Sunday, March 25, 2018

Korea 2018: Namsan Tower + Starfield Library + Goodbye and Thank You! (Days 11 and 12)

Seattle has the Space Needle. Toronto has the CN tower. Seoul has Namsan Tower, or N Seoul Tower. We caught a glimpse of it practically every day that we visited Seoul, and since this was our last full day in Korea it was only right to go back to Seoul to see the thing up close.

February 25th (Sunday)

We had plans to meet Ande's boo for dinner so we had to be back in Suwon by a certain time in the evening. But there were two things in Seoul that we still had to knock off of our list, and Namsan Tower was the first one. From the bus into Seoul we took the metro to Myeongdong, and then a taxi up to the cable car station.

Your experience going to Namsan Tower depends on how much money you're willing to spend, how much time you have, and how much exercise you feel like getting that day. The tower sits on top of a mountain, so you can get up there for free by taking the stairs, but again, that means you'd be climbing a mountain. So if you're in the mood for a hike and have time to kill, then that could work for you. We didn't have much time (and I personally wasn't up for mountain-climbing), so we bought two-way tickets to ride the cable car.

Either way you get up there, stairs will still be involved because the cable car doesn't go all the way to the same level as Namsan Tower. And either way you get up there, you will have to pay about $10 to go to the top of the tower. We hadn't known this, Ande and Sharon didn't feel like paying, and I figured going up alone wouldn't be much fun, so we satisfied ourselves with what we could see from outside the tower.

There's a large plaza with a seating area, and while we were there a troupe of traditional drummers performed, followed by a group of young men dressed in traditional garb who did traditional dance and sword-fighting choreography. There were also a couple cafes, an Olive Young convenience store that I bought a yogurt drink from, a gift shop, and a few spots from which you could get a decent view of Seoul even without going up inside the tower. We spent some time mulling among the crowds before taking the cable car back down and returning to Myeongdong in another taxi.

From Myeongdong we took the metro to Samseong-dong, which is in Gangnam, and walked through the station directly to Starfield COEX Mall. And inside the mall was our next destination, Starfield Library! It's a massive two-story library that opened in 2017, and it's free to visit and read the tens of thousands of books that it holds (not sure how borrowing goes, or if that's even an option). Again, like Bosu-dong Book Street in Busan, my bookworm self just wanted to see the place in person. It's in the middle of the mall, so there are tons of people passing through but also tons of people gathered in various sitting areas to read, study, take photos, or just hang out. We were really in a rush by this point, so I didn't get to explore and appreciate it as much as I would have liked. We basically just stood looking around for a couple minutes, took a couple pictures, and then left. But seriously, Starfield Library is so beautiful. Even with all the noise and the crowds, seeing how the light filtered through the gigantic windows and the book collections towered over us on lit-up bookshelves, observing how each visitor managed to carve their own little cloud of solitude in the chaos.... My, what a beautiful place.

We walked through the mall to get bubble tea and cookies before taking a different bus from Gangnam back to Suwon. Once in Suwon, we met Ande's boo at a restaurant for gamjatang (pork bone and potato soup). Gamjatang was Sharon's favorite dish from when she previously visited Ande in Jeju, and Ande's boo picked this place since it was on his side of town.

This was my first time meeting him, and after hearing about him for so long it was funny to see the real person in the flesh. Ande had shown me pictures, and during one of their daily phone calls he even had her pass the phone to me so that he could welcome me to Korea on the night that I arrived. Now at dinner, everything came together and he was exactly as I'd imagined. Very kind, intelligent, good sense of humor, spoke English beautifully, and exceedingly hospitable just like Ande. We all had a good ole time sitting on the floor eating and conversing, and at the end Ande and her boo revealed that the meal was on them. They'd wanted to send us off with a nice goodbye dinner, so this was their treat to us. We parted ways with Ande's boo at the restaurant and then took a bus to Ande's neighborhood so that we could turn in early.

