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28 Feb

A visit from home – Last week was a pretty exciting week. For the first time since I’ve arrived in Korea, I had a visit from a friend from the States. Not that I can really blame my friends for not visiting, as Korea is kind of out of the way. But That David Guy was on a top-secret corporate espionage mission in my neck of the woods, and he decided to drop by. Actually, he was in Taiwan with his fiance (who had a rather busy schedule) and took a few days to fly up here and visit me.

“For the first time since I’ve arrived in Korea, I had a visit from a friend from the States.”

He didn’t really have all that much time here, especially if you don’t count all the time wasted at the airport. His plane was scheduled to arrive at 12:00, and I took the 10:30 bus to the airport, figuring that it couldn’t possibly take that long to get there. When I boarded the bus, though, I found out that it would take two hours. I had hoped to be there at the gate by 12:30 at the latest, but I ended up rushing through the airport and got to gate F (the one at the very end of the airport, wouldn’t you know) at 12:40. I ended up waiting for about an hour, though, as the flight sat on the tarmac for an hour and David came out of Gate E and spent a half hour trying to get a phone to work.

We decided to get some lunch, since both of us were pretty hungry by that time. By the time we finished eating and went outside to catch the bus back, we found that we had missed it by ten minutes and would have to wait another fifty minutes for the next one. So we went back into the airport and had a cup of coffee/tea at a “sidewalk” table outside of a cafe (more of a corridor than a sidewalk, really, but I think we were trying to pretend we were in Paris or something). We didn’t end up leaving the airport until 3:20, and after picking up my wife and her aunt, I think we got home at around 6:00.

My mother-in-law had prepared “L.A. galbi,” which is apparently a U.S. variation on Korean ribs invented by Korean residents of Los Angeles. After dinner we had some fruit, including dried persimmons, which led me to tell two stories involving dried persimmons. One was “The Tiger and the Dried Persimmon,” which was on my mind because it was the subject of a skit performed by the Big Hominid and his students recently (a bit of scrolling is required to get to the relevant photos and description). The other one was a humorous story that I don’t remember the title to (if it even has a title), but I do know that I screwed it up twice before finally getting it right. I had never told the story aloud before, let alone in English, and when I finally did get it right on the third try, David just sat there with a blank look on his face.

“So what’s the moral?” he asked—which is kind of funny, him being a lawyer and all... when was the last time you saw a lawyer concerned with morals? My wife told him that most Korean stories don’t have morals, which is true—Koreans may be fond of titles like “the Korean Britney Spears” or “the Korean Manhattan,” but I don’t think you’ll ever hear anyone referred to as “the Korean Aesop.” But that’s a subject that would take a while to get into, and it is not the subject of today’s entry. At any rate, David was visibly confused by the story, and it was postulated that perhaps it is funnier in Korean. So I told it again to my parents-in-law and my wife’s aunt in Korean, and they all laughed when I finished. Then again, I didn’t screw it up in Korean either. I bet it would have been funnier if I hadn’t screwed it up twice in English. Just to set the record straight, I’ll retell it for you here. At least in writing I can fix any mistakes or fill in any parts I might have left out before publishing. I suppose you can decide if it’s funny or not.

The Dried Persimmons and the Schoolchildren

Not too long ago in Korea, children were educated in local schoolhouses by scholars who trained them in reading and writing the classics. Like children anywhere, Korean children would play in the schoolhouse in the morning before the teacher arrived. In one such schoolhouse, a group of children were playing one morning when they came across a box in the back of a closet. They opened the box to find row after row of strange, round objects covered in a white powder. None of the children knew what they were, so they closed the box and waited for the teacher to arrive.

When the old scholar entered the schoolhouse, one of the children said, “Teacher, we found a box of round white things in the closet. What are they?”

The teacher’s bushy eyebrows shot up in surprise as he looked at the boy. “Oh, those are dried persimmons,” he said. “You didn’t eat any, did you?”

