Learning to love Korea


First of all, thank you John for getting me here in the first place.  Thank you Jane for helping me get-the-hell-out of Pyeongchon and for the rice cooker and humidifier.  Thanks for the starter pots and pans and dishes Dan.  Thanks for the refrigerator Willie!  Some day I hope to be as good of a friend to you guys as you are to me.  I’m lousy at being a friend, I know, but I am loyal.

I asked for a forbearance on my student loans and have spent most of it this month on housewares and now feel all my basic needs for living are met and fully functional.  There’s now a clothing rack in the closet, a shelf in the kitchen, a large steamer/fry/sauce pot, an electric kettle, a shower hose that doesn’t fall off, a blanket and pajamas, a shoe shelf, and everything I need to wash clothes, a can opener, various utensils, and food in the fridge.  Mrs. Kim approves.

It’s been fun wandering around my neighborhood each day as I discover some unmet need and venture out for the resulting shopping trip.

I try to purchase from smaller establishments but find they are mostly lacking what I need.  Some of these places I don’t understand how they can even feed themselves.   I went to the hardware store two minutes walk away, for example, and the guy was sleeping on the floor.  He’s always sleeping because he never has any business.  I had to pantomime that I needed a light bulb and he sold me one out of a box.  When I asked him how much I saw a momentary flash of deceit cross his face and it took him too long to tell me.   He ended up charging me 700 won.  I don’t know if he jacked up the price but almost hope he did.  The thought of 10-15 cents making a difference in his life seemed like a small price to pay. I’d go back, but most of what he sells I can’t use…

Seven Star asked me if there were any markets nearby.  I told him there was no traditional market, but that there are some small and mid-sized groceries.  He made a face and told me he would advise that I only shop at big chains and to save my money.  I think he’s wrong.  Just like in America, this might be true if I bought a lot of pre-packaged products, but since I hate most of that stuff it’s not a problem.

Seven Star also suspected the doorman wanted a bribe and told me my apartment mix-up was my fault because I was too trusting.  His lack of trust and blaming me for what I felt was just a misunderstanding sent me on a horrible tail-spin about the lack of trustworthiness in Korea.  But he also advised me to keep a baseball bat by my door and didn’t think anyplace but an officetel would be safe for a beautiful young woman. (ha!) So actually, I think Seven Star is just paranoid and maybe it isn’t all Korean people.  However, there’s not one neighborhood I’ve ever been in anywhere in Korea that doesn’t have locked gates and bars on all their first floors…

Mostly I end up at the DC department store.  I think the staff there thinks I’m crazy, as I’ve spent countless hours deliberating over things such as, do I want the purple dust pan with no rubber transition strip, or do I want the one that matches my broom but has that annoying cartoon on it or do I want the plain one that’s too small and not very ergonomic?  I am totally neurotic about these kind of things, especially given that it’s mostly cheap crap from China that ALL looks like junk!

Cute side story.  Mrs. Kim is in my apartment and sees my feather duster lying on the floor.  She takes it and starts sweeping the floor with it, approving that I have cleaning supplies and thinking it is some new kind of broom.  I shouldn’t have let her go on thinking a feather duster was a broom, but I didn’t know how to explain it to her.

This also reminds me of the time Y to my officetel and insisted on sweeping after we ate.  I handed her my full size standing broom, and she grabbed it about a foot away from the bristle head and was bent over, trying to use it like a short Asian broom, complaining about how it was a bad broom and hard to use. (the weight of the handle being so much more than the brush end which made it impossible to control)  All I could do was chuckle and  wonder what HER culture shock would be like if she had to live in America.  The thought of standing erect while sweeping was such a foreign concept to her she’d never entertained it – even when faced with the obvious misplaced physics of its use.

Today’s sojourn for a stool from which to wash my clothes took me past some street food vendors.  Let me tell you, there’s nothing better on a cold day than to stop and buy a roasted sweet potato from a little old man sitting in front of a charcoal fired metal drum roaster.  Smells wonderful.  Warms your hands and warms your insides.  I don’t like roasted chestnuts, but the roasted corn on the cob might seduce me one day on another trip.

