Traveling to Seoul was like leaving the U.S. for Korea, minus the dramatic goodbyes, 100 pounds of luggage, and about 20 less hours of travel time. So, basically, it was nothing like leaving the U.S. However, that feeling of sweet independence and anxiety returned as I navigated my way from Taejon Station, where the English Village shuttle dropped me off, to Dongdaegu Station, where I took the train for the first time to Seoul.
I like traveling on my own, but I don’t relax easily because it doesn’t happen very often. I set my backpack on the floor by my feet, plugged in my headphones, and tried to sleep while the train raced down the tracks, passing the city I was getting to know and rushing towards snow-sprinkled landscapes of cities I have yet to encounter.
I met my friend and Seoul tour guide/translator/photographer, Yongseok, at my graduation party a few months after I accepted the position to teach in Korea. He was a foreign exchange student at my best friend Kate’s university. They made me a chocolate cake, and Yongseok decorated it with words in Hangul. He also gave me a picture of the Brooklyn Bridge and wrote on the back: “See you in Korea.”
I think God puts people in our lives for a reason. I was both terrified and beyond excited to go on my own to South Korea for a year, but I felt more at ease when I knew I’d have a friend to visit when I got there. Someone who, you know, understood Korea. So meeting Yongseok before I left for Korea was one of those things God planned to reassure me that everything was going to be a-okay.
You know how sometimes when you go to an art museum, you’re like, “This stuff is pretty cool. What does it mean? Oh, crap, I’m going to have to use critical thinking to interpret the mind of the artist”? Well, try experiencing this in a museum of a foreign culture. I’m saying a lot, I’m sure, went over my head.
The first place we went after Yongseok helped me get a phone plan*** was an art exhibit in the old Seoul Station, which hasn’t been used for transportation since 2004. As we walked around the building, we typed words that were printed on the floor (like “crossing”, “technology”, and “shopping”) into an app on my phone, and it asked us survey questions that would, at the end of the exhibit, tell us about how we identify with the city we live in. It was an interesting concept, although we only answered about 20% of the questions while we explored, so the results, that I really, really love shopping, were not super accurate.
The exhibit displayed pieces from the physical structure of the original station, but mainly there were a variety of projects created by artists. It focused on typography, which was interesting given the knowledge I gained from a print design class I took in college. The exhibit had sections that explained the font styles that have been used on street signs and on businesses, displaying the unique personalities of different parts of Seoul. There were also books hanging from the ceiling on string and little sculptures one artist had created to represent each Hangul character.
***If you don’t speak Korean, you’re going to have a bad time attempting to get a phone plan. Tip: Find a Korean buddy and have them do the talking. Then you can just sit there with your dumb, foreign face and nod as if you totally understand what’s going on. You can nervously peel the rubber from your “LifeProof” case. You can hope when the guy behind the desk laughs, he’s not laughing at your dumbness. You can get excited because you’re finally going to be able to connect to wifi reliably and have data. Oh, technological-dependence, you fickle mistress.
“I think you like Korean food?” Yongseok told me as we ate mandoo, which was spicy dumplings, noodles, and mushrooms in a red broth. Based on our friend Kate’s previous reaction to Korean foods, I think he was expecting me to dislike the degree of spiciness in the food. However, the soups we had in Seoul were so good that I’m hoping to be able to find restaurants in Daegu with similar dishes.
So I tried a lot of traditional Korean soup, which was fitting for how cold the weather was.
So, yeah, Yongseok. Korean food is delicious.
The palaces are sites I’d like to see again the next time I’m in Seoul. They were really beautiful, but we didn’t get to see as much of them as we would have liked due to the timing of my visit. We walked a short distance from the old Seoul Station to Gyeongbokgung Palace, on the way grabbing some traditional Korean candy called yeot from a man who was chopping it into little bits on his cart. The candy is rock-hard at first, but it softens into a taffy-like consistency as you chew it.
Gyeongbukgung Palace is especially beautiful because the mountains loom in the background. It’s majestic, an iconic part of Korea standing its ground while a modern city grows up around it. Such a stark contrast between architectural styles and hundreds of years of progress.
This palace was closed for tours, unfortunately, but we were able to see inside the National Palace Museum of Korea. There was a lot to take in at the museum. Even though most of the explanatory text on each exhibit label was in Korean, most had English titles and Yongseok was able to interpret the rest for me. Some of my favorite parts of the museum were…
This screen was always positioned behind the throne of the Joseon king (see final picture). Fun fact: “Joseon” was actually what Korea was called during this dynasty, instead of the current name, Hanguk. The nature imagery symbolizes the universe and the cycle of life.
This is a restored version of the original water clock created by King Sejong. Based on the flow of water through a basin and pipe system, the clock will chime at certain intervals to note the time of day or night. We were lucky to be looking at this part of the exhibit just a few minutes before it was supposed to chime, so were able to see one of the figures at the top beat a drum, sort of like a cuckoo clock.
I saw Deoksu Palace at night. It was built during the 16th century, and it’s the place where King Seonjo lived after returning to the capital in 1593. The Japanese forces had just withdrawn, leaving all the main palace compounds burnt to the ground.
Imagine entering through the front gate, heavy with the end of a war. You spent a year and a half in hiding in Uiju (long before it belonged to North Korea, of course), all the while knowing that your enemies are destroying your city. Peace finally comes, and so you arrive at your relatives’ home to live there temporarily.
Deoksu means “virtue and long life.”
We walked the palace grounds in the dark with layers of leaves beneath our feet, the trees creating a canopy above us. We peered inside a silent, shadowed throne room, and a dining room exposed to the outdoors. Many of the tourists were already gone, so the palace grounds were still and peaceful, despite the loudness of life that bursts through the city which has rebuilt itself over hundreds of years, taking on modernity like a warrior.