The boy shook his head. “No, Teacher.”

The teacher let out a sigh of relief. “Thank goodness. Those are poison, you know. One of them is enough to kill a grown man!”

The children all gasped, and the teacher turned away to hide a grin. Then he cleared his throat and began the lesson for the day. The children paid as much attention to him as possible, but not a few of them were thinking of the closet and the deadly dried persimmons.

The next morning, the children were back in the schoolhouse, waiting for their teacher. There was some playing, but most of the boys were quiet. Finally, the boy who had asked the question the day before said, “I want another look at those poison dried persimmons.” The other boys were shocked. “Are you crazy?” they hissed. “You heard what Teacher said. What if we get that white powder on our hands? That alone might be enough to kill us. We’re only boys, after all, and not grown men.”

But from the back of the class they heard a soft chuckle. They turned to see another boy leaning against the wall. He was a rather clever boy—smart, too, but mostly clever. “I think we should have another look,” he said nonchalantly. “In fact, I might even be willing to eat one myself.”

There was another gasp from the other boys and then silence. After a few moments, though, the curious boy could stand it no longer and walked over to the closet. The other boys, being boys, joined him, and they brought out the box. They carefully opened it and held their breaths as they stared at the neat rows of dried fruit. But the clever boy walked over, picked one up, and put it into his mouth. He chewed for a few moments and then spit out three small seeds. Then he wiped the white powder from his lips and smiled. “Delicious!” he said.

The other boys watched him with narrowed eyes, but when he showed no signs of dropping dead on the spot, they turned their attention back to the dried persimmons. The curious boy was the next to try one, and his eyes lit up. “It’s sweet!” he said. “And chewy, like taffy!” The clever boy nodded. “Why do you think Teacher told us they were poison? So he could have them all to himself!”

That was all the other boys needed to hear. Soon the box was empty, only a film of white fruit sugar on the bottom remaining to hint at its former contents. But as soon as they had wiped the powder from their mouths, they realized what they had done. The curious boy wrung his hands and looked like he might cry. “What will we do now? We just ate all of Teacher’s dried persimmons!” The boys turned on the clever boy. “This is all your fault!” they cried.

But he held up a hand. “Relax. Just do as I say and everything will be fine.” He walked over to the teacher’s desk and the boys followed him. He wrapped his hands around the teacher’s inkstone. It was a large slab of black stone that had a large depression in the center and was decorated along the edges with relief carvings of intertwined dragons. The teacher ground his calligraphy ink on this stone, and it was his most prized possession. Without warning, the clever boy heaved the stone off of the desk and dropped it on the floor. It shattered into countless pieces.

The other boys were beside themselves. Some of the smaller ones began to run around the room, shrieking. The curious boy stared blankly at the shards of the inkstone, his face white. The clever boy turned around calmly and smiled. “Now,” he shouted to get everyone’s attention, “everyone lie down on the floor. Teacher will be here soon.” The boys looked at him, dazed. They nodded dumbly and lay down on the floor. “When Teacher comes in, just hold your stomachs and groan.”

It was only a few minutes later when the teacher arrived. He stopped in the doorway and took in the scene: his precious inkstone lying in pieces on the floor, the children rolling back and forth in obvious pain, the empty box that had held the dried persimmons. When he was finally able to close his mouth, he stammered, “What happened?”

The clever boy looked up at the scholar. “Teacher, we’re so sorry. We were playing around this morning, and we knocked your inkstone off the desk. We knew that you would be angry, and so we did the only thing we could do—we ate the dried persimmons, and now we are waiting to die.” ~ End

Maybe that’s not as funny a story as I thought it was, but I always loved it. Anyway, there you have it. Whether it’s funny or not, I finally feel better about getting it out straight in English.