February 26th (Monday)

On Monday we woke up and got ourselves together early enough to take a taxi and catch the 6:00am airport limousine bus to Incheon Airport. The Winter Olympics had just ended the night before, and we didn't know what flying out of Incheon would be like, so we erred on the side of caution and sacrificed sleep in order to give ourselves plenty of time. Thankfully, it wasn't nearly as crowded or disorganized as I'd anticipated (my last time flying internationally back to Detroit was out of Charles de Gaulle in Paris, and that was almost a nightmare). It probably helped that we were flying out of Terminal 2, the newer of the airport's two terminals, and only a select handful of airlines fly through it. People from every country you could imagine were trying to get out of there that morning, and though we were all eager to get to where were headed, folks were remarkably calm and patient.

And of course, Olympians were all over the place! Athletes from the USA, the UK, Germany, and a couple other countries were on the same flight as me and Sharon. Among them was the gold-winning USA men's curling team, and people bombarded them for photo ops at the gate in Incheon, during the flight, and at baggage claim in Detroit. The only athletes I cared about in the slightest were USA bronze figure skaters Alex and Maia Shibutani, or the Shib Sibs, and even then I only recognized them from YouTube. Like I said before, sports is not my thing. But one perk of being in the company of Olympic athletes is that you get free booze! The captain had the flight crew give everyone a glass of champagne so that the whole plane could toast to the Olympians' hard work and success.

This flight went directly from ICN to DTW, so I was spared a repeat of the mess that was Seattle. And just like she always is, Ma was there waiting for me. Sharon hopped in her boyfriend's car, I hopped in my mom's, and with that the trip was completely over and we went to our respective homes.

As I mentioned when I first started writing about this trip, I'd never envisioned myself going to Korea so nearly in the future. I'm grateful to have been able to have this experience, and so many thanks are in order.

Thanks to Sharon for inviting me in the first place, and for letting my suitcase fly home in Sky Priority even though I didn't. Thanks to Ande for taking time off work, letting us take over her life, and literally being our everything during our stay. She was our host, our navigator, our interpreter, our friend, and she always made sure we ate well and were comfortable. Plus she handled most transactions and kept a tab running for us so we didn't have to worry about paying her back until the night before we left. Double thanks to both Ande and Sharon for waiting for me whenever I slowed them down, which was often. Thanks to Ande's boo for being such a cool dude, not being mad at us for monopolizing Ande's time, and taking time from his busy schedule to eat with us. Thanks to Ma for helping me to prepare, talking me down from my usual pre-travel panic, learning how to use WhatsApp so she could communicate with me while I was away, and taking me to and from the airport. Thanks to Suwon for being home base for two weeks. Thanks to Seoul for being abundant, alive, and yet not overwhelming. Thanks to Busan for letting me see water and meet King T'Challa. Thanks to South Korea for being a beautiful country, keeping me full, building my thigh muscles, and teaching me to relax and rely on people more. And glory be to God for providing an escape when I felt like I was drowning at home. Bless you all.

Hopefully this won't be the last new journey for me in 2018.

Korea 2018 photos 

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Korea 2018: Book Street + BIFF Square + Back to Suwon (Day 10)

Saturday was our last chance to walk around and see what we could see in Busan before boarding the KTX in the evening. And I can't say that we were disappointed!

February 24th (Saturday)

Previously when I was pouring through "things to do in Busan" articles and YouTube videos, I happened upon a website that mentioned Bosu-dong Book Street. Apparently, after World War II people started congregating there to buy and sell books that Japanese colonizers had left behind. Then during the Korean War when Busan was the temporary capital of South Korea, even more people gathered in this area to sell books to survive, and a cluster of bookstores fill that street now.  Of course, being the avid reader that I am, I had to visit this place. Even if I wasn't likely to find anything that I could actually read, I just had to see what the area looked like. So that was our first stop on Saturday.

Well actually, first we checked out of our Airbnb and ate marinated grilled beef or bulgogi (plus naengmyeon, or cold noodles, for me) in Haeundae. Then we took the metro to Busan Station to rent lockers and stow our backpacks away for the day. And then we hopped back on to get to the Jung-gu area, which also holds numerous popular Busan attractions including the Book Street.

