Friday, February 20, 2009

First day in Korea

Korean houses are heated via 'On-dol', a system of water pipes running beneath the floors that radiate heat upward. It's nice waking up in the morning to heated floors, especially when the temperature outside is in the teens and your doors are made of rice paper.

For breakfast we went to the "Ostrich Cafe," as Jeane called it, which was a small bakery a few blocks away with a gigantic white sculpture of an ostrich/dinosaur and her hatching baby that literally took up half the seating area. We had a few random bread items - one turned out to be a ham and cheese sandwich, another a blueberry sort of pancake with a sweet filling - and some delicious cups of Americano (I had heard that Korea doesn't have good coffee, but so far this info has been disproven). We took a stroll through Insadong, one of Seoul's main traditional thoroughfares. Narrow stone streets were lined by dozens of pottery and tapestry and art shops selling clay tea sets and chopsticks and large calligraphy brushes and items I have yet to discover names of. All of the shops were decorated in a heavy Asian aesthetic, with simple, elegant designs. It was all very romantic. We stopped to watch some restauranteurs making dumplings through an open window, and admired the pictures of exotic (to us) dishes they served, an entire octopus here or a shrimp tail sticking out of a dumpling there. So far I haven't seen any roasted dogs roadside, but I'm keeping my eyes open.

For lunch we took the subway about 45 minutes away to meet some of Rob's friends who have been teaching in the suburbs of Seoul since September. The subway was very clean and efficient, and crowded with people, a good number of them wearing surgical masks, even at 11AM. When I first walked through the train's open doors I was immediately transported back to fourth grade and Lawrence Lee's house. It was a distinctly Asian odor, separate entirely from the smell of the food that Mrs. Lee was cooking. It was a smell of body odor, but not an unpleasant one like that of Americans or Europeans when they forego deodorant. It has traces of garlic, and rice, and ginger, and while I stood there on the subway inhaling, I was struck by the strong undertones of cocoa powder. I could only think, I really am in Asia.

We met Rob's friends at their favorite local restaurant, which served family style meals around a low table with a gas burner in the middle. We sat on thin mats on the floor. They placed a pot with broth and green onions on the burner, and piled plates and bowls in front of us with layers of thinly-sliced frozen beef and noodles. One of the bowls had only rice and green onions and a single raw egg. It was similar to fondue, except that we cooked all of the meat at once instead of piece-by-piece. We each filled our bowl when we wanted to, and ate with flat Korean chopsticks and a single spoon when there was nothing left to grab. Afterwards we each had a complimentary neapolitan ice cream cone.

After the meal they took us up to see their hagwon, or private after-school learning institute, one of thousands which many Korean children attend. Here they teach a variety of subjects - science, business, math - but in English, with an emphasis on learning vocabulary rather than actual subject content. The teachers complained about being overworked, that the hagwon was run as a business with little concern for their students' actual education.

We parted feeling good about our decision to go with EPIK, since we would be teaching in public schools, where the emphasis is on education rather than profit.

From there we took the subway to Hongik University, in search of Heimdall, a cafe Rob's friends recommended to us, where Garrarufa fish eat dead skin off of your feet while you sip coffee or beer or eat peanuts. It was one of the most bizarre-sounding things I had ever heard of - clearly I had to try it. Heimdall was on the seventh floor of a high rise overlooking the city and, immediately, a multi-room luxury karaoke studio. There was a small seated section with tables, and some walled-in smoking sections, but the main attraction in the room was the raised patio in the center, where glass tables were set over two pools of water. We took off our shoes and socks, washed our feet in the deep floor sinks lining the room, and settled in on the smooth wood floor surrounding the pool of Turkish Doctor Fish. We (I) spent the next hour giggling, shrieking and shivering as the tiny fish nibbled at our feet.

The next pool over was full of Chinese Doctor Fish, which just seemed to be much larger, more aggressive versions of the Turkish variety.

Afterwards we washed our feet again. I can't say that my feet felt much softer or cleaner, but I'd go back anyway. It seems like something whose novelty would take a long time to wear off.


  1. I thought you were joking about the Turkish fish. ha!

  2. i thought it was a joke the first time i heard about it too. luckily reality can be more fun than imagination. and more ticklish too.


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