Archive for September, 2007

The Joseon Dynasty

DeoksugungThe written history of Korea goes back more than two millennia and their archaeological and mythical record goes back long before that.  But at the moment there is a nation-wide fascination with the Joseon (Chosun) dynasty.  This is understandable.  The Joseon Dynasty lasted from 1392 to 1910 and represents the last period during which Korea was a sovereign, united nation.

So far I have visited four main Joseon dynasty sites.  The second wedding I crashed was at Unhyong Palace (or Unhyonggung) where one of last Joseon kings was born.  He later lived (and I believe died) at Deoksugung, which is pictured above. 

 Gyeongbokgung island pavillionThe dynasty’s first palace was Gyeongbokgung, which was destroyed during a Japanese invasion in 1592.  It was reconstructed in 1868 and then dismantled when the Japanese occupied Korea during the first half of the twentieth century.  Since 1990, the Koreans have been restoring Gyeongbokgung building by building, and now have about 25 of the original 330 buildings completely restored with dozens of smaller walls, courtyards, outbuildings and chimneys.  At least another 15 are scheduled to open soon.  With two lakes, two mountains in the background, and thousands of yards of cool shaded walls, the Palace has a truly royal setting.

Gyeongbokgung Ceiling DetailWhat is amazing about these reconstructions is the level of detail. If you click on any of the pictures in this blog, you will be taken to a larger version of the picture in  Look on the right hand side of the flickr page.  You will see that each picture belongs to the “Joseon Dynasty set”.  If you click on those words you will see an additional 25 pictures; run them as a slide show to get a sense of being surrounded by Korean architecture.  Here you can see the symbolic 5 color painting of the ceilings and roofs (respresenting North, South, East, West and Center - and counting blue and green as the same color).  You can also see the careful detailing of the roof tiles, which are covered with imperial animals at Deoksugung (where the king was crowned as emperor) or with royal symbols at other palaces.  Even the chimneys were created to be beautiful - they are tiled in harmony with the buildings around them and often have animals or other decorative motifs carved into them or molded onto them.

Hwaseong Changing of Guard CeremonyAt both Gyeongbokgung and at a Fortress called Hwaseong in a town called Suwon, I have gotten to watch the changing of the guard at the front gate.  Dozens of men dressed as Joseon dynasty military men played instruments, shot arrows, fired guns, carried flags, and performed precision marching steps.  At Suwon, the king came out to greet his townspeople (we the audience) and was practically mobbed with enthusiasm - his royal guard had to fend off a number of time-traveling, camera-wielding ”fans”.

Hwaseong Fortress Walk in SuwonThe Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon was built between 1794 and 1796 when the king moved all the government offices and private houses near one mountain to another.  41 buildings were built including a fortress wall that completely surrounded the city.  The fortress was deliberately destroyed by the Japanese, who built a hospital and other service buildings on the grounds in the 1930s.  Then the North Koreans invaded and American bombers destroyed much of what was left.  But the people of Suwon have rebuilt over 30 of the buildings and one can now walk almost 2 hours around the rebuilt fortress walls on well-graded paths with the occasional water fountain and helpful tourist information stand.  Yet many sections have a wild, distant feel to them, where one can imagine spending long shifts watching for the enemy and being hot or cold or just far from home. 

I promise not to subject you to too many history lessons, but hey, teaching history is my job!  Thank you (kamsa hamnida or komap sumnida) for your many comments on the blog and e-mails about it.  Knowing there are people reading and enjoying makes it worth it.  Annyeongi kaseyo (good-bye) for now. 

1 comment September 28, 2007

Thanksgiving (Chuseok)

Nong Ark drummerThanksgiving or Chuseok is a harvest festival set by the lunar calendar. This year it fell on September 25th. For weeks, Koreans have been celebrating with traditional dances and music - and planning for the inevitable nation-wide traffic jams. As in America, Koreans travel all over the country to be with relatives. Usually this means traveling to the parents’ or eldest son’s hometown since Chuseok is also a day to pay respect to one’s ancestors.