And I was right, all the books I saw were in Korean with the exception of a few French children's books and a couple English-language story anthologies and magazines that I wasn't interested in. The Book Street isn't that long but it's so densely packed with books that no matter if you're just passing by the outdoor displays or if you actually try to navigate the inside of someone's bookstore, it's going to be a tight squeeze. But for me, being around all those books gave me the same feeling of calm and contentment that being at Haeundae Beach gave me. It was enough just to have experienced the place for myself.

From the Book Street it was a short walk to Gukje Market, which we either happened upon by accident or was somewhere that Sharon wanted to visit. I can't remember. But anyway, it's a massive traditional covered market with innumerable stalls selling anything that you can think of. We stopped in one souvenir shop and then in a dog clothing shop so that Ande could look for something cute for her pup named Hodu to wear, but other than that we just walked around browsing for a while. It's easy to get lost there and we didn't have an extremely strong sense of direction, so we each took turns deciding which way to go until we ended up on Arirang Street, and then somehow maneuvered our way to BIFF Square, which wasthe next place that I wanted to visit.

BIFF Square used to be where the Busan International Film Festival (or BIFF, get it?) was held, but now it's a popular shopping area that's full of food stalls as well as more mainstream stores like ARTBOX. Remnants of the square's former purpose remain, as the main walkway is dotted with plaques that contain the handprints and signatures of various actors and directors who attended the festival in the past. We spent some time surveying the odds and ends in ARTBOX before stopping at one stall so Sharon could get a lamb kebab, and then another stall so that I could eat hotteok again.

Since I don't know Korean, I'd become accustomed to not understanding anything when I'd hear people talking around me. But in Gukje Market and in BIFF Square, I could suddenly read most of the signs and understand more of what I heard.... because it was in Japanese! Busan is only a ferry ride away from Fukuoka, Japan, and so apparently quite a few Korean business owners in Jung-gu will have signs written Japanese (or even speak Japanese themselves) in order to accommodate the significant flow of Japanese people who go to Busan for vacation and/or shopping purposes. You learn something new everyday!

By then we were running low on time, so we walked through the rest of BIFF Square and stopped for cold beverages at a CU before entering a metro station that was right across the street from Jagalchi Fish Market. This market also appeared in  Black Panther and we'd considering visiting it, but in the end we only got a passing glance of it from afar.

Once we arrived at Busan Station, we retrieved our backpacks and then walked outside to get from the metro part of the station to the train part to catch our KTX back to Suwon. We killed some time drinking tea and resting our feet at Bizeun, which has THE BEST GINGER TEA I've ever had in my life! Then it was a smooth evening ride back to Suwon, during which Ande brough out a box of hodu-gwaja that she'd secretly bought to share with us. Hodu-gwaja are small round pastries that are baked in the shape of walnuts and stuffed with red bean paste. "Hodu" means "walnut" in Korean, and Ande and her boo named their dog Hodu because he's walnut-colored.

Ande was going to spend the night with her boo and his parents again, so once we arrived to Suwon we stopped to get chicken sandwiches from Mom's Touch and ate together in her apartment before she left Sharon and I for the night.

Sunday was our last full day in Korea, and our last chance to visit Seoul. We ended up being short on time that day, but we still managed to cross one huge must-do off of our list. More on that tomorrow!

Korea 2018 photos 

Friday, March 23, 2018

Korea 2018: Haedong Yonggungsa + Gwangalli Beach + King T'Challa (Day 9)

We got a late start, but still managed to have brunch and visit a temple before the sun went down. And then, I met royalty!

February 23rd (Friday)

We walked from the Airbnb to a UK-themed spot called Restaurant MINI for brunch, where Ande and I had eggs benedict and Sharon had pancakes. Then we walked a ways to take the metro from Haeundae eastward to Osiria station. A really nice woman at the information center helped Ande call a taxi, and that taxi took us to Haedong Yonggungsa.