After dinner, David and I went downstairs to our place and had a few glasses of some pretty good cheongju (like Japanese sake). I turned on an 80s internet radio station, and David shook his head and smiled as song after song from our youth came on. I admitted that I listen to this stuff on a fairly regular basis, and he said that it was nice to hear on occasion for the memories, but he wouldn’t listen to it regularly. When talking about the type of music he likes, he mentioned some new band that I think I might have heard of, but I have no idea what their music sounds like. I didn’t say that at the time, though. I just nodded and pretended to know what he was talking about, because I was feeling like enough of a dork as it was.

I realized once again that I am, in some respects, stuck in the past. My knowledge of U.S. pop culture runs up through the mid 90s, and then it starts getting fuzzy. Sure, I’ve seen Friends and I have the first season of Lost on DVD (thanks again, Mum), and I see American films every now and then, but film and television are only a very small part of what American culture really is. And thank God for the internet, or I would have absolutely no clue as to what is going on over there. But even with all of that, I often feel out of the loop when talking to friends living in the States. At one point during his visit, David said, “You’re going to have to readjust to the States if you go back, aren’t you.” It’s true. It’s not something I’m looking forward to, to be honest, but it hangs there in the future like a dark cloud on the horizon. I suppose I’ll deal when the time comes.

Still, no matter how things may change, it’s good to see that some things stay the same. I had forgotten how much fun it can be to just watch TV with a friend in MST3K mode (argh... is that even on the air anymore? More things I don’t know), for example. And despite David’s worldly success as a big corporate lawyer who’s sold his soul to the Devil so many times now that even old Nick has lost count, he’s still an angst-filled “aspiring” artist at heart. In fact, in retrospect, I’m surprised that neither of us even mentioned NaNoWriMo during his visit. That’s the one time of the year that we actually write anything—the other eleven months we just pretend to be writers and whine about our complete lack of output. Case in point: that second attempt I was going to make at the ultrashort science fiction narrative. Do you remember that? Yeah, neither do I.

Anyway, after a few glass of cheongju and probably way too much 80s music, we got to bed at not too late an hour. My wife and I stayed up a little later watching short track races we had already seen at least eight times, and then we went to bed as well. The next day, Wednesday, was David’s only full day in Korea, so we tried to cram in a little sightseeing around Seoul. We started out the morning with a flat tire in the driveway, which didn’t really bode well for the rest of the day. It took us an hour to change the tire, with me lifting up the rear of the car through sheer, brute force and David unscrewing the bolts with his bare hands. Actually, I spent about twenty minutes discussing with my father-in-law which direction was “loosen” and which direction was “tighten” (for the record, I was eventually proven correct) while my wife called our insurance company (they offer five “Get out of jail free” cards—tows, tire changes, etc.—per year).

The guy showed up rather quickly, considering where we live, and proceeded to change the tire in ten minutes flat while trying not to laugh at us. My wife, who has no sense of shame, kept saying things like, “Oh, so that’s how you’re supposed to do it. We were trying to turn it the other way.” Needless to say, this made it very difficult for me to maintain the illusion that we weren’t a bunch of bumbling idiots. I had even gone to the trouble of snapping the hub cap back on right before the guy arrived to hide any evidence of our “tampering” (an action which prompted David to remark, “You’re such a freak”). I crawled into the doghouse with our dog and waited for the guy to finish tearing down my masculinity. After all, I’ve changed tires before (two on my old ’84 Subaru in the States, one of those in the middle of the night in upstate New York while nearly freezing to death). Must be these weird Korean tires. Yeah, that’s it.

After being thoroughly humiliated, we drove to the bus stop and took a bus into Seoul. My wife went to work torturing small animals (OK, fine, she teaches Korean to foreigners—but that can’t be too much different from torturing small animals) and David and I headed to Gyeongbok Palace, the Joseon Dynasty royal palace. When David found out that there was actually no king in Korea at the moment, he immediately applied for the position. They said they would get back to us soon, but I’m not holding my breath. I applied for a change in visa status and was told it would take a month at most, and that was three months ago now. I imagine that choosing a new king would be a slightly more complex process, so who knows when that will happen. It’s probably all for the better, though. When I began to suggest some social reforms he might want to implement once he took the throne, David’s eyes glazed over and he started mumbling something about squeezing the people for everything they’re worth. I get the feeling that he wouldn’t be a wise and benevolent ruler.

