Monday, August 19, 2013

Sights in Seoul: Korean Liberation Day at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts

(Note:  most of these photos were taken with MsCaroline's phone;  they are included merely to provide a general idea of her experience, and she is sure all of her readers could take better ones.  For those of you who are looking for something interesting to do in Seoul in your free time, MsC highly recommends the King Sejong/Admiral Yi exhibits:  they are school-age kid-friendly (hands-on, interesting exhibits, great for military/history buffs) educational, FREE, underground (eg, ideal for poor weather,)  provide some great insight and information into Korea's history and are easily reached via line 5 on the subway system.  More details at the end of the post.)

For those of you not in the know, last Thursday (August 15) was Korean Liberation Day, a major public holiday here in Korea.  MrL and MsCaroline had the day off, although Son#2 did not and was therefore compelled to wake up early and attend his first day of Grade 11.  (Although this was the Asia Vus' 3rd Liberation Day in Korea, MsCaroline cannot for the life of her remember what (if anything) she did to mark the occasion on the last two.  Given the skyrocketing heat and humidity here on the peninsula in August, it is most likely that she huddled miserably indoors, but she really cannot remember that far back.)

MsCaroline's 3rd summer in Seoul has made her much more intrepid - as well as resourceful - and, as such, she, MrL and their long-suffering friend and 3rd Musketeer, LC, decided to spend their holiday in a place with air conditioning experiencing some of the cultural offerings of Seoul.  After a bit of research, they decided to head to the Robert Capa Photo Exhibition at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, where MsCaroline would also finally get around to seeing two of the most well-known (and ubiquitous) exhibits in Seoul: The Stories of King Sejong the Great and Admiral Yi Sunsin (pronounced 'soon-shin'.) (MrL and LC had already seen it, years before.)
Statue of King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Square.

MsCaroline refers to them as 'ubiquitous' because the giant monument to King Sejong (which marks the underground entrance to the museum) is one of the first things most visitors see when they drive through Seoul, and visiting the museums below is something that, apparently, everyone does practically the moment they arrive (except, of course, good ol' MsC, who waited for 2 years.)

Centrally-located in Gwanghwamun Square is an enormous statue of the beloved monarch, who ruled (1418-1450) during the Joseon Dynasty, and is best known for his creation of Korea's written alphabet, hangul.  Hangul is unique among Asian writing in that it is a phonics-based alphabet, with letters that represent each of the sounds of the Korean language, which are put together to create words, just as they are in many Latin-based languages.  (Memorizing the 24 letters of the Hangul alphabet is a simple process - once it's learned, you can start reading almost immediately, which probably explains Korea's 98% literacy rate - no 'silent letters' or 'i before e' rules - what you see is what you get.  Genius.)  This is in direct contrast to the character-based alphabets of Japanese and Chinese, which require readers to memorize hundreds or thousands of characters.

MsCaroline can read Hangul, which means she can sound out virtually any word that she sees in the Korean language.  Sadly, this does not mean that she understands much more of it than she did on her arrival, but occasionally, she can puzzle out a word or phrase that is helpful to her if it is:  a) a Korean word she knows, such as a street or business name or b) an English word that has been 'Koreanized' (coffee, smart phone, ice cream.) MsCaroline imagines that, if she were living in China or Japan, she would probably not be able to read anything at all, so she is a huge fan of Hangul and thinks it is brilliant.

The entrance to the King Sejong exhibit is in Gwanghwamun Square, directly beneath the statue and easy to find.  What MsC and her posse did not realize, however, was that a number of planned activities take place in Gwanghwamun Square on Korean Liberation Day, which meant that it was even more packed than usual.  Directly adjacent to the square is a large parklike lawn, which, in honor of the holiday, was featuring a display of creatively cut topiaries, all made from the Korean National Flower - the Rose of Sharon - which, of course, MsCaroline did not get any good closeups of, but which really were lovely:

Rose of Sharon Topiaries line both sides of the green.  Hard to believe this is taken in downtown Seoul.

More topiaries in the square.
Naturally, there were no less than a million people milling around the square and photographing:  a) the topiaries;  b)each other; and c) each other standing in front of the topiaries, but MsC has come to expect this after 2 years and was not at all intimidated.  She got in, got her shots, and proceeded thankfully down the stairs into the cooler depths below where they proposed to check out the two permanent, free exhibits before proceeding on to the Robert Capa exhibit.

Heading downstairs to the exhibit
The stairs actually led down to a large central area where visitors could choose which exhibit to visit first:  King Sejong, or Admiral Yi.  MsCaroline opted for King Sejong first, and found the exhibit to be well-laid out, modern, and spacious, with plenty of models, a film, and very thorough and interesting English commentary throughout (a nice treat, since not all Korean museums provide this.)  In honor of the holiday, there were a number of hands-on exhibits for children set up throughout the exhibit, as well as a permanent photo opportunity in the form of a traditional Korean bench and scenery:

The looks on these kids' faces are universal, aren't they?

