Children’s Day

There is a lovely holiday in South Korea called Children’s Day. Sort
of like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, but for kids. And everyone gets
the day off. We happened to be in Seoul on Children’s Day so Bremelin
arranged a field trip with her advanced English students to meet us
and to take us around the city to practice their English.

We took the train out to Brem’s neighborhood to meet the kids at the
station, bright and early. We had no idea what to expect – what are
Korean middle schoolers like?? They gathered around us, introduced
themselves in English, giggled a bit, and generally acted shy and
bashful. They constantly checked their cellphones for messages. We
shouted, “No Korean! Only English!” but of course after about ten
minutes they lapsed. We got on the train, and I was trying to think of
a million questions to get some conversations started. “What do you
like to do in your free time with your friends? Do you play sports?
Where do you go on vacation? Is there a place you would like to visit
one day? Where do you recommend to visit in Korea? What do you like to
eat?” They wanted to know about our travels, what we had done, where
we liked best, what we had already seen in Seoul. Their English was
quite good, if I spoke a little more slowly they got the gist of what
I was saying, but they tended to not ask many questions. Perhaps from
shyness, but also perhaps a bit cultural, as asking questions of an
elder is out of the ordinary.

We walked all over the city. They loved window shopping in Insadong,
and bought all kinds of sweets that I thought were going to make them
go on a crazy sugar high. It was funny, one of the girls bought some
candy that were considered retro, and I was like, oh these were
popular candies when I was a kid! Like swizzle sticks and bubble tape.
They people-watched. We watched them people-watching. We slurped down
cold noodles in a creamy sesame based sauce, I barely finished half my
bowl but most of them demolished their portions before I was even
done. They told us a bit about their daily lives – they study a lot,
they don’t have much time for sports. They enjoy being with their
families. We wandered over to the rebuilt river, did some more
people-watching. We asked them about their dreams when they grew up, a
few of them want to be diplomats, a boy wants to be a teacher, another
girl wants to be a car designer. So interesting to hear about their
ideas of what the future holds for them.

We constantly scanned the group and counted to eight, “one, two,
three, four, five…ok where did those three girls wander off to?”
Brem did an expert job at corralling them every time we needed to get
them on and off the subway, and I just tried to keep up. I was
paranoid one of them was going to be left behind. And I forgot how
slow it is to move with a group! “Teacher, can I buy something at the
convenience store?” Stop for ten minutes. “Teacher, I have to use the
bathroom!” Stop for ten minutes. “Teacher, can we buy something at
this store?” Stop for ten minutes. It was amusing more than anything,
I barely got an inkling of what it must’ve been like to chaperone my
high school class to the Met.

I couldn’t help but compare them to American teenagers. Most of my
interactions with teenagers these days doesn’t extend much beyond
seeing gaggles of them on the subway and streets in New York and (very
occasionally) the malls of New Jersey. New York teenagers often seem
to be loud, brash, independent, sometimes aggressively sexual. They
don’t like listening to rules and try to break them more often than
not. They feel like they’re on display and they often take over the
whole space. In contrast, the teenagers we were with seemed so
innocent, demure, sweet. They liked to joke around but didn’t shout,
it was more a lot of giggling. They seemed so respectful of us, and I
was surprised. I guess I’m just so used to the “question authority”
stance that urban American teenagers seem to take with adults. The one
similarity, and perhaps seems to be even more endemic to Korean
teenagers, is that their faces seem to be glued to their
cellphone/TV/video game screens more often than not. I was stunned at
how many people (not just our group) zone out to their little devices
everywhere in Seoul.

We took the group to the highest building in Seoul and got a
far-reaching view of this city of twenty one million people. I
couldn’t believe how big it is, neighborhoods blanket the hills and
mountains for miles in every direction. The kids flitted from window
to window, taking cellphone pics and videos, video calling their
parents to say hi from the top of the building, and downing more
candy. By now, we were all exhausted, so we hopped back on the subway
back out to the suburbs to drop them off. We arrived at the station,
waved good bye to them and they dissolved into the crowd. The day made
me realize how little time I spend with people who aren’t around my
age, especially teenagers, and how refreshing it was to get a glimpse
into their lives. As a designer I kept thinking to myself that to
really put yourself into other people’s shoes, you have to meet them
face-to-face, in person and have a conversation with them. It makes
such a big difference, you make less assumptions about them and
discover what it is they really need.

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Comfort in Seoul

Backtracking a bit, we can't forget to talk about Seoul. In our original itinerary, we weren't even going to hit Seoul. But once our friend Bremelin got wind of our travel plans, she insisted that we come visit. We were so glad that we had someone who knew the city and people well because it colored our experience so much, as the social aspect is so important to Korean food. When you go out, you're with a group of your coworkers or friends, or else you're with your whole family. It's about eating together and enjoying life. So we counted ourselves lucky that we were able to share our meals in Seoul with so many different people – I don't think our perception of Seoul would have been the same had it just been me and Wayne.

