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Entries in Seoul (8)


A Shanghailander in Seoul III: Getting Squared with Seoul Circles,

Toasting to Dear Old Dartmouth with Korean alums in Seoul

It has been two weeks since my last confession (in a way, these blogs are a sort of confessional ritual).  I wanted to write one blog a week, but to be honest for the first three weeks, other than the mountain climb I wrote about in the last entry, I have really done nothing of great interest aside from prepping for my two world history classes.  But this past weekend I finally got out and enjoyed a couple of dinners with different groups of people here in Seoul.  Both nights involved a lot of barbequed meat and plenty of maekju (beer) and soju (a Korean liquor somewhere between rice wine and vodka).

I have also added a few phrases to my minute Korean vocabulary, such as "maekju juseyo," which is probably the second or third phrase that most foreigners learn here in Korea.  I have come to terms with the fact that I cannot speak the language and that daily life here is a struggle to communicate the most basic ideas.  But mostly I'm too busy with coursework and teaching to worry about it too much.

A Hermit in the Hermit Kingdom

Korea used to be known as the "Hermit Kingdom" owing to the perception by nineteenth century Westerners that it was sealed off to the outside world.  As Americans and British and other nationalities blustered their way into the country to seek new commercial enterprises and spread the Good Word, they found a great deal of resistance to their efforts.  Westerners were eventually successful in gaining a foothold on Korean soil and Christianity once it took hold spread like wildfire--today there are crosses and church steeples all over Seoul, only surpassed by the number of coffeeshops that have opened up in recent years or so I'm told.  In fact I'm astonished at the number of coffee franchises in this city, literally a dozen different ones in every neighborhood.  Somebody ought to write a paper about the rise of coffee culture here.  

But I'm getting slightly off topic.  I was going to get to my point, that for the first three weeks I was living the life of a hermit or a monk, working away in my scriptorium night and day to produce the eight new lectures I need to give every week.  If you wish to see the results of this effort, go to the top of my website and click on "courses", where I've set up pages for my two world history courses along with links to the lecture presentations that are online.  I put these presentations together using an online resource called Prezi.  After some of my students used this resource to give a presentation to my "Global Nightlife" class at NYU Shanghai, I vowed to learn this tool and use it to build presentations over the summer.  I'm sure I still have a lot to learn in terms of how to craft a good presentation but so far I'm pleased with the results, and since these stay online, the students can use them to enhance their reading and prep for the weekly quizzes.  But it's a lot of work getting one's head around several thousand years of world history and trying to narrate it in a coherent and compelling way.  This partially explains my monklike existence here in Seoul.  Also, general lack of knowledge of the city and the people who live here adds to a feeling of disconnectedness from the city. However, that is changing.

The Yonsei Summer Program

Before arriving at the point where I actually begin to have a social life, let me describe briefly the summer program that I am involved with here in Seoul.  Yonsei has apparently run a summer program since at least the 1980s, which originally focused on bringing Korean Americans and the handful of others who had an interest in learning about Korea here for a crash summer course on Korean culture and language.  In this sense it was not too different from most study abroad programs that I've been involved with over the years.  However, a few years ago, the administration decided to build up the program and turn it into an opportunity for Korean students studying in universities abroad to return and spend the summer with their folks here in Seoul, while at the same time meeting their distribution and major requirements, which meant expanding the offerings greatly to encompass many other fields and disciplines.  From a program of 200 or so students, it has expanded to over 1,200 students, most of whom were born and raised here in Korea.  

students on the campus of Yonsei

My modern world history class, which has around 80 students, seems to range widely from FOB to complete fluency with the English language with just about every stage in between.  So does my pre-modern world history class of around 12 students. I sometimes wonder how much of my lectures and the readings I give are comprehensible to them.  However, I was happy to discover that their midterm essays were much better than I'd expected, which is a very good sign.  Much of the history of this program and its development over the years was related to me by Michael Kim, a former Dartmouth classmate (we both studied East Asian History with Pamela Crossley back in the summer of 1989), who is a professor of Korean history at Yonsei.  Michael was put in charge of developing this program and expanding it, and obviously he did his job well.

The other faculty are an international cast of 30 or so professors from universities around the world.  Many of them have been teaching for this summer program for three or more years.  Most of us are living at the DMC Ville, a serviced apartment complex designed with foreigners in mind.  While it is located a bit outside the city, in an otherwise drab corporate zone, I must confess that the apartment they've given me is very comfortable--almost too comfortable, which explains why I spend so much time here in my hermitage.  We get to meet each other and chat on the shuttle bus that takes us to campus every morning, and in the faculty lounge they've set up for us in the building where most of us teach (Paekyang Hall).  

