Last Day in Seoul

On our last day in Seoul, my sister and I took a walk to Gwanghwamun Square. It was overcast and smoggy, but there was plenty to see on our walk toward Gyeongbokgung Palace. The palace and monuments leading up to it are impressively situated with the majestic Bugaksan Mountain as a backdrop.

We walked past the 40th Anniversary Monument of Gojong’s Enthronement. Gojong (1852-1919) was the 26th king of the Joseon Dynasty, and the first emperor of Korea.

For some reason I found myself drawn to these little figures on the gate…

They reminded me of something I couldn’t quite put my finger on…and then I remembered:

Admiral Yi (1545-1598) is one of Korea’s greatest heroes, a naval commander who never lost a single battle. He is famous for his victories over the Japanese navy and for improving upon a warship called the turtle ship or geobukseon:

My dad once told me long ago that we were related to Admiral Yi. Genealogy is a big deal in Korea. Many people have books listing all of their ancestors for generations among their most prized possessions. I know my family has one somewhere. Sure, there are a gazillion Kims, but are you the right kind of Kim? Certain Kim bloodlines have more cachet than others. This information is important when marriages are being considered. You wouldn’t want to marry a Kim from the same ancestral clan, for example. When I was in high school I had to do an oral presentation on our family history. When I asked my dad for some details, he casually told me that we were directly descended not only from the great Admiral Yi, but also from kings and queens of the Silla Dynasty. I was puffed with pride and my classmates were suitably impressed when I wove that fact into my presentation. It was only years later that I realized that EVERY Korean person is somehow related to some king, queen, (or illustrious admiral).

Still, I couldn’t help thinking about the fact that we were related to Admiral Yi as I walked past the exhibits on his life and accomplishments in the museum below street level, underneath his and King Sejong the Great’s statues.

The Admiral was as bad-ass as they come:

He was inventive, resourceful, and creative:

He was a poet…

And look! Great Grandpa Sun-sin loved keeping a diary – it was his most prized possession:

Later that day, with my head full of all the amazing things I had learned about my forebear, I asked my dad to remind me how exactly we were related to Admiral Yi. He told me he was his mother’s great x 17 grandfather. I waited for him to point out all of our ancestor’s excellent traits and qualities and to confirm all the connections I had made myself. Instead he said this would explain why my grandmother was “unusually large and husky” for a Korean woman.

This explains so much! 

You can just start calling me The Admiral from now on.

Just past the statue of Admiral Yi is the statue of King Sejong the Great (1397-1450), which was erected in 2009. King Sejong was an enlightened ruler, who is most famous for creating the simple, phonetic 28 letter Korean alphabet so that everyone could be literate. One of the most interesting features of this alphabet is that the shapes of the letters are meant to depict the shape of the mouth and tongue when making the sounds. Before the creation of Hangul, only the upper classes could read and write, because Korean at the time relied so heavily on the use of Chinese characters. Scholars and noblemen opposed the creation of the alphabet, fearing that it would sour relations with China and go against Confucian principles, but King Sejong persisted in working toward his vision of universal literacy:

The language of our people is different from that of Chinese and hence cannot be expressed properly in Chinese characters. That is why there are many simple-minded people who can not express themselves even if they have things to say. Taking pity on them, I have made twenty eight letters, only hoping that all our people learn them easily and use them comfortably every day.

I can attest to the ease of learning how to read and write Korean – my mother once taught this simple-minded person how to do it in an hour. Now if only I knew what I was reading and writing!

Past the statue of King Sejong is Gyeongbokgung Palace, built in 1395 as the main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty. It was destroyed by the Japanese in 1592 and after being rebuilt, it was destroyed again by the Japanese in 1915. Restoration to its original form began in 1990 and is ongoing.

On the extensive grounds of the palace are several museums, including the National Folk Museum.

Korean jangseung, or totems like these were often placed at village entrances, often in male and female pairs, to ward off evil spirits, protect against disease, and to ensure a good harvest. The inscriptions are identifiers. The male figure is “Great General Under Heaven” and the female figure is “Great General of the Underworld.” Now that has a certain ring to it, don’t you think?

There was an impressive collection of stone statues of civil servants. Statues such as these are often placed to stand guard at the graves of important people.

One area of the grounds has been designed to recreate a street in the 70s. My family moved to Korea for a couple years when I was a baby in the early 70s. I was too young to remember anything about it, but I thought it might bring back memories for my sister.

