Monday, September 26, 2011

Ask MsCaroline: September 2011

As the Summer winds down, giving way to the more temperate days of Autumn, MsCaroline returns, once again, to answer your questions about expat life here in Seoul.  In this edition, we address your questions about subway etiquette, vuvuzelas, public restrooms, and other topics of interest. (Disclaimer:  MsCaroline's answers, although true to the best of her knowledge, are based on her having lived in Seoul for exactly 3.5 months and may, therefore, be wrong only marginally accurate.  Readers who are in search of 100% accurate information should, of course, consult Wikipedia or FaceBook.)

Question:  I am attending my first soccer game in Seoul.  What should I expect?  
Response:   MsCaroline - although not a particularly ardent sports fan unless her own children are playing - believes in full participation in the culture in which you are living, and that includes attendance at sporting events, even those that one would not otherwise attend in one's homeland.  Soccer (football) is popular in Seoul, and for that reason, all expats should attend at least one soccer game during their stay in the country.  The following are points for Westerners to keep in mind when attending:
  • Soccer is huge in Seoul:  This means that everyone in Seoul (and their brothers) will be riding the same public transport at roughly the same time.  Expect to stand (you'll never get a seat) cheek-to-jowl, with at least a bazillion others(some of them stinking drunk  in very high spirits) on a subway train all the way to World Cup Stadium.  When you arrive, expect to be swept up with the crowd, salmon-style, directly to the stadium.  If you have agoraphobia or claustrophobia, it is recommended that you take a taxi instead.  Better yet, stay home and watch the game on TV.
  • Soccer games are family activities in Seoul:  This means that, in addition to the spirited drunks devoted fans, there are numerous families with small children in the stands, participating wholeheartedly in the crowd cheers, looking for themselves on the jumbotron, and blowing their vuvuzelas with every last breath in their bodies.

Question:  What is a 'vuvuzela'?
Response:  A vuvuzela is a plastic instrument that looks like a long, skinny, kazoo with a flared end like a trumpet, sold by sadistic enterprising merchants in and around the stadium on game day.  The vuvuzela makes a deafening loud, monotonous noise that sounds like a cross between an air horn and an angry water buffalo. The vuvuzela can be used during the game in order to:  a) indicate approval of a team's actions on the field; b) deliver support and encouragement to one's team; c) public-mindedly contribute to the general ambiance of the stadium, or; d) bash one's younger sibling across the head.  It is a very flexible instrument.

Question:  How do you say, "vuvuzela' in Korean?
Response:  Not having heard any Koreans actually say the word 'vuvuzela,' MsCaroline can only base her answer on the Hangul (Korean alphabet) spelling.  The fact that Hangul (through no fault of its own) does not include the 'v' or 'z' sounds results in the somewhat inelegant transliteration,  "boo-boo-je-rah.'

Question:  What types of refreshments are on sale at Korean soccer games?
Response:  Soccer fans will be delighted to find all their favorite game day refreshments at World Cup Olympic Stadium in Seoul:  beer, dried fish, and squid jerky.  You can also buy popcorn and hot dogs, but MsCaroline sees no need to get carried away.

Question:  I am in a disturbingly crowded subway car and cannot reach an overhead strap or a support bar of any kind.  Is it likely I will fall over when the car begins to move?
Response:  Have no fear, gentle reader!  There is no need to worry about personal safety in this instance, as it is physically impossible for you to fall over because you are wedged in so tightly.  At most, you may sway a little, but falling is out of the question.  It is, however, important for you to remain vigilant and prepared to alertly spring out of the way when the car finally reaches its stop, or you will be trampled to death by your disembarking fellow passengers.

Question:  On the way home in the subway station, I stopped in the bathroom and discovered this when I opened the door to the stall:

What on earth is this, and how should I use it?
Response:  The object in question is an 'Asian Squat Toilet.'  This type of toilet is used in many parts of the world, and medical research has conclusively proven that the squatting position has many health benefits, which MsCaroline believes may have something to do with the colon, but which she prefers not to think about escape her mind at the moment.  Many Westerner women, when faced with their first squat toilet, are extremely close-minded about attempting to use them, which, of course, robs them of the unmatched opportunity to experience the true inner workings of a foreign culture, and which simply perpetuates the concept of the close-minded Westerner.  MsCaroline urges you to set aside your preconceived notions about toileting and expand your horizons.  However, in the interest of full disclosure, MsCaroline must note that, even if one happens to have spent a great deal of time in Asia as a child and  felt quite confident in one's squat-toilet competencies, this is not a skill that just comes right back after more than 20 years of disuse, especially when one is middle-aged, no longer quite so flexible, and wearing heels.  MsCaroline also suggests that this activity is best attempted when you are not wearing trousers, and, if you must take this course of action, you should proceed with great care.  For reasons involving wet floors of questionable cleanliness, the geometry of the female anatomy, and the relative location of one's trousers during this procedure,  it is imperative that one does not lose one's balance, aim, or the grip on one's trousers,  Do not ask me how I know this.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Autumn Ideals, Seoul-Style

Cover of an Autumn Ideals magazine, although not the one I remember.
(MsCaroline has been feeling sentimental lately and is waxing nostalgic.  You have been warned.)

Fall is definitely in the air here in Seoul.  The daytime temperatures are no longer in the 90s (32C and up), the humidity has been reduced to manageable levels, and the prospect of spending more than 15 minutes out of doors no longer fills me with despair.  There is a nip in the air in the mornings, which means that Son #2 wears a hoodie (hooded sweatshirt) to the bus stop, and MrLogical does not curse about having to wear a coat and tie to work.  Other than that, though, there really aren't any other visible signs - at least to my eyes - that Fall is on the way.  The lone indicator I have seen is a section of Hallowe'en candy in the aisles of the commissary on the American Army base when I shop there.  Other than that, though, - speaking as an American - you really wouldn't know that it was almost October.