As well as a number of other alphabet-inspired items:
These benches are hangul letters
What MsCaroline found most interesting about King Sejong was that he was actually quite the Renaissance Man:  not only did he create the hangul alphabet, but he was also responsible for quite a few inventions in diverse areas ranging from agriculture to muscal instruments to weapons. In many ways, he reminded her of the American revolutionary figure and indefatigable inventor Benjamin Franklin..  

Korean percussion instruments invented by King Sejong.
Weapon invented by King Sejong - no idea what it's called, but it's cool.

After 2 years of living in Korea, MsCaroline was well aware that King Sejong is still held in high esteem by most Koreans.  After seeing this exhibit, she completely understands why.  She is hoping someone will write a good historical novel about him in English sometime soon.

Once finished with the King Sejong part of the exhibit, the Asia Vu party headed back the way they came toward the Admiral Yi exhibit.  While MsCaroline had heard quite a bit about the famous Turtle Ships, she had not known much else about their inventor and commander, Admiral Yi Sunsin, or that this exhibit was co-located under Gwangwhamun Square with King Sejong's (in retrospect, given that there is an equally enormous statue of Admiral Yi in the same square, she should have figured this out, but MsC has never claimed to be the brightest bulb in the box.)  
Admiral Yi Sunsin

MsCaroline had been pretty fascinated with the Turtle Ships (1500s super-fortified warship, complete with spikes sticking out of the deck to prevent enemies from boarding - awesome stuff) ever since hearing a podcast about them on Stuff You Missed in History Class, so she was eager to learn more about them.  As a bonus, she had the opportunity to learn about Admiral Yi, who turned out to be a commander whose examples and teachings have been followed by some of  the world's greatest military thinkers, and whose nobility and self-sacrifice are revered to this day.  

MsCaroline found herself wishing desperately that she could have visited this exhibit with Sons#1 and #2 when they were in grade school, because it really was right up a little kid's alley:  plenty of 3-d models, a cool film re-enactment, and (coolest of all) a 2/3-sized replica of one of the infamous turtle ships:

Turtle ship diagram

Spikes on the deck of the Turtle Ship.  these were covered with mats so that invading sailors could not see them until they landed on them.  Excellent.
Interior of Turtle Ship replica

Replicas of Admiral Yi's Devil Swords, presented to him as a token of esteem by the Chinese Emperor during the Ming Dynasty.  MsCaroline assumes they are purely ceremonial, since they look like they're about 7 feet long.

The exhibit included a timeline and history of Admiral Yi as well as some quotes by notable military experts praising Admiral Yi's management and strategic methods.  What impressed MsCaroline the most was that he allowed all of his men, regardless of rank, to participate in meetings and to express their opinions, two things that were almost anathema to the strictly hierarchical Korean culture of the time. 

Once they had finished with the two permanent exhibitions, MsCaroline and her companions headed to their original destination:  the Robert Capa photo exhibit. Capa was a Hungarian-born war photographer who was active from the 1930s-1950s and who took many photographs that are today considered iconic and that appeared in many of the top newspapers and magazines of the day. A number of original magazine and print articles are included as part of the exhibit. The exhibit included photos spanning Capa's career, which ended in 1954 when he stepped on a landmine while on assignment for Life magazine during the first Indochina War.  As with most traveling exhibits, photography is not allowed inside the exhibit.

Entrance to the Robert Capa Exhibit

The topic, of course, was, primarily, war, and the mood in the gallery was silent and serious as befitted the subject matter.  There were a few lighthearted photos in the collection -notably this one of Pablo Picasso with his son, Claude, at the beach - but most of the images were quite somber, including iconic photos taken during the D-Day invasion of Normandy that supposedly inspired the film, Saving Private Ryan.  The locations changed and the wars changed, but the death and destruction remained a grim constant.  

The quality of the photography was, of course, outstanding, and the exhibit should appeal to both WWII history buffs and photography buffs alike. All photos are clearly marked in English, and there is also a short film (which MsCaroline did not watch.)  As with all temporary museum exhibits in Seoul, it's best to get there early and (if possible) go on a weekday - the crowd grows quickly!

Queue for the Capa exhibit when we left.  When we'd arrived, there hadn't been one.

By the time MsCaroline, MrL and LC had finished, the crowd had gotten significantly bigger, and the 3 of them were glad to head homeward, richer for the experience and ready for a beer. 

Outside the Capa exhibit.