As the holiday approached, I got the chance to see a lot of traditional culture. Nong ark is traditional Korean dance and music. Bands ranging from 9-40 people play small gongs, large gongs, “bass” drums, hour-glass shaped, double ended drums, and flat tambourine-shaped instruments without the cymbals. Some wear hats with ball and socket hardware and a long, white streamer. As the band plays, these members dance complicated figures, all the while swinging the long streamers in graceful arcs around and over and under other dancers. The music has an amazing percussive power. Nong ark dancer with streamer hats

At Camp Humphreys (an American military base in Pyeongtaek) I participated in a recreation of the ancestor veneration ceremony for Chuseok. Tables full of special food, wine, incense and candles are set up near ancestor portraits, people dress in their best traditional finery, and make deep, formal bows. Then after the incense has burned down and the ancestors have had time to appreciate the good life, everybody eats until they are stuffed.

Chuseok Veneration CeremonyI spent Chuseok itself with Korean, Russian, Filipino, Chinese and Japanese students and a dorm director. One student prepared a feast of battered and fried vegetables, Korean pancakes, and two kinds of kimchee (thank you Song Min Kyung!!). Then we all made a traditional Chuseok treat, songpyeon (half moon rice cakes). These are very easy to make if you have a steamer, and are delicious - not too sweet, but addictive. If you would like a good recipe, go to and type songpyeon into the search box. I do not know how long the article will be accessible, but I cut the recipe out of the newspaper and you can ask me for it. Korea has hundreds of types of rice cakes - for more on this food group see the following website In my photostream on I posted pictures of our songpyeon - both the traditional ones and the more creative, unusual ones. Both tasted excellent, with sesame seeds, brown sugar, chewy rice and a hint of pine needle tang and fragrance.Chuseok with friends

Then as at any Thanksgiving event, we ate and laughed and shared stories and ate some more. Most stories started in English or Korean, but got translated from one to the other, with Russian and other words thrown in to get the point across. More people showed up with beer and leftovers from their Chuseok celebrations and we ate again. Then we walked, savoring the full moon over a Buddhist temple garden.

Our celebration was not quite Korean Chuseok. But it was our own form of Thanksgiving, for a good harvest of food, for friends who stand in when family is absent, for the things that make life good. Thus tradition crossed cultural boundaries, got reinvented into new forms with old meanings, and ensured its place in a changing, multicultural, but ultimately human world.

2 comments September 25, 2007

Daily Life

At Suwon FortressWhen I was 21 I traveled to Europe on a six week backpacking tour. I fainted in the Sistine Chapel and spent four days in an Italian hospital. I got rehydrated on an I.V. drip, ate better food than anywhere else in Italy, and entertained the seventeen elderly women in my “semi-private” room. I never got a bill. Calling my Mom from the hospital was hard. But I never felt as far from home as the day I tried to call home from Paris.

At least back then, to call America from Paris with a calling card you had to go through the operator. And the operator only spoke French. Only French. She would not even listen if you broke into English. At that moment, I felt so far away from home, so incompetent, so alone, so utterly lost. I could not do something as simple as make a phone call. I wrote in my journal that night “The ‘foreign’ in foreign country is when the operator does not speak English.”

Living in a foreign country means that at least once or twice a week I have to do something amazingly ordinary that I simply have no idea how to do. The daily chores of living take on new significance when you realize that you cannot do them the American way, and you hadn’t realized there was a Korean way. Having now spent a full month here in Korea, I thought I’d list some of the challenges that put the “foreign” in foreign country.

Traditional ToiletPublic Toilets: Toilet paper, if provided, is on the outside of the stall. Thus you have to decide in advance whether to be environmentally sensitive and conserve paper or always take enough for the worst case scenario. Signs on the door saying “Foreigners” or with a picture of a toilet mean you will find a western toilet. Otherwise toilets are Korean style (see photo).

Doing laundry: Since I do not have a dryer, I have to plan laundry around the weather. Doing wash on a rainy or humid day means clothes can mold before they dry. Since it has been actively raining or over 75% humidity almost every day, some days get organized wholly around laundry. When I do get to wash, I have to be careful how I hang things. Otherwise unexpected visitors at the front door get a beeline view of all my underwear and bras.

Trying to mail a package home: Post offices do not sell international mailing boxes here. You pick used boxes from the box pile provided at shopping centers, turn them inside out so they have no writing on them, and use them to mail packages.