As the temperatures have cooled in the past few weeks, I've done a lot of thinking about what it means to be part of a culture.  Part of it is, of course, feeling like you belong:  understanding the language, the customs, and all the little subtleties that make navigating through a country either a non-event or (for me at the moment) a daily adventure, fraught with potential pitfalls and misunderstandings.  But not just that:  I've been realizing that one of these subtleties has to do with the way the culture - as a group - greets the changing seasons.  For example, the explosion of hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) and gift sets in all the store windows at the beginning of September as everyone in Korea got ready for Chu-sok, the Korean Thanksgiving holiday.  I imagine that, after a few years in Seoul, I will see the hanbok in the store windows and get a slightly nostalgic 'it's almost Fall' feeling because I'll connect the two.  But this first year, I don't have any cultural connections, so I don't have any sense of being part of the culture or the sense of anticipation.  And that, of course, is the heart of the matter and part of belonging in a culture:  knowing what is coming and being able to anticipate it because you've seen it before and done it before.  Remembering, along with everyone else, the joys of the season, and looking forward to all it holds.

Hanbok on sale before Chu-sok holidays.

What I'm looking for - and missing terribly - is the way my culture gets ready for Fall.  I'm missing pumpkins and gourds in the grocery store;  farmstands on the side of the road with hand-lettered signs selling pumpkins and cornstalks and huge, pillowy chrysanthemums in glowing colors.  I'm missing scarecrows and 'pick your own' pumpkin patches, bonfires, tailgating before football games, raking leaves, and autumn wreaths on everyone's front doors.  I'm missing Halloween costumes taking up 3 aisles in Target and Wal-Mart, advertisements for Haunted Houses, and plans with my neighbors for the annual Hallowe'en cookout, where we all get together and grill hotdogs and hamburgers before the kids head out for trick-or-treat and the rest of us socialize in the dark while dispensing candy to princesses, bums, pirates, and ballerinas.  These things, to me, say, "Fall."

What's even more interesting to me is the fact that, as a third culture kid, this sort of thing really doesn't have much to do with remembering nostalgic autumns of my childhood.  In fact, until I was 10 and we moved back to the US, I'd never really experienced an American Fall, and since we only lived in the States for a few years before moving to Germany, it wasn't much time to absorb an entire cultural construct.  No, most of my concept of Autumn was based on reading books, talking to my parents, and leafing through a very tattered old copy of a now-defunct magazine called, Ideals, which my mother had either brought with her or had sent from home.  For those of you who have never heard of this magazine, it was published a few times a year and was chock-full of photographs, paintings, poetry, and prose related to the general season.

 The only one I ever remember seeing was a single Autumn edition, probably from the late 60s (my mother may still have it yet.)  On its cover, was a bounteous display of pumpkins, gourds, cornstalks, and other harvesty-looking produce, shot in the most complimentary soft lighting, and displayed on a rustic wooden table.  The contents were equally idyllic and romantic (what do you expect from a magazine called Ideals?):  a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving on this page:  a photograph of a covered bridge on the next; a printed version of the song, "Over The River and Through The Woods;"  toddlers playing in a pumpkin patch;  a horse and carriage trotting down a tree-lined country road blazing with Autumn color;  a cozy-looking grandmother knitting by a cast-iron stove and looking out the window as her family arrives for Thanksgiving.  In my mind, this was what Autumn in the US looked like, and it had no connection to my reality, which was open-air markets, Buddhist temples, and rice paddies (we lived next to one in Taiwan.)
View of the rice paddy over the garden wall in Taipei.

MsCaroline, in sarong, Bangkok, ca. 1969.  It might have been Fall.

  Hallowe'en was something you dressed up for at school, but I'd never gone trick-or-treating like most American kids.

Hallowe'en costume parade:  International School of Bangkok, ca 1970

 Thanksgiving was a holiday spent with friends- often eating a meal at a big Western hotel - since most expats stayed in-country for Thanksgiving.  Oh, my mother decorated a bit for each season and holiday, but that was just in our house.  The rest of the world didn't really participate.

I think it may be for those reasons that, when I finally had a home of my own, I wholeheartedly embraced each season as it came.  From hay bales and chrysanthemums on my front porch in Kentucky to the annual carving of the pumpkins in Arizona (one for each member of the family in an appropriate size, lit with a candle and glowing in the window), to the making of my own cranberry chutney at Thanksgiving in Texas, I reveled in being part of the whole, and in belonging to the culture in which I was living.  Fireworks on New Year's, daffodils for Spring, mint juleps for Derby Day.  I was part of it.  I belonged.

And now, here I am in Seoul, where the signs of Fall are - to my Western eyes - few and far between.  For me, this year, Fall has meant an end to the brutal heat, breathless hikes to the tops of mountains lined with the ruins of ancient city walls, seeing small children in hanbok during Chu-sok, and watching the changing of the guard at Deoksugung palace. Next year at this time, I will have put tiny roots down, and these things will have begun to mark the season for me.  I will see the hanbok, feel the nip in the air, puff my way to the top of Namsan, and, for me, that will mean, 'Fall.'  I love being here and seeing all of this, and I am deeply grateful to be sharing these experiences with my children.  But yet - a part of me yearns for a few pumpkins and - just maybe - the sight of an autumn wreath on someone's front door.

What says, "Fall" to you? Is it a sight? A sound? A smell? A food? If you're away from home, has it changed based on where you've lived? 

Monday, September 19, 2011

So, what have you been up to?

After several weeks of diligently blogging about my various sightseeing activities in Seoul, I've decided to take a break from photojournalism and travel blogging - which I think we can all agree I suck at are not really my strong points - and return to my first love, which, as you all know, is whining providing witty and incisive commentary about minutiae. This decision has been supported by the fact that, when, for example, the man standing next to me in the subway is wearing a diaphanous skirt,  friends turn and say, 'that's going in your blog, isn't it?' It would be nice to be known for breathtaking photographs or insightful socio-cultural commentary, but I guess we all have our niches in blogging, and mine seems to be The Bizarre.  With this in mind, I spent a considerable amount of time this morning trying to come up with a cohesive, witty, and catchy title for this post, but I failed miserably, so you're stuck with this one, which gives me carte blanche to talk about smelly shoes, octopi, very tiny dogs, and hiking, under the pretense of answering the question, 'So, what have you been up to?"