Where I live is perpendicular to Yongsan military base and I walk the main arterial there some times.

Closer to the base the businesses are less retail and service oriented and there seem to be a lot of small scale factory operations that do things like make dduk or deok (rice cake – in this case it’s a paste that is rolled into pasta shapes and cut for purposes of boiling like dumplings – in other cases it is sweetened and possibly flavored with additions like nuts or bean paste and made into deserts)

I see several operations like this in basements in my neighborhood as well.  I also see a lot of taxi cabs.  The adjosshi that is my landlord’s husband is also a taxi driver.

The base is surrounded with what looks like 40ft. high freeway sound barriers or temporary construction walls and no way to look in, which is to be expected, but you’d think they could have provided some vegetation or something to ameliorate the starkness of such a wall.  There is a smaller alternative to DC that has simpler designed products that I like to go to that is on the way to Yongsan.

On the way home I stop and buy some banchan (side dishes) at a store and the woman is tickled with my cursive signature.  The banchan, btw, is excellent and thank God for that store, otherwise I would get no vegetables since the school cafeteria is no longer open and I’ve no idea how or the incliniation to prepare those dishes for only myself anyway.

Connecting the Yongsan area and Itaewon is antique street.  I bet there are close to 100 of these antique shops.  It’s a really bizarre thing seeing all these items – they’re large and heavy or strangely out of place and it’s hard to imagine them in a Korean apartment.  They might look okay in a large villa, and one can often see them as the main decor in some of the more eccentric and unfrequented bars and coffee shops run by bored Korean wives.  Each shop specializes in one thing or another, such as Rococco or Victorian Shabby Chic or Atomic Age.  They are very, very expensive and most of them have been imported from Europe.  I had a lot of fun checking out some mid-century modern from England, comparing it to American mid-century modern.  But the prices were almost double.

Looking for cheap storage solutions recently I began to realize that furniture in Korea is really, really expensive.  Plastic is used a lot and the particle board and papered stuff like one might find at Ikea is almost twice the price, and it tends to be quite ugly.  In fact, there is one guy on-line who imports Ikea and sells it at a really high mark-up.  The best prices for this garbage furniture can be found on-line at G-market.  But it’s really garbage and really over-priced.  (actually, some of it is inexpensive, but it’s thin and  basically disposable)

The beautiful interior design and decor you see in Korean movies and dramas is all boutique stuff, and I can’t imagine the price.   There truly truly is a huge class disparity here, and the problem is there’s nothing of quality available for the poor.

Supposedly, because the cost of disposal is so high, people will leave discarded furniture on the street and many poor people furnish their homes with this recycled stuff.  But I’ve yet to see anything that wasn’t broken, and the one time I saw a couch I was in a bind because I didn’t have anyone to help me drag it home.

Walking the other direction through Itaewon’s east side are every kind of international restaurant you could want: such as Turkish, African, Indian, Pakistani, Moroccan, Thai, Mexican, Uzbekistan, French, Belgian, Japanese, Italian, etc.  Starting with the more down-to-earth and least expensive and working its way to more refined and expensive the further you head east in the direction of the embassies.

Eating International in Korea is interesting because some of the dishes have become fusion dishes – due to either limitations on expensive items or to satisfy Korean palettes, I’m not sure – but they are sometimes spicier than you might be used to elsewhere on the planet.  There are often times a side dish or two thrown in, in deference to Korean culture and sometimes the side dishes are just out and out Korean side dishes.

Not only food but also retail gets progressively more expensive as you head east, and the shops are replaced with boutiques and then some pretty impressive architecture and the jim jil bangs get replaced with world class spas offering a full range of services such as mud baths and aroma therapy, etc.  The BMW dealership is in that direction as well.  And also busloads of tourists – but I don’t know what they could possibly be looking at up there.

Along with hip hop gear, leather, and shops catering to larger American sizes are lots of tailors.  I guess there’s over 1,200 shops in Itaewon, and they tend to be a bit pricier than other areas because they have more western made products for sale.  Levi’s, Calvin Klein, and Nike have stores here too.

Anyway, this place is interesting.  Now, I’ve got some clothing to learn to wash and hopefully this time I can do it without permanent wrinkles.

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