Different places on the face of the earth have different vital effluence,
different chemical exhalation,
different polarity with different stars:
call it what you like.
But the spirit of place is a great reality.
I opened up the novel, Life of Pi by Yann Martel on my first day of work. I read through the book in under three days. A hermit in my furniture-less apartment. I have become rather used to lying on the floor and absorbing its heat. It has taken a few hilarious incidents to adapt to the Korean heated floor concept. First you have to realize that anything that touches the ground will melt if it is left sitting there for over five minutes. I quickly learned bags of chocolate, ice cream and salt water taffy do not appreciate being left on the floor. I also have to be sure not to rest my laptop on the faux hardwood over night. I learned this lesson one morning after realizing the bottom of the computer burned my hands when I lifted it up onto my bed. It is important to never leave water bottles on the floor as your eyes will surely bulge out of your skull the first time you take a big gulp of hot water. On the other hand, the heated floor also has some rather incredible benefits. Most obvious is the comfy, toasty warm floor your feet first touch after waking up. I have also learned of other benefits such as putting frozen pork tenderloin on the floor in order to speed up defrosting. My house may seem like a mess if you were to see its daily state of affairs. You would be wrong. In fact I carefully organize the cloths I will be wearing the following day before bed. This ensures that my socks, underwear, pants, shirt and even shoes are toasty warm in the morning. The gloriousness of heated floors!
Koreans are known for taking shopping seriously. I spent my first work weekend at the cities famous Dongdaemun shopping district. The sidewalks are covered with street meat vendors and bustling shoppers running to and fro. The main street is lined with massive mega malls. Each mall has a rather large congregation area in front of its main doors. At the entrance of each mega mall you will find a massive stage covered in neon lights. I walked up to the stage mingling into a crowd of Korean’s who cheered and clapped as two men dressed in banana costumes danced on stage to Korean pop music. I soon realized these dance performances are used to entertain and entice passers by to shop. A rather bizarre form of advertising.
I spent my afternoon in two of these mega malls. The first was twelve floors and is open 24 hours a day. If you have the urge to purchase at 4am do not hesitate to run down to Dongdaemun station. The malls in Dongdaemun are not designed the same way as western “shopping malls.” My first mall experience at Dongdaemun was that of shock and awe. Each floor is a different department such as Men’s Casual, Woman’s Shoes and Home Care. The bottom two floors of the first mall I visited consisted of designer hand bags and Perfume and Cologne vendors. Orienting yourself around the mall is rather difficult. I try my best to stare at the vendors face or a specific item they are selling so I can tell if I have already visited the specific area on that floor.
The floor plan of these mega malls are vastly different from what we are used to at home. The aisles are small and set up like South American markets. Each vendor has a select few items. One vendor may be selling trench coats and another tailored suits. The majority of staff at the mall are in their late 20’s. It quickly became apparent that they idolize foreigners. I was mauled several times by vendors who first screamed when they saw my blonde hair, followed by a massive hand shake, giggles and the mandatory “where is you from?” As soon as you respond Toronto, Canada the Korean’s go crazy. They tell me I am incredibly cool, that my style is amazing and that they are jealous of my Diesel Jeans. Diesel Jeans are incredibly hard to come by so they stare at you and hyperventilate. I was told by one Korean man with purple dyed hair that he wanted me to rotate so he could see my jeans from 360 degrees. I couldn’t help but laugh as I walked through a maze of jean retailers and noticed every head follow me as I walked by. For a Canadian, Monoculture is a rather odd feeling. My favorite vendors, which I would stop and talk to are the many male Korean’s who talk as though they are gangster rappers from the Bronx. They have the same mannerisms and play the role farley well. It is rather ridiculous that Korean youth are trying to emulate the personas of Tupac and Jay-Z. If you are feeling sorry for yourself in Korean immediately head to Dongdaemun and you will be showered with praise. Mind you, you will want to be white, blonde and youthful.