Yonggungsa is a Buddhist temple that's right on the edge of the sea, and it has such beautiful scenery and views of the water that tourists flock to it nearly every day. But again, it's a temple, so while a lot of people come to snap photos, others come to pray or just to appreciate the surroundings. We decided to check it out because it seemed like a peaceful and culturally-relevant place to visit.

It's free to enter, though there are plenty of ways to dispense money if you're so inclined. The path that leads to the temple is lined with vendors selling food and souvenirs.

There's a long winding path and then tons of stairs you have to go down before you reach the temple, and multiple Buddha statues are placed along the way. Each Buddha or set of Buddhas has a donation box near it and offers a different type of good luck to people who pray in front of it and/or donate money. Ande's got a professional exam coming up, so as we left the temple later on she left money and said a little prayer in front of the Buddha for Academic Achievement. One of Buddhas at Yonggungsa has both a donation box and a discolored belly from all the people who've rubbed it. This Buddha promises the birth of a son and is also the first one that people pass on their way to the temple, so understandably it is quite popular.

So at the beginning, you walk past the vendors, then you go through an open set of doors, and the path widens and is lined with massive stone statues. On the left side are 12 statues representing each of the Chinese zodiac signs, and a fellow visitor took our picture as the three of us posed in front of the Monkey (we'd realized that all three of us are '92 babies).

Then you keep straight, turn left at the giant pagoda and go down some stairs, go through a tunnel, go down even more stairs, and then you can choose whether to continue your descent toward the temple, or turn left onto a path the leads to a giant golden Buddha and a view of both the sea and the temple at the same time. We went left first before returning to take the rest of the stairs down to the bridge that connected to the temple grounds. A couple of the buildings were closed or their function wasn't immediately clear to me, but the main prayer room was open, and monks chanted inside while people repeatedly knelt to pray.

There's another golden Buddha next to this building, and then there are two flights of stairs that lead to and from a hill on which stands the tallest statue of the entire temple grounds. There were mats and candles set out for people to pray in front of the statue, but most people went up there to look down on the sea and temple from up high.

We left Haedong Yonggungsa not long after descending from the hill, and before hailing a taxi we stopped at the stall of an older woman who was frying hotteok (sweet fried pancake). Way back when we were discussing all the Korean street food that we wanted to try (but didn't actually end up trying), Ande couldn't say enough about how good hotteok was, so when we neared the stall Sharon and I bought one each. Hotteok's exterior is crispy like a hushpuppy or hotwater cornbread, but the interior is chewy and usually has some sort of sweet filling. Mine had brown sugar and nuts, and Sharon's was about the same.

We took a taxi back to Osiria station and then the metro westward past Haeundae to Suyeong, where Gwangalli Beach is. While not as large or as popular as Haeundae, I personally liked Gwangalli more because there's a lot more activity going on around the beach, and the beach itself has more light installations and art pieces. Plus, there's the Diamond Bridge (Gwangandaegyo), which is illuminated in different colors at night and also appears in the film Black Panther.

And speaking of Black Panther! I met T'Challa, king of Wakanda while walking along Gwangalli Beach! It was dark and cold so we didn't feel like walking in the sand this time, so we walked on the sidewalk instead. At one point Ande and Sharon were ahead of me, and suddenly they started calling for me to hurry up so that I could see whatever it was they were looking at around the corner of some building. When I caught up to them I gasped so loudly that I startled a Korean man who'd been staring at the same thing. There, under a big ole spotlight, crouching in his fight stance, was a statue of THE Black Panther! Turns out that Disney had installed this piece to commemorate the filming that took place in Busan, and it was situated so that no matter what angle you took a picture of it from, the Diamond Bridge would always appear in the background. I almost cried.

