Saturday, November 3, 2007

It's all about Seoul

This past weekend I had the opportunity to travel to Seoul, South Korea, for a conference on teaching the "Six Traits of Writing" at Seoul Foreign School. It was great; I came away with a lot of ideas and am eager to start implementing some of the things I learned in my own classroom. It was also fun meeting participants from international schools in various other Asian countries, including China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines, and (obviously) Korea.

Of course one of the best parts was the fact that the conference was in a country I'd never been to before, thus bringing my country total up to 15. Don't be too impressed, though; I met an Australian lady at the conference who teaches in Cambodia and has been to over 40 countries. Her three-year-old daughter has already been to 16!

Seoul Incheon Airport is right up there among the great airports of the world, as far as I'm concerned (not as good as Singapore, but much better than LAX).  The city's subway system is convenient and efficient; some trains even have electronic maps with moving dots to show you what stations you're approaching when.  The bus system seems good too, or at least it probably would be for those who get on the right bus at the airport. At least the sights of the city are interesting to see while going the wrong way on the wrong bus. And when the bus driver calls out the names of the stops and none of them include Seoul Foreign School, at least he responds in helpful and friendly Korean to your concerned questions in English that he can't understand any more than you can understand his helpful and friendly answers. And when all else fails there's always taxis, easy to hail from any random bus stop that you choose to get off at, though of course you can't expect the drivers to speak English or read English maps. (Yes, we did make it to our destination eventually that night!)


Unfortunately Floyd couldn't come, but I really enjoyed the few days I was able to spend in Korea with two other Morrison teachers. Marcy and Kris and I (along with our new Australian friend Sheree) were able to go out and see quite a bit of Seoul on Saturday and Sunday late afternoon and evening after our sessions were over. It's a nice-looking city, a lot like Taipei on some ways, but definitely with its own distinctive flair. It's far enough north that the climate is quite different from Taiwan's: it was quite cold at night, cool during the day, and the brightly-colored leaves bore testimony to the fact that autumn is alive and well there.

We took the subway to various places that we'd researched earlier, and ended up in various other interesting places too (some accidentally, others on purpose). It was hard not being able to communicate much; I didn't realize how much I've come to rely on the few words and phrases of Chinese I can actually say now, until I went somewhere where they don't speak Chinese OR much English. It was still great, though, and we found people there to be really friendly and helpful. Several times we'd be stopped on a street corner frowning over our map, and someone who did know a little English would approach us to ask if we needed help. (In one case, the young man pulled up an electronic city map on his cell phone screen to direct us to the area we wanted.) 

Saturday evening we had a lot of fun - Kris and Marcy and Sheree and I wanted to eat somewhere really Korean, not at one of the international restaurants we'd seen, so we walked all over searching for just the right place.


We'd heard of an area called Insa Dong that's supposedly full of traditionally Korean stores and restaurants, so we went looking for it. I know we got off at the right subway stop, but I'm not convinced we found the right set of streets, because we really didn't see many shops with anything you couldn't buy in Taiwan, or the States, for that matter. 


But we did find some wonderful-looking restaurants, including one where we finally had a delicious meal at one of their outside tables. Each table had a little grill in the middle, and the waiters bring you pieces of raw meat to cook yourself there. None of them spoke English, and the menu was entirely in Korean, so at first we were stuck. But Kris had bought a phrasebook, so he looked up and said the word for "beef", and the waiter nodded and went away.

Pretty soon he came back with a big platter of raw beef, along with a large bowl of soup for us all to share, sliced onions, garlic, kimchi, several kinds of sauces, and a bowl of cooked (steamed?) egg which was almost like an unsweetened custard. There was more than enough for the four of us, and we had a lot of fun grilling everything and experimenting with different combinations of flavors. Remarkably, it turned out that the Korean waiter could speak Spanish, having lived somewhere in Central America for several years, so Kris and Sheree, who both speak it too, were able to have a long conversation with him. We thought that was pretty random!

  It's hard to see too many sights of any city in less than three days (especially with most of two of them taken up in a conference), but we were able to take a look at a couple of Seoul's many ancient palaces. We just looked at one from the outside, but I paid the dollar entry fee to go into the other. It wasn't at all like I had expected, and probably not like what you're picturing, either. Don't think of a tall building with turrets and spires and battlements surrounded by a moat. Think of a huge yard with a complex of different-sized one-storey buildings, all with fancy roofs in the Asian architectural style, but otherwise not that exciting to look at.

There were guided tours going on, and signs explaining what each building had been used for back in the day, but since both were in Korean I didn't get much out of them. No one was allowed inside the buildings, anyway, as far as I could tell. Not to mention it was raining hard at the time and I had no umbrella or raincoat, plus it was starting to get dark and cold, and Marcy was waiting for me by the entrance to go and get dinner. Oh, well - at least now I can say I've toured a Korean palace!

We also got to visit this interesting building, called Sungnaemun Gate.  Apparently it was was once an actual gate leading into the city (now it's somewhere in the middle of Seoul). 

Well, it was a great trip, especially considering how short it was. I was disappointed not to find many souvenirs available, and that prices were for the most part no lower than in the States, but other than that it was all I could have hoped for. Now I've just got to go back for a week or two sometime with Floyd, so we can see and do everything as Korea was meant to be experienced!

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