Since it’s likely he’ll have to wait quite some time for the kingship, he decided to settle instead for the position of first-rank official:

Korea, meet David, your next king

More photos from the visit can be found over at David’s site (including some unnecessary photos of the infamous “flat tire incident”).

After a quick tour of the palace, we headed down to the newly renovated Cheongye Stream and walked along that until we reached Insa-dong, a “traditional” neighborhood that is quite touristy but also has a lot of galleries and shops. We visited a tea house where we sat outside, drank tea, and ate a rather large pile of Korean cookies called “yugwa.” I get the impression that David enjoyed this part of the day the most. At one point he said, “This is the life. Good friends, good tea, weird things to eat.” Of course, he had no idea what was in store for the rest of the day (hint: pain).

We had decided to go to dinner at a place on Daehangno (University Street) that has a traditional Korean musical performance, but that didn’t start until 6:30 in the evening, and it was only around 3:00 by the time we were finished with our tea and had stuffed as many cookies down our gullets as would fit. I suggested that we head to Namsan, or “South Mountain” (although David refused to call it a mountain and continuously referred to it as a hill—as I myself had done for so many years before giving up) and maybe head up Seoul Tower. I used to live not too far away from Namsan when I first came to Korea—close enough, in fact, to walk up to the top on a fairly regular basis. But we got off at Myeongdong Station and I found that we were on the opposite side from where I used to walk up.

We started to walk toward my old neighborhood and saw a path leading up the mountain along the way. I figured that it probably met up with the stairs that go up on the other side, so we decided to take it. The route map along the way is very unhelpful, only showing very short stretches and the nearest intersecting path at any given time. It doesn’t show any information about what is ahead on the trail, so we had no idea if we were traveling in the right direction. The trail ended up winding around the mountain rather than going up it. We could see the tower almost the whole time, but we couldn’t get to it. It towered over the edge of the mountain, looking down on us and mocking us. We were beginning to despair when I saw that one of the route maps showed a shortcut that cut out a large loop in the trail. When we finally got to that section, we saw that it eventually led to Seoul Tower.

We started climbing up this trail and passed a sign for a restroom along the way. The trail to the restroom led up the mountain, and I began to wonder if maybe that was the way we should be going. Then I looked closer at the sign and saw that some similarly frustrated soul had scraped “tower” in Korean on the sign. You would think they could put up some better signage. I mean, it’s not like we’re in New Jersey or anything. Hmm... “Korea: the New Jersey of Asia.” Nah, that’s too cruel.

Anyway, the real climb began with this new trail, and it quickly became apparent just how out of shape I was. Ten years ago I climbed this mountain at least once a week, and now I felt like there were little gremlins in my body doing jumping jacks on my lungs. It was very depressing, and I immediately vowed that I would get back into the exercise regimen that I slipped out of when I hurt my neck near the end of last year (for the record, no, I haven’t started exercising yet—but I plan on heading back to the gym and signing up again... soon).

Despite being shadowed by the specter of death, who laughed at us pretty much the whole way up, we did eventually make it to the top. I was surprised to see how much things had changed. I think the last time I was up there was with my parents when they came for my wedding, which would make it nine years ago (shy one month). There’s now a fancy ticket booth and entrance (complete with scrolling electric signs), and the tower itself isn’t even called “Seoul Tower” anymore. Now it’s “N Seoul Tower.” I have no idea what the N is for, and the website doesn’t seem to say (don’t try to view the site in anything but IE, by the way, but do give it a look, if only to witness the poetic beauty of such slogan-like lines as “A Best View... Sweet Relaxtion... Happy & Joy”). It occurs to me now, though, as I write this, that maybe it stands for “new” (and my Mum suggests, rather logically, that it might stand for “Namsan”).