Ande and Sharon had been trying to get me to let them take pictures of me every day of the trip and I refused, as I'm prone to do. But this time I nearly threw my camera at Ande and asked both her and Sharon to snap me standing next to T'Challa with my arms across my chest forming the Wakanda salute. Seeing a black figure featured in such a public way in Korea was one of the happiest moments of the trip. Of my life, even! And he was definitely black! I got an extremely close look of the statue's face to make sure Korea and/or Disney ain't try to play me, and it was visibly a black man's skin and brown eyes peeking out from that mask. Sadly, the Black Panther installation was randomly destroyed a week ago, and I haven't heard of any plans to repair and reinstall it. Which is disappointing, but it also makes me that much more grateful for that moment I had posing with T'Challa. Oh, what a moment it was!

We continued walking along the beach until we reached our dinner destination, a New York-style pizza restaurant called SOL Taphouse. All the staff were nice young Korean people who all spoke English exceptionally well, the slices were huge, the interior was dark but warmly lit, and the windows allowed for a pleasing view of the sea and the Diamond Bridge.

From the restaurant we walked through Suyeong to take the metro back to Haeundae, made our habitual snack stop at the convenience store, and then retreated to the Airbnb where we watched Korea beat Japan in women's curling before flipping through the other channels and going to sleep.

Saturday was our last day in Busan, but we made sure to visit a few more sites before boarding the train back to Suwon. More on that tomorrow!

Korea 2018 photos 

Thursday, March 22, 2018

What an Apology Is Not.

Advice for when you say or do something racist (or commit any other -ism) at work and want to know how NOT to apologize.

A little context: First, I work in language services recruiting, and out of the entire worldwide recruiting team, I am the only Black person. Second, even though I'm in the States, I work on the Asia team, which means that with the exception of my supervisor, all of my immediate co-workers are in China. The co-worker I'm writing about today is a young Chinese woman who's my age. Third, this co-worker may or may not have known that I am Black, not that it should matter but I figured it was worth mentioning. Now, to the matter at hand.

On Tuesday I was copied in an email in which my co-worker wrote something racist. I won't repeat exactly what she said. But basically a lot of students in certain Asian countries say they want "native English speakers" as tutors, when they really mean to say "white people". And this co-worker of mine was trying to confirm that the candidate we were proposing for a certain group of students was not Black, because students sometimes complain when the tutor we give them doesn't look a certain way.

A racist question disguised as good customer service. Fun.

Long story short, I asked my supervisor to set her straight, my supervisor talked to someone else, who talked to someone else, who spoke to said co-worker.

Cut to this morning, Thursday, and I find the below apology email in my inbox (verbatim):
Dear Danielle,

This email is very difficult for me to write, because I realize how insensitive the other day with my comments on my previous email. It was not my intention to upset you and I feel terrible that I may have hurt your feelings. I wish to offer my sincerest apology and want to assure you that I meant no harm. I have always valued our working relationship, I truly hope that we can put this unpleasantness behind us. 

This, while a gesture that I wasn't expecting and do appreciate to a certain degree, is a non-apology. I don't know this person well, have never communicated with her outside of email, and I'm not in her brain, so I can't definitively say if she IS genuinely sorry or not. What makes it a non-apology in my book is that it doesn't READ as genuine because it focuses on her feelings more than mine, and it doesn't fully acknowledge what she did wrong. I suppose it depends on what you think the purpose of an apology is, but generally if you want to tell someone you've wronged that you're sorry, you need give them precedence over yourself. In other words, don't make it about you!

Let's break this down, shall we?

1) This email is very difficult for me to write, because I realize how insensitive the other day with my comments on my previous email.

  • Critique: Coming right out the gate talking about how hard it is for YOU, is manipulative. You're trying to avoid feeling bad by making me feel sorry for you. Don't do that.
  • Critique: Call a thing for what it is. It wasn't merely insensitive; it was racist. Use your words.
  • Alternative: So-and-so told me that I upset you, and I wanted to come to you directly to apologize. I realize how racist my comments were.

2)  It was not my intention to upset you and I feel terrible that I may have hurt your feelings. 