I walked down the street to another mega mall which is known for its higher prices and genuine discount designer products. I instantly fell in love with this mall as it is full of art installations and trendy boutiques. I bought a massive bottle of Jean Paul Gautier Cologne and bartered myself silly with the lady at the counter. I can’t properly put into words how comical some of the vendors are. Some of them know an adequate amount of English retail terms to get through a conversation. My favorite girl was dressed in a puffy tutu and her face lit up as soon as I started staring at her Pea Coats. She forced me to try one on and when I said it was too small and that I wasn’t interested she ran in front of me and jumped up and down with her hands flailing telling me to wait. She was rather terrifying as she ran in the other direction, presumably to another vendor who had a larger jacket. I darted and ran down the escalator with real fear painted across my face. The girl was ravenous for a sale. I was in heaven on the bottom floor as we passed by store after store of designer sunglasses and shoe boutiques. I bought my first pair of classic red high top Converse kicks.
The following day my friends from training Jeanette and Noelle met me at Guui station and the three of us walked to the huge e-mart complex. This building is probably about ten plus floors but I have begun to lose interest in counting as the sheer size of these shopping malls is losing its shock value. We walked through e-mart’s massive store where we gawked at perfectly shiny red apples, tanks full of octopi and sushi masters cutting up giant tuna heads.
I always enjoy staring at the technology sold here as it is light years ahead of what we have available at home. Rows and rows of plasma screen televisions, cameras and laptops glowing across the room. It is here that I first noticed the excessive amount of customer service available at shopping malls in Korea. As soon as we walked into the computer department there were two smiling ladies standing in high heels bowing and smiling up at us. There entire job was to welcome us and make us feel important. It is obvious that Korean’s need to feel valued, important and somewhat royal when shopping. I made a comment as we walked through the Home Care Department. We passed by many rice cookers and juicers that back home we would never have three staff standing at the corner of each aisle to help us with our purchases. I recall the frustrations of shopping at Department Stores back home, trying to find a staff member. This problem is a foreign concept in Korea. I could get used to this.
We walked out of e-mart and window shopped for a few minutes. It is here where I truly learned that Korean’s love “free gifts.” We popped into Krispy Kreme and I purchased six doughnuts. After paying I was startled to be handed my change as well as a free doughnut. Had I not just purchased six? I looked at the people around me waiting in line and they all had one of these free deep fried treats in their hands. Truly fantastic. I walked over to Jeanette who was staring at lotions at Skin Food and was ever so excited to tell her of my free doughnut gift. She purchased a bottle of lotion and we both smiled at each other as she was handed a small glass bottle, another gift. I thought to myself, “perhaps I should just buy things all day and see what free gifts I receive!” I was told at work that when you fill up your car with gas you are given a gift of candy or a box of facial tissue. As we were heading for the doors, in the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of a shinny little shoe. I turned around and my jaw dropped, my heart stopped and my legs moved from beneath me without even having to be told. I was walking into a boutique covered from ceiling to floor with shoes. I quickly ran around the store as if in a few minutes they would close. I found a fabulous pair of high top Nike shoes: midnight black, dark purple, lime green and bright pink. I felt obligated to purchase them as they were normally $180 dollars but they were on sale today for $50. They quickly wrapped my shoes and I was shocked to receive yet another gift. I opened up the envelope I was handed and with much glee read that I was holding a ten dollar gift certificate to purchase a new pair of shoes. The following day at work my manager motioned me over to his computer desk and told me that I was being given a free gift by my internet company for signing up with them for service. I spent about an hour scrolling through a huge list of gift certificates, vacume cleaners, ovens, ikea bookshelves, mountain bikes, cameras, MP3 players and furniture. I had no clue which one I wanted. Scratch that, I still have no clue what I want. I’m thinking of going for the toaster oven but I’m still biting my nails over my decision. Korean’s and Andrew Dobson love free gifts.
I was elated when my manager walked me to Techno Mart to buy my cell phone. I was thrilled beyond belief that I would finally be able to contact people and organize my social life. Techno Mart is a five minute walk from my apartment and is a ten floor mall entirely dedicated to gadgets. Seoul’s largest technology specific shopping mall. I had visited Techno Mart once before on the main and top floor but never walked through the gadget vendors on the other floors.
