except for rice and the Korean version of udon, all dishes, consisting of small plates of various cabbages (kimchi), meats, fish, fried foods, salad, etc, are placed upon the tables in restaurants all at once and are shared by one's table mates. Each of the low tables, requiring sitting upon the floor, have from four to six settings, around which these small patters are placed. There is no order in the selection; one simply takes up the small, pointed metal chopsticks and selects a bit of what one desires, placing it upon the diminutive plate or bowl before one. If a platter is out of reach, another diner will help with the serving. One never pours one's own drinks; one must pour for others and, they, in turn, will pour for you. My 21-year old translator and her friends reported, however, that that tradition—since it had been essentially the task of the woman, a role Korean Feminism now frowns upon—is beginning to disappear, yet at every lunch and dinner I shared with others the tradition was maintained.
This communality of eating, accordingly, helps to involve everyone, and contributes to the sustenance of conversation, while still allowing for individual tastes. As the different dishes begin to be eaten up and are quickly cleared away, the next "phase" is served, and often a third, sweeter "wave," at which time the waitresses also serve tea.
Although I had eaten several times in Los Angeles' Korean restaurants before my travels, I discovered several new Korean dishes, some of which I preferred to others, and by the end of my visit, I had begun to make determined choices in what I ate. With the abundance of different choices, however, I certainly never went hungry. And the Koreans seem to be hearty eaters.
Seoul, October 7, 2010
A SLIPPER FETISH
Koreans, like those of other Asian cultures, have what might be described as a shoe-fetish, or more correctly, a "slipper-fetish." It is one thing to take off one's shoes before entering a house—Howard and I do that in our own home, although we do not require it of others; and a recent invitation to a party at the home of Michael Ovitz, the founder of Creative Artists Agency and former president of the Walt Disney Company, announced that guests would be asked to remove their shoes and put on slippers before entering their home. But it is quite another thing to require, as they did at the Art Space, that one differentiate between a slipper to wear in the rooms and hall, a slipper to wear in the out-of-doors, and a slipper to wear in the bath.
The latter is necessary since many homes and hotels do not have a shower stall in their toilets, and one bathes, accordingly, by holding a shower hose over one's head in the middle of the room, the water eventually running to a floor drain, usually located under the sink. Depending upon how often one showers, the bathroom floor remains wet throughout the day and into the night, and returning to it is a bit like entering a wading pool. The floors of many Korea homes and hotels, consisting of highly polished wood, moreover, does not wed well with the tracks of wet feet. Plastic slippers, kept just inside the toilet, facing the direction of one's feet, is the perfect solution!
Leaving a restaurant, particularly with a large group, involves the discovery and reckoning of one's foot wear, usually stowed upon entering in large cabinets or stacked upon shelves. The deep bend of each guest to fit and tie up his shoes has a feel almost of a ritualistic act. Fortunately, I wear loafers.
I should add, the so called "Ripper Slippers" found in Korean hair salons, patronized by ghetto women, have become popular with both Black gang members and gays in Los Angeles.
Seoul, October 8, 2010
THE TENTH SAINT
In the Itaweon neighborhood of Seoul I lunched at a French bistro titled Le Saint-Ex, one of the first of the higher-class restaurants opened when the area was still a red light district and off-limits to most Koreans not working in the sex industry. The restaurant is run by Benjimin Joinau, who has since become a noted figure in the Itaweon community.
Their Steak Poirve is truly excellent, and, along with a good bottle of Merlot, and an hour long nursing of a gin and tonic beforehand, produced much of the writing in this piece.
I puzzled, however, over the name of the place. Did it mean to suggest just any saint, a saint without a name, the tenth saint—whoever that might be—or was it suggesting that we should just cross the saintly off our list?
Seoul, October 7, 2010
AT THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF
At the Cheonan Campus of Dankook University, I met In-Ho Cho, Vice President, in charge of the Chenon Campus. He spoke English and had studied dentistry at UCLA in Los Angeles. As we moved from his offices to the theater for our readings and lectures, we were stopped by a photographer to have our pictures taken.
There, to the left of where we stood, was a sign that Ko Un's translator, Brother Anthony pointed out, warning that a cliff began just beyond the barrier which stood behind us. DANGER, it shouted out in both Korean and Korenglish: HEEDFALL. We laughed, explaining to Mr. In-Ho that there was no such word in English, but that it such a wonderful creation it should perhaps be introduced into the language. Certainly there was no way to translate it properly!
