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The International Writers Magazine: South Korea

Seoul Food- Land of the Morning Calm
• Fred C Wilson 111
Seoul, South Korea is one of the most exotic places on the planet. It’s unique among Asian countries.

The South Korean capitol is a healthy mix of Japanese industriousness, Irish religious zeal, and traditional Chinese Confucian values, topped off with a Russians love for all things mysterious and tough. Geography was partially responsible for the molding of the rough Korean character. Russia and China straddled along their Northern and Western borders, the Japanese mega-giant to their West, and tiny Korea in the middle the people of the Land of the Morning Calm had very little choice. It was toughen up or perish.

The first time I flew to Korea troops manned the Airports. It was there I sampled Korean toughness when was clearing immigration. The ROK (Republic of Korea) soldiers who manned the immigration cubicles during those times stamping passports verbally worked me over before permitting me entry. The ordeal over, I took a taxicab to my hotel in one of the more scenic areas of the South Korean capitol.

Korea has a long history. Whenever its history is told it nearly always begins with Tan’ gun the mystical founder of the country. According to this myth, Hwanung, the son of the Divine Creator, came to earth with three thousand followers and proclaimed himself king and ruler of the universe in the year 2333 B.C. He was supposed to have ruled until the year 1122 B.C. The oldest traces of Korean history were around 4270 B.C. during the Neolithic Age. Throughout that time period until very recently, Korean history was punctuated by numerous wars, invasions, and more wars. Through all these upheavals the proud people of this peninsula developed world class literature, art, culture, and various ruling dynasties. The country is divided between the more democratic south and the stagnant communist north. South Korea continues to amaze the world by the resiliency of its proud and industrious people.

The New Naija Hotel was probably the most American of Seoul’s hotels. It was a home away from home to numerous American military personnel. After a solid nights sleep, I got up at my usual time-early. It was my first full day in Seoul and I wanted to get a good start. Breakfast was a big surprise. The menu had everything Korean and American! Grits, bacon, ham, pancakes, eggs anyway you want ‘em, toast, milk, coffee, tea, a wide variety of fruit juices-EVERYTHING! Being from Chicago the ‘food city of the world,’ it was all good! Just like home. I didn’t believe it until I ate it. Like the cooks could really ‘burn’ (cook). It was fantastic! Even better than many so-called top restaurants back home. During my holiday I ate like a Korean king. I had ‘American’ for breakfast but lunch and dinner was strictly Korean and at very reasonable prices! What a steal!

After my sumptuous breakfast I decided to ‘walk it off’ (Ha! who was I trying to kid?) by taking a walking tour around the neighborhood. My girlfriend, a young Korean lady, planned my entire itinerary. She selected the New Naija due to its close proximity to a myriad of the cultural and artistic (I’m a big one for art and culture.) centers in Seoul. As I was standing on a corner waiting for the stoplight to change, I couldn’t help but notice that nearly everybody, except me, was wearing suits. The men wore dark suits and ties. The women had on skirts, heels, and dress coats. Everybody seemed to be carrying an attaché case. The more I walked it dawned on me that the people here were very formal; and talking about a clean country, the streets were clean with nary a cigarette butt in sight. There were no graffiti on buildings, and nobody J-walked. Road Rage among drivers was non-existent with motorists staying in their lanes. The ‘powers that be’ run that country by ‘the numbers.’

Koreans are a very conservative people and are expected to behave properly at all times. You deviate from expected norm, as I found out the hard way they will tell you about it and in not so pleasant terms believe me. I wasn’t on the South Side of Chicago anymore so I rapidly learned like Koreans do-by the numbers. The Korean people are friendly, well behaved, but not too big on patience. If you ask them questions or for directions they will be more than happy to help you out; just don’t ask the same question twice after they explained it to you thoroughly the first time.

Compared to many American cities, Seoul is a relatively safe place. In Chicago I had a Korean friend and native of Seoul. Once I asked her, “Do your country have serious problems with juvenile gangs like we have here in Chicago and most other American cities?” Without skipping a beat she replied in melodic broken English, “No have gangs Korea. They make trouble we take them faaaarrr away-you don’t see no mo." Well I guess that pretty well sums up the street gang situation. Walking through the streets of the South Korean capitol was very scenic. The old Korean style buildings are tributes to an elegant age gone by. One day during my walking tour I walked past an elementary school near my hotel. I noticed that the kids were just as active if not as wild as ours are. I taught school for 32 years. I know wildness when I see it. Kids will be kids in any country.

I took pictures of the arch that commemorated Korea’s initial independence. The public swimming pool filled with swimmers reminded me of the Chicago Park District’s free out door swimming pools that are available for Summer time use, the subterranean world of shops and restaurants near subway stations, to the ‘soul’ neighborhood where loudspeakers blast loud R & B music where cheap but high quality suits could be had for next to nothing. I purchased a white tropical suit tailor made to fit!