  • Critique: "Not my intention" always sets off a tiny warning bell in my head, because too often this sort of deceptively polite statement conveys, "I didn't mean it that way, so shut up about it" rather than genuine remorse. But overall, this line wasn't that bad. UNTIL...
  • Critique: "May have" implies that there is room for doubt that you did anything that requires apologizing. Don't play games. Be accountable for what you did.
  • Alternative: It was not my intention to upset you and I feel terrible that I hurt your feelings.

3)  I wish to offer my sincerest apology and want to assure you that I meant no harm.

  • Personal note: This reveals something about your mindset, because it really never occurred to you that expressing a preference for white tutors over Black tutors would have a negative impact on anyone included in the conversation. Lack of awareness (or concern?) about both your audience and the implication of your message. Very telling. 
  • Critique: Again, it's better to emphasize that you acknowledge the impact of your words rather than to rely solely on "I didn't mean it" as a justification, but overall this line is fine.
  • Alternative: None.

4)  I have always valued our working relationship, I truly hope that we can put this unpleasantness behind us. 

  • Personal note: I doubt this is true, since we've never had a real conversation in the whole time that we've worked together. Other than very brief email exchanges, there's really no work relationship to speak of. If you don't really know or interact with me, then there's no need to overexert yourself saying how much you value a relationship that barely exists.
  • Critique: "I truly hope that we can put this unpleasantness behind us" is incredibly dismissive if the other party never got to have their say. You're basically moving to unilaterally end the conversation before it's even started. And I never had my say, so who is "we"? Someone told you that I didn't appreciate your comments, but you didn't actually hear from me about how I felt or thought about it. You haven't asked. "We" neither discussed the issue nor came to a conclusion about it. It's unpleasant for you to have been reprimanded by your supervisor for what you wrote, it's unpleasant to be told to apologize to someone you hardly know, and it's unpleasant for you to have to consider that your words "may have" been were "insensitive" racist. That's why you want to put it behind you so quickly. And that's just way too easy.
  • Critique:  In addition to not acknowledging the racism expressed through your initial email, you made no commitment to actively not saying racist things in the future. I am not led to believe that you've learned anything from this, other than not to say certain things around certain people, or at least not to put it in writing. Again, this makes the entire apology read as insincere.
  • Alternative: I really enjoy working with you, and if you feel comfortable talking about it then I would like to hear what you have to say. I want to be better at communicating with people from different cultures, and I will do more to educate myself on how to do this. I will also try harder to convince students to consider English teachers who are not white.

With all that said, I hope that this has been helpful to anyone who's reading this. No matter what it is you have to apologize for, whether it's work-related or not, and whether you're apologizing of your own initiative or not. Let's all try to be more mindful of others and use our words well.

To anyone who's curious, I am still offended but no longer upset, if that makes sense. I'm more amused than anything, because this week I've basically had the opportunity to watch supposedly well-meaning non-Black people flail around when something anti-Black has been said in the open, and that is never not funny to me. Plus I've got screenshots just in case, so I'm good. Hey, you either laugh or you cry, right? And I feel like laughing this week.

To anyone who wants to dispute whether this woman was racist or not, note that I said her words were racist; I never said that she herself was so. For more examples of unintentional(?) but still racist things that people have said to me in the past, and an explanation of how you can believe yourself to be non-racist but still manage to say racist things, read here.

And lastly! I actually have yet to respond to this person, not because I want to be passive aggressive but because I can't decide what to say. I don't want to let her off too easy, but I also know that lecturing her will be a waste of my time. What say you?

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Korea 2018: Train to Busan! (Day 8)

On Thursday we left Suwon for a weekend excursion to Busan! Again, no concrete plan in mind, just another place to explore.

February 22nd (Thursday)

In the months leading up to this trip, we'd passively mentioned visiting Busan since it's right on the ocean and is South Korea's second-largest city after Seoul. But it wasn't until a month or two before I left that I said to the girls, "Okay, I think we could actually do this. Do y'all want to or not?". We were all open to it, so Ande bought the KTX (high-speed train) tickets and booked an Airbnb that we all liked and just had us reimburse her later. Cut to Thursday morning, we each threw a few belongings in our backpacks and took the bus to Suwon Station.