I spent the previous evening screaming in fear at the Tecno Mart penthouse megaplex watching I am Legend. I never thought a movie theater could really be that much of a culture shock. I stood with all of my coworkers just staring at the routine involved in getting ourselves into the theater. First we had to “take a ticket” and wait for our number to blink on the overhead neon board. We then had to select our aisle and seats (assigned seating at a movie theater, how odd). I was elated to find out that each of our tickets was just under six dollars. As I stood in the snack line, I held my beautiful ticket, a classic Korean water colour image of rural farm life. The snack line was entirely odd. Snickers bars sat beside bags of dehydrated salted squid. I literally jumped for joy when my friend pointed at the screen above us. They don’t just have buttered popcorn here! I love having options! It was a toss up between classic salted buttered popcorn or fresh steaaming Carmel Corn. After spending several minutes in line debating what combo would best fit my current cravings I chose to order Combo 2. This combo costs seven dollars and includes a large pop, nachos and cheese and a bag of popcorn. I recall that I wasn’t able to stop talking about how amazed I was at the cost of the theater food here until the movie trailers started.
I stood crammed in the elevator with my manager and we all poured out in a few moments as we reached the 6th floor. I could not stop laughing. My manager could not stop laughing at me. I told him over and over again that “no one at home would ever believe that this sort of mall exists.” I was walking up and down an entire floor crammed with tables covered in shiny cell phones. I tried to absorb everything I was staring at and still couldn’t really fathom all that surrounded me. The manager walked from vendor to vendor asking if they had any cheap used phones. I ended up finding a nearly new Samsung phone for seventy dollars. I have never been a real huge fan of cell phones but I find myself entirely obsessed with my new gadget. The phones in Korea right now are light years ahead of what is available in North America. The craze over iPhones back home is not being felt here at all. I asked one vendor if he sold them and he scoffed at me and said they had iPhone technology here years ago. I often see my students on their $800 phones webcaming with one of their parents. This is the new leap in cell phone technology. A little webcam is found on the phone and you can actually see the person you are talking to in a seamless video conference. My current phone doesn’t even go on sale in North America for a year. When it does go on sale back home I have been told it will sell for around $600.
After paying for my phone we walked to KT’s glitzy office. Huge billboards of a half naked David Beckham can be seen everywhere as he is currently the face of the Motorola Razer. As soon as we entered the phone company lobby we were greeted by two women who bowed to the floor and welcomed us by handing us a numbered ticket and offering us mints. They were dressed similar to that of British Airways flight attendants. Feet outfitted with silver stiletto heels. We sat down on white leather sofa’s which were designed in the shape of amoeba or paramecium microorganisms. I felt as though I was sitting in a spaceship scene out of the film Solaris. I sat staring at everything trying to absorb every last detail of this awesome room. The floors were shiny white marble. To my right sat two large machines. One read: cell phone cleaner, which is outfitted with tiny air tubes and cleaning spray. The other is a photo booth which allows you to hook up your cell phone and download the pictures you have taken on it and print them to take home. Directly in front of me I was staring at a long line of customer service agents talking to their customers who were sitting in swivel white leather modern globule chairs. As each customer left, and the next customers number popped onto the screen above the entrance the two model greeters would sing the numbers out to the waiting room in order to ensure that we all heard the number correctly. Attention to detail like no other. I soon realized that the singing, model, greeters had many other fantastic talents. They were also in charge of operating cleaning robots which roamed across the floor collecting dust. My favorite of their job duties was how they would prance over to your chair as you were getting ready to leave. They would then pull out your chair for you, hand you a glass of water, bow, and turn your chair back towards the customer service agent whom you had just been talking to. They seemed obsessed with the chairs being perfectly aligned, just so.