She once told me that all the kids had to bring candles to school. They would wax the floors with them on their hands and knees…

The 70s recreation did spark one memory for me…I was very excited to see this poster hanging on a wall. First, check out the Korean version of Audrey Hepburn:

For as long as I can remember, my dad’s been trying to convince me to cut my hair short. He always begins his pitch by talking about how when the movie Roman Holiday came out in Korea, all the women ran out to get their hair cut like Audrey Hepburn’s!


The next morning we headed to the airport…My mom especially wanted to make sure I got a picture of her with her brother and his hat! I love the fact that even in his seventies, he calls my mom noona, (big sister). He very solicitously made sure she didn’t have to wait in long lines like the rest of us schlubs!

I was touched to see that a whole party of people made the hour and a half drive to the airport to see my parents off:

One of the men told me that he had named his son after my grandfather and that his daughter has my mom’s name. He earned his doctorate in Systematic Theology, because my father first taught it to him. There was a lot of love for my parents in that airport. They may have never won any naval battles or sat on any thrones:

…(well, maybe just once), but they’ve lived their lives with integrity, and they’ve earned the respect and love of people on both sides of the globe. I’m proud to be their daughter.

This trip to Korea was an experience I will treasure for a lifetime, and I’m so grateful to have been able to share it with my parents and my sister.

The Great Admiral of the Underworld is signing off for now…Until next time!


I just got back from Knoxville, Tennessee where my daughter’s Destination Imagination team was competing at the Global Finals. I had meant to finish up my Korea posts while I was there, but limited bandwidth in the dorms we were staying in, a packed schedule, and sheer exhaustion delayed things a bit…Without further ado, here is my penultimate Korea post:

The Scoop on Poop

I didn’t know it was possible to be spoiled by a toilet. It is:

After ten days of sitting on a heated seat in the Westin Chosun, regular toilets seem so cold and primitive!

Sometimes the toilets were so high tech, I couldn’t even figure out how they flushed:

The toilets weren’t always so fancy:

I’m not the only one who couldn’t figure out how the toilets worked…Because of the existence of squatter toilets such as these, you sometimes see signs like this:

On our last day in Seoul, my sister and I walked to the National Folk Museum, which also has a Children’s Museum. This was the featured exhibit:

Food, glorious food

The Spam aisle in the Lotte Department Store Grocery:

The 12th and 13th floors have nothing but restaurants:

I was fascinated by the snacks…Mmmmmm, squid gristle!


The 9th floor of Lotte is Duty Free cosmetics. The place was full of people with gigantic suitcases, prepared to drop some serious change on face creams!

Exit through Star Avenue:

These pretty, pretty boys made me feel like a big ugly lumberjack every time I walked past:

Shinsegae Department Store is the grande dame of department stores:

We caught a sweet, temporary installation called Journey in a Dream on the top floor. The Australian installation artist Pip & Pop created depictions of paradise made of colored sugar and figurines she had collected in Korea:

Tomorrow: Last Day in Seoul


Cheong Gye Cheon Stream

The Cheong Gye Cheon Stream traverses central Seoul from West to East for about seven miles. For centuries, people gathered at the Cheong Gye Cheon to wash clothing by hand. From 1900 on shantytowns were erected along the stream. My dad recalls seeing North Korean refugees living in cardboard houses on either side during the Korean War. By 1958 the area had become such an eyesore and health hazard that the stream was covered over with concrete, and an elevated highway was eventually built over it. In 2003, a controversial $900 million, two-year restoration project was begun to remove the highway and concrete to uncover the stream once again. People complained bitterly about the disruption and the displacement of businesses caused by the construction, but today the stream is a treasured and popular landmark in Seoul.

For the month of May, it’s decorated for Buddha’s birthday:

Weekend Snapshots 23


We are staying at the beautiful Westin Chosun Seoul, which happens to be in my mother’s childhood neighborhood. From our window, we can see City Hall, the building in the foreground. My mom’s family used to live in a traditional Korean style house (hanok), right across the street.

The old house is long gone. City Hall and a few of the historical sites which survived bombings are the only buildings that are left from my mother’s childhood.

My father recalls catching a ride on a fishing boat and sailing to Inchon right after the Korean War. From there he hiked to the top of Namsan (South) Mountain to survey the city. He remembers seeing nothing but ashes and the stone walls and chimneys that didn’t get burned down the ground by the bombings.