Paying a bill: No one mails payments to companies in Korea. Instead you transfer money directly from your account to theirs at the bank or an ATM. Also no one gets bank statements in the mail - you put your passbook into the ATM and it automatically records every deposit, withdrawal and debit card use since last you updated your passbook.

recycling at my apartmentTaking out the trash: Koreans are amazing recyclers. Food goes in the orange and yellow bins (I’m hoping they aren’t meant for different kinds of food!). Paper, glass, metal, plastic, and Styrofoam have their own large sacks. You have to use your town’s garbage bags purchased at the local market.

Buying groceries: Koreans charge 5 cents a bag for every bag you use at the supermarket and appreciate your bringing your own. You do your own bagging and you have to move quickly - the people behind you are always in a hurry. Chickens at one market come cut up, but not at another - you have to ask (I avoid that section of that market, since heads on chickens goes past my comfort zone). Bananas can only be bought in complete bunches (20) but apples depend on the market - six at one, seven at the other, a dozen at a third. You bag your own produce and then walk it to an assistant, who weighs it and sticks a label on it (kind of like the bulk section of Hannaford - but with an assistant). It pays not to get the number of apples wrong.

Finding an address: Even Koreans agree that finding a street address is incredibly hard in Korea. Buildings are numbered based on when they were built, not their location on the street, and less than 20% of streets have actual street signs. All directions are relational (left at the temple, right a block after the supermarket, we’re the store behind the bank) which means having a good sense of everything ELSE in the neighborhood is useful for finding a particular location. If you are new to the country, you walk a lot - and you try to accept it is about the journey, since you may never find your destination.

Friends at the Duck RestaurantSo daily life has its challenges, but there are compensations. Telemarketers and survey people hang up on me as soon as I answer in English. Every supermarket trip or dinner out is a foray into new foods and new tastes. And I’ve never had such a sense of satisfaction from taking out the garbage, paying a bill, or buying apples.

1 comment September 23, 2007

The Wedding Crasher

Myeong-dong Cathedral under constructionA few weekends ago I went into Seoul to be a tourist; I left Seoul a wedding crasher. Now I’ve done it twice!

As I hope I have conveyed, I try hard not to be an “ugly American.” I don’t take pictures of people without asking, I try to speak at least a little Korean, I try not to wander anywhere I’m not wanted or permitted. When I wandered into Myeong-dong Cathedral (which is under construction), I was curious about its art and history. Instead I walked right into a Catholic Korean wedding, with a father walking his white gown-bedecked daughter up the aisle. I quickly headed for the back row of the cathedral and left soon thereafter. It was absolutely beautiful with a dozen women in hanbok, the brightly colored satiny dresses worn by Korean women on special occasions. But I felt like a voyeur on someone else’s special event.

woman wearing hanbokLast week, I was visiting Unhyeongung Palace at 10:30 on a Sunday. There were a few tourists and a whole lot of very well-dressed Koreans. With my English language guidebook I studied beautifully hand-made recreations of nineteenth century clothing, the separate men’s and women’s quarters, the historical exhibits in the museum. As I went to leave, the gate keeper asked why I was missing the chance to see a traditional Korean wedding?

“Don’t you have to be invited to attend?” I asked (in English). “No, this is a public place and you are American, you must attend.” Shepherded firmly to a seat in the back, I became a wedding guest, who tried to take pictures only when relatives were doing the same.

the heralds and master of ceremoniesI wish I could explain to you the meaning of the entire event, but the general outlines were very clear. A band came through and announced the start of the wedding (you can see pictures under “recent photos” on the right hand side of the blog page - click on a photo and it will take you to my photostream on Two small boys carried banners and led in the master of ceremonies. The bride and groom entered separately and paid their respects to their ancestors, their new in-laws, and each other. They drank tea and offered chestnuts and fruits to each other, perhaps for longevity and fertility. Two “aunts” helped both bride and groom with protocol and kept their gorgeous clothes from catching on things. The bride and groom got a long lecture by the master of ceremonies which was clearly, even though I understood not a word, the equivalent of that moment in a Christian wedding when the bride and groom are exhorted to treat each other well. And then we all applauded and the wedding was over.

bride and groomAs I walked out, the bride looked over, smiled and waved at me, apparently not at all upset that her wedding had become a tourist attraction. This is the amazing generosity I have encountered at every turn in Korea. People are excited that someone is interested in their culture and they are eager to explain and share. I tried to return that willingness to share a few days ago when an elderly man approached me in a park and asked me, with a deeply serious look, whether “as” in the phrase “to toll as a bell” was a conjunction. I had no idea. We discussed the meaning of “simile” and “metaphor” and I was in way over my head, but he left smiling. So goes the life of this cultural ambassador, wedding crasher and grammar instructor. It is a good life.