Seoul, October 7, 2010
THE IMPORTANCE OF LANGUAGE
At the Three Alley Pub in the same small street where I had lunch, the bartender spoke endlessly with the American military personnel from the nearby Yongsan Garrison who gather there. "Even when I lived clear out in the country," he proclaimed, "I made the long journey into Seoul and Itaweon to come here. It's important in Korea to have a place where the bartender speaks English!"
Seoul, October7, 2010
MISS PAK AND MR. FRITZ
I had come to this pub precisely for what it offered, a chance to write while overhearing the local news and gossip. What I most like about any city is trying to comprehend how people live in it, what they do, etc. Since I did not understand Korean, however, I could not "overhear" things the way I do in some other cities. I needed, as the bartender had demanded, a place where the bartender and customers spoke English.
Accordingly, my comprehension of Korean life is a bit far-fetched, since it is based mostly on hearsay from Americans living in the midst of the most international and sexually open section of Seoul. Yet no tour guide could have offered me up a more delightful mix of conversations than the ones I assimilated at Three Alley Pub.
Somehow the conversation turned to the neighborhood characters. The bartender described how one night he was visited by the very famous Miss Pak. Miss Pak, evidently, is quite ancient, without teeth, and with cheeks that have gradually caved in over the years—yet she is a legend in Seoul. Her name is Dakju Pak, but she is known only as Miss Pak, a whore who haunts the streets of Itaweon. She has been at her job for nearly sixty or even seventy years, they all agree. Although greatly loved, just for the absurdity of her situation, she is also quite dangerous to some. Apparently, she has crushes on some soldier boys, even if they have had nothing to do with her, and shouts at them in the streets, sometimes at inopportune moments such as when they might be out walking with a military superior: "I love you best, Ralphie" Miss Pak screams. Ralph blushes of course, but even if innocent, he is forever suspect.
They attempted to calculate—forgive me dear reader for the coarseness of these soldiers' imagination—how much cock she must have had, given her age and averaging two medium-sized customers six days a week (they gave her a day off, even if she didn't take it), and summarized that it might reach—if you took it south—clear to Busan!
The denizens of this bar followed up with a brief mention of Mr. Fritz, another neighborhood figure, who goes about dressed only in his pajamas, pointing his umbrella at desired individuals, as if to say, "Take this!"
Seoul, October 7, 2010
Oh, that reassuring, yet commandeering voice of the Korean mother! In Seoul she exists everywhere: at street lights she tells you when to cross and when to stop; in elevators she announces what floor you have reached, "please exit now." Taxis could never reach their destinations without her navigational skills. She seems to be everywhere, that wise, bossy, scolding, slightly sexy, and utterly terrifying woman, informing everyone—particularly the Korean male—of when, what, and why he should act. Often she sneaks up on you. On the escalator down she commanded me in Korean to "step off immediately." Yet to my knowledge she said nothing on the way up!
Even as we sped to the Incheon airport, Mother Korea took time to tell us, as we drove through the toll booth on the freeway that "You need to buy a new ticket" or "Your ticket remains in good stead," I couldn't determine which. For her ever vigilant helpfulness she makes very large demands.
Seoul, October 7, 2010
TAXIS TO SOMEWHERE ELSE
Most of the taxicab drivers I encountered in Seoul were in their late 40s and 50s, few of them comprehending more than a dozen words of English, unless it has to do with a financial transaction.
Whenever I handed the driver a card with the address to which I wanted to be taken, he had first to put on his glasses before squinting at the business card as if he had never seen such a thing or was attempting to interpret the strange characters displayed upon it (although it was written in Korean). Five out of six times, the driver seemed utterly perplexed until I suggested he check out his navigational system.
The drivers' mastery of this system, however, was another problem. In four trips to the "lost paradise" hilltop Seoul Art Space, three of them ended in a place I could not recognize, one very late at night, where the drivers' were ready to "dump" me, despite my complaints. At one point, I tried to tell the driver to take me back to where he had picked me up—I would pay for the whole trip in order to be in a place where I would know where I was. Fortunately, he asked a passerby who was able to explain the Art Space's nearby location.