Well, (since you asked), I have been.....

Someone's dinner (not mine)

going to the fish market at Noryangjin:  This is a time-honored tourist destination in Seoul:  a huge open warehouse full of every possible kind of seafood you could imagine, as well as a number of kinds that you would never imagine, not even in a nightmare  were not aware of.  It was basically  acres of fish vendors, each with their own stands and their own specialties, from squid to flounder and everything in between.  It smelled exactly like you would expect an enormous fish market to smell in Seoul in the late summer, and when I got home, I discovered that - just from having walked through it - all of my clothes smelled just like a fish market in the late summer, too.   The worst for me was looking at the tanks and bowls of live fish, baby octopi, and eels, which I privately thought of as 'the condemned' and which it appeared everyone else just thought of as 'dinner.'
The Condemned

 The highlight (using the term loosely) of this trip was the choice on the parts of both of our sons to wear highly-absorbent canvas shoes to muck around the fish market and all of its accompanying effluvia, which they later dropped on the threshold of the apartment without a second thought.  It took me several days of frantic cleaning and sleuthing before I was able to locate the source of the odor and  dispense justice.

Attending an Oktoberfest in Seoul:  This was hosted on the American army base here in Seoul and involved the requisite beer tent, oompah band, lederhosen, and comely maidens in dirndls, as well as lots of sodden rocking side-to-side with beer glasses raised, whilst tunelessly belting out "Ein Prosit der Gemütlicheit."  The fact that this was taking place on a horribly hot and humid September evening within sight of Namsan tower in the middle of Seoul, and that the various musicians, food servers, and comely maidens were mostly Korean, added a certain surreal touch to the occasion - although, after a few beers, this was no longer noticeable.

"The Slipper"
Dog-sitting for friends who were out of town during Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving):  Son #2 was offered the job of feeding and walking a neighbor's dog while the family was in Japan during Chuseok, which he readily agreed to do.  The dog was brought to our apartment and installed as a temporary visitor for the duration, which turned out to be an excellent arrangement for not only our now canine-less  family, but also for the dog, who was highly sociable although extremely small, and would probably have been quite lonely alone in her own apartment.... at least that's what we told ourselves.  Having never had a dog that weighed less than 80 pounds, we were initially nervous about accidentally stepping on her, but she turned out to have an excellent sense of self-preservation and alertly leaped out of the way any time she saw feet moving in her direction. This dog is an apartment-sized breed called - with a straight face, no less - a "Yorkie-poo" (combination of poodle and Yorkshire Terrier) and was clearly bred to deliver the maximum amount of dogness in the smallest possible package. She weighed less than 5 pounds, was the size of Mr. Logical's foot, and blended seamlessly with the texture of the flokati rug in our living room.  For this reason, we christened her 'the Slipper.'  Despite her amazing (to us) teeniness, she competently exhibited all of the classically desirable doggy behaviors which we had missed so much, and which we somehow had not expected in an animal roughly the size of a cantaloupe.  We returned her at the end of Chuseok with great reluctance.

Going to Open House Night at Son #2's School:  This involved Mr. Logical and myself driving to school in the evening through Seoul rush hour traffic - an activity which does nothing to enhance marital harmony, by the way - in order to  follow Son #2's schedule, meet his teachers, and find out what Son #2 would be doing this year in each of his courses.  This was not particularly different from what we would have done in the US, except there was an interesting debate going on among the parents regarding amounts of homework, and opinions seemed to fall along cultural lines.  The Western parents all felt the load was way too much adequate, if a bit heavy, whereas the Asian parents felt that it was not nearly enough and their children would never get into university at this rate could stand to be increased.

part of the old wall on Bukhansan

Hiking up mountains in Seoul:  There is a good reason you rarely see fat Seoulites, and that is because the city is built in and around a series of mountains, which means that, if you plan ahead, just going to the grocery store can be the day's cardio workout.  In fact, both my friends B and K live at the top of brutal inclines, which is why I tend to meet them  for coffee as opposed to just stopping by (this should also go a long way toward explaining why I have not lost any weight since arriving in Seoul.)  But have no fear! - if the naturally hilly terrain of the city streets is not enough for you, you can take your choice of any number of hiking trails located on mountains all over Seoul, which provide lovely landscaping and gorgeous scenic vistas, not to mention painful excellent workouts.  Namsan and Bukhansan mountains also both contain segments of the old city walls of Seoul, some of which date back to the 1300s, which appeals to my inner history geek.

Part of the old wall on Namsan

  Of course, hiking up any of these mountains is a serious cardiovascular enterprise, which means that, once you get to the top, you - or, in this case, I -  will be sweaty, disheveled, out of breath, and looking your absolute worst for all of those 'top of the mountain' scenic vista photos you were looking forward to posting on your blog but which, on closer inspection, are clearly out of the question if you are to retain any readership whatsoever.  There is actually a cable car that will ferry you up or down the mountain for a fee, but in Mr. Logical's book, taking a mechanized vehicle up a mountain  is only acceptable providing you are a member of AARP or you do not have the full use of your limbs, which - at least for a few more years - means the Asia Vu family gets to the top under their own steam, looking like they should have the caption  survivors of the death march underneath their photo.