1 comment September 17, 2007

Mashikke Tuseyo (Enjoy your Meal)!

Recently I had an amazing meal and I can say with certainty I will never have it again.Let me explain. I took a bus into Seoul intending to have Turkish food (hey, you can only eat one kind of food so long without a break!) but I could not find the restaurant. Instead I passed Cunga Conga Fresh African Café and could not resist. African food in the center of Seoul? The menu was entirely in Korean, except for “Creamed Corn Tortilla”. It didn’t sound African, but it was not Korean either, so I ordered it.

I was served a plate of salad - thinly sliced cabbage, covered with an American overlay of iceberg lettuce, one cherry tomato and a slice of cucumber with French dressing. On a separate plate were slices of pickled cucumber and pickled radish - very Korean. My main meal was four creamed corn tortillas, a mound of bright red East African beef and berebere sauce, a small scoop of rice with peas and carrots, a little pile of jalapeno peppers, a little pile of corn, and a collection of spicy baby shrimp. Lettuce and sliced tomato were served on the side.

As I said I’ll never see anything like it again and every piece of it was tasty. But all food here has been extremely good. Korea itself is global in a way I cannot yet explain clearly, yet it also has deeply rooted food traditions.

Western chains are everywhere here!In general there are three kinds of food here: Korean, American, and other (usually Japanese). This was reflected in my students’ answers to my question, “What is your favorite food?” Top three answers: pizza, sushi and Korean food. Increasingly they might add coffee and donuts.

Typical Korean meals always include rice, soup, kimchee (pickled cabbage in any of 100 forms), and 3-4 other dishes. At a “traditional” Korean restaurant (where people go for special occasions like welcoming the new American professor), one is served 4-5 dishes to start and then dishes are brought until the table is completely full. If you finish one, it is removed and another takes its place. Dishes might include grilled mackerel (whole with bones - really difficult when you are newly armed with metal chopsticks), 3-4 kinds of kimchee, 2 kinds of baked tofu, sesame oil on seaweed, Korean style pancake, 2 or 3 kinds of chicken and rice soup, sliced pork which is eaten wrapped in lettuce leaves with soybean sauce, pickled radishes, tiny green leaves with tiny garlic cloves, hot red peppers in sauce - the list goes on and on.

hot peppers outside my apartment buildingI quickly learned to pace myself, try everything, and then eat seconds of whatever tasted best (except the mackerel - I now avoid all foods with little fish bones until I am in the privacy of my own apartment and can pick out the bones with my fingers). None of the foods are particularly hot to my tastebuds but other people tell me some of the food is fiery. I can believe it given all the hot peppers I’ve seen drying this month (see photo).

Korean Yet there is great variety. I have discovered a “traditional Korean porridge restaurant” that I like very much. In one variety of “juk” (porridge) rice is pulverized, creamed and mixed with winter squash for a sweet, smooth dish. In another the rice is cooked in chicken broth until it has the texture of grits. Then it is combined with a ginseng root, a jujube fruit, and a half dozen chopped green things (see photo - the things on the side are bossum [boiled meat], daikon radish, a spicy eggplant dish, and kimchee). At another Korean restaurant, our table had a charcoal grill in the center where we grilled bits of duck and then ate them in lettuce leaves with 3 or 4 different sauces and vegetables. We pulled aluminum-foil wrapped sweet potatoes out of the coals as our second course.

Heavenly dessert and thick teaI have not yet tried the pizza so I cannot vouch for its authenticity, but I have had great sushi at two different places. Whelk, mollusk, sea urchin and abalone are not on my usual sushi menu, but they were good, if a bit chewy. For dessert I’ve learned to love these delectable “rice cakes,” (ddoek) filled with or rolled in fruits and nuts. They are soft, chewy, a bit sticky, but not overly sweet - really addictive (see photo).

