Tuesday, October 28, 2008


I hopped the subway over to Apgujeong today; it's supposed to be the Rodeo Drive of Seoul, so I thought I'd go check it out. It was OK, I suppose, but it doesn't live up to the "Western ideal" of elite shopping districts. There was a nice tree-lined street of bistros, might have to go back and check that out with the wife on a date or something, but other than that.. meh.

So far I have been unimpressed with Korean attempts to duplicate Western-style shopping districts, but I suppose rich Koreans need a place to blow cash just like everyone else. I think they should stick with what they do well, such as giant megamarkets like Namdaemun and Dongdaemun. Those places are incredible; Dongdaemun in particular offers 30,000 merchants spread out over several square kilometers of malls.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Sung Kyun Kwan University

So as part of the process of learning about our new home, I've been reading a few books on Korea and her people. One of them is The Koreans by Michael Breen. It's a pretty good treatise on how Koreans think, and I highly recommend it. A few pages in, I came across a rather tantalizing tidbit:

"So much tourism potential is ignored. For example, Sung-kyun-kwan University in Seoul is the oldest university in the world in terms of a set of standing buildings. The classrooms, offices and library built in the fourteenth century are still there. No tour groups ever visit them. "

Well I certainly couldn't let that go, and so on a rainy morning I tossed a camera into the backpack and hopped onto the subway. A few steps later I emerged into a pretty familiar scene: the College Town. The dong surrounding Sung Kyun Kwan University has all of the hallmarks of this apparently worldwide phenomenon: stalls and stores offering cheap food, furniture, and music. It was almost like being back home, except I can't really read the signs yet.

A few wrong turns later and I arrived at the gates; as Breen says, there is no special attention paid to Seonggyungwan; it sits quietly on campus, mostly obscured by trees. In fact, I almost missed it. As I walked through a parking lot located behind a shiny new academic building, I stumbled across 600-year old stairs descending solemnly into the macadam.

Originally built in the 1300s, this compound was last rebuilt in 1601 after a fire. In any other country that I've visited, there would be walls around it, an interpretive museum, and an admission fee. Here, you can just kind of wander in through any open gate.

I did so. The buildings are all well-maintained, and these days appears that the compound is primarily used as a quad by the students here. Damp as it was today, I almost had the place to myself.

There's definitely something awesome about using a site like this as a place for students to hang out, socialize, and study.. and I certainly can't complain about the accessibility. That said, I'd still like to see such an important site get a little more attention, especially from Koreans.

Koreans don't really care much about their ancient roots, or at least that's the impression that I've been getting from both the Koreans I've spoken with, as well as the various authors I've read on the subject. Everything is focused on bootstrapping the country into an economic powerhouse; Koreans seem to have little attention to spare contemplating their ancient heritage. Maybe part of my reaction stems from the fact that, as an American, I'm kind of jealous that Korea has this sort of history sitting around; we certainly have nothing like this where I come from.

This particular site has been preserved, but many aren't. Domestic tourism to ancient temples and palaces is perfunctory at best; even downtown, most of these sites aren't even lit at night. Korea strikes me as being where Japan was in the 1960s, many feel that they too were focused on economic growth and ignored their cultural sites; as a result, many of them are gone now. Kyoto is a sad example of this; many visitors are shocked at what has happened to that once-beautiful city. I hope that Korea avoids the same mistake; I hope that these treasures are still around when she finally decides to catch her breath.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008


So I’m this guy. I grew up in Maryland, kinda got bored after college, and moved to LA. That’s where I met my wife, bought a house, did the white picket fence thing.. and got bored. So we moved to Las Vegas, punched out a daughter, bought another house.. and kinda got bored there too. So what the hell, we moved to Korea.

We are no longer bored.

We’ve been here about two months now, and I have been recently struck with a number of thoughts that I’d like to share with my friends and family. The wife (Kim) has her own blog, and now Ima gonna start mah own. She cannot stop me, she is powerless in the face of my.. typing. And stuff.

So actually I’ve been thinking about setting up a blog for awhile now, but the thing that really pushed me over the edge was this site. You’ve probably seen this guy’s “dancing” videos on the interwebs by now; if not, I highly recommend them. They’re basically pure joy, and really remind me how much I love travel, and why. It has been scientifically proven that nobody can watch these videos without smiling.

The wife and I had already resigned ourselves to the fact that we are not nesting types. We did make a serious go of things in Las Vegas; we bought a nice house, made friends.. Kim even started a business. As for me, I applied to and ultimately was hired by the Henderson Police Department. Being a cop is something I had dreamed about for a long time, and as I started the Police Academy, I thought I had finally made peace with staying in Las Vegas.

Of course, what better time for Kim to get a job offer in Seoul? All living expenses paid, a salary increase, and decent benefits to boot. At this point I had a lot emotionally invested in the cop thing, but ultimately we decided to that this was a better choice for our family.. so here we are.

Now I’ve only been at this expat thing for a few months now, but what I can tell you is that living in a foreign country opens your mind up in ways that are hard to imagine beforehand. Once you get past the tourist phase and start settling into a place, you start looking at the way another people live their lives. Enough of this and pretty much anyone is going to take another look at the assumptions that they’ve simply taken for granted. Astute readers may feel a “for instance” coming on.

Koreans view children as a treasure that belongs to an entire community, not just to their immediate family. Because of this, we have often encountered Ajummas (think grandmas in their 50s) who have scolded Emily for sucking her thumb, or picked her up to show her to some of their friends. To Americans, this sounds absurd and probably a little scary, but that’s just the way it is here. I’ve seen pairs of 5 year olds riding the subways on their own, and toddlers wandering 200 feet behind their parents on the street. Really puts this chick in perspective.

They simply don’t have the “culture of fear” thing going on that we have in the States, and when you think about it, that’s pretty awesome. Crime statistics in Korea back these practices up for them, and since it’s safe, well, I can’t really think of a reason not to do it. If you know your kids are going to be protected by strangers from getting into to trouble or being attacked by predators, then why wouldn’t you let them go out on their own? Of course, this is my daughter and my sensibilities are still informed by American paranoia, but I do feel a bit safer occasionally turning my back on her for a few seconds on the playground. When it comes to kids, it’s like the 1950s here.

Asian society is actually pretty alien to most Westerners, and Korea moreso than most. The above example is only scritchin' at the surface of the weird and awesome things we've run into here, and it's only been two months. We're probably going to be staying at least two years, and I wouldn't miss it for anything.

Well hell, that turned out to be longer than I had planned. Guess I’ve got a few more thoughts rolling around up there than I had anticipated, but I suppose that’ll do for a first entry.


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