 Of course, if you don't want to take the cable car, there are also about a gazillion tour companies which provide bus service to the summit - also on Mr. Logical's 'wuss list' - for a nominal fee.   This explains why I observed so many fresh-faced, immaculately coiffed women in miniskirts and 5-inch heels tottering around the summit of Namsan, eating squid-on-a-stick and posing for glamour shots in front of the picturesque gazebo.  Meanwhile, I was using the edge of Mr.Logical's t-shirt to wipe the streaming sweat out of my eyes and trying to stretch my hamstrings out of what felt like a permanent squat.  Now, in all fairness, plenty of others  also did not ride to the top of the mountain in air-conditioned comfort;   in fact, we passed quite a number of serious, professional-looking hikers as we made our way up and down the mountain, and the one thing I learned from observing them is that I will never make the 'best-dressed hiker' list in Seoul.   Apparently, there is a very specific dress code for serious hikers in Seoul, which is slightly different from the MsCaroline standard.  For example, I consider an appropriate hiking costume to be my oldest hiking shoes, a pair of disreputable shorts, and the t-shirt that I wore to paint my great room in the house in Arizona;  my logic being that the whole ensemble is just going to get dirty and sweaty anyway.  Seoulites, however, think differently:  if you are participating in an outdoor event, you must:   a) own the proper gear and b) wear all the proper gear you own.  This should be immediately observable from your SPF30 gore-tex sun hat/ visor to your jaunty neckerchief to your ultra-wicking polypropylene hiking shirt (with vents), to your expandable aluminium pistol-grip stabilizing poles, to your expedition-weight mountaineering boots.  This unwritten dress code is either an excellent reason for me to a) go shopping or b) quit hiking altogether, but I haven't figured out which one.  And so, while I'm sorting that one out....what have you been up to?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Chuseok Visit to the Coex Mall and Aquarium

(Note:  For reasons that are not clear, I decided to leave my camera at home during this outing, which means that all photographs were taken with my mobile phone and therefore are of worse quality than usual.)

Here in Korea right now, it is Chuseok, a huge annual lunar holiday celebrating the harvest and family, somewhat similar to American Thanksgiving.  During Chuseok, people travel to their hometowns to pay their respects to their ancestors, spend time with their families, exchange gifts, and eat sumptuous meals. It's also the time to wear traditional clothing - the hanbok - and many stores have hanbok on display right now.

In the last week or so, I've seen many people wearing hanbok, especially little children, who look adorable in them, although the best part is that they all seem to be wearing Hello Kitty or Pokemon velcro-strap sandals with them, in the best possible combination of old and new.

People traditionally exchange gifts, and every store has been displaying Chuseok gift sets, which are typically quite practical, such as this popular Spam gift set:

Personally, I would never have associated Spam with Korea, but apparently it was introduced by American G.I.s during the Korean Conflict and was adopted into the culture.  You see it everywhere.

Chuseok is also similar to American Thanksgiving in that is it a traffic nightmare.  Highways come to a standstill, airlines are booked solid, train tickets are sold out weeks before the actual holiday, and - the nicest part for us - Seoul empties out a bit.  In fact, we'd been told by a number of people that Chuseok is one of the best times to go sightseeing in Seoul, because the ubiquitous crowds are somewhat more manageable (notice I didn't say 'nonexistent,' just 'more managaeable.')

Accordingly, Mr. Logical and I (the boys declined to accompany us, mostly because we left before they felt like getting out of bed - the sluggards) decided that we'd take advantage of this unusual opportunity and visit a few places in Seoul that we'd not yet seen.  Since it was (of course) mostly raining, we decided on something indoors, so (knowing better than to go to a palace in the rain) we headed for the super-ginormous and legendary Coex Mall and the ever-popular Coex Aquarium which had both been frequently mentioned to us as 'places to see while in Seoul.'  Thus is came to pass that we hopped on to the strangely uncrowded subway and made our way to Gangnam.

The Coex Mall is - according to its website - the 'largest underground mall in Asia,' but is otherwise pretty much like any other mall, containing all the typical shops and eateries (note:  I hate the word 'eatery') that you would expect to find, except there were huger numbers of them.  My favorite shop was, hands-down, the enormous Bandi & Luni's bookstore, which boasts over 2 million titles and an extensive selection of English-language books.  I had not had such a delightful browse in a bookstore since moving to Seoul; the selection (including bestsellers and the more obscure) was nearly as good as anything I would have expected back home, and I could have stayed for hours. MrLogical finally lured me out by buying me a book, but only after I had noted about a million more titles to look for later on my Kindle.  We headed then for the aquarium, but first I had to dart into a Hello Kitty! store (that provided so much Hello-Kittiness per square inch that it was probably illegal) and photograph everything that amused me while taking vast mental notes of things that I would love to buy for my nieces.

Eventually, I reached critical HelloKitty! mass and we headed resolutely back out into the mall, past the open air gaming station in front of the Megabox/IMAX movie theater, and arrived at the aquarium, which is entered directly from the mall:

A note about this aquarium:  This is not a particularly large or extensive facility and probably won't make any top-ten lists for its extensive holdings.  However, it does have a nice section showcasing species that are specific to Korea, is extremely kid-friendly, and definitely worth a visit if you have younger kids.  In fact, most of the time I was there, I was wishing I'd come with small children, because it had so many fun, quirky, kid-centric displays that I know my own kids would have enjoyed when they were small.  As it was, there were about a bajillion little kids there, so if you are the type who likes to gaze quietly at aquarium displays in hushed and scholarly silence, this is not the place for you.  On the other hand, the Coex also displays a number of fauna that one does not usually expect to find in an aquarium, so I think it strikes a nice balance.  Needless to say, there were also a few displays (and a few signs) that provided the kind of quirky and unexpected touch that we, as Westerners in Korea, have come to know and love.

