Return to Korea

Lotus Lanterns across the Chongyechon

Some people set a goal for themselves to visit one new place each year. I like that idea. After all, travel is about discovery. There has been a lot of that in my life, but there’s also been a lot of going back to places where I’ve lived before—in the U.S., Europe or Asia—to reconnect with the place and to discover the changes in us both. When I returned to Korea briefly a few weeks ago, the main purpose was to meet with friends and friends of friends. I also experienced my old home from the perspective of a tourist.

I had first arrived in Korea a week before the 1988 Seoul Olympics. On that trip and succeeding ones, I stepped off the smoke-filled Northwest Airlines flight into what was then called Kimpo International Airport (now Gimpo, with the same Korean spelling) and an atmosphere that reeked just as strongly of bitter, stale tobacco smoke. Carry-on luggage had to be screened again, taking photographs from the plane or in the airport was forbidden and a lot of military troops were hanging around, all reminders that North and South Korea were still officially in a state of war.

On this trip I strolled into Incheon International Airport, the proud winner of the Skytrax “#1 World’s Best Airport” award, a palatial expanse of space and marble tile which seems to have grown larger and offer more amenities each time I fly in. It was 6:15 in the morning, and I couldn’t check into the hotel until 2:00—so, too long to hang out in a coffee shop but not long enough to warrant a day rate at another hotel. I went down to the airport basement to the Spa on Air. The entrance fee included shower, soak in a hot Jacuzzi pool or hot still pool (42o C) or cold pool (21o C), public sleeping room (straw mats on the floor) and a comfortable, near-empty lounge. The shorts and tee-shirt I was given were about Western size 14-16, sparing this customer the embarrassment she might have had in the old days with Asian sizes too small to come over her hips. Just in case I was truly exhausted, I’d booked a private sleeping room (with a very hard bed). I emerged from the spa relaxed and refreshed. The next task was to find an airport bank and cash in the five kilos of Korean coins the movers had brought down to the Philippines. This was easier than cashing in coins in the States, and there was no charge.

My relationship with Korea had always been complicated. I’d taken a job at a for-profit language school with the expectation that after one year I’d move on to Japan. Instead, I’d accepted what proved to be my dream job at Dongguk University, the Buddhist university in Seoul. I got along well with the working conditions: half of the teaching load I’d had at the language school, almost five months’ vacation, respectful and intelligent students, very supportive colleagues and free reign to do what I wanted in my classes. Even with a lot of overtime teaching, it was a good fit. But adjusting to the patriarchal, often xenophobic culture came very slowly. The image I had was of building an arch one brick at a time—with all the details of how people live, what their beliefs and attitudes are, what forces work for and against them—and gradually settling into both acceptance and understanding.

I’d been through the process, but it didn’t save me from brief reentry shock. When a clerk at the spa was rude to me, I heard myself thinking, “In the Philippines she wouldn’t have been rude to me.” Directly after that, five people in a row were friendly and helpful. So then, duly chastised for thinking in stereotypes—which I hate and have often spoken out against—I found I had now arrived and was ready for Seoul.

Previously, after arriving at either of the airports, I’d taken the Korean Air Lines limousine bus to a hotel and then a taxi to my apartment. This time for a third of the price I took the commuter train from the airport. It was clean, fast, and empty enough so everyone who wanted could sit down. Another advantage was the fact that the train connected with the subway lines. (An express train travels the same route, costs a lot more and arrives ten minutes earlier.) In Seoul Station I then had to figure out how to buy a subway ticket with the new machines and return the train ticket for the deposit.

I got on the wrong subway line—it happens even for old-timers. Maybe I was distracted by what I saw many times in the next few days, that the shiny glass and steel you now see almost everywhere in Seoul is often only on the outside. You walk out of the new railroad station building and descend the grimy tile steps into the concrete subway station of twenty-five years ago, still virtually unchanged.

The view from our room, with Seoul Tower in the distance
The Sutton Hotel

My friend Cindy and I had booked a room at the Sutton Hotel, built about a year ago along the Chongyechon, a stream which for many years had been covered over. I remembered the controversy around 2002, when the mayor of Seoul and President Lee Myong-park proposed reconstructing the stream as part of their Seoul beautification plan. This was Korea, so of course there were protests. The development meant disrupting a formerly unique area of markets and workshops in order to make way for a boring modernity. Many of the little shops selling hardware were replaced with trees, but also more concrete, glass and steel.

Women’s lunch at the Thai restaurant

Cindy arrived the next day from Japan. Over the next two days I saw many other old friends, and it seemed so little time had passed. Maybe that’s why the changes were such a surprise. When we talked about getting some women together for lunch, I discovered that my favorite restaurant, Marakesh Night, had moved from its Itaewon address to parts unknown. A favorite traditional Korean place near in Karlwol-dong was also gone. The Thai Orchid was now under new management, but the former owners had opened a new restaurant with basically the same menu, just down the main street of Itaewon above the new premises of the bookstore called What the Book? We ate a great meal there and browsed for books later.

After lunch we went to another new place, the Dragon Hills Spa near the Yongsan Subway Station. We learned that the mogyok-tang, the old-style public bath where in the old days I’d gone for a hasty soak and a cheap exfoliation, had been replaced by the luxury jimjil-bang, a spa which included soaking pools, exfoliation, massage, lounges, video game parlors, snack bars, computer rooms, sleeping rooms—entertainment for the whole family.

