Saturday was wet and rainy. The good news was that I found a place close to Austin and Emily’s place that served up a good shot of espresso (but in a paper cup), and after breakfast, I took this opportunity to wander around the entertainment district that we had gone to the night before, ostensibly to look for Sim Sang Dang, a bakery  recommended on Wikitravel.

Rainy streets in Daejeon

wonderful baked goods

I was completely blown away by this bakery, which had been in existence for apparently fifty years or so, and has won numerous awards. I don’t usually eat a lot of baked goods, but on this rainy morning it felt right to have a croissant with cream cheese. After that, I wandered over to Austin’s place, but due to a technological glitch, I had to wait awhile before Austin and Emily came out to start our day. The plan was to go to Costco for some groceries, then head off to lunch at a buffet (for my belated birthday dinner from Austin and Emily) and then take in a movie. We took another immaculate and fast subway to our lunch place. I have to say that the “Kingdom” lunch buffet was one of the most impressive that I’ve ever experienced. The selection of Korean, Japanese, and other cuisines was truly amazing, along with an incredible variety of vegetables, fruit and dessert. I don’t usually even eat a formal lunch, but faced with this exceptional array, I had to indulge. Of course, I felt massively full for the rest of the day, and didn’t even feel like dinner until much later than usual.

After lunch, we headed over to the movies. The rain all day was mostly light and so not unpleasant to walk around in. We arrived at this huge department store complex called Lotte which included a theatre on top, and a large food section on the bottom. At the theatre, I was surprised to find advanced ticketing terminals, which included buying tickets by using your smart phone or the internet. There were no tickets being sold by actual humans.

use internet or smart phone to buy ticket

Also surprising were assigned seats in the auditorium, and an advanced lighting system. The novelty of this made up for the latest Hollywood shallow and inane film we saw:“Thor,” which was interesting only for its frank acknowledgment and approval of torture by the US government.  Don’t. Just…don’t.

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We were still so full from dinner that we decided to cook at home late and watch some tv. Emily whipped up some Korean “tacos,” shrimp and veggies in a delicious spicy garlic sauce. Accompanied by the wine I bought at Costco earlier, it made for a fine late dinner. We ended the evening by watching a couple of amusing shows and movies.

after shopping at Costco

Sunday is Seoul Day (The slow train, finding a money-changer, markets, art and a buddhist service)

On this day, we were scheduled for a trip to Seoul. We took the slow (2 hour) train around 10:30 a.m., arriving at 12:30, and spent the first 45 minutes or so searching for a place to change dollars to Korean won, which is harder than you’d think on a Sunday, eventually finding success in, of all things, a sunglasses shop in the local market. Wandering about in the market, we had lunch in a bustling local joint, which had typical Korean fare. As an aside, the amount of food service establishments in this country is just incredible! You could eat yourself to death without even trying. After lunch, we took a long subway ride to the Korean National Center of the Arts (I may have this name slightly wrong), where we viewed a striking exhibit entitled Spirit of the Mountain, consisting of calligraphy combined with beautiful large photos of, oddly enough, mountain scenes.

National Center for the Arts

Spirit of the Mountain Exhibit

Calligraphy Photo Exhibit

very large photo

After that, we went back down to the fake “lawn,” where we watched a synchronized water fountain and music show. The weather was perfect for this activity, and I enjoyed people-watching at the same time.

Music synchronized with water

I noticed that married Korean couples generally do not wear wedding bands, but the culture itself seems extremely family-oriented, emphasizing romance, love, and family togetherness. After the show ended, it was back to the super-efficient and crowded subway for a ride to another type of market, where we saw more artisan-produced goods. As in the recent trips I’ve taken, I was slightly sorry that I wasn’t in an acquisitive mode, since some of the items were authentic and tempting.

