Saturday, January 16, 2010

Impressions from my first week in Korea

Well, I have completed my first week of work in Korea and am enjoying the weekend off in Seoul. I walked around Seoul yesterday on my own as a tourist in 9 degree weather which has been the warmest day during my trip so far. People here are thrilled with the "warm" weather today and are out and about like it's 60 degrees. I had on an expedition Capilene under garment, a fleece over-shirt, a fleece vest, a fleece scarf, Thinsulate gloves, a wool hat, ski socks, insulated boots and a full length wool coat and was still cold. I walked to the Old Palace, the National Art Museum and an old Korean market. The palace was gorgeous with ceremonial guards outside. I was able to see the changing of the guards as I arrived. The market was filled with thousands of people buying and selling goods; really cool. I took lots of photos; I'll post some photos later.

The Korean people are extremely polite. They hand things to you with both hands while bowing. If they reach for something, they put one hand on their elbow while extending their other arm. I suspect this is to avoid hitting someone or something with their elbow during the reach. It is very lovely the way they do this and I am trying to remember to do it when I reach for something. They seem appreciative of my effort.

I have learned to say hello (anyeong haseyo), thank you (gam-sa-ham-ni-dah), cheon-man-e-yo (you're welcome), yes (dey), ban-gab-seum-ni-dah (nice to meet you) and cheers/bottoms up (gum beh).

I have been treated to many traditional Korean feasts whereby you take off your shoes and sit on the floor at low tables in narrow private rooms so that while you are seated on the floor, you can lean on the walls to support your back. The steak restaurant tables have charcoal pits in them and the waitresses cook your food on the table. Waitresses come by with scissors to cut up your food because knives are not part of your utensils. Koreans use long thin metal chop sticks and long thin spoons for eating. The chop sticks are much more thin than Japanese or Chinese chop sticks giving them a delicate, sophisticated look and feel. The food is very fresh and healthy and rice is a staple; rice tea, rice wine, rice desserts and rice as a base for nearly every dish. The food is somewhat spicy and has varied tangy and savory flavors. The tables are filled with many little dishes of food and soups and no one is expected to finish any of it. They eat soup with every meal too along with plenty of fresh leafy green salads. Sesame leaves are very popular and are my favorite. The leaves are used to wrap your food. You take a leaf, add some meat, onion, garlic and bean paste, wrap the leaf into a roll and eat it in one bite. By the way, Koreans are the leading consumers of garlic! The dishes continue to arrive at your table until people stop eating. Then they serve a sweet rice tea to help with the digestion at the end of the meal. Being from New Orleans, I truly appreciate good food and good service, and Korea has both! Kudos!

Koreans are probably the most punctual people I have ever met. If an event is scheduled for 10:00, it starts at 10:00. If the train is supposed to arrive at 10:04, it does! I guess with 15 million people in Seoul alone, time is a way of keeping life orderly.

My workshops and concerts have been well received. Koreans are very rhythmic and love to sing. Karaoke (also called song rooms) is HUGE here so they are with me from the moment I sing the first note.

Well, those are my impressions for the first week. Next week, we'll be on the road outside of Seoul. I'll spend my birthday in Busan at the Busan English Library and Global Village with elementary school children. Busan (pronounced Pusan) is the second largest city in Korea. Kind of cool being in another country for my birthday.

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