There’s a version of a classic children’s story in one of our textbooks, maybe you’ve heard of it – “Country Mouse, Seoul Mouse.” I am not making this up.
Jeju Island may seem like the middle of nowhere sometimes, and it’s definitely “the country,” but just an hour away by air is the world’s fifth largest city; Seoul. Population 10.3 million. After three months on this rock I was ready for a weekend in the big, bad city. So when I had the opportunity to join some friends there last weekend, I took it. I know, I know, I’ve been complaining about money, but this is when the weak won is a good thing! The round trip 147,000 won airfare on Jeju Air worked out to just $97. Three months ago it would have been $150. Of course first I had to navigate the all-Korean phone reservation system. I pushed 1 when I thought it was time, and got a real person, still speaking Korean. When I asked if they spoke English she said, “Oh yes, how may I help you?” perfectly clearly. Whew.
A weekend was just long to see that it was far too short a time to spend in such a diverse city. Well, as diverse as a Korean city could be. Most of the diversity, meaning multi-cultural aspect, comes from the fact that there is a large U.S. Army command base, Yungsan, smack in the middle of the city, courtesy of the Korean War. It was weird to be somewhere where foreigners were so commonplace no one looked at you twice, and the shopkeepers spoke good English. So that’s where the English speakers go!
On Jeju there are so few of us “waygooks” that you just about know everyone at least by sight. If not better…
In fact as I was leaving my building for the airport, dressed up and wheeling my suitcase, six of the foreign teachers living in my building were standing outside the elevator! There are no secrets here. At least I don’t think there are.
First stop – the Starbucks in the airport. True Seattleites eschew Starbucks, favoring instead the small neighborhood coffee shops, but since it’s not likely Zeitgeist is going to set up shop in Korea anytime soon, Starbucks was as close to real coffee as I could get. Plus, with its corporate efficiency, the pastries were exactly the same as at home — not a rice cake or bean paste filling in the bunch.
Seoul has a great subway system, but it still took nearly an hour to get from Gimpo airport to Itaewon, the western shopping mecca adjacent to the base.
The wide sidewalks in this shopping district were probably designed for ease of pedestrian traffic, but that precious real estate has been usurped by street vendors selling antidotes to the high-priced goods in the shops facing them. A sliver of sidewalk divides the two worlds of commerce. It’s Levi Strauss against Lee Seung-ju; Calvin Klein versus Kim Dae-young. The name brands may bring in the foot traffic, but the vendors assure they don’t pass unimpeded.
A much more interesting part of town was Insa-dong (dong means village), sort of the Greenwich village of Seoul. Its main, willow tree-lined thoroughfare is flanked with antique shops and art galleries, offering everything from gorgeous celadon vases to gaudy plastic souvenirs. On weekends the street is mercifully closed to vehicles, and becomes a wide strolling path for shoppers. This is the place to come to find quality Korean art objects for decorating your cracker box apartment or sending home for the holidays. I finally purchased one thing I had been wanting, but not finding on Jeju, a celadon vase with a traditional stork motif. Standing about 10 inches tall, it was 30,000 won, or about $20.
In addition to the established shops, street vendors also compete for attention and commerce. Some of it looked tasty, like the little flower shaped waffles filled with red bean paste, but some of it was definitely a Korean thing, like the simmering woks of larvae. Mmmm. I passed on those, although samples were always offered. I think they just like to do that to terrorize the westerners.
We took a taxi back to Itaewon for an early dinner before heading home. MMM- so many choices! We settled on Thai, and I had a delicious chicken curry and Thai iced tea. There is not a single Thai restaurant on Jeju. I’m sure I would have heard of it if there was!