We'd opted for the KTX as opposed to flying or taking a slower train because ideally we could see the Korean countryside while still making it to Busan in about three hours. But the seats are made in such a way that you naturally lay back slightly, and the ride is so smooth that I was lulled to sleep despite myself. So I saw a little bit of the countryside at the beginning and in between naps, but didn't actually see that much in the end. Same goes for the ride back to Suwon a couple days later.

We arrived at the train part of Busan Station and then had to leave that building and walk a couple minutes to the subway part of the station in order to take the metro eastward to Haeundae, where our Airbnb was. Haundae is one of the more popular areas in Busan due to Haeundae Beach, which is the most well-known of the city's multiple beaches. We had some time to kill before we could check into our Airbnb, so we stopped at a Japanese restaurant where we each got a set that gave us a little bit of everything: curry rice, tonkatsu, zaru soba, miso soup, plus kimchi and radish, because we were still in Korea after all. We'd originally though to go to a Hong Kong-style Chinese restaurant, but they were closed until dinner time and this Japanese restaurant was just a few doors down from it so there we went.

From there we followed Ande as she located our Airbnb, which was in an apartment building across the street from a hospital and surrounded by a bunch of hotels. We didn't have a view of the ocean (just a lot of tall buildings and a glimpse of the mountains in the distance), but we were still really close to Haeundae Beach! Our Airbnb was modest but clean, just the right amount of space for three people, had floor-to-ceiling windows and a loft with two beds (Ande's and Sharon's), a really nice bathroom, and an open sitting area with a couch/futon (my bed).

The only downside was that there was no silverware. We didn't plan on cooking, but I'd gotten used to drinking ginger tea every morning by this point, so not having spoons was slightly annoying but no big deal. Considering we'd only be using the place for sleeping and showering, and neither I nor Sharon had used an Airbnb before, the place was perfect as far as I was concerned. Shoutout to Sangmee.

After inspecting the place and resting for a bit, we went to Haeundae Beach with just enough time to explore as the sun was setting. All we really did was walk on the sand (with our shoes on), take pictures of the beach and each other, stare out at the water, and do some people-watching, but I had such a great time! Seeing the ocean reminded me of how much I love being in and near bodies of water, even though I don't give myself opportunities to swim very often. Water gives me a great feeling of contentment and peace, so the cold and the sand in my shoes hardly bothered me at all.

We stayed at the beach until after the sun went down, and then we took the metro to the BEXCO/Centum City area where we ate shabu-shabu (hot pot). Then we took the metro back to our neighborhood, stopped at CU for snacks, and then returned to the Airbnb and called it a night.

Friday would be our first and only full day in Busan and by the end of it I'd meet the king of Wakanda! More on that tomorrow!

Korea 2018 photos 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Korea 2018: Myeongdong + Insadong + Reunion (Day 7)

Our first day in Seoul as a trio, and our first (only) day having to find our way through Seoul and back to Suwon without Ande acting as navigator!

February 21st (Wednesday)

Other than food, Sharon's main priority for her time in Korea was buying skincare products, so our first destination in Seoul was the popular shopping district of Myeongdong. We stopped to have samgyetang (chicken stew with ginseng) which was the only disappointment that I ate while in Korea. I'm not sure if it's supposed to be bland, or if it was the restaurant, or if it was the variation that I ordered, but it was just okay. I left full but not satisfied.

From there we walked to Myeongdong shopping street, a pedestrians-only street that's full of high-end brands, especially beauty and skincare stores. I stood outside people-watching while Ande and Sharon explored a beauty store called Missha. Then we spent some time in a cafe eating honey bread (brick toast) and bingsoo (shaved ice) topped with mango. From late afternoon through the night, you can also find food stands on the shopping street as well. Unfortunately we ended up leaving too early to indulge; older men and women were just beginning to park, uncover, and set up their stands when we were on our way out.