Of course the first thing we did was hit a BBQ joint with Bremelin. If you've never been for Korean BBQ, here's the deal: you sit around a table that has a grill in the center. Ideally the place you've chosen uses real charcoal and not that gas shit. They drop the charcoal into the center and drop a huge vacuum tube over it to suck up the smoke. You order some cuts of meat (usually pork; beef is available but is rather expensive), and they bring it out raw and you stick it onto the grill. While you're waiting, they bring out little plates of pickles and other salty nibbly things. As it's cooking, you cut up the meat with scissors and dish it out. You roll the meat into a piece of lettuce or sesame leaf, some salty bean paste, raw garlic, and super hot peppers. Stuff it in your mouth, repeat. It was delicious. We've gone for Korean BBQ numerous times in NY, but it didn't compare to what we had in Seoul. The pork just tasted so rich and fatty, and the charcoal just gave it that smoky flavor that you can't get from gas. And of course downing soju with a friend completed the experience.

Believe it or not, Korean food is not all about meat. (My waistline would tend to disagree though.) Kihwa, a friend of Bremelin's, took us to a place called Sanchon in the Insadong district. It specializes in vegetarian temple cooking, and has a very refined, beautiful and traditional atmosphere. There's a set menu for both lunch and dinner but there's not much difference, apparently there is a show at night. It's some of the most beautiful food that we've encountered on this trip; each dish had its own set of flavors, textures and colors. Together it was a perfectly composed meal that would  beat the pants off of all the vegetarian places and rate with any top restaurant in New York.

Knowing that we love food, Bremelin got in touch with Daniel Gray, a blogger who specializes in Korean food and runs culinary tours around Seoul. We hit up a traditional market and  poked around some stalls. The lady with the huge of amounts of pickled vegetables was quite sweet and offered us a million samples. We ogled all the different street foods, from pajeon (scallion pancakes) to soup with lots of offal. Many of the customers come here because they get nostalgic about the food they used to eat when they were young; the crowd tended to be older. We finally settled on trying soondae (Korean blood sausage) and something similar to head cheese. It definitely tastes much better than it smells. We also got our first taste of makgeolli, a rice-based alcoholic beverage that has a milky, smooth texture and has a low enough alcohol level that I can drink more than one glass.

Fortunately for us Dan invited some of his friends along, because Korean food is very much about socializing and drinking! We got acquainted over some more Korean BBQ and soju/beer/Coke shots (I had ONE thank you very much), and then made our way over to a bar. We ordered some green makgeolli (green from mulberry leaves), fresh tofu and kimchi. Fresh tofu and kimchi is the best bar food ever, and makgeolli is my new favorite alcoholic beverage. We ended the night with more soju and a rich seafood soup in one of the informal restaurants that sets up on the street. I definitely recommend a tour with Dan because you'll get to try all kinds of food at great places that you'd never be able to find on your own.

We didn't get sick of Korean food, but we also had some excellent Western style food while we were in Seoul. Bremelin's friend, Kihwa, owns a lovely multistory cafe in downtown Seoul called T42 that specializes in tea. Each floor has its own character, and the tea is very high quality. We happily found ourselves in the cafe numerous times, sipping tea and enjoying scones, cookies and other yummy baked goods. I think the most rich item was the Honey Loaf, basically a third of a pullman loaf topped with butter, cream, honey and a scoop of vanilla ice cream served warm. It was like french toast meets bread pudding times five servings. To top it off, we ate the Honey Loaf while we attended a beautiful concert on the top floor of the cafe because Kihwa's also a talented and accomplished harpist! We also had the chance to have some pizza at Kihwa's friend's place called Blacksmith Pizza. He made all the furniture and interior fittings himself (he's a blacksmith), and it has a cozy and welcoming atmosphere. We devoured the pizza, which was thin-crust italian style. It's been months since we've eaten any pizza and we haven't really craved it, but that day we were so glad to eat something familiar in such a friendly place. 

For me, Korean food is about comfort and familiarity. Kihwa and her friend took us to one of the most famous places in Seoul for samgyetang (a soup/stew made from a whole chicken stuffed with rice stuffing and ginseng). It was like pure essence of chicken, it made me think of cozy sweaters and fireplaces and a warm kitchen in winter. Brem took us to a lovely little place in her neighborhood (owned by a Mr. Kim) for bibimbap, pork belly and Korean pancakes. Everything was delicious, but I loved the atmosphere the most. It seemed like people from just down the block took their family out for dinner, and all the kids and grandparents were there sharing the meal and relaxing. For the week we were in Seoul, we found that we had a home away from home.

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