Itaewon and the COEX

My family ventured out to see more of Seoul for the first time.  We’ve pretty much been keeping to ourselves at home since we arrived, but we decided that it was about time to get out and see some of the local culture.  We first went to Itaewon, a shopping district in Seoul.  We then caught a taxi to the COEX Mall, a shopping complex near Olympic Stadium.  We ended the day having dinner with our next-door neighbors, a cordial couple who lent us their vehicle to use while they were out of town on vacation.  We are so impressed with the caliber of people who live and work here with us.  I am really looking forward to getting to know my neighbors and colleagues better.  While living in the Seattle and Washington, D.C. areas I rarely met any of my neighbors, and we almost never joined them for dinner.  We usually kept to ourselves, something that happens quite frequently in urban America.  Life here is a very welcome change for me.  I’ve been telling people that I had to move overseas to enjoy a "normal" American life.  I much prefer developing good friendships with the people who live around me to being too busy to get to know them. 

We want to explore all of Seoul’s famous neighborhoods while we’re here, especially Namdaemun and Dongdaemun.  We may go out again on Tuesday during Korean Independence Day.  Today we started in Itaewon.  The day was clear and cold, so we did not stay long outside in Itaewon.  We ate Korean food at Don Valley Korean Restaurant located below the Burger King in Itaewon.  The food was delicious.  No offense intended, but I don’t understand why anyone would eat at Burger King in lieu of the local fare.  We ate 불고기 (hot-pot bulgogi), 삼계탕 (ginseng chicken soup), and 반잔 (side dishes).  Side dishes are one of the highlights of Korean dining.  They remind me of Spanish tapas, a hodge podge of dishes unique to Spanish cuisine.  Korean side dishes such as various types of kimchi and bean sprouts wonderfully accent any Korean meal. 

Following our visit to Itaewon we took a cab to COEX Mall, one of Seoul’s largest malls.  My wife really wanted to take our son to visit the COEX Aquarium.  I hesitated going because I did not know how far the COEX Mall is from Itaewon.  Our trip turned out to be an expensive, half-hour jaunt in heavy traffic.  A round-trip cab ride cost about $20, and the mall was absolutely packed with Koreans.  (I only saw a handful of foreigners.)  We should have known that the residents of Seoul would converge at the mall on Sunday, the one day of the week when they can relax and have fun (most Koreans work or study at least half a day on Saturday).  We didn’t visit the aquarium after all.  Our son was too tired and fussy to enjoy sea life, and we thought it would be a waste of money to take him there in such a distressed state.  When I wasn’t tending to my son, I enjoyed people watching in the mall and catching a glimpses of Korean fashion and mannerisms.  I definitely dressed differently than Koreans do.  I definitely stood out in the crowd wearing tennis shoes, a bright ski jacket, and an NFL sweatshirt.  I saw very few people wear sneakers, bright-colored clothing, or logo-emblazoned gear.  Had I known beforehand that I would be going there I probably would have dressed differently and tried to at least make an attempt to blend with the crowd.  I guess I’ll have to trade in my tennis shoes for some casual wear.  Darn.

From the "Things that make you go Hmm" department:  Today we visited the Hyundai Department Store, rode in a Hyundai taxi cab, and passed by numerous Hyundai apartment complexes as we drove through Seoul.  I’m going to have to get used to the omnipresence of Korean chaebol in Korea.  Imagine if General Electric built your car, home, and served as your primary bank and department store in the U.S.  This is very common in Korea.  Korean commerce is heavily concentrated in chaebol, or conglomerates.  