(Aside: Perhaps it’s a universal thing and not limited to Korea, but it seems to be the fad here to just slap letters on a product to make it look important. Take Maeil’s “ESL Milk” for example. I’ve always wondered about that, and nowhere on the container does it say what ESL actually means. The Silk Alley Korean (scroll down to the bottom) postulated that the milk is claiming it will improve your English, and the thought did cross my mind as well. Well, it turns out that ESL actually does mean something. I went to the website and dug up the product, and apparently ESL means “Extended Shelf Life” (site in Korean, although with the expanded acronym in English), which actually makes sense. But the fact that this is only explained on the website on an obscure page that no one is ever going to read (you know, besides freaks like me) shows that it doesn’t really matter that it means something. It’s just a bunch of cool letters they can emblazon on their packaging (click on either link above to see how dominant the letters are), and I bet it didn’t hurt that they also happen to be the acronym for “English as a Second Language.”)

But I digress. We bought our tickets for the Neurotic Seoul Tower and took the elevator up to the observation deck. The view is still the same as I remembered, but unfortunately the weather was a bit on the hazy side. Still, it was pretty clear as Seoul days go, especially since you can usually see the layer of smog hanging over the city below. I used to sit up on the mountain trying to breathe in as much fresh air as possible before descending back into the mire. We walked around for a while taking photographs, some of which can be seen at the link to David’s site above.

From the tower it was very easy to see the stairs I used to climb up all the time, right next to the tram. We debated taking the tram down, but decided that we (ok, I) didn’t want to pay for the brief one-way trip down the mountain. David said he was fine with that, but I just know he was cursing me all the way down the mountain. Still, the journey down was far quicker and less painful then the journey up, and we headed down into the city and took the subway to Daehangno. We got there at six o’clock and got a seat in the center of the restaurant, pretty much right in front of the performers. They sang some folk songs, played the gayageum and haegeum (a pair of stringed instruments), and also sung a bit of pansori (a one-person narrative musical performance accompanied by a drum). We decided to leave after the first half of the performance, not because it wasn’t good, but because we were dead tired. And although I thought it was pretty cool and could appreciate the different performances, it’s pretty much all the same to someone who’s never seen them before. So unless the second part included lap dances, I doubt we missed much.

After dinner, we went back to meet my wife and took a bus back home to end a long day. That was the only real sightseeing we did, but it pretty much wiped us out for the next day. We ended up taking a brief stroll around the neighborhood, heading up to the Oh family tombs, and then came back. David crashed for a bit, then we watched the Olympics (Uh, I mean “short track”) and ate some bread that I had made in the bread machine—after reading my recent bread entry, David mentioned that he wanted to try some. And he did bring me molasses, so how could I say no? I made a loaf of Sally Lunn bread, which seems to be a favorite. (The molasses, was put to use last night baking a loaf of pumpernickel bread. Good stuff.)

I was going to take the bus back to the airport with David and see him off, but I wasn’t feeling too well, so I took him out to the bus stop, got him onto the bus, and then went back home. I felt badly about that, especially considering the limited time he had here, but I have a feeling he probably slept most of the way to the airport anyway. I was looking forward to his visit for quite some time, and it seemed to go by in a flash. Still, it was cool to see him again and just hang out, especially since it’s going to be rough to get up Seattle way during our visit to the States this summer.

Well, I was expecting this to be a short little entry, and here it’s gone and turned into probably the longest entry I’ve ever written. I guess this will only be interesting to David and my mom, who reads everything I write (if only to pick out the typos). Oh well. Such is life. More excitement coming tonight, as the Big Hominid and I head out to Puccini in Gangnam for a Mardi Gras evening of face stuffing and philosophy. That should be fun.

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