As long as I can eat well, life is good. I don’t always know what I’m eating, but I just see that as part of the adventure. I’ll try to include more food photos another time, but I am rather conspicuous as it is, so taking public photos of what I’m eating is tough! However, a friend has volunteered to give me Korean cooking lessons soon, so I’ll be sure to ask for a close up picture of Beth and the bulgogi (marinated BBQ beef). Mashikke tuseyo!

Add comment September 12, 2007

Why I am here

The American Studies DepartmentI think anyone who travels to a foreign country at some point asks the question, “Why am I here?” Perhaps they do not ask it in week two of a 40 week stay, but after 5 straight days of rain and three days of trying to arrange an internet connection with minimal Korean, I am asking.

The easy answer is that I have always wanted to live in another country, experience another culture, and the Fulbright program gave me that chance, complete with safety net. The Fulbright Program was established after World War II to promote international peace and understanding through academic exchanges and I am proud to continue that tradition in my small way. Rather than being a tourist, I get to be a productive member of South Korean society, supported by the U.S. State Department, the Korean American Educational Commission, and Pyeongtaek University.

Doksugun Palace in SeoulMy official duties are remarkably light. I teach one course this semester - Race and Gender in American Society - and I am currently setting up two study groups where students can meet with me once a week, talk about America and practice their English. Students are hungry for chances to speak English with a native speaker (though less hungry to ruin their GPA by actually taking my class!).

Myeong-dong Cathedral and woman in hanbokWhat I’m finding, however, is that my unofficial duty is to talk with people - to be a civilian American in South Korea. To listen when a faculty member takes the risk of speaking English to a stranger and tell them honestly that I understood every word. To share that Americans are even more afraid than Koreans to speak a foreign language with native speakers. To explain what Americans mean by “Asian” to people who have been controlled and invaded by China and Japan and thus do not see themselves as inherently similar to either.

Personally, my job is to experience - to simply experience. That is hard for a type A personality, always focused on the outcome, the product, the result. So I went to Seoul last weekend because I wanted to “check off” some of the places on my list of things to see - Namsangol’s Choson dynasty houses, Myeong-dong Catholic Cathedral, and Doksugun, one of 5 Royal palaces in the city. I walked a city of 9 million people (and far too many cars!) and gawked. Four lane highways packed with cars, twisting alleys full of shops, and everywhere, people breaking into English to help me find my way.

School girls at Namsangol VillageOther than a family from India and a couple from Germany, I was the only non-Asian I saw all day. Thousands of school children in identical uniforms, dozens of older men and women out walking in the rain, a few young couples (probably tourists from other Asian nations), but no single caucasian women. People stared openly until I greeted them with Annyeong Haseyo (hello) and then they broke into smiles and bowed. School children, male and female, giggled and practiced their English: “American?” “photo please!” “Good morning - how are you doing?”.

I realized that at least for some people that day I _was_ the experience. Even as I played tourist, my willingness to be stared at, to stop and speak English, to try speaking Korean - all mattered in a way I had never expected. I was told often before I left the United States ” to simply be open to the experience. It is not what you accomplish there, it is who you are that matters.” So I am being me. For the moment, that is why I am here.

3 comments September 5, 2007

Pyeongtaek University

View from my office
View from my office
Humanities and Social Sciences
My classroom
Pierson Hall - front
You have all been very kind reading through my word-laden posts. Here is a post that is almost all pictures. I can now call this “my University” since I received my formal temporary appointment from the President yesterday (and I could read my name in hangul on the certificate!). I hope the pictures convey how beautiful it is here.

This is the main administrative building. My office is on the fourth floor.

This is my office, complete with desk, table for six, chairs, a bookcase, computer, two large windows, and air conditioning. Faculty here buy their own printers - I’m still working on that one.

This is the view from my office. This is the central square. The building across the way has many uses, but I use the cafeteria. To the right is the library.

Here are two views of the humanities and social sciences building, where the American Studies (Miguk Hak) Department is located, along with my classroom. I love these trees.

This is my classroom, complete with computer and LCD projector. The computer interface is completely in hangul, but microsoft office is so standardized, I navigate completely by habit, rather than language.

Here are two views of Pierson Hall, the oldest building on campus. The building was originally built in Seoul in 1915 when the University was first founded. At that time it was the tallest building in Seoul. It was moved, brick by brick, to this campus.

I’ll post more pictures of campus another time, but that should give you a sense of the place.

1 comment September 4, 2007


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