Seoul is a city of restaurants, stores, and markets of every size and description that sold a wide variety of foods, dry goods, native medicines, and everything you can imagine with everything for sale. The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in Seoul. One of the drawbacks of being raised in the American Mid-West is that the terrain is flat…flat for many miles in any direction. Not so with Seoul; its a city built on hills.
seoul food

According to a poll taken in 2006, Chicago was the fattest city in America bar none. Now 2013 McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Texas has that ‘honor.’ During my time in Seoul I represented our city very well. One time I nearly fainted huffing and puffing up one hill then down the other in a city where the majority of people are thin, exercise daily, eat mostly fish and vegetables. Seoul is located on or near the same longitudinal line as Chicago so I couldn’t use bad weather as an excuse for my excessive sedentary life style. Both cities have basically the same weather but Koreans do something about keeping the excessive blubber off, so where was my excuse?

When afternoon arrived I was still bloated from the huge Chicago-style breakfast stuffing I had earlier. I just continued my walking tour. I’m an ex-smoker (cigars and pipes). When I was leaving a Buddhist religious gift store, (I’m not Buddhist but a relative wanted a statuette of the Buddha and a rosary) I was nearly accosted by a young gray robed monk who was leaving the store same time as I was. I tried to respectfully by-pass this baldheaded cleric but the man started shaking his grey robe at me saying, “You stink! You stink! Don’t you know that smoking can and will kill you! What’s your problem?” in perfect street English. Back home this would have never happened unless the guy had a gun to go with it. Korean’s speak their minds any time, any place, for any reason.

After seeing movies how priests from that side of the world kung fu folks in fights, me being in a foreign country, and the guy was a priest, I was in no position to argue so I, if I remember correctly, merely asked him what was his problem? As it turned out the man was about my age at that time. He invited me to sit next to him on a chair outside. He gave me a long lecture on why I should take good health seriously. During his lecture/sermon I discovered that he pastored two temples; one in Seoul the other in Honolulu, Hawaii which was the reason why he spoke flawless ‘street’ English. We talked for some time. Since I’m a big one for church myself I asked him a few questions.
“Father how’s business these days?”
“Not too good,” he sighed obviously sadden at something I wasn’t aware of at the time.
“You know, Father I really hate to see you feeling low but I tell ya’ what I’ll do,” pulling out a Y500 (Wan) bank note dangling it over his silver begging bowl. “Would this make you happy?”
“It might help some,” he replied with eyes gleaming.

I eased the brown bank note which some of ancient hero’s picture on the face of the 500 Wan note into his empty bowl. I made his day!

He thanked me. After about 20 more minutes of our conversation, we exchanged addresses and promised to write once I returned to the States. I kept my promise but he never kept his. He was a nice guy. I promised to take better care of my health. A year after our ‘chance’ encounter I gave up smoking and lost over 100 pounds with the Weight Watchers program. Padre’s scolding paid off though the fat came back some time later.

As with many Asians, the Korean people rarely profess allegiance to a single faith. It's common for them to pick and choose various elements from Buddhism, Confucianism, and the two main branches of Christianity (Catholicism and Protestantism) though Islam and Taoism has a strong following in Seoul. Being Catholic I toured, this time by taxicab, Seoul’s Myeong-dong Cathedral. A historical city site the cathedral was completed in 1898 in the western gothic architectural style. Like Chicago, Seoul is a major Catholic diocese (archdiocese) with its own cardinal archbishop.

Deo On my third day in South Korea after breakfast I left my hotel room and walked across the street to the fabled Deoksugung Palace. This magnificent complex is a series of smaller though elegant buildings attached to it and is famous for its stone wall road and Gate of Eternal Life. The western buildings next to it only enhance the beauty of the place and provide some really interesting scenery.

The Deoksugung Palace at first belonged to a gentleman named Wolsandaegun who lived from 1454 to 1488. He was the older brother of King Seongiong who lived from 1469 to 1494. The place didn’t achieve palatial status until King Gwanghaegun took over between the years 1575-1641. He named it after himself. The western style building was built in 1911. This building has a secret passageway that connects it to the Russian Emissary. This passage is still in existence. Entering buildings and cabs in Korea could be a real hassle for large people. When you’re in Seoul you know you’re in the Orient. Squat toilets, tiny taxicabs, restaurants and night clubs with ceilings so low I accidentally brained myself a number of times. I took being an American Gulliver all in good style. The Koreans like people everywhere are nice, kind, generous, well bred, and would gladly take time to assist you if you needed it. Goodness is universal. No one race or country can claim any monopoly on human kindness. The inverse though exceptionally rare is also true…

If you enjoy Korean food as I do then Seoul is a place to visit. Korean barbeque grilled by pretty girls in native dress at your table served with a varied selection of Kim chi, a Korean delicacy along with bowls of an assortment of exotic goodies all washed down with glasses of Soju, Korean beer, and Japanese sake made my evenings pleasurable beyond words-yummy!