Reassembling your life

I spent most of the day today emptying boxes, arranging furniture, and putting away belongings in our new home.  I also went out to run some errands and eat lunch at a local Korean restaurant, a welcome respite from unpacking.  I didn’t realize how much stuff we own until I started going through all those boxes.  I repeatedly asked myself questions such as, "Why did I ship that?" and "Why did I ever buy this?"  For example, I found out that I accidentally shipped a miter saw that I have no intention of using while I’m overseas.  Somehow, I ended up shipping just about all the boxes previously stored in my garage, and now I have just about every home improvement tool available to me in a home that I do not need to maintain or improve.  If our place has a problem, I just need to call someone in maintenance.  I don’t need to be a handyman like I was when I lived in my own home.  I have all the tools I don’t need, and I’m missing some that I need.  I don’t even have a hammer yet.  My rusty ol’ hammer will come in a later shipment.  In the meantime, I’ll have to hammer nails to hang photos and prints using a heavy-duty wrench. 

I almost bought a new hammer at the store today, but I decided against it.  I already own one; why do I need two?  At first I justified the purchase by telling myself that my own hammer is rusty (accidentally left out in the rain), but I managed to convince myself not to buy it.  I’m glad I said no.  My family has become rather minimalist, partly out of necessity and partly out of desire.  When you live and work overseas, you don’t need as much as you need as a suburban American homeowner.  Too much stuff can be overbearing, and our life has been much too cluttered over the past few years.  We are planning to get rid of as much "junk" as possible as soon as possible to help unclutter our lives.  We want to keep only what we need or really want and avoid becoming transient packrats.  It will take some time.  We have to use up much of what we have bought–like those multiple bottles of laundry detergent–and sell or give away what we cannot consume.  We will still store some items away for our eventual return to the U.S. and for special occasions such as camping and Christmas.  We don’t have much storage room here, but we’ll find creative ways to put it all away.

Boxes and more boxes

Our first shipment of household effects from the U.S. arrived here today.  Our new home is in shambles now that boxes are stacked everywhere.  After work I spent some time opening up some of them and arranging our belongings in our new home.  However, many still need to be emptied.  This is the first of three shipments from the U.S., and it represents the bulk of our possessions.  This shipment is full of our belongings from our former home in the Seattle area that I have not used since I left Seattle early last year.  The other two shipments consist of everything we used while living temporarily in the Washington, D.C. area during training.  I can’t believe how much…stuff…we have collected over the years.  Moving abroad made me realize the value of living a simple, uncluttered life. 

Our belongings are a very welcome addition to our new home.  As is often the case with moves like these, we received several unanticipated items, including a sofa chair that we didn’t intend to ship to Korea.  We also received some items that were already included with our home, including a microwave and ironing board.  Many of the extra items will go into storage, but we need to figure out what to do with larger items such as the sofa chair.  We also need to figure out how to tastefully combine our belongings with the ones provided to us.  For example, our sofa pillows are lovely shades of green and white, but the furniture is blue and beige.  There is just no way to tastefully combine these colors into something aesthetically pleasing.  Consequently, the pillows and other mismatched items will probably go into storage here until our next move.  Unfortunately, we don’t have much storage space and will have to get creative with our excess belongings.

I’ve spent the last few days at work meeting my new colleagues and getting to know my new job and new team.  I also joined an hour-long Korean course for the first time.  My Korean is really rusty.  I thought that I would have ample opportunities to speak Korean in Seoul, but so far I haven’t been in too many situations yet where I needed to speak it.  Now that I’m here I realize more and more just how much Korean I still need to learn.  In the afternoon I had the pleasure of meeting some Korean youths and talking to them in English (and a smattering of Korean) about the U.S., Korea, U.S.-Korean relations, and Korea’s future.  I encouraged them to continue promoting awareness of Korean culture and that Korea can be at the forefront of Asian political and economic cooperation, as witnessed by the rising popularity of Korean culture throughout East and Southeast Asia.  I am glad that they were a receptive audience.  It will likely be the first of many opportunities for me to interact with Koreans.  I would like to speak more Korean, but I fear that I will not be able to explain technical terms such as "economic integration" adequately in Korean.  For now I’ll focus on peppering my speaking with a few Korean sentences.