I was able to reconnect with a Korean friend of mine from college who is living and working in Seoul, and she wanted to meet for dinner that evening. We didn't have a strong plan for what to do until then, so we randomly decided to see what Insadong was about. Another shopping area (though not completely free of car traffic), Insadong is known for its ample supply of souvenirs, antiques, and art galleries. But Ande had to head back to Suwon early due to some other commitments, so she parted ways with us in Myeongdong. Which meant that Sharon and I were responsible for navigating the Seoul metro system, Insadong, the metro system again, and then eventually the bus trip back to Suwon all on our own. The metro system I wasn't too concerned about thanks to the Subway Korea app, but it'd be dark by the time we caught the bus to Suwon, and those particular buses didn't (as most in Korea don't, I assume) announce the stops in English. So we were in for a little adventure. No worries, right?

We made our way to Insadong with no problems at all. I can't remember if Ande told us this or if I read it online, but Insadong is basically where you go to buy souvenirs if you want to avoid large crowds. There are tons of stalls and brick-and-mortar shops selling similar Korea or Seoul-related wares. And it has enough people passing through to make the area lively, but not so many as to make it congested.

Sharon and I were initially just exploring the area, but we both happened upon items that we liked. She bought a deep yellow skirt from a boutique, and I ended up buying souvenirs earlier than I'd anticipated. Souvenir shopping is one of the last things I do before the end of an international trip. But I managed to find a lapel pin for myself, and shot glasses for the three people back home who explicitly asked me to get them something, and since neither of those items were as easy to find at other shops as I thought they would be, I sprang for them. Then Sharon spotted a cat cafe called 2Cats that she wanted to check out, so we spent about 15 minutes there. She petted the few cats that wanted to be bothered while I drank ginger tea and watched; I didn't remember until after we'd entered that I'm mildly allergic to cats (whoops!), so I didn't get to love on the kitties like she could. It was a really cute cafe, though! 

In Insadong there's also a shopping center called Ssamziegil where you can get poop bread (taiyaki-style pastry that's shaped like poop, no actual feces included of course), eat dishes out of toilet-shaped bowls, buy any number of trinkets/art/home goods, and get a comprehensive view of the surrounding area. I'd originally wanted to try the poop bread there, but I didn't have an appetite so instead we went to the top of the mall just for kicks. As you go up, the floors become slanted so that you don't have to take the stairs or exert a lot of energy as you go. We puttered around at the top of the mall for a bit before heading back down and returning to the metro. 

Our next and last stop for the night was Yeouido, which is where my college friend Eunbong wanted to meet us. Yeouido is a little island in the Han River, and Eunbong told us that it's basically Seoul's version of Wall Street, where most of the investment banking and finance entities are. After waiting in the cold at the wrong exit of the station (my fault), Eunbong found us and led us to Skyfarm, a fancy restaurant at the top of an office building (50th floor!). She hadn't been able to get us a reservation beforehand, but lucky for us there was an open table right in front of the floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall windows. It was dark by the time we got there, so we got a magnificent view of the National Assembly building, Yeouido Park, the Han River, and other parts of Yeouido all lit up.

And the food was excellent! The restaurant served western food, so I had croque madame while Eunbong had pasta and Sharon had a hanwoo beef sandwich. I had such a great time catching up with Eunbong and listening to her talk about her plans, the Korean education system, and Korean work culture, but I got the feeling that it got boring for Sharon pretty quickly. Or maybe she was just tired. I brought her along so that we could stay together the whole day and wouldn't each have to find our way back to Ande's place alone, but then again I did drag her with me to have dinner with a stranger, so. Eh well.

Eunbong was kind enough to walk us back to the station, and we took the metro back to Sadang station, where we caught the usual bus. Sharon kept an eye out to make sure that we got off at the right stop in Suwon (it was pretty much at the end of the line and was right next to a field, so fortunately it wasn't too hard to discern) and then it was a short walk to Ande's apartment, where Ande was already waiting for us. 

On Thursday we would head south toward a completely different city. More on that tomorrow!