It’s hard to imagine that scene now, when you see the bustling city:

The Westin Chosun is adjacent to the Hwangudan, or Altar, built in 1897 by Emperor Gojung (1852-1919). The American bombers deliberately made an effort to spare this and other historical sites. Seoul is full of these spots where the old and new are squeezed together:

We saw a group of schoolchildren cleaning the pagoda:

The Deoksugung Palace is right down the street:

Check out the cell phones…

We found a little restaurant across from the hotel. No menu, just this:

Right next door to the hotel is the Lotte Department Store. The Food Court is spectacular:

But where’s the potato salad?

How about fried squid on a stick instead?


Mother’s Day with my mama:

It was nice to see my dad behind the pulpit again…He was the minister of this university church for a few years:

At night we went to the Jogyesa Temple which is decorated for Buddha’s birthday with thousands of colorful lanterns:

At the entrance to the temple:

Parents Day

We made it to Seoul! Fittingly, it’s Parents Day in Korea today.

As per usual there was an entourage awaiting my parents at the gate…I counted at least eight to ten people there to welcome them back:

We’re staying at the beautiful Westin Chosun in Seoul. This is the view from our window:

Time to hit the hay!

Seoul Roundup

On our last marathon day in Seoul, my sister and I checked out another place that was right next door to our hotel in Gangnam. At the Seoul Center for Important Intangible Cultural Assets, we took silly pictures (see above)!, wandered through galleries, and checked out studios where master craftsmen produce things like norigae (decorative tassels) and calligraphy.

And then it was on to another part of the city to visit the university my grandfather founded. We saw this fantastic cart en route:

and stopped for lunch. It wasn’t exactly what we were expecting!

The last time I was in this part of the city about five years ago, this stream area was still under construction:

After a lot of aimless wandering, we finally found our way to the university, where my grandfather, an uncle, and our own father were presidents, and where another uncle is currently the president:

We finally ended our last day in the Bukchon Hanok Village. This is a residential area in the center of Seoul, between the palaces of the Joseon Dynasty – Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung. These traditional houses (“hanok”) were the residences of high-ranking government officials and aristocrats. They have been carefully preserved and are still used as private homes. Some have been converted into shops and restaurants.

There were so many other places I wanted to go, but didn’t have the time. It will have to wait until my next visit to Korea!

Busy days and nights in Seoul…

The next few days were busy from the crack of dawn to late nights with a reception, meetings at Seoul National University, and a conference…

In the evenings after work my sister and I roamed around the city together…

Once the conference was over, my sister and I had one more day to explore the city. It was a marathon!

Our hotel overlooked a group of Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty. There are 40 different Joseon Dynasty Royal Tombs scattered around various locations in Korea. Collectively, they have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Seonjeong-neung Park in Gangnam contains the tombs of King Seongjong (1469-94) and his wife Queen Jeonghyeon, as well as the tomb of King Jungjong (1506-44). On Friday morning we began our day by taking a walk around the park. The first stop was the jaesil, or “house of purification.” This was where officials would stay to purify themselves before presiding over the funeral rites.

Being here reminded my sister of visiting my paternal grandmother when we first moved back to Korea many years ago when she was six and I was a baby. Our grandmother lived in a house like this in the country. My sister remembers waking up in the middle of the night to see my mother compulsively glueing down edges of the waxed paper floor covering that had curled up:


Traditional Korean houses were heated by underfloor heating called ondol. Smoke from a furnace would travel through channels covered by the paper. The paper would be the only thing protecting everyone from the real peril of carbon monoxide poisoning.

This T-shaped shrine is typical of Joseon Dynasty burial sites:

A closeup view of some of the gargoyles perched along roof edges:

The tombs themselves are located in three different sections of the park. To reach them, you wind past copses of undulating pines:

More tomorrow…

My Mama, the Drama Queen

Originally posted in November…

My dad told us that he heard about my mother before ever setting eyes on her. According to him, Seoul was abuzz with excitement about her acting. This horrified and mortified my grandmother, who considered acting a déclassé pursuit not too far removed from prostitution.

Although my mother gave up stage acting after college, she has worn the tiara of an inveterate drama queen all her life. She is brash and sparkling: like a firecracker rather than a candle. It was a cosmic accident that my mother was born in Korea, and not in America. Korean women titter hesitantly with their heads bowed and a hand covering their mouth; my mother throws her head back and guffaws raucously. When she’s happy, she trills like a bird. When she’s angry, her eyes blaze, the moon eclipses the sun, and darkness falls heavily upon the cold earth.