The first room contained what looked like dentist-office fish tanks with brightly painted bases and charming themes, like this 'Finding Nemo' one, which featured (besides 'Nemo' and 'Dory' fish) a number of fish specimens from the movie:

At first, Mr. Logical and I thought that this might be the way the whole aquarium was going to look - lots of small tanks with cartoon themes - and we were both a bit nonplussed - especially since we had shelled out KW17,500 each - but as we moved on, the displays got larger and more interesting, like the room we figured must have been called, "wacky places you really wouldn't find a fish" diplays, like this one:

Fish-in-a-toilet display, complete with actual fish poo.
and this one:

We also enjoyed the section of the aquarium that displayed typical fish and reptiles native to Korea, complete with exhibits designed to look like rice paddies and mountain streams.  There were also occasionally other wildlife included in exhibits that one doesn't usually expect to find in an aquarium, such as this chipmunk exhibit (yes, they are real):

And - inexplicably - this rabbit, whose job it was to perch miserably on a small replica bridge over the replica stream featuring Korean trout:

He was so still that he did an excellent job of fading into the background unless you looked closely:

Mr. Logical and I cannot prove that he was wishing for a quick death, but it seemed highly likely.  Later on, we would come across a dollhouse-type display full of hedgehogs, which I would have loved to photograph, but the hedgehogs, sensibly, were asleep - or pretending to be - in their hedgehog kitchens and bathrooms and dining rooms, so there was not much worth photographing. I have no idea what hedgehogs were doing in an aquarium, but they were definitely a crowd-pleaser, so I guess the feeling was, 'why not'?

The rest of the aquarium was fairly typical, aquariumwise, with assorted displays of typical aquarium inhabitants,  and included: a scary and exciting shark tank which got you thisclose to the sharks and rays;

  also, a small seal tank with several acrobatic and cheerful seals, some somnolent otters, a couple of manatees who munched obligingly on cabbage while gazing interestedly at all of us gazing interestedly at them; and - my personal favorite  - the penguin exhibit.   This was very small but vastly entertaining .  The only problem I had with it was that the exhibit was glassed-in and that the swimming penguins could directly approach the glass, where I saw a number of adult humans (who really should have known better) tapping the glass, waving their hands, and otherwise fooling the increasingly-agitated penguins into snapping at and trying to catch what they seemed to think were fish.  Oh, and I forgot to mention that there was a really clever 'Amazon Jungle' exhibit which included giant resin trees and vines with Amazonian-type background noises, rope bridges, and some resin Amazonian natives.  All of this provided an authentic background for some enormous fish, turtles, eels, and a requisite container of piranha, who always look to me like they need the services of a good orthodontist.

As you would expect,  I was just as amused by the signage as by the displays, which included the following (which I would have killed for when my boys were small.)  Hats off to the Koreans for great practicality!

Of course, like all facilities containing live animals, there had to be some warning signs.  What I love about this sign is the angry eyes on the fish.  I have no idea what this says;  probably something along the lines of, "These fish are ill-tempered and will bite your limbs off" -  but words really just aren't necessary.  This sign very sensibly appeared near any exhibit that was not completely enclosed:

Then there were the moon jellies, who were quite beautiful.

  However, I knew what evil lurked beneath their suspiciously beautiful exteriors:

Mr. L and I liked the 'only slightly' part.

After the penguin house, we were herded to an exit, courteously bowed to and bid farewell to by a pert, uniformed aquarium employee, and then funneled via escalator directly into the gift shop (which, by the way is an excellent marketing strategy:  I really felt for the many hapless parents who found themselves and their overtired, overstimulated offspring deposited into a seething mass of brightly colored, aquarium-related merchandise.)

Since we had no children with us, we were able to escape without incident, and headed back out into the mall, where we decided to choose from one of the previously-mentioned eateries to sit down and drink beer  refresh ourselves before heading back home. After dithering for a while, we decided to amuse ourselves and head to Bennigans, a pub-style American chain restaurant, where we ordered Korean beer and - feeling a tad homesick - what was billed as the 'Southwest Sampler.'

Now, having lived in Korea for three months, we were not expecting a completely authentic representation of Southwestern cuisine.  This turned out to be wise, since the Bennigans-in-Seoul version of a 'Southwest Sampler' included deep-fried octupus, seafood quesadillas, and deep-fried egg rolls.  It says something for how quickly we've adapted that a) this did not surprise us and b) we ate the whole thing.

As we're finding out about so many things in Korea, it wasn't exactly like home - but it was good.

To Get To The Coex Mall:  Take the subway line 2 to the Samseong station, exit 5 or 6;  which will funnel you directly into the Mall

To Get To The Coex Aquarium:  The aquarium is inside the Coex Mall, right near the Megabox and IMAX theater;  signs all over the mall will point you in the right direction.  The aquarium is open 365 days a year, from 10am-8pm.  Cost is KW17,500 for Adults, KW14,500 for Teenagers, and KW11,000 for children.

Friday, September 9, 2011

How To Use Skin Care Fish

(Note:  This post is dedicated to my Seoul sisters, B & K, who are always up for an adventure and good-naturedly put up with my compulsive blogging. -xoxoxoxo -)

A few days ago, I was gently reminded by one of my alert readers ("Hey! What ever happened after you put that stuff on your feet?") that I had never followed up on my earlier post in which I experimented with a Korean foot-peeling product as part of my never-ending quest for Softer Feet. I will say, in my defense, we were in the throes of preparing for our housewarming party just at the time my feet were at their molting xenith, and, torn between stuffing things in closets preparing for the party versus writing about my feet, I opted for preparing for the party.   Some readers may remember that I had been quite apprehensive about leaving a little trail of my epidermis behind me as went about my hostessly duties, but - fortunately for everyone - this did not happen much.  However, as a responsible blogger, I do feel it my duty to bring my readership up to speed on the outcome of my foot-peeling experiment, and how it eventually led to my subsequent descent into the seamy underworld of Korean foot care.
Disclaimer:  This blog post contains actual photographs of peeling foot skin, feet, and fish.  Proceed at your own risk.

