Then We Will Hike in the Shade

Trip Start Aug 04, 2009
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Trip End Aug 30, 2010


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Flag of Korea Rep.  ,
Saturday, May 1, 2010

My last 6 months living in New York I shared an apartment with a guy named David Chung.

No seriously.  It was like one of those high concept movies that sorta works as a 5 second pitch:
    <ring>
    hi, is David home?
    speaking.
    David Chung?
    speaking.
    ...uh...
    <cue laugh track>
but comparing credit limits on our matching credit card solicitations just doesn't quite stretch out into a feature length film, let alone a 6 month lease.  Although I guess it's a kinda funny epilogue that he can't take on a mortgage right now due to my crappy credit rating being mixed up with his.

So this one time we went to Met together on the Upper East Side, starting with the East Asian wing.  DC2 (his middle name being Ta-Wei, he acceded surprisingly quickly on being David TWo) being Taiwanese, he could read all the calligraphy on the zillion year old Chinese scrolls and paintings, leading to a rant about the tragedy of Mao's introduction of simplified characters, severing the entire country's connection with its 2,000 years old history.

Anyway, my sympathy for TW's chagrin dissipated quickly when we crossed over to the rather underwhelming Korean section.  The centerpiece was a collection of ancient clay pottery, supplemented by some old hamboks (or more precisely, ones of recent manufacture by a contemporary designer attempting to recreate the classic style).

The sad bit being that the exhibit wasn't bad in its own right, it just lacked the sparkle in comparison to the neighboring Chinese blue porcelain and green jade works and Japanese samurai paraphernalia (in all fairness, 15th century Japanese Wakou pirates kidnapped most of Korea's best craftsmen and wares, which may make this blog the first and only place on the internet drawing comparisons between the Japanese and Somalis).

This is how I grew up seeing Korea -- living in the shadow of its bigger, more impressive neighbors...


Hot on the heels of meeting Aram and Inyong, I got an invite to go hiking with SooMyung and SoYoun, whom I'd last seen at the Black Moon Party on Koh Phangan, Thailand.  The proposed trail was the ancient city wall wrapping around the northern 3 quarters of ancient Seoul (the Han river comprising the southern flank).

The trail itself was nice, with picturesque views over both the city and surrounding hilly countryside.  It did feel kinda strange, though, having to bring my passport for a hike: apparently much of the wall and surrounding territory is still used for military purposes, making the analogy to the Great Wall of China complete, simply substituting North Korea for the Mongolians.

But the thing that really stuck out were the hikers themselves.  All these Koreans kitted out in their state-of-the-art hiking accessories: thermalite tights, North Face vests, ventilated gloves, full-brimmed hats and ski-caliber walking poles, as often as not retracted and lashed to their sleek Jansport micropacks with a drinking tube snaking out the bottom.

Even SoYoun had mosquito sunglasses and a ludicrous bonnet-like thing
tucked under her beanie to ward off the sun (Koreans, like Honkers and
Japanese, are phobic of getting tan).

Seriously, potheads don't buy this much paraphernalia.  It's like those old ladies who put on arm floaties and goggles to splash around the shallow end of the swimming pool, simultaneously embarrassing and endearing.


Oh yeah, one final thing I neglected to mention earlier about that art exhibition.  The names of the corporate sponsors behind the whole exhibit were prominently displayed above the main archway: Hyundai and Samsung.  Which is to say, there's a certain neuveau riche mindset that doesn't care whether the occasion merits the kit or not, what matters is that they're dressed to impress*.

I guess the thinking is that if Korea's got to live in China's shadow, it might as well look cool...

-Dave
posted: June 30, 2010 from Kunyu Mountain Shaolin Academy


*This attitude seems to extend even as far as churches.  At the bottom of the hill we met this Canadian guy named Jason who had also just turned 31.  He told us that he'd chosen Korea over other countries in which to teach English because it was heavily Christian, then handed us each a card for his church.  Repeat: business cards for a church.  Seriously?
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