The following few days I continued my shopaholic binge-fest. I visisted Gyeongbokgung Palace in north central Seoul on a very chilly winters day with several of my other teachers. The palace was the country’s principal royal residence until the palace was destroyed in 1592 during the ImjinWaeran war with Japan. It was not the Japanese that razed the palace. The citizens of Seoul did that dirty deed. As the Japanese marched across the country, the king and aristocrats abandoned Seoul to save their own skins. Angered by the desertion, a mob burned down the palace. It lay in waste for nearly 300 years until Regent Daewon Gun, father of King Gojung, began to rebuild it in 1865. The palace is truly palatial and was my first experience with traditional Asian architecture. You could spend an entire eight hour day walking through the many palace alley’s, peering into royal chambers decorated in opulent ancient antiques and sitting under pagoda’s staring out onto a bustling river and pond surrounded by Japanese Maples. Traditional Korean roofs are interesting as they are not organized in a linear fashion but rather fan out in a parabolic manner. Each log is meticulously painted with Buddhist Zen flower decorations. We also wandered through the many halls of the National Folk Museum of Korea which is located within the Palace grounds.
All of our noses were dripping from the cold and I could barely feel my hands. We headed to the lively neighborhood of Insadong which is bar none my favorite spot in Seoul to date. It contains most of Korea’s artistic cultural heritage all within a few quaint cobble stoned streets. My face lit up as soon as we turned onto the main street from the subway terminal. The street is for pedestrians only and reminds me of the wide cutesy shopping streets located all of Europe. You can delight in the multitude of artisan shops selling everything from ceramics (I particularly got excited by the cutesy earth toned tea sets), honbok (traditional Korean outfits) and hanji (Korean paper used for a variety of crafts such as ornamental dolls, chandeliers and drawing paper for artists). The area has a splendid assortment of traditional tea houses with hundreds of loose leaf tea’s from around the globe. The sun was setting and we were all famished. We walked farther down the main street as I stared into shops giddy with excitement. I was making a note of all of the things I must purchase: Zen jewelry, Korean Folk Masks, and traditional Korean scroll wall hangings of “rural Korean life.” I stooped down to stare at a massive collection of beautiful golden seated Buddha statues and soon heard groaning from my companions to find a warm place to fill our tummies. My eyes flickered as we passed by many shops and restaurants decorated with luminous Christmas lights. I pouted as we passed by many Art Galleries which I was dying to spend all night in.
We finally walked down a tiny side street full of high end Korean restaurants. We choose a beautiful fine dining restaurant with walls lined with Korean ceramic’s and bamboo installations. We were ushered into a large room in the back corner of the restaurant. I slid open the paper sliding door and took off my shoes. Steam rolled off my socks as they touched the warm heated hard wood floors. We sat at a long private table under several white lanterns for the next two hours. We gobbled up huge platters of garlic and soya sauce pork and beef tenderloin. I nibbled on perfectly steamed rice and dabbled in kimchi and raw onions floating in a bright pink soup broth. We sipped on beers and warmed our hands on the floor as our noses continued to drip from the cold. I was rather repulsed by a small dish of green beans. I was driven farther to disgust when it was pointed out to me that when you look closer “you can see the small two centimeter long dehydrated minnows sitting amongst these long beans.” Gag me with a spoon. Or, er, chopsticks, ya gag me with chopsticks.
The following day I made a visit to COEX mall, Asia’s largest underground shopping mall which also includes an Aquarium, Theater Megaplex and Convention Center. The mall is connected to Hyundai Department store, my favorite place to indulge in perfectly wrapped treats in the food court and a great place to window shop through Prada, Gucci and Marc Jacobs. I visited COEX with my friend Stacy and our first stop was at a huge Bookstore. We walked to the English section and I blurted out to her, “the English section of this bookstore is an excellent spot to pick up a hot date!” The aisles stocked with Michael Crichton, Anne Rice and John Grisham were teaming with anglo’s like ourselves. We spent some time walking through many different clothing shops and stopped for a few minutes outside a Snowboard Apparel Boutique where a huge crowd had gathered to watch a Fashion Show. The idea that Asian’s are all short is simply a myth. Tall, beautiful and utterly fabulous Korean male and female models walked up and down a runway as the crowd cheered and snapped pictures. Another enjoyable exhibit at the mall was a company selling joke Christmas presents. One man was wearing a hat outfitted with a toilet paper roll propped on his head and a backpack with extendable laundry rack features to dry socks, underwear and dress shirts.