If you go:

The Sejong Center for the Performing Arts is located in Gwangwhamun Square in the Jongno neighborhood of Seoul and easily accessible by subway. We entered the Robert Capa exhibit by going from the King Sejong/Admiral Yi museums underground, but you can also enter above ground through a number of entrances. This temporary exhibit will be in Seoul through October 28th.  The Center Complex houses a number of permanent and temporary exhibits, as well as featuring musical and cultural performances and events. Tickets to the Capa exhibit are KRW12,000 for adults, KRW9,000 for students, and KRW8,000 for children. Closed Mondays.

King Sejong/Admiral Yi Exhibits:  You can go in through the Sejong Center, or (more easily) through the entrance directly under the statue of King Sejong in Gwanngwhamun Square.  Admission is free to both exhibits and they are  foreigner- and kid-friendly.  Clean, accessible restrooms, a gift shop, and a cafe.  

Hours:  10:30am-10:00pm:  Closed Mondays and some holidays.

To get there:    Take Subway Line 5 to Gwangwhamun, go out Exit 1 or 2

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Expat Life: MsCaroline's Summer Roundup

This is, obviously, not MsCaroline

round up
n roundup
1. (Life Sciences & Allied Applications / Agriculture) the act of gathering together livestock, esp cattle, so that they may be branded, counted, or sold
2. a collection of suspects or criminals by the police, esp in a raid
3. any similar act of collecting or bringing together a roundup of today's news
(For those of you who were wondering, we're going with definition #3)

The last time MsCaroline used the 'roundup' device to gather in all of her recent thoughts and experiences that were - while blogworthy - not actually deserving of their very own posts, she entitled her post, "MsCaroline's Thursday Roundup."  The implication was that MsCaroline had been quite busy for the last week or so and was now taking some time on her busy Thursday to provide an overview of what had been going on in her life.

Astute readers will note that this post encompasses not just the last week, but pretty much the entire summer.  

MsCaroline is not going to dissemble:  it has been so long since she blogged (almost a month to the day) that she began wondering whether she was still even a legitimate blogger (she has decided that she is, sort of.)  MsCaroline reasons that lots of bloggers slow down and get busy during the summer.  She also reflects on some perspicacious advice given to her by one of her bloggy favorites, Stacy., suggesting that she not even mention it when a significant amount of time has elapsed between postings.  (MsCaroline is aware that it's too late for her to actually follow this advice, but she still feels that it is excellent and totally plans to heed it in future.)

But MsCaroline feels that just popping up blithely after a months' silence and going along with business as usual is Not Her Style, so she is just going to come out and say she's been Really Busy, and blogging has had to take a backseat to Life in General.  

Once MsCaroline finished up her school year (at the end of June) she turned her attention to sorting out her new apartment (which she had stupidly moved into just a week before the end of school,) enjoying time with Son#1 (home for the summer doing an internship at a Korean company,) and, naturally, heading off to the US for some greatly-anticipated Home Leave.  

In no particular order, these are the thoughts and activities that have been consuming all of MsCaroline's blogging attention lately:

  • Freezing in America:  Many readers from other countries may be aware that Americans have a real love affair with air-conditioning (lovingly referred to by most of us as 'AC.') Conversely, most of the rest of the world does not.  What passes most of the time for AC in Europe or Asia would be cause for frantic phone calls to a repairman in the US.  MsCaroline, having spent the last 11 years in the American Southwest where summertime temperatures easily run between 100-115 F or higher (about 37-47 Celsuis,) had become well-acclimated to the subarctic temperatures found in most public buildings in the US.  Needless to say, she experienced a rude shock her first summer in Korea, where AC is used sparingly and public buildings are never cooled below 78F/26C - if at all.  MsCaroline is here to tell you that, after 2 years of sweaty acclimation to Korea's slightly masochistic cooling standards, she found herself freezing in virtually every public building she entered during her entire stay in the US.  The fact that the Midwest was experiencing an unusual cool spell just made things worse, since, apparently, once the AC goes on for the summer, it stays on for the duration, record low temperatures notwithstanding. Naturally, within hours of returning to Seoul, she was complaining bitterly about the heat and humidity. She is looking forward to Fall.
  • Trying to fit Texas-sized furniture into a Korean apartment.  The Asia Vus were fortunate enough (or so they thought) to have the option of moving some of their furniture to Korea with them.  This was nice from the point of view that they did not have to go out and buy or rent furniture upon their arrival, especially because they have very American tastes when it comes to mattresses (Asian mattresses are notoriously hard to Westerners.)  However, MsCaroline found in her last apartment that the generously-sized furniture that fit so perfectly in her high-ceilinged, open-plan homes in the Southwest does not work anywhere nearly as well in small Korean apartments.  The new apartment is no exception, and MsCaroline has found herself  moving her furniture on a weekly basis, trying desperately to come up with a configuration that she can live with.  The fact that her furniture is terribly heavy makes life rather unpleasant for Son#2, who is constantly being pressed into service as an ad hoc moving man.  She is sad to report that she is no closer to a satisfying arrangement now than she was when she first moved here and has nothing to show for it but a lot of back pain.
  • Remembering what it is like to drive in the US:  While it is true that Americans generally follow the rules when it comes to driving (eg, they stay in their lanes, generally drive in the proscribed direction, and rarely park on the sidewalk,) MsCaroline was somewhat disappointed when it came to actually driving in the US again.  As it turns out, the fact that her fellow citizens are so law-abiding means that they are also extraordinarily intolerant of even the slightest departure from accepted convention.  Since MsCaroline spent most of her time during this leave driving in cities where she had either a)never lived or b) not lived in a long time, she was usually that driver;  needing to get over at the last minute, driving slowly looking for street names and exits, and generally being unsure of what she was doing.  What she learned is that Americans, while generally law-abiding,  are actually very aggressive drivers.  Even if she was, for example, in the slow lane (where it is, after all, legitimate to drive slowly while, say, watching for an exit) it was not unusual for the driver behind her to either a) tailgate or b) accelerate aggressively past her with a roaring engine and then cut in front of her violently, just to make sure that she was aware of his displeasure with her chosen speed. Much to her extreme surprise, she found herself missing the streets of Seoul, where drivers are actually quite patient with the quirks of others (siege mentality, one supposes) and accept the shenanigans of their fellow drivers with a stolid impassivity, and calm acceptance, regardless of how blatantly illegal the maneuver in question may be.   Merging across 4 lanes of traffic on the Capitol Beltway in short order? Certain death.  Merging across 4 lanes of traffic on the Olympic Expressway? Doable.  (MsCaroline should also add that, in the year that she has been out of the US,  the popularity of texting-while-driving has skyrocketed, and she was alarmed to see so many distracted drivers, especially on major roadways.  Bad news.)
  • Shopping for the new apartment:  MsCaroline is - unlike her highly talented interior designer sister-in-law - not particularly gifted in the home decorating department.  Her decorating style can best be described as 'eclectic' ( the kind of 'eclectic' that means 'weird,' not the kind of 'eclectic' that means 'charming.')  Oh, she makes an effort, but she realizes that the best she can probably ever hope for is  'neat and clean.'  Nonetheless, she really does try to create a warm and pleasant atmosphere in her home, which has been a bit of a challenge in the new apartment.  In the first place, the apartment is entirely wallpapered in white wallpaper(why white? why not off-white?), and the blinds on all the windows are also white.  In theory, this would lend itself to a 'fresh and airy' palette. In reality, though, since MsCaroline's furniture is all Dark and Gloomy Leather and Wood (well, it looked good in our last house), the effect is somewhat stark, sort of like a bad black-and-white photograph.  MsCaroline - who repeats that she is no design expert - dimly realizes that she needs something to soften the sharp contrasts of the room and warm them up, and had been (vainly) searching for curtains and cushions in in Seoul that matched both her taste and her budget.  Unfortunately, the items available in her price range all tended to be made of fabrics shot through with glittery gold and/or silver threads, which are not MsCaroline's thing at all.  As a result, when she stumbled upon these curtains and these cushions on sale in a Pier One store in the US, she immediately bought them.  (As she later reflected on FaceBook, the irony of buying Asian imports in a store in the US to ship back to her apartment in Asia was not lost on her.  But she did it anyway.)
Curtains=elephants.Cushions=stripes.  Because that's how MsCaroline rolls.
Naturally, MsCaroline has a fascinating (cough) story to share about packing and shipping the curtains and the cushions (6 of them, down-filled - did you know you can suck all the air out of them using vacuum bags?) but will have to leave it for another post.  In the meantime, she has run into a challenging situation as far as actually hanging the curtains goes, involving soffits and wiring and drills and other nitpicky things that make MrLogical all cautious and grumpy, but she feels that she has taken a step in the right direction and is optimistically expecting MrL will come up with a magical fix for the whole thing.  It is doubtful that MrLogical feels quite as optimistic about this.

  • Home Leave:  Those of you who were reading last year during MsCaroline's Summer 2012 Whistlestop Tour will be relieved to know that she opted for a less ambitious summer travel plan this year.  The Asia Vus limited their travels to a mere 4 states (plus the District of Columbia) this summer, which made things less hectic.  However, since she also had less time this year, she was not able to catch up with nearly as many people as she had hoped to (B, N, and K, I'm talking to you: I'll have to schedule extra time in Ohio next year!) She did, however, get to celebrate several significant birthdays with people she loved, hug a few old friends very close, and see people whose faces she had missed terribly.  Long enough? Never.  But it will have to do til next year.