Seoul is a city under siege with uniformed soldiers toting machine guns at every bridge crossing. During the early morning hours when the streets are deserted you can hear the marching boots of soldiers on their predawn drills. This made me think. We’re only 30 miles from the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). The Korean War is technically still going on. When I was in Seoul they announced on the TV that some of our guys (US Army) got into it with the North Korean communists. A lot of people were killed.

My girl and I went for a drive. We crossed the Han Gang River to get to the countryside. We stopped for lunch at a small diner the Korean version of the fictional Joe’s Roadside Café. After she ordered my stomach started churning. I had to use the washroom. The lady who owned the place told me that the toilet was outside. I went out back and found that the washroom was actually a small hole in the ground so I said to myself, “forget it! No way!” and held it until I returned to the city.

When I returned to our table there were all sorts of tiny bowls filled with steaming rice dishes, about 30 other individual food items, and small glasses and a bottle of Soju the local liquor. The meal was made to order. Using chopsticks wasn’t all that difficult. When I was a child I taught myself how to use them. The food was simply delicious beyond words. But I noticed that one of the meal items had tasted odd. I got to thinking…didn’t I read somewhere that-nah! Couldn’t be-nah…I forgot that in rural Korea dog meat was a popular menu item. Out of simple curiosity I asked the hostess and my lady friend what was I eating they politely smiled then said, “Eat-no ask.”

Korean ceramics are famous the world over. Every year the ceramic biennale is held in South Korea. This is an international ceramic competition in which potters representing 70 or more different countries participate. If you are interested in learning more about this world class art event please log into:

Taking photographs in South Korea is an experience in itself. Seoul, as with most cities, visitors are free to take photographs without any serious repercussions except in the scenic Seoul Tower. The guards at the base entrance of this huge tower made me check in my camera for fear that I might be a North Korean operative seeking to take pictures from this 236.7 meter television tower and give the results to the North Korean military. I wasn’t too pleased when they took my camera.

They gave it back unopened when I left. It made sense. The Seoul Tower was built on the top of 243m Mt. Namsan. The observation deck is nearly 500 meters high and could provide tourists, and enemy agents, with a splendid view of the entire city of Seoul and all four corners of the outline area for many miles around. The elevation is so high that the North Korean border could be seen from this tower. If enemy agents were to take photographs from the tower it would provide an invading army with a complete overview of the city and the surrounding countryside including any mountain passes.

This tower is a major tourist destination and was voted the best tower in Asia though the one in Manila is perhaps just as high. Recently remodeled the tower is equipped with a media zone in the lobby a pavilion for exhibitions and performances, and a western styled bar and grill that revolves 360 degrees every 48 minutes. The Sky Room offers comfort and a scenic view of the city of Seoul. This tower is a complex cultural center and not just an observatory or tourist attraction.

My girl had to work. I was on holiday. She couldn’t be with me every day like we would have liked. Like me at that time she was also a public school teacher. She taught Kindergarten. I taught the 7th grade. On weekends, and most nights, we would go out. Once she drove us to the Korean Folk Village. The village is located a few miles outside the city in a rural area. The Folk Village is situated on approximately 243 acres of some of the prettiest the greenest land on the planet. Visitors can experience in all their naturalness over 260 Korean homes from the many different regions of the country. There are many restaurants that serve Korean, Chinese, and Japanese food and drink within structures reminiscent of the actual houses of that particular country. In the nearly 30 active workshops there are artists and artisans in national costume working pottery wheels, making clothes by hand, basket weavers creating beautiful baskets, paper makers, artisans making fans, winnows, things out of bamboo, wooden and brass wares, knot makers, people constructing musical instruments from ‘scratch,’ all this at the Folk Village where past Korean customs and lifestyles of the past are carefully preserved from the past (Joseon Dynasty). The Village is also the location of where the world famous movie ‘Scandal’ was made. It’s also the filming location of the universally popular TV miniseries ‘Daejanggeum.’ I strongly recommend to people planning traveling to South Korea to visit the Korean Folk Village and, oh yes, bring your camera.

Saying good bye was hard. Of all my travels I shall never forget beautiful Korea and its warm, friendly, down to earth people. On my final day she drove me to the airport. After our long and tearful ‘so longs,’ she left me standing in the Departure line. Hours later I was in Chicago thankful for making the trip to this majestic Land of the Morning Calm. We both returned to our respective schools and teaching jobs. For a while she and I continued our occasional phone calls and letters. After a few years we discontinued our correspondence and married different people. We never saw each other again.
© Fred C Wilson 111
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