Getting rid of all the dead skin is particularly nice for people who live in hot climates, either because you don’t sweat as much or because the sweat isn’t as irritating on your skin. I think exfoliation lasts about a month, but many Korean proponents get it done weekly. We got package deals. After a soak in the Jacuzzi, Cindy and I were taken to another room where we sat on stools above little stoves burning some sort of herb. We each got what amounted to a one-woman sweat tent, a large skirt made of a heavy, waterproof material and gathered at one end. It went over the stove, stool and your entire body. You could pull the thing over your head and breathe in the herbs, or pop your head and one arm out and drink the hot tea you’d also been provided. We sat there for some time and talked.

We were told there was a customer back-up and everyone would have to wait a bit. We were in no hurry. Then, holding our little hand towels in front of us, an ineffectual pose if there ever was one, we traipsed past the pools to the scrubbing tables—now nicely padded, unlike the oilcloth-covered wooden tables of twenty years ago. Each of us got a middle-aged woman, dressed like in the old days in black underwear, who had us lie down and then scrubbed our bodies with an abrasive cloth which removed all the dead skin. Then came oil or lotion, hot towels, a massage done with the cupped hand, and a face mask of grated cucumber. It was the same sequence as years ago, but woman who did me turned me gently instead of flipping my oily body around with such force I was afraid of falling off.

I think I’ve also mellowed in the intervening years. I’ve lived in Asia long enough to be used to taking orders. I did listen carefully when an African-American woman appeared to ask about her scrub, hoping that it wasn’t a matter of someone refusing to work on her, as might have happened in the past. But the problem was only that the heavy volume of customers had increased the wait time. At this place and at the airport spa, I no longer felt like “Exhibit A,” whereas years ago I only once escaped staring in the bathhouse. That was after a Buddhist meditation retreat when everyone in the bathhouse was so curious about our white-skinned, shaven-headed nun—who didn’t seem to notice—that I didn’t get a second glance.

Dinner afterwards was at the upscale Bulgogi Brothers just off the Chongyechon and within walking distance of the hotel. We had a great set meal, more than we could eat: various kinds of kimchi and side dishes like mashed pumpkin, a bean and tofu soup, a green salad with cooked meat, grilled beef ribs, sweet potato soup, and a sweet, cold dessert.

King Sejong statue in Seoul with the Gwanghwamun behind

The next day was Buddha’s Birthday. Cindy went sight-seeing with another friend, and I met up with Soon-young, my friend and colleague from Dongguk University. We strolled along the Chongyechong, pausing to take pictures of lotus lanterns strung over the water, Buddhist figures in the stream, and demonstrations against inadequate government compensation for houses and businesses.

Changing the guard at Kwanghwamun

On the majestic avenue Sejong-ro, there was the old statue of the sixteenth-century Admiral Lee Sun-shin, famous for his defeat of the Japanese. Following that, several lanes of traffic lanes had been removed and replaced with a pedestrian promenade and a new statue honoring King Sejong, the fifteenth-century Chosung Dynasty monarch best known for instituting a number of technological advancements and hangul, the phonetic Korean alphabet, which made reading immeasurably easier than with Chinese characters. Further on, we found tents displaying old handicrafts and recent models or replicas of them.

Sejong Avenue ends at Gwanghwamun, one of the ancient gates to the city, and Gyeongbok Palace behind it. When I first arrived in Seoul, between the gate and the palace was the neo-classical-style Colonial Administration Building, which the Japanese had erected during the Annexation and which later served as the Capital Building and then the National Museum. Many Koreans hated it, claiming that with their usual sensitivity the Japanese had cut off the flow of earth’s energy from the mountain into the city, obstructed the view of the palace and demolished all but ten of the 400 palace buildings. The National Museum Building was torn down in 1995, allowing a beautiful view of the gate, the palace, and the mountain peak beyond. Soon-young and I happened to arrive in time for the changing of the guard.

After a stroll down the main street of Insadong, the art shop center, we had a traditional Korean meal and visited Chogye Temple. But there was a very long line to get in, and we’d both been inside the temple many times before, so it was off to Dongguk University for more pictures and a quick chat with the head of the Linguistics Department, who even on a major holiday was laboring away in his office. We got the taxi driver to stop for two minutes outside my old apartment. For dinner we joined Cindy in a Tibetan restaurant, also on Chongyechon.

Myongjin-kwan. my classroom building at Dongguk
The temple at Dongguk University

The next day there was hotel check-out, lunch in a restaurant near the hotel, a taxi ride to the H&R Block office in Itaewon which has been doing my taxes since 1988—some things do not change. After parking my bag in Starbucks, I looked for a favorite jewelry store where in the past I’d found distinctive pieces with large semi-precious stones, but it had been replaced by one with more conventional items. I did find Foreign Foods, which is particularly good for Indian and Mid-Eastern ingredients, still in its place on the street leading up to the mosque. It’s a friendly place. I bought my fenugreek and remembered how much I’d felt that foreigners living in Korea should support each other.

Syll serves the soup
Outside my old house

Something happened on the trip that I haven’t yet found words for. I felt very much loved by old friends like Soon-young, who’s been part of my life since we met in 1989, and new ones like Cindy, who’d become a close friend over Skype and the telephone. With some people there was plenty of time for long talks.

I have a strong sense of place. At one point I said, “I love this city,” and Cindy said, “I can tell.” There’s something both comforting and exciting about being where you have a long history and watching it evolve right before your eyes, particularly if it also remains intimately familiar. It’s like seeing an old friend after years and resuming your conversation almost mid-sentence, even though you also appreciate her new make-over. “Permanence in change” may sound trite or sentimental, and yet I think that’s what it is.