After a bit of shopping, it was time for a visit to the Buddhist temple, where we intended to eat the wraps we had brought for our evening meal. I was impressed with the beautiful, ornate temple; many colorful lanterns were on display in honor of Buddha’s birthday.

lantern display

I went inside and meditated briefly before the massive three Buddha statues that dominated the place.

3 giant Buddhas

While we were eating our dinner outside the temple (the grounds had many benches and other places to sit), the Buddhist priests began rhythmically drumming and beating the gong outside the temple. They then proceeded into the temple and began the service, chanting over and over. The sound was similar to native American music that I’ve heard before. It was the perfect accompaniment to our modest evening meal. After dinner, we headed back to Daejeon via the slow train again, arriving after 10:00 p.m. All in all, it was a long and interesting day, full of sights, sounds, smells and tastes. Tiring, but fun.

Monday was a relatively unstructured day. I woke up late (finally getting enough sleep was nice), and practiced a gentle yoga class I’ve been working on. Heading down to the hotel cafe, I was surprised and pleased to discover coffee, actual real brewed coffee of a color and strength that approached acceptable. I resisted the impulse to drink the whole pot, though.

I would never forgive myself if I didn’t revisit Sung Sim Dang, the bakery I found Saturday, and I wasn’t disappointed. I went a little later this time and the amount of baked goods that were put out had increased quite a bit. I had a little trouble deciding what to buy; the variety was unbelievable, and it was all so cheap! I so wish we had a place of this quality at home.

varieties of baked goodsEntrance to Sim Sang Dang

After leaving the bakery, I strolled around and found an espresso shop and decided to try it.I observed the female baristas technique, which seemed adequate, but the espresso itself was unimpressive; probably an inferior grinder or beans.

Korean Barista prepares espresso shot

Leaving there, I went over to the espresso place I found the second day here and had my usual shot in a cup. Simply put, there was no comparison. Soooo, just so we know, good espresso in a paper cup beats inferior espresso in a warmed ceramic one. I showed the barista at the second place my espresso bona fides by letting him see my pictures of my home machine, which had the desired effect. I like how Koreans show themselves impressed; they make this noise that, well, just has to be experienced (it’s kind of like, “whaaaaaa”).

the real thing

From there, I leisurely walked over to Austin’s school to meet him for lunch. Arriving at Austin’s second school, I noticed something strange outside on the street (see below).

Austin teaches here too

kids bikes outside 2nd school

I was happy to discover that on today’s menu were lettuce wraps, with the special Korean sauce that Austin loves. After lunch, we had a nice stroll and conversation on the track in the back of the school. On this afternoon, I intended to revisit the department store we had been to on Saturday to get a couple of wraps for the long plane ride home. I successfully negotiated the correct subway station, and after a couple of attempts, found the department store, but to my surprise, the place was closed! On a weekday, really? Is it an Asian thing, a department store thing, what? On the way back, I found a place which looked more like an actual grocery store and discovered an interesting beer, labeled “black beer stout.” Well, this was something I had to try, and at about $1.10 US a bottle, seemed kind of low risk. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the label was probably just a little bit, well, misleading. This was probably the lightest “stout” I’ve ever tasted. I don’t mind a low alcohol stout, but one that just looks like a stout and still tastes like cheap lager is kind of, well, ridiculous. I imagine it’s made by someone who doesn’t really know what stout is, or maybe that’s just the market here. In any case, a disappointment.

Bad Korean Stout

Dinner was originally supposed to be Indian food, but again, the place was closed, and we had to content ourselves with some bread and meat concoction from the Costco cafe, which, well, kind of lacked atmosphere, to say the least. Still, Austin and Emily got their groceries for the week, so it wasn’t all bad. The theme of unavailability continued to haunt us, though, because we tried going back to the same coffee/bookstore we went to on Saturday, but they were having a private party. We ended up having coffee beverages at the espresso place I liked so much. Good conversation makes up for a lot of shortcomings.

