Posts Tagged 'Korea'

Passport Cover by Park Jin Ok

passport
THE UBIQUITY OF PASSPORT covers in South Korean shops speaks volumes to this society’s new internationalism. Spending a month in the outskirts of Newcastle to do an MBA program or jetting off to Vancouver, B.C., for an English-language course have become commonplace adventures — necessary to reach a level of relative success. Coming across a cover that communicates a matching sense of class to customs agents, however, is less frequent.

I picked up this hand-sewn, goat leather passport cover by designer Park Jin Ok (or “Janey,” as is stitched on the detail tag) in the homewares section of A Land in Seoul’s Myeongdong district on a recent shopping trip. The way the corners don’t exactly match up gives it a rough-edged DIY feel that contrasts nicely against the material’s baby-softness; the small inner pockets are handy for keeping track of train, ferry and plane tickets. The truffle brown color of the leather is classic, and will show the nicks, stains and wear from the years’ travels.

KRW16,000 (US$12)
http://www.a-land.co.kr

Velib-style Program Far Off in Seoul

jongno
SEOUL — A RACK FULL OF IDENTICAL silver bicycles caused me turn my head and pause a moment as I made hurried strides away from my office. With baskets hanging from the handlebars, they looked  utilitarian but not sturdy; the bikes’ clunky design gave off a shine of cheapness. Their frames were adorned with lettering praising the supposedly clean air of Seoul’s Jongno District, and they were locked with identical locks. Briefly considering  their proximity to the district office, I was led to an exciting conclusion — these must be public bikes!

Unfortunately, it was the wrong conclusion. I stopped by the Jongno office on Tuesday to ask about registration but ended up speaking with a man who told me the bikes were for use only by civil servants (who likely weren’t using them due to a cold snap). He lamented that a program styled after Paris’ Velib was a long way off in Seoul. While the government recently announced plans to expand the capital’s shoddy network of bike lanes (which are often used by pedestrians, roller-bladers and flippant men and women on scooters), getting together the funding to create such a program would be difficult, he said.

In sharp contrast, the provincial city of Changwon in Korea’s far south set up a thoroughly advanced bike-sharing program last year. Citizens can check out bicycles digitally, lock up at dozens of stations around town and feel safe knowing that any medical bills resulting from accidents will be at least partially covered by the municipal government. All of the bikes are also equipped with navigation systems that sit between the handlebars.

It’s great that small towns are cutting new pathways towards sustainability, but shouldn’t Seoul be leading the way? A big part of the problem is a jumbled mess of roads and merciless traffic, admitted the Jongno employee. Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon met with the head of National Geographic Channel Asia to sign an MoU on combating climate change earlier this week. But whether Oh will make any groundbreaking changes to foster a bike-friendly culture in the city remains to be seen. Certainly getting public workers to see the streets from the saddle is a step in the right direction.

Hello 2009: Looking Back, and Forward

ferry

SEOUL — THE FERRY PITCHED AND ROCKED in the dark waters of the Tsushima Strait. Foamy white caps spun off the tops of waves outside as attendants rushed wobbly-legged around the cabin, passing out sick-bags left and right to passengers appearing in need. The engine of the hydrofoil shuddered to a stop and then started again as the captain negotiated the rollers. An older, heavyset woman stumbled to the back row looking pale and queasy before she was escorted to first class to lay down on top of a blanket. I looked across the aisle at Janice; her eyes were shut tight and her hand cupped around her lips. Things were not looking good.

It was an unfitting end to what had been a calm, even enlightening trip to the southwest of Japan. Our initial voyage to Fukuoka from the South Korean port city of Busan had been smooth: we knocked out soon after we hit the seats, thanks to the Dramamine. Since then we had rocketed to Kyoto aboard the Shinkansen Hikari bullet train, meandered peacefully from temple to temple and soaked in the public baths of our ryokan. We had strolled the Blade Runner landscape of Osaka, ate tacoyaki along its famed Dotonbori and watched the last sunset of 2008 from the top floor of the Umeda Sky Building.

Our journey (what I say was “Honeymoon Part I,” with promises that “Part II” will involve beaches and hammocks) also gave me the opportunity I had been craving to evaluate the raft of changes that have taken place in my life. Looking back on the past six months I saw transformations in myself with which I am uncomfortable, mostly relating to my attitudes towards work and my ambitions as a writer and to how I’ve (not) settled myself in Seoul. But orienting oneself on the map is only the first step; the next is determining the heading.

One of my major regrets is allowing my posts to this blog to become so infrequent. I feel confident that the quality of content still maintains a high standard, but I aim to make the site flower over the next few months to the tune of my new mantra: substance first, then style. Expect to see more, if not truly daily, writing here in the near future — beginning with a thorough travelogue of my adventures in Japan and unfolding into what I hope will be an insightful look at the complex nation in which I now reside.

I wrote when I moved here that this site would not become a Korea blog, a vague term I used to encompass the lot of blogs run by expats here: those both shallow and incisive, aimed at keeping in touch with family back home, venting about the maddening aspects of this society or following and dissecting its news. While I still aim to keep The Daily Transit cosmopolitan and travel-oriented, it seems foolish to avoid publishing my observations or leave unexplored issues into which I now have a unique window.

Cheers to you readers who have stuck with me and best wishes in the New Year.  Stay tuned for the full chronicle of our Japan journey, and safe travels.

The Holidays, Far from Home

SEOUL — I DUG MY SPOON into a bubbling pot of chicken stew nearly glowing red with spice as an old recording of Silent Night warbled incongruously in the background. I was battling another cold, an unusual and annoying relapse this early in the winter. But I suppose it was due. My only exercise lately been in the realms of frustration and finger aerobics, with occasional breaks for walking around in the cold and shutter-clicking.

It didn’t feel like the holidays, and in a way that made it easier. Two days before, as I was about to descend a final flight of stairs toward the subway platform and my commute home, the sound of a live band playing Jingle Bells gave me pause. The sound was