Her exceptional acting skills have been called into service many times over the years. A Korean couple once called my parents in the middle of the night to ask them to accompany them to the emergency room so that they could help interpret for them. They waited in the emergency room for hours while the woman’s condition worsened. She was doubled over in agonizing pain, but was still made to wait. Suddenly, my mother stood up and started screeching at the top of her lungs like a madwoman, “This woman is DYING! She’s DYING and NO ONE IS TAKING CARE OF HER! SHE’S GOING TO DIE, RIGHT HERE IN THE WAITING ROOM!” Later my mother reported burning with shame and embarrassment as she created the scene, but she didn’t stop screaming until the orderlies rushed over and wheeled the woman away. When the doctors came back, they reported that the woman had had an ectopic pregnancy, and had indeed been minutes away from dying when my mother gave the spectacular performance that saved her life.

My mother continued to hone her craft over many years and in many venues. Bank performances became her specialty. In fact, torturing bank employees across America and getting them to do her bidding became something of a hobby for my mother. As she can’t drive, she would have me take her to the bank. My mother would sit silently, clutching her big shabby purse on her lap until called, whereupon she would blink her eyes like a dazed little bird and wander into the cubicle of her next victim. The affable bank employee would size up this little old lady, crack a few genial jokes, make a few pleasantries…And then my mother would begin.

“Now. I received this letter from you telling me that my CD matured. I would like to withdraw my money, please.”

“Ah, yes, Mrs. Kim, but it’s now July 15th, and the deadline for withdrawing was more than two months ago.”

“Yes. I understand. But I was in Korea, and I couldn’t come until today.”

No matter what the banker said, no matter how patiently he would point to the date long passed, my mother would just keep repeating her request over and over in the same mild-mannered way.

“I couldn’t come by May 1st, because I was in Korea. My flight arrived only a few days ago. I was sooo jetlagged, but finally I was able to come today. And I would like my money now.”

It would go on like this for a good ten minutes. “Pooooooor sap,” I’d think to myself as I would watch the banker squirm like  a pinned insect. Finally, he would succumb to the inevitable and hand my mother whatever she wanted on a silver platter. I imagine those bankers consoled themselves with the thought that they were doing a good deed for this dear, confused little kitten. If they had paid attention, though, they would have witnessed a remarkable metamorphosis as she strode out the door counting her bills like a Korean Keyser Söze.

Her own family was treated to the theatrics as well. When she thought we were watching too much T.V., for example, she heaved the  set into the driveway, pulled the plug out from both ends, and chopped the cord into a million pieces. When I was struggling to finish my Ph.D. with a toddler and an infant to care for and was ready to give up on the whole project, my mother called me one day and pleaded in a voice overwrought with emotion, “Just finish it for your father’s sake. It would mean so much to him. Please. Do this one last thing for him, before he dies.” Never mind that he was in perfect health, the dissertation got written that year.

About four years ago, we almost lost my mother. She was diagnosed with primary amyloidosis and given eighteen months to live. She came back to America to be treated at Sloan-Kettering through a clinical trial of a chemotherapy drug. When it was clear that the treatment would kill her faster than the disease, she was kicked out of the trial, but she had had just enough chemo to knock her disease into remission. Fiercely independent, though still weak as a newborn lamb, she insisted on dragging herself back to Korea on a 20 hour flight, against doctors’ orders and despite the entreaties of her family. My dad shudders when he recalls her lying on the airport floor from sheer exhaustion during a layover. She broke three ribs the day after arriving when she tripped over the suitcases she was too tired for the first time in her life to unpack the minute she arrived, but she had triumphed. Giving Death the finger, she had staggered back to her own apartment, and her own life. We went to visit my parents that summer and met my father’s assistant minister. This grown man in his thirties, married with two children, confessed to my brother in his heavily accented English, “I am scared of your mommy. But I love her.”

Honestly, I could write a whole novel about this woman, but I’m too scared she might read it and I’d be in big fat trouble. Instead, I’ll leave you with some photos of my mama, the Drama Queen from her early acting days.

There she is……….on the left!

In these next two photos, she’s the badass on the right.

Enhanced by Zemanta