Korea: Seoul Survivor - Of leathermen and bathhouses.
My last day in Seoul was fun and void of stomach-crunching food. Lunch that day was a Korean version of shabu-shabu, consisting of thinly sliced beef tossed one by one into a rapidly boiling broth and flash cooking it, then eating it with a ball of rice inside a lettuce wrap. Unlike Western tradition, where stuffing one's mouth with large bites to eat is considered rude, I was subtly corrected in my eating when I tried to bite through it and told I should just stuff the whole thing into my mouth. (Won't be the last time I hear that one!). Gracious Host also took me out to have Korean tea after lunch, and ordered for me something called omija-cha, which was something of a bitter, fruity hot beverage.
I took a cab back to my hotel from their offices and again managed to make my way there without much linguistic pain. I used the afternoon to walk around the Namdaemun market area, with the goal of becoming the proud owner of a leather jacket purchased for pennies.
In general, my consciousness regarding issues of style and such is sporadic, and fortunately for my own mental health, not something that overrides what I do. I have learned, however, that it can many times be utterly enjoyable (or unnerving, depending on my disposition), to be decked out in the style of the crowd one is surrounded by, particularly when I feel in the mood to be an amateur ethnographer rather than just general-purpose lecherous. As a result, I had been wanting to, at some point, head over to the trusty DC Eagle decked out in something at least remotely referencing the motorcycle theme rather than my standard T-shirt-and-jeans thing. But, of course, neither amateur ethnography nor lechery being something that pays, I won't find myself paying $400 for a mere clothing acoutrement. Hence a shopping trip to find a cheap "tool". And, as you will see, style plays a big role in this whole story./DISCLAIMER
Namdaemun market, a section of downtown full of narrow, cart-filled streets housing multiple buildings full of stories upon stories of booths selling bolts of cloth or metal chopsticks or wooden pans, proved to be a great source for all sorts of chap leathery goodies. And while the first week I was there I would have been reluctant to even engage someone in a purchase due to linguistic difficulties, this time I felt brave enough to at least look at and touch the merchandise
"You like style?" an overeager salesguy asked me in English at one of the leather-jacket booths. I was thumbing a brownish aviator jacket, and I nodded. He led me towards some other jackets worthy of a Banana Republic ad, and I shook my head.
"Too pretty," I replied.
"You not like style?" he asked me pointing to a long, shiny coat that looked like it had emerged from a bad Italian commercial.
"No," I replied, and reached out for a very, very overloaded biker jacket full of metal tabs and buttons and spikes and such. "Something like this."
"I have style. This style?" he said, bringing out an even more overloaded biker jacket.
"Too much," I said in return, and reached for another jacket.
And so on. Eventually we started haggling prices, he quoting something at me in Won, I offering significantly less, he trying to gip me with the exchange rate, I doing it right back at him. By the time he showed that he really didn't want to let me use my card, I said I needed to get cash, and didn't go back, 'cause the thing had a weird Union Jack patch and other telltale "Made in Korea" signs. "I don't like style." But 'twas at that point that I once again gave brief thanks to St. Fodor, patron saint of Tourism, and Lipton, god of Cultural Imperialism, for establishing the international language of calculator and pidgin salesman's English.
The second place I went to, after I got cash and took a picture of Namdaemun gate (one of the original entrances into the city),
had something I eventually bought (and look forward to wearing when it starts getting cooler in DC) after pretty much the same dance involving calculators, exchange rates and very animated hand gestures.
Jang showed up later that evening at my Hotel, and after chilling and chatting, we headed over to another part of town I had not been to looking for dinner. He suggested Italian, which I welcomed gladly. This part of town we went to, near the University of Seoul, is full of funky coffeeshops and restaurants, dessert joints and bars that have character without feeling trendy and irritatingly yuppie--something like a Soho-before-gentrification thing. The pizza we had was baked by a real Italian guy brought over from Napoli by a real Korean comedian who won a TV game show contest that sent him to Italy for six months to learn how to bake a real Italian pizza. Apparently, the comedian loved it so much he came back and built himself a little nook of Napoli in Seoul.
There was also an abundant quantity of noraebang, which are kind of trippy places. One enters the noraebang, pays at the front desk to rent a booth for a specified amount of time, and walks down some stairs and through a maze of dark hallways with a faint reddish hue from indirect lighting, with doors on either side until one finds one's booth. Muffled sounds and grindy music make their ways through the doors. Inside the booth, there are easy-to-clean garish red vinil couches along the walls, a table in the middle, and antiseptic covers for the... microphones.Noraebang is Karaoke taken to its efficient extreme. For thirty minutes one can get one's jollies singing Petula Clark, Ellie, or Korean folk music in a personal, two-person, or large-group party room. I had never heard Jang sing, nor had Jang heard me sing, but we both had a fun time bellowing, despite the fact we were both very, very sober. The narrow maze of dark corridors and the muffled sounds in the noraebang may strike a chord with some readers (wink-wink-nudge-nudge).
Next morning, I left Seoul with a definite feeling of intellectual victory and cultural growth. I had learned a new alphabet, managed to suffer many intestinal indignities with a stiff upper lip, met new people (one of whom is visiting soon), spent great quality time with Jang in his home turf, and succeeded in my mission of training employees of two different companies on how to use our software, at all times getting the vibe that I was leaving a good impression.
Hong Kong ho!