Saturday, December 2, 2006

Cultural Learnings of Korea for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of America

I headed out to Seoul on Friday, November 17. As usual, I had to scramble to get to the airport. Work never cooperates when I'm trying to get out of town. I got home from the office late the night before, and I woke up around 4:00 to wrap up an agreement before packing and making a mad dash for JFK. Turned out that my flight was delayed, so there wasn't any need to rush.

I was flying business class, so I had access to the Korean Air Lounge. Before heading to the lounge, I toured the food court trying to find something good to eat. Fortunately, I didn't see anything appealing. Being the bumpkin that I am -- I'd never flown business class nor accessed an airline lounge -- I didn't know that there was free food in the lounge. Silly me.

I got into Incheon International Airport around 7:00 on Saturday night and took the KAL bus to the Grant Hyatt. (Only US$13. Quite efficient.) My initial plan was to stay at the minimalist Park Hyatt (definitely more my style), but, as a Korean colleague put it: "That Saturday night is precious." He was referring to the fact that the fabled J.J. Mahoney's is situated downstairs at the Grand Hyatt. And, you know, he knew what he was talking about. Saturday night was an entertaining introduction to the aesthetics of Seoul.

The next day, I headed over to Insadong to have lunch at Dolkemaeul Tofu House -- a jigae place recommended by my Lonely Planet travel book. Dee-licious. Then I ventured to the area around Hongik University, which was my favorite spot during the visit. The neighborhood has a distinct Village feel about it.

For dinner, I met up with a junior high acquaintance. He took me to a barbecue place in Apujeong, where I stuffed myself silly with kalbi. Unlike kalbi that I've had elsewhere, which typically comes on the bone or in chunky cubes, the kalbi here was sliced thin as bulgoki. Again, dee-licious. We hit a bar/cafe next, where I was introduced to bek seju. My friend described it as soju, but sweeter and without the aftertaste, which is about right. I'll definitely lobby for bek seju in place of soju the next early morning I find myself in Koreatown.

We had an interesting conversation at dinner. I told him that it felt good to be surrounded by yellow people, and he asked me why. I responded that it gets to be a bit tiring sometimes being Asian in the U.S., and, without hesitation, he said that he knew exactly what I was talking about. As he put it: "Here, if someone doesn't like me, I know that he just doesn't like me."

Monday was rather uneventful. I wandered about the city before heading back to the hotel around 6:30 for a pre-dinner break. But jet lag got the best of me, and I fell asleep involuntarily for a good six hours. I was starving when I awoke, and I remembered a few friends telling me about a couple of markets with food courts that are open all night. So I ventured to one of them -- Doota -- but the food court was closed. I figured that I may as well do some shopping and just wait to eat the next day. The food court was on the 9th floor, and I paced downwards floor by floor until I got to the basement at around 3:00. Lo and behold, there was a KFC there! Fried chicken never tasted so good. (But the guy gave me all white meat. Must've mistaken my command of English for my being essentially white. What true Asian prefers white meat over dark? I sure hope someone's already working on a genetically-engineered chicken that only has thighs and legs. And speaking of the ying and yang of chicken parts ... it was a very sad day for me when McDonald's jubilantly announced that McNuggets would consist only of white meat. As if that were actually something to celebrate. At least they still mold some of the white meat into dark-meat-like blobs. You know what I'm talking about, don't you? There are the round, breast-like blobs; and then there are the squiggly, leg-like blobs. I always savor the squigqly blobs more, as if white meat molded into the semi-likeness of dark meat acquires the taste of dark meat. Wow ... quite the digression here. This is what happens when you edit at 1:27 in the morning while your mind is fighting hard not to drift into oblivion at the office.)

Tuesday rolled around, and it was time to leave for Hong Kong. I'll definitely be back in Seoul soon.

Some random observations:

• Most every guy has long hair; I felt a bit out of place
• Knee-high boots with tights and shorts is a strangely interesting look
• Elderly women can and likely will cut in front of you
• Drive on the right but walk on the left


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