The other two times that I arrived at the wrong destination ended in something like a shouting match as I proclaimed my lack of recognition while the drivers' pointed with assurance at their navigational system's map. After all, Mother Korea had told them they had arrived at their destination. My refusal to leave the cab, accordingly, resulted in something like a standoff, until I handed the card to them again, beseeching them to call the Art Space's office. The helpful staff explained each time to the drivers their errors and how to reach their goal.
Although all of these trips ended on a friendly note, accordingly, I entered each vehicle with a sense of trepidation, never knowing where I might end up. And there was always the chance that Mother Korea would win out over me, leaving me high in the hills at an unknown doorway.
When I expressed these fears—without adding any of the details above—on a visit to Brother Anthony, he reassured me in his delightful Cornwallish accent: "Not to worry. The taxicab driver will take out his glasses, study your little card, and take you straight to gate."
I could only wonder that all taxicab drivers in Seoul must suffer the same affliction of far-sightedness. Perhaps it was merely a trick of the trade, a way of assuring the customer that he was seriously attending to his destination.
Seoul, October 8, 2010
SIGNATURES AND PHOTOGRAPHS
I have never signed more programmes, documents, and objects than here in Korea. It was very sweet for 15 high school girls, dressed all in red, to want our autographs. I signed each one, dedicated with the name of she who requested it. It was also very nice to sign the large banners bearing my intensely smiling face on the opening night. I also was asked to sign a large placard, which is difficult to do with a permanent marking pen, given my small handwriting.
At Dankook University we were all asked to put some words and our signatures upon a large ceramic vessel waiting to be kilned. Later, we were asked to affix our signatures to a plate.
At the Seoul Art space we again signed placards. Everywhere people begged for signatures above our photographs.
My hand hurts. It is the mentality of "Kilroy was Here," the sign as symbol of being and event.
Another Korean (and pan-Asian) infatuation is the photograph. I have never been shy with the camera, myself, and for years have stubbornly documented my friends and acquaintances in the US, Europe, and South America, so I am quite in sympathy with this activity. Yet, I admit it, I cannot match the obsession with photo-documentation of this trip.
There has hardly been a moment during our tour in which we and are audiences were not being filmed or photographed. At every venue, both before and after, we have been gathered together for group photo shots, most of them exposing my fat belly along with my over friendly smile (my translator, Soomin, overheard children at the Changdekyung Palace describing me as Santa Claus).
I have never in my life felt so exposed, so overexplosed. Posters of our faces hang on street lamps, across the sides of buildings, in every theater in which we have performed, are pasted even on the sides of the buses which carry us about.
Beyond all this, each of the writers and translators gleefully snap the others' pictures, and filmmaker's following us take pictures of our taking pictures. News photographers even get into the act, snapping up pictures of our documenters taking pictures of us taking pictures of ourselves!
Surely among these hundreds and hundreds of images there must be one photograph worth retrieving—the one that makes look like someone else or, at least, a better me! I invite all of you who captured my image to return them to me before my image of myself is forever lost!
Seoul, October 8, 2010
WHERE IT IS
Although one can easily find beer in the Incheon Seoul Airport, in the concourse from which my plane left there was only one tiny bar which one could easily miss, with the unlikely name of Fizz & Jazz, which serves vodka (no tonic), Jack Daniels, Chevas, Hennessey, and Bicardi—nothing else. Four beers: Heineken, Asai, Corona, and Budweiser. There was also no music while I was there, so, in short, they had neither jazz nor fizz!
Indeed, even in the major hotel in which I stayed, they had balked at serving me a vodka and tonic and claimed to have no gin. What was this absence of certain popular spirits all about?
I spoke to the young woman who bartended this small space. She reported that, although her girlfriends loved gin and tonics, her boss wouldn't stock the place with either. "Why?" I queried.
"No one in the older generation would drink them. They drink beer. They drink soju [a slightly sweeter drink like vodka, but with a low liquor content, that is drunk "straight"]. They don't drink vodka, never tonic."
"But don't tourists want gin and vodka? At home we drink it all the time."
I knew, in part, the answer to the question. Brother Anthony had explained that when the American soldiers gathered in Seoul after the war, the Koreans discovered them to all be whiskey drinkers. No "effeminate" mixed drinks for them. They wanted the real "stuff."