On my last morning in Korea, I once again visited Sim Sang Dang for stuff to take with me on the long journey home. As it turned out, I had plenty of food the entire trip. I also visited my friend the Korean barista (the paper cup one); he knew me by now and every time he saw me, asked, “espresso?” Anyway, I was a little more burdened on the return since I was carrying Austin and Emily’s winter coats back for them, to save them a little space on their own return. The first leg of the journey involved me walking about 30 minutes down to the train station to catch the bullet train to Seoul. I started out, but after a few minutes walking, I realized that the weight of what I was carrying was a bit much for such a long walk. I hailed a cab, but quickly realized the language barrier was going to cause a problem. I showed the driver my train ticket and said “KTR” (Korean railroad) several times; the driver seemed to understand but then took off in a different direction than the one I had been heading in. Needless to say, this didn’t seem good, especially since I had limited time to catch the train. We had a couple more exchanges in our respective languages, but finally the driver deposited me in front of what looked like a train station, but not necessarily the one I had in mind. Despite this, I went in and after asking a couple of attendants, it seemed like the right place. What a relief when I saw my train featured on the departure display! Anyway, the bullet train itself was an amazing experience: almost completely silent, comfortable, not crowded, and on time. The infrastructure supporting this was also impressive, and a significant indicator of the values of the culture. Arriving in Seoul Station, I went downstairs to purchase a ticket to Incheon Airport. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that not only could you check in with the airline before getting to the airport, you could also go through security, enabling you to bypass normal security at the airport. The efficiency of this was just astounding; I haven’t flown internationally very much, and the differences between these security procedures and those in the US is vast. I had about 2 ½ hours at Incheon before boarding the flight, so had a chance to stroll around the airport and observe. Incheon is the most futuristic airport I’ve ever been in; it seemed like a trip to the future compared to those in the US. Besides the efficient security, the facilities seemed to be world class.

view from upstairs, looking out

The People

Koreans, by my observation, are quite concerned with appearance. Fashion is ubiquitous here; there are an incredible number of apparel establishments, and the stylish and formal appearance of most people easily confirms this. I was also struck by the lack of variation in the demography—few street people, beggars or people of lower economic class. My guess is that economic stratification is much less than the US, which is severe and getting more extreme.(Update:  this is true; economic stratification is significantly less in South Korea than the US).  Family is a prominent value as well; many establishments cater to weddings, birthday parties (first birthday is particularly important, according to Austin), and romance. Education is emphasized; Austin has taught at “camps” which take place over school breaks. The students are enthusiastic and seem eager to learn. I saw many older people engaging in physical activity; exercising, mountain climbing, riding bicycles, and the like. There were few overweight people, in contrast to the US. The traffic in Daejeon seemed light considering the size of the city; you can easily get around using public transportation and walking. On the other hand, and in contrast to some of the above, Koreans don’t have any qualms about expectorating in public; many times I saw people actually hawk and spit on the sidewalks.  This was most disconcerting when women engaged in this practice. I understand from my reading that this may be prevalent in Asia, but it was kind of jarring anyway.

The Advantage of a Unified Culture

Coming from a highly stratified, fractious culture with a long history of individualization, it is striking to observe some of the differences in this highly unified and homogeneous country. Are the advantages worth the price of unity? Hard to say, but I’m going to give it a try.

Well, the first, last and most of important of what I saw in this country was encapsulated in the bike rack outside of Austin’s school, where bikes were parked out on the street without locks.

bike rack in front of elementary school

This is astounding in a city of 1.5 million people, and is further echoed in the mailbox outside Austin’s apartment, where there are mail slots, but no locks of any kind; mail just sticks out of the slot.