After a long day of shopping we stopped for lunch at Pomodoro Spaghetti. All of the tables were full so I asked if we could make a reservation for the next available seat. I had to laugh when I was asked to give the man my phone number. At home we would simply write our name down and show up in a designated and agreed upon time. Here however, cell phone crazed Korean’s have a perfectly blissful Restaurant Reservation system. I gave the man my number and his computer text messaged me while we continued shopping as soon as a table became available! I slurped a hot bowl of fettuccini with beef tenderloin, garlic, chili and tomato cream. I still find it rather odd that even an Italian restaurant gives you a bowl of pickles at the table. I swear Korean’s live off of pickled cucumbers and kimchi.
My ankles were swollen and my feet hurt but I was determined to finish off this shopping bonanza with a bit of Zen relaxation. The cities most famous Buddhist temple is located just a short walk from COEX. We walked briskly in the cold of night. I pranced along the street passing by several hotel’s which seemed to be competing with Las Vagas in the decorative lighting department.
Bongeunsa Temple is located on a wee hill. It is the countries leading training center for Buddhist monks specializing in seon (Zen meditation). Originally founded in 794 AD, it was rebuilt in 1498. It is rather bizarre to stand amongst the serene quiet of Buddhist mediation rooms, temples, pagoda’s and shrines in the middle of one the most populated cities on earth. The temple is surrounded by natural tree cover which seems to shield this spiritual place from the chaotic bustle of the city outside. My feet crunched on snow as I passed under the temples main gates. I slid on ice as I walked along several turtle funerary monuments and finally reached the glowing, twinkling yellow of the shrine. The shrine sits up high like a pedestal with massive stone stairs leading to its entrance. It sits to the north of a square terrace and is flanked by the monk’s residential buildings. One of the buildings had windows decorated in colourful paper and light passed through them as if they were stained glass. I peaked into the building to see a group of woman dancing and slowly chanting. We walked up the staircase under a rainbow of colourful glowing lanterns. We dropped a few coins into the flickering lotus shaped candle vigil and stared into the shrines bright room of gold. Three seated golden Buddha’s sat staring in front of us, entirely relaxed and at peace. The room was full of men and woman kneeling on little pillows as they prayed and mediated. We walked east towards the temples hill where the famous free standing stone Buddha is located in the open air.
We walked past several gardens and found our way to a steep staircase flanked on both sides by brilliantly red autumnal maple trees. Twice daily (4:10am and 6:40pm) monks perform a percussion ceremony on four instruments, each designed to awaken and save beings on the ground (drum), underwater (wooden fish), in the sky (cloud drum) and under the ground (gong). We so happened to be walking up this stair case as the clock stroke 6:40pm. We both turned around and looked down into the dark shadow filled landscape. The intense boom of a huge Korean battle drum was being pounded by a little old Korean monk dressed in grey traditional garb. We both smiled at each other which said something along the lines of “this is so cool.” We were now standing halfway up the staircase and could look over the surrounding trees and see the brightly lit skyscrapers glowing along the horizon. I started to dance up the staircase to the top where I met a rather large Asian lion stone statue at the entrance of the huge standing Buddha. Directly in front of the Buddha is a large square stone slab where people sit with pillows praying and meditating in the open air. I imagined how beautiful this place must be during a festival or the spring months when hundreds of people sit in this peaceful space feeling entirely Zen surrounding by the poof of lily pollen.
We turned around, walked down the stairs and headed to the entrance gates. Back into the chaotic bustle of the liveliest city in Asia. As I slowly walked out of the Temple gates I noticed that torches were flickering, my heart was beating along with the clamor of the gong and boom of the bong. The perfect way to end a non stop week of shopping is to dabble a bit in the thousand year old traditions of Zen. Peace.