Consequently, the contemporary American tourist must suffer this sixty-year old misconception. And now I comprehend why Fizz and Jazz is where it is! May I suggest Sprite?
Seoul, October 8, 2010
THE KOREAN WAY
Representing a cultural of consensus, Korean restaurateurs, shopkeepers, waiters, and other service people can be very strict when it comes to rules and regulations.
At the Hotel Seoul KyoYuk MunHwa Hoekwan one morning, I awoke quite early at 5:00 AM. After answering my emails, shaving, showering, and brushing my teeth, I determined to write for a while. My room, however, was poorly lit and the sun had yet to fully shine. So, I determined to go down to sit in the lobby waiting room, a commodious, inviting place with numerous tables and chairs next to the restaurant, which opened at 7:30. When I arrived, however, the room was dark. The restaurant, preparing for service, on the other hand, was brightly lit, and I looked around seeing only a few young servers laying out the foods for the buffet.
Quite carefully, I moved back the table setting and sat, writing peacefully for several hours—including the sketch you are now reading. No one bothered with me in the least. As time moved on, however, and it got closer to 7:30, the maitre'd suddenly appeared, his eyes growing large with horror as he moved toward me. Half in Korean and half in English he informed me that I was not allowed to sit there, that the restaurant would not be open until another half-hour. I attempted to explain to him that I would put everything back, and that I had chosen this place only because the lobby was dark, pointing to the room beside us. To my surprise, the lobby was now fully lit, and I readily agreed to move.
"7:30! 7:30," he adamantly repeated.
"Yes, I know. It opens at 7:30," I spoke as I rose, carefully placing the mat and silverwear as I had found them.
"Go!" he exhorted.
I stubbornly remained in place until I had returned everything to perfect order before retreating to the lobby where I continued to write.
At precisely 7:30 he came to me in the lobby, inviting me back into the restaurant. I thanked him but continued where I was for at least another hour. No one arrived in the restaurant until 8:00.
I did understand that I had intruded upon the perfect order of his world, that I had been "out of place." Yet, he could not comprehend that a slight exception of that order might not represent a disaster.
An even funnier event like this occurred one afternoon as we paused for lunch at a restaurant near Deoksugung Royal Palace. Here we sat as usual on the floor, awaiting service, which was brought to us over a period of some time, the waitresses bringing out dishes one by one, and placing them in various spots around the tables. Each time something was put near my publisher and poet-friend Jerzy Illg, however, we would compulsively move it. A rebel from Poland, a man who grew up under the Communist rule, he could not, I surmised, resist putting the dish in a place of his own chosing.
After he had done this several times, the waitress scolded him, explaining (through his translator) that he should not move the dishes since she was working hard to find room for which the numerous platters she would serve us.
Yet the next time she set down a platter within his reach, without thinking he pulled it again in his direction. This time she had no patience, and quickly bending down, gently slapped the back of his hand. We all laughed, and Jerzy resisted touching anything until all was set into position.
Visiting the Manila Bar in Itaweon, in which I was the first and lone customer, I sat on the balcony, only to be told by a Korean waitress quickly scurrying to my side that I must not sit without first ordering. "I'd like to order a San Miguel then," I responded.
"No, you must order and pay," she replied.
"Don't you trust your customers?" I laughed in mild defiance.
"Over there," she pointed, "over there."
"But I intend to order several beers," I pushed back. "Must I get up and pay over there every single time?"
She looked at me disconcertedly, as if I were a simple child unable to comprehend: "It is our way," she insisted.
Despite my aching legs, due to my arthritis, I stood, walked down the few stairs, and went to the counter to order through another Korean woman what I already had requested. I paid and returned to my balcony seat.
With a satisfied flourish of recognition of my obedience, the first waitress served it up with a bowl of peanuts. I did not desire another round. And besides, it was now the time when most the restaurants opened up for lunch.
I am certain such behavior occurs thousands of times each day in the USA, but my guess is that it would not occur so readily in Japan or Malaysia, this slightly surly insistence of the right way of doing things. It emanates, surely, from a culture that has too often been dominated by outsiders; perhaps even American soldiers during the Korean War influenced this insistence upon the Korean way of doing things.
Seoul, October 6, 2010