M.A. Van Wey Travel & Photo

From San Francisco to Seoul
November 9, 2009, 9:13 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

The adventure unfolds at the international terminal of SFO, a special place for me with so many fond memories attached to those departure gates, the excitement of every new journey energizing the otherwise sterile halls.  My girlfriend and I decided on a change of direction in our lives, a move to somewhere new doing something completely different.  I had been “looking for work” for about 6 months after getting laid off from an environmental consulting firm in Seattle, and Jennifer had been working in the food industry and in a bakery for the last couple years in Boulder.   Somehow the idea of teaching English abroad became the dominant one, and after several months of consideration and debate, and then preparation, we found ourselves at the airport.  Our tickets were for Seoul, South Korea.  However, this was only a short stop-over before our final destination, the Kingdom of Siam…Thailaind.  How we came to choose Thailand over Japan, Korea, Taiwan, or even countries closer in South America….I’m still working that one out in my head.

We arrived in Seoul in the evening, but my brother, an English teacher in a suburb just southeast of Seoul, was still hard at work with his evening classes.  A bus took us to his neighborhood and we started exploring the urban landscape of South Korea.  A mix of apartment and office buildings towered over incredibly bright, busy streets full of food carts, shoppers, drinkers, and smokers.  Neon signs and billboards plastered every free inch of space on the sides of the building; trucks were driving by shouting either advertisements or political slogans over bullhorns, creating a surreal Blade Runner-like environment.

The suburbs of Seoul are not anything like those of the US.  These are dense, urban fingers that spread out from the city like eels sliding between cracks in coral, searching for the valleys wide enough to support them.  The massive network of subway tunnels extends nearly forty miles outside the city, connecting these suburbs to the city proper and other neighboring valleys.  The urban landscape here is unlike anything I’ve seen or experienced before.  There’s more than just concrete jungle here though, and after spending a few days at my brother’s apartment, I went looking for it.  In fact it was right next door.  The margin between dense urban development and beautifully preserved natural landscapes is striking.  So far that I’ve seen, there isn’t that same kind of suburban sprawl in Korea, where dense cities ooze into tract homes which ooze into trailer parks and more tract homes.  Here in Bundang, you can emerge from the subway in the midst of an urban metropolis, walk 10 or 15 minutes west or east and you find yourself at a trailhead.  Buddhist temples, burial mounds, shrines, and exercise equipment pepper the woods and add an element of archeology to the hike.  Jennifer and I took every opportunity to explore the parks and trails around the valley and came across some fascinating places.  A massive mountain fortress from the 15’th century (or somewhere around that time) with ramparts, temples, turrets, and endless trails within.  A lake with a giant bungee platform in the middle and a “book theme-park” along the shore.  A complete weight-lifting and aerobics gym in the middle of the woods full of feral rabbits.  Korea is different.


While staying with my brother and his girlfriend in Korea, we slowly recovered from our jet lag and acclimatized to the spicy and incredibly alcoholic nature of Korean meals.  Korean food is good and very healthy but sometimes you pay for it, especially after too much kimchi.  I actually love kimchi, and frequently I do eat too much…But then some parts of Korean culture are all about excess, like drinking!  I’m used to expressing these opinions in person so I apologize if it offends…but alcoholism is practically institutionalized here.  Police will actually put traffic cones around your body if you pass out in the street after too much soju, rather than embarrassing you by waking you up.  Business deals are made around massive quantities of booze, beer advertisements directly target young teenagers, and the industry of hang-over cures is thriving.  But don’t get caught smoking a reefer or you’re in big trouble.  One of the most satisfying combinations of food and drink here is beer and fried chicken.  In fact, it was the best fried chicken I’ve ever had in my life.  Apparently Korea has perfected the art, and combined with one of their cheap lagers…it’s heaven.

Jennifer and I managed to avoid drinking every night, but a few hangovers during our stay here were inevitable.  For the most part we kept it very mellow for our 1 ½ weeks in Korea.  The water-heated floors in my brother’s apartment, combined with our jet lag, made it very difficult to wake up before 11am.  A lazy stroll through the streets to a Dunkin Donuts for coffee and breakfast at noon was usually how we started the day.  We had the pleasure of attending a military air show just a short walk from our neighborhood, where we watched everything from Apache gunships to the American Thunderbirds and the Korean Black Eagles.  We even saw a demonstration flight of the Airbus A380, a massive double-decker jetliner bigger than the 747, which will supposedly be flying commercially soon.  A trip into Seoul proper took us to some of the old palaces and temples, as well as one favorite tea house of mine that has little chirping finches flying around the room.  Otherwise we satisfied ourselves with hiking, walking around the neighborhood eating, or hanging out with my brother and his girlfriend playing video games, watching movies, or going out for drinks.

Besides having a relaxing visit with my brother, another reason for stopping in Korea was to check out the prospects for teaching jobs.  Should our attempts at finding employment in Thailand fail or we change our minds, Korea is another great market for English teachers and it sounded like the options here are quite a bit more financially rewarding.  Our time here was both informative and relaxing, and it was great to see my brother in the midst of his Korean life.  It’s strange coming 7000 miles across an ocean to a country so unfamiliar and finding your family integrating into its culture and ways.  I’m hoping once Jennifer and I settle in Thailand or wherever we end up, that we can offer the same hospitality and guidance to friends and family that Andy and Marissa offered to us in Korea.  Many thanks, and I’ll keep everyone posted as our time in Thailand unfolds.


1 Comment so far
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Great write up on Korea! You really capture the essence of it well. I’m glad you and Jennifer were able to make it out here for a visit to this funny little oddball country. It’s always neat sharing Korea with others, and it reminds us of all the strange things we see daily that become routine after so long here.

Keep us updated on your Thailand journey, and travel well!

Comment by Drew

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