So.  Back to the Foot Peeling. What basically happened was that, coming out of the shower on day 5 after the foot peel, I noticed that pieces of my feet were falling off a great deal of dry skin was coming off my feet as I was drying them, and the more I rubbed with the towel, the flakier things got.  For the next 2-3 days, my feet behaved like I had taken them to the beach and left them roasting there for about a week without any sunblock. There was no pain or itching, just peeling.  The picture you are about to see may be shocking and alarming, but, as MsCaroline is deeply committed to journalistic integrity, she feels that she owes her readers The Truth, no matter how alarming it may be.  What follows is a photo of my actual foot the day after it started peeling.  I realize that it is out of focus and of poor quality, but you to try to take a photo of the sole of your  own foot and see just how easy it is.

close-up of my peeling foot
Final outcome? As I had suspected, my feet were most definitely not sparkly or even significantly-younger looking, but there was an improvement, and I had less dry skin on them than when I started.  Final verdict?  I'll do it again.  I would suspect for people whose feet are not as hooflike calloused as mine, this product could actually result in some sparkling, or at the very least, rosy pink softness.

Let it not be said that MsCaroline is a quitter, though.  My next attempt at foot self-improvement was going and getting a pedicure, although these typically do not yield long-lasting results:  usually I leave the salon with soft, pink, gleaming feet, and, three days later, I'm back to looking like I spend my days walking barefoot in a field behind a horse and plow.  However, I reasoned if the Koreans can openly sell foot-peeling acids on every street corner, they might have some equally powerful pedicure secrets, so off to the salon I went.  I did this with my friend, B, who opted to get a manicure at the same time and was seated directly opposite me in the salon.  This gave her an excellent view of my knickers (which, I would like to point out, in my defense, at least I was wearing) as the pedicurist seemed to work best when my feet were lifted straight up in the air and I had - unfortunately - worn a skirt.  She did all of the typical pedicure activities, eg, soaking, buffing, pumice-ing - but then pulled out an instrument which I had never seen before and which - and I'll have to take B's word on this since I couldn't see my own heels - apparently operated much like a cheese slicer.  Using this, she  attacked my feet with the enthusiasm of a mountaineer who has finally reached Base Camp at Everest.

This was not painful for anyone but B, who, besides giggling at my knickers, was also watching pieces of my feet fly around the salon, and was laughing so hard that she smudged one of her fingernails, which serves her right for laughing at me poor thing.  Since I had no idea what was going on, I had no idea why B was in such a state and got even more hysterical when the pedicurist fetched a broom and a dustpan and proceeded to sweep up approximately 800g of my heels. When it was all said and done, my heels were significantly better, but the baby-soft state I yearned for still remained elusive.

Having exhausted the more conventional options, I decided that I was going to have to finally break down and go to the Dr. Fish Cafe in Gangnam to put my feet in the hands (well, technically, mouths) of their fish, who, as I mentioned in this post,seem to love nothing more than to consume the dead skin off the feet of the cafe's customers. If this seems a bit drastic to you, let me just say that rubbing lotion on my feet and wearing socks around the house makes for a really dull blog post, so consider this my sacrifice for the entertainment of you, my readers.

Accordingly, B, K, and I set off for Gangnam and the elusive Dr. Fish Cafe.  We had gotten directions, but, like everything else in Seoul, they were somewhat vague  This is because typical Western address information - like street names and numbers- is not used in giving directions in Korea.  So you get a lot of, "Go 300 meters straight from the subway entrance, take a left at the Forever21 store, and the shop is 100 meters on the right, on the 2nd floor right next to the bank."  What makes this all even more fun is that stores in Seoul go in and out of business with breathtaking frequency, meaning that directions that were accurate just a short time ago may already be obsolete by the time you go.  However, we persevered, and eventually came to a sign labeled, 'Book and Coffee Spa' indicating an establishment on the second floor.  There was, however, no sign of fish - foot-eating or otherwise - so we were not sure that we had found the right place.  We were even less sure when we arrived on the second floor and found an enormous, nearly-empty cafe with nothing to indicate that it was anything more than an ordinary, respectable coffee establishment, just like milllions of others in Seoul.

Disappointed, we were just about to leave when this sign across the room caught my eye:

That's right;  the sign was discreetly tucked away in a corner near the window and did, indeed, boast a picture of a tank of fish.  Granted, it was a very small sign, but at least we knew we were in the right place.  We approached the counter, pointed in the general direction of the fish sign, and indicated we wanted to get  "fish pedicures."  The woman behind the counter, clearly used to Americans, said, "First, drink coffee.  Then call me."  As it turns out, in order to use their skin care fish, you have to first order something to drink or eat and then, for a charge of only KRW2000 (about $2) you get access to the fish.  This is clearly stated on the sign posted by the fish tank, just in case you rush over and try to put your feet in the tanks without first ordering coffee and a waffle:

We dutifully firstly ordered our cappuccinos and smoothies,

and then sat down to drink them while casting nervous glances across the room at the platform where the fish tanks awaited us.  When we were finished, the tank attendant, or fish pedicurist, or whatever she was called, led us (secondly) across the cafe and up a few stairs onto a platform which had two fish tanks and two sinks built into it.  Since I was - apparently - the most excited about the fish, B and K threw me under the bus generously allowed me to go first, so I sat down on the platform and dangled my feet into the pre-rinsing sink.  The attendant proceeded to thoroughly rinse and spray my feet and calves to free them from any lotion or oils, which, as it turns out, the fish do not like, although I personally find that kind of picky taste a little strange in an animal that enjoys eating dead skin:

  Once she was finished, I pulled my feet out of the foot sink and was told to choose from two tanks of fish;  the tank of benign- looking little guppies:

or this tank of much bigger "lunchroom bully" fish:

Needless to say, given the severity of my heel issues, I reasoned that a super-sized fish was probably what I needed, and gingerly lowered myself down on the floor next to their tank, where the fish were becoming agitated with excitement as they anticipated a delicious meal consisting of my feet. It did not help matters at all when the fish - who clearly know how the system works - saw me standing next to the tank and all of them - and I mean ALL of them - swam directly to the spot in the tank in front of me and looked expectantly at me with the laserlike intensity that my dog usually exhibits when he knows I am holding a treat.