Mailbox in front of Austin's apartment

This would be completely unheard of in any American city of any size. The lack of property (and we assume, violent as well) crime is almost incomprehensible to someone who is used to the crime levels of the US and other Western countries. It’s almost impossible to overstate this; it was obvious the entire time I was there, in the schools Austin taught at, and elsewhere. I can safely say that I have never felt so safe and secure in any large city, in the US, Mexico, Central or South America and elsewhere, that I felt in Daejeon and Seoul. As a quality of life issue, this is simply mind-altering. To be able to wander about in a large city without fear of crime, or just being accosted or asked for money, well, let’s just say that this is unique in my experience, and I have visited many large cities, Western as well as in the Third World. There was a public prosecutor’s office in Daejon but I am curious how many cases and of what kind constitutes that offices’ workload. It even reached as far as people’s behavior on the streets: although the vehicle traffic was brisk, it was always orderly and there was a distinct lack of jaywalking among the pedestrians, despite the sparse police presence. The streets were clean and there was minimal litter; in a large city, you’d expect a lot more disorder generally. As noted,the public transportation was immaculate, efficient, and always on time. The high speed rail is something to be experienced. I am not sure the US has the will and the capacity to produce something of this nature in this stage of its devolution. It was, again, mind-altering, and most obviously a perfect example of how the culture is revealed in the infrastructure, or more broadly, its actions.

To consider the country’s character in its entirety, let’s take another look at  the high speed rail infrastructure. This reflects a which culture values significant and extensive investment in public transportation, something that is noticeably lacking in the US today.  Incheon International Airport is another example. The facilities are striking and futuristic, the security is efficient, and the whole experience is something wholly lacking in the US.

Korean health care is single payer, fully funded by taxes, and is by all accounts, efficient and inexpensive. This would not be interesting to anyone but a US resident.

On the other hand, South Korea is a country which has a complete lack of diversity of any kind. Korea seems like a closed society, probably open only to Koreans. If you are a Westerner and like being ignored completely, this is the place for you. Oh, the shopkeepers are polite and are eager to help, but there’s not more than that. Perhaps fluency in the language would enable a different experience. I suspect more tolerance of diversity would produce more openness among the public, although this is speculation. It is clear from talking to Austin and his experience in the Korean school system that education is highly valued in Korea, and this is something which bodes well for the country’s future, again in contrast to the US. I did notice a lot of closed circuit tv signs and cameras, suggesting that surveillance is pretty prevalent and open. I would not expect that there would be any protest or debate about this,considering the homogeneous nature of the culture. Not that the US is any better, having willingly surrendered most of the constitutional rights without complaint or protest.

This is also a heavily militarized county, by history and necessity. It’s not a frivolous proposition to have a mandatory two year military service requirement when an belligerent, nuclearized, desperate and insecure dictatorship exists right on your northern border, and of course, there is the Korean War legacy, along with the continuing US military presence. Nonetheless, it is disturbing to read about South Korea engaging in arms sales to other countries around the world. The perrenial and seemingly endless hostilities may explain the weakness of the Korean won. There is certainly an element, which South Korea has in common with the US, of the glorification of the military. Certainly this clashes with the Buddhist elements and heritage we experienced during my visit.

Green Korea?

I saw a lot of print space and rhetoric devoted to “green” aspects of society during my visit. Certainly the country has embraced recycling with a vengeance; most recycling facilities feature several different categories of materials, something that is not yet common in the US. However, it is superficial and misleading to talk about green methods of consuming increasing amounts of resources for a growing population, and I found no awareness of the underlying problem; overpopulation. The lesson this country (and most, for that matter), doesn’t want to hear is that there are limits, to increases in people and resources, and no, importing them is not the answer either. This is probably a truth best left unsaid in a culture like this. I doubt that those who hold the reins of power are going to even acknowledge the problem, much less do anything about it.

Conclusion:  I wouldn’t mind spending an extended period of time in Daejeon or some other Korean city, learning the language and culture. The country is quite livable in many ways, and the language barrier is not as daunting as you might think. South Korea is an impressive country, considering some of the obvious cultural values expressed in public works, infrastructure and behavior. The contrast with the US reveals the difference between a young,unified, growing nation bursting with vitality, and a decadent,fractious, declining empire spiraling slowly but inevitably downward.