One of my colleagues, Steve C, is a longterm resident of Seoul.  Raised in Montana, Steve moved here over 20 years ago from the States apparently to pursue his interest in martial arts, and ended up staying.  So far he is the only non-Korean American I've met here who is completely fluent in the language--in fact he did his PhD here in Korean literature, which never fails to impress me (I've only met a few foreigners who have done such a thing, and I can't imagine writing a PhD thesis in the Chinese language).  Now he teaches Korean lit in Seoul, so he's in a similar position to me, teaching Asian heritage students in their original homeland about the history, language, and culture of said homeland.  Thus we had a lot to talk about in terms of what it's like to be an American deeply integrated into and knowledgeable about an Asian culture and society yet also be regarded by people on a daily basis as an outsider and alien nonetheless.  

Overall my impression is that it's easier and more common for foreigners to become functionally integrated into Chinese society, which has always had a tradition of absorbing foreigners into the Chinese world, rather than Korea with its longstanding reputation as the "Hermit Kingdom".  There does seem to be more of a sense of insularity and defensiveness here in Seoul with regards to the national identity and the role of foreigners in Korean society, though I'm sure that's changing rapidly too.  The Korean War and the continued presence of US soldiers here must be factored in of course.  And like people in China today (or just about any other nation for that matter), Koreans obviously have strong if sometimes warped sensibilities about their own national history.  Steve seemed to put a lot of weight on the Park Chung-hee regime for creating the national culture and identity of contemporary Korea.  Like my colleague Michael Kim, Steve is an expert on the colonial regime under Japan, which of course is considered by most Koreans to be an era of great sorrow, but like most colonial regimes its history offers a far more complicated picture of social, political, and cultural change that has also shaped the modern Korean identity and economy in many fundamental ways.  

Shinchon Delights

Last Thursday Steve and I and two other colleagues, Leslie and Lucia, met in Shinchon for dinner.  Shinchon is a bustling area of tightly clustered buildings stacked with restaurants, cafes, and bars that caters to the students of Yonsei and a few other universities in the district.  It's basically Heaven for Korean students, who flock there by the thousands every night.  Off the main drag opposite to the main gate of Yonsei University, there are several alleyways bursting with pleasure spots and lit up garishly with neon lights.  While waiting for the others to show up, Steve and I went to a German-style beerhall where they serve draft beer that rests in cups built into the table designed to keep the beer ice cold.  That was pretty cool, and I'd like to see more of that sort of technology in Shanghai.  

When the others showed up, Steve took us to one of his favorite bbq restaurants, a quiet spot somewhat up the road from the main center of activity.  It was an otherwise unremarkable place lit on the ground floor lit up with florescent lights, the kind of place you'd pass by on the street without thinking much of it.  We spent the next few hours noshing on succulent and tender slices of pork ribs wrapped in lettuce leaves--the typical Korean bbq, and washing it down with beer and a wild raspberry flavored soju.  When eating Korean-style bbq it's easy to get sucked into not ordering anything but meat, which is basically what we did.  

After dinner was over (and Korean dinners tend to linger on til late) we all headed to a bar run by a Canadian in one of those neon-infested alleyways of Shinchon, where we met up with some other colleagues including a few Americans who teach at Yonsei permanently.  There I defied the principle that a martini might be a good way to start an evening but not an advisable way of ending it, especially after a meal consisting of bbq pork and raspberry soju.  The next day I spent the afternoon in deep contrition at Yonsei's New Millenium Hall, grading midterm papers along with my TA, Calvin Kim.  We got through around 50 of them, and as I wrote earlier I was surprised at the obvious effort that many if not all of the students had put into writing them, which made me feel better about all the hard work I've been putting into teaching these courses.  Knowing that it's not all going down the drain of a nightly bbq and beer fest at Shinchon--which most of the students in the area of Yonsei seem to be doing--is comforting indeed.

A Evening in Apgujeong with Dartmouth Alums in Seoul

After grading papers all afternoon, I met up with Michael Kim in his office upstairs from our summer program office, and together we headed to the southern part of town to join other Dartmouth alums for a dinner.  We took the subway over the Han River to Apgujeong in the Gangnam district.  According to Michael this is a very upscale neighborhood where Seoul's affluent residents live.  Apgujeong is another part of town with brightly lit alleyways featuring stores, restaurants and bars though it seems less crowded and bustling than Shinchon.  The Dartmouth dinner was held at another bbq restaurant, a bit more fancy than the one Steve took us to the previous evening, but no better or worse in terms of the quality of the food.  Around thirty people showed up, most of them either recent alums or current (and even some future) students.  

As a '91 I was one of the more senior members present.  As expected the group was almost entirely Korean with the exception of myself and a couple of other laowais.  As the evening progressed, Michael got up from our table to shmooze with the other tables, and pretty soon he seemed to be presiding over the entire group.  A few others from my generation of students showed up including a classmate or two that I hadn't seen in twenty years.  I also met one of my former students who happened to be on the Dartmouth FSP program that I led in 2007.


Having learnt the lesson of the previous evening, I ordered some rice and tofu soup to go along with the meat and lettuce, and while I engaged in some of the hearty toasting and clinking of glasses of soju, I resisted trying to keep up with the other guys who were leading the charge.  Dartmouth alums and Korean men are a dangerous mix, since both groups tend to put a heavy emphasis on social drinking.  One guy even ended up having to be escorted out and to a cab after putting in too many toasts.  But mostly the party stayed on an even keel as it morphed from a sit-down dinner to a more sociable atmosphere of mixing, mingling and toasting.  

At around 11 pm or so the group dispersed into the night and the younger crowd went to their clubs while us older folk stuck together.  After dealing with the fellow who'd had one too many, we milled about outside before the collective will took some of us in the older crowd to a nearby restaurant-bar where we spent another two hours toasting and talking.  I'm hoping that some of the people I met among the Dartmouth crew will live up to their promise of showing me around Seoul's nightspots, which I have yet to experience.  I did get one invitation to head out last night but after two nights in a row of Korean bbq and drinking sessions I wisely chose to stay in and work on my lectures for next week.




A Shanghailander in Seoul II: Climbing Seoul Mountains


I don't know how people can grow accustomed to living in a country without knowing the language, but they do.  Every year one million people migrate to America, and out of that million, who knows how many can't speak rudimentary English.  Yet they get by.  I know plenty of Westerners living in Shanghai who can barely speak Chinese let alone read it, but they make do.  Somehow.  

The one thing about living here in Seoul that bugs me more than anything else is not knowing the Korean language.  I've made some progress in reading Hangul, which is pretty easy to learn, but still every day I encounter situations where I say to myself, "I wish I'd gone ahead and taken that Korean course while at Columbia."  I did enroll in an intro Korean language course, but ended up going back to China and had to drop it.  Which is too bad, because with Japanese and Chinese under my belt it wouldn't be that tough to learn Korean.  But I have to make do with hand gestures and if need be finding English speakers, who are not easy to find in this town.

It is vexing, but I get by.  I've already figured out or learned the bus routes that take me to the Yonsei campus.  Pretty soon I should be able to order from a Korean menu.  And because most signs are in Korean I figure I can learn enough Hangul to read some of them.


Otherwise Seoul is a pretty comfortable city.  In comparison to Shanghai it is far less crowded and chaotic.  People here actually pay attention to traffic signals.  The public transport system is outstanding and the people seem to be very civic minded.  It's by and large a clean city, with a certain rugged beauty that comes from being surrounded by mountains, and with canals and rivers running through the city whose water strikes me as very clean, certainly compared to the fetid wastedumps of Chinese rivers and streams.

Perhaps it's unfair to make such comparisons.  After all Korea would hardly even merit the status of a Chinese province.  Only fifty million people!

Seoul is very spread out and as I said it is surrounded by mountains.  They are small mountains to be sure, but they still loom impressively in the distant skyscape.  This city is far more connected to nature than Shanghai.  While I haven't had much opportunity to explore the urban environment apart from two supermarket department stores and the Yonsei Campus, I did take up an invitation on Saturday to climb a nearby mountain called Achasan.  This was the first real cultural experience I've had here outside of the university environment.

The folks who invited me are an elderly Korean couple.  Professor Lee teaches economics for the summer program and he is organizing weekly trips to the mountains, inviting his students and other teachers along.  The couple were dressed for the occasion when I met them on Saturday morning on the Yonsei campus.  They both had nice pairs of hiking boots and good walking sticks.  Three young Chinese students came along with us.  We took a bus about an hour's ride east to the base of the mountain, whose trailhead can be found right at the edge of the bustling metropolis.  

On the bus we met other hikers, including a pair of elderly ladies also dressed in their hiking gear who led us to the trailhead, which started off with a Buddhist temple.  Immediately we were climbing wooden steps into a pine forest and following a trail that ran up the ridge of the mountain range.  

We eventually reached a peak where we saw remnants and reconstructions of old forts from the Koguryo period, around 1400 years ago.  Down below us in one direction we could see the urban sprawl amidst the fog, while in the other direction the thick Han River ran its course.  This was the most contested place in ancient times, so it is not hard to understand why they built forts there on the peaks overlooking the river.

Perhaps the most interesting thing we saw that gives me an indication of contemporary Korean culture was that on one peak there was a workout area featuring weight machines and pullup bars and other equipment.  People young and old were using the equipment actively, obviously as part of a workout ritual involving vigorous hiking.  These people all looked to be in great shape.

After coming down off the mountain, we found a local neighborhood restaurant and had bowls of barley bibimbop, then got on the subway heading back to Yonsei, where we unfortunately ended up heading the other direction and ended up spending an extra hour going around the city on its major ring line.  But that's okay, any chance to explore a new city is a good one.



A Shanghailander in Seoul Part 1: Touched Down and Settling In

I'm sitting in the study room of a serviced apartment in the middle of a corporate office zone in a neigborhood called Sangam-dong. Outside it's raining, dark, and grey. I'm surrounded by nearly identical corporate buildings identified with huge numbers on them. I could be in any big city in the capitalist world. There's a Matrix-like feel to the neighborhood. But somehow it also reminds me of Fight Club. Maybe it's the corporate art sculptures next to the coffee shops.

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