K and B, who were watching all of this, provided supportive input by making encouraging statements such as, "When I did this in Thailand, the fish were much smaller" and "Oh, my God!" as I gingerly lowered myself down and prepared to put my feet into the now-seething mass of starving fish.   I did this very carefully, partly because I did not want to accidentally squash one, and partly because I was bitterly regretting questioning the wisdom of this decision. However, I finally got my nerve up and put my feet in, at which point the fish - who clearly enjoy a challenge - got right down to work.

For those of you who are wondering what it feels like to have fish eat the dead skin off your feet, I am not going to lie:  it feels pretty weird.  The best analogy I can provide is that it feels like someone is plucking gently at your feet with a pair of tweezers.  It is not painful, but it takes a little getting used to, especially since the fish, who are experts in finding dead skin on your feet, do not understand the concept of 'ticklish,' so they tend to nibble at places like your instep or your pinky toes, which, everyone knows, are located in the 'Most Ticklish' zone of the foot.

However, despite our initial apprehension, we calmed down enough to relax and enjoy the experience, even B, who had some moments of doubt - by which I mean she squealed and pulled her feet out of the tank and nearly had a coronary.  Fortunately, B is an intrepid spirit, which means that she eventually talked herself back onto the horse and stuck her feet back in the tank, where she proceeded to bogart most of the fish.  I initially thought this was because her feet were more delectable than ours, but it turns out that fish are not that smart and do not possess much in the way of long-term memory.  Therefore, even if they are happily engaged in gnawing on a delectable heel or juicy toe, as soon as they see a new foot enter the water, they think, "Oh, look! Food!" and head straight for it.

Anyway, after a brief feeding frenzy over B's feet, the fish calmed down and started paying attention to me and K again, and we sat around and chatted as though having your feet gnawed on by a school of skin-eating fish was an everyday occurrence for us.  For their part, the fish behaved in a businesslike manner and performed their skin-eating activities very efficiently, grazing for a few minutes on a heel here, an instep there, a pinky toe here, and then swimming over to a different foot to perform the whole operation again.  In fact, when our time was up (15 minutes), no one wanted to leave.  Even the fish weren't happy about it:  you'd go to pull your foot out of the water and they'd all frantically gather around the remaining foot, nibbling as fast as possible in a desperate attempt to try and convince you to stay just a little bit longer.

Please....don't leave us!

We reluctantly pulled our feet out of the tank, and then had our feet sprayed off in the sink and spritzed with something from a bottle that might have been disinfectant. For inquiring readers who are curious to know what our feet looked and/or felt like afterwards, I am sorry to report that I noticed no discernible difference in the condition of my feet after this treatment, although they were soft after having been soaked for 15 minutes.  I can say that all 3 of us liked it enough to want to go back and do it again, if only for the entertainment value.  In the meantime, I guess I'll have to go back to using socks and lotion.

How To Get There: To get to the Dr. Fish Cafe in Gangnam, go to Gangnam station, exit 6. Walk a few blocks and it is on the same side of the street as the subway exit, across the street from the CGV theater, and is in the building next to Krispy Kreme on the 2nd floor. It does not say anything about fish, just 'Cafe spa and book'.  The platform with the fish tanks is located by the windows.

Cost:  You have to buy food or drink before you can get the fish treatment.  Tell the person at the checkout that you also want to do the Dr. Fish treatment, and they will charge you an extra KRW2000 (about $2) for a 15-20 minute session with the fish.  When you are finished eating and drinking, get the attention of the attendant and she'll show you what to do.  

Saturday, September 3, 2011

In Praise of the Chicken: The Seoul Museum of Chicken Art

Now the the Season of the Torrential Downpour seems to be behind us (although we are still, unfortunately, entertaining its close relative, the Season of Unbelievable Heat and Humidity), a group of us expatriate wives have begun venturing out to various points of interest in Seoul, expanding our knowledge of the history, art, and culture of this ancient Asian city, and educating ourselves about its many unique aspects.  On Thursday, we took ourselves to Bukchon, a neighborhood that is known for its charming traditional architecture, handcrafts, and art galleries.  Naturally, we ended up at The Seoul Museum of Chicken Art.

If you have not heard of this museum, it is nothing to be ashamed of - apparently, many Seoulites are not aware of its existence, either.   While I will grant you that it is not a museum on the same scale as, say, The Louvre, it is clearly an establishment worth visiting, especially since the entrance fee is only 3,000 Won, and - this was particularly important to myself and the other mid-40s women visitors I was with - it was somewhat air-conditioned.   Given the brutal heat and humidity here right now, AC was a definite plus even for those members of our party who may have been not quite as keen on the idea of visiting a chicken art museum as I was but were far too well-bred to indicate it.  Because, I'll admit it:  the chicken museum has been something of an obsession of mine ever since I learned about its existence.  So, even as we wandered past the charming traditional embroidery workshops and snapped photo after photo of picturesque hanoks, I was scanning the horizon for this:

For those of you who are wondering 'Why a Museum of Chicken Art?' My answer is simple:   I like the unusual, the obscure, and the offbeat, and I'm not afraid to seek it out.  I submit as evidence the fact that, when planning a family vacation to Santa Fe and Taos last year, I deliberately added two days to our itinerary in order to stop in Roswell during the annual Official UFO festival, and included a visit to the Roswell International UFO and Research Center.   At the center there were, of course, a number of other tourists like us, but, since we were there during the actual Festival - which attracts serious extraterrestrial-ationists(ites?ians?) from around the world - there was also a significant number of certifiable loons  distinguished  alien enthusiasts who had gathered at the center to earnestly discuss  a number of Area 51-related conspiracy theories as well as sketchily  exhaustively researched alien-based explanations for global warming, 9/11, and Justin Bieber.  Needless to say, they did not have much of a sense of humor, alienwise, and did not appreciate me and Mr. Logical snickering at the fact that the alien on the table in the re-creation of the alien autopsy scenario was not wearing any underwear.  Let me assure you, however, that, most of the time, we were very respectful of the Alien Believer subculture, and also had a fabulous time taking photos of  - among other things - the street lamps (shaped like little UFOs) and the Roswell Credit Union sign which has an actual spacecraft on it.  You really can't make this stuff up.

So, as you can see, the Museum of Chicken Art and I were destined for one another:  obscure? Check.  Relatively unknown to the average tourist? Check.  Likely to cause eye-rolling in the serious traveler? Check.  It was a shoo-in for the MsCaroline bucket list, and, fortunately, everyone in our group was - if not exactly passionate about poultry-related art- at least morbidly curious about just what exactly you would find in a chicken art museum.  Accordingly, we all paid our KW3,000 (US$3.00) and trooped into the gallery, which  -besides the  reception area - is comprised of only the upstairs room and the downstairs room, which, in museum terms, is pretty small.  However, I feel that this museum's somewhat limited space provided the kind of coziness that I think we can all agree is sadly lacking in The Art Institute of Chicago.   Both rooms were of medium size, and  both of them filled with every imaginable type of chickenalia from Korea and the rest of the world:  sculpture, woodcarving, embroidery, painting, ceramics, and even a wrought-iron rooster light fixture from Provence.  After we'd paid our Won and were ready to head in, the museum owner produced an 'English-speaking tour guide,' who - like many such tour guides in Seoul - spoke English, but not the kind we could easily understand.

Our sincere, kindly, well-meaning, but difficult to understand tour guide.

  However, he was so sincere, well-meaning, and enthusiastic about introducing us to the subtleties of Korean Chicken Art that we politely followed him around and listened to what he had to say anyway.  Since most of the Chicken Art has English explanations posted next to it, his guidance was not strictly a necessity, but it was clear that he felt it was his duty to make sure we got our 3,000 KW worth, no matter what.  We eventually developed a system where we would gather around him, listen to his earnest explanation, and then one of us would surreptitiously linger behind the group to read the English explanation while the rest of us moved on.  In this way, we managed to piece together a basic - if incomplete - understanding of The Rooster in Traditional Korean Art Through The Ages.  We started in the upstairs gallery, where it immediately became clear that the museum, although billed as a chicken museum, was, in fact, more about the rooster, who was getting top billing in most of the art.   This rooster-centric focus resulted in MrLogical's suggestion for a significantly more risque' title for this post, but since I am determined to retain my blog's PG-13 rating, it - sadly - cannot be used.   In any case, it turns out that the rooster symbolizes a number of virtues in traditional Korean culture, including intelligence, courage, steadfastness, 'heartedness'(what I personally interpreted to mean 'responsibility'), and reliability('trust').

What I found most interesting in all of this was that the traditional hats worn by Korean government officials were supposed to resemble a rooster's crest, which symbolized intelligence.  That's :right:  rooster = intelligence.  Having grown up in a culture where the most common artistic representation of a rooster is Foghorn Legorn,  I was understandably skeptical.

Korean official wearing rooster hat

Close-up of Korean official headgear.  Note roosters.

The other new - and actually quite interesting -  piece of information I learned while at the museum was that the rooster was believed to be an important funeral symbol in Korean culture, and that the rooster would serve as a guide, or companion for the soul of the deceased as (s)he traveled to heaven, due to it being the only animal in the Asian zodiac with wings.  For this reason, one could often find representations of roosters painted or carved onto funeral biers.  One of the more inquiring members of our party pointed out that, since the rooster was more or less a flightless bird this would seem to make them a fairly inefficient method of conveyance to the spirit world,  but, fortunately, our guide did not hear this and we thereby avoided the complete deconstruction of 3 thousand years of Korean funerary belief traditions.

Miniature replica of traditional funeral bier, with rooster details (dangling in front and on roof).  The rooster was supposed to accompany the departing soul to heaven.

From what I could gather from our guide, the rooster also showed up in the form of a ghost, or a frightening-looking spirit which could scare demons away, as in this depiction:

menacing rooster spirits

I'm not sure if the roosters are more like sidekicks, or if they simply symbolize that the demon is highly intelligent, but this was one of my favorite images, and I would have bought one of my own if they'd had them for sale.

The upstairs room also contained some beautiful handcarved wedding chests that Korean brides used to carry their belongings to their new homes when they married, which featured roosters as a symbol of the ideal bridegroom, who was supposed to embody all the noble qualities of the rooster, as mentioned above.  There were also some lovely pieces of embroidery as well as prints and paintings, and another funeral bier, this one made of mostly construction paper by students at a local elementary school as part of their study of traditional Korean customs:

There were quite a few roosters scattered throughout the project, but my favorite was this face.  I'm not clear on what emotion it is supposed to be displaying (grief, maybe?) but I loved it:

Love this face!
Leaving the upstairs room, we trooped down the narrow flight of stairs to the downstairs room, which was almost literally crammed with display cabinets, shelves, tables, and ledges, all of them exhibiting every possible representation of chickens and roosters in every possible medium from countries across the globe:

Carved wooden figures from the U.S.
It was the kind of room that you would not want to bring a toddler into, so if you are reading this and considering taking your toddler here, be warned.  I no longer have any toddlers, but just walking into this room made me instantly imagine the havoc one energetic 2-year-old could wreak.

This cabinet displayed glass and crystal figurines from places like Poland and the Ukraine.

These are Native American representations of chickens and roosters.

As far as 'fine art' goes, I don't suppose this museum would get many stars, but my companions and I found it to be a wonderfully quirky little place and learned a few facts about the chicken in Korean traditional art that we would otherwise have never known.  And - as I mentioned earlier - it was air conditioned.

The Seoul Museum of Chicken Art is located in the Bukchon section of Seoul.  Take line 3 to Anguk Station, going out exit #2.  Go straight ahead up the street (north).  The museum is a 10- minute walk away on the right hand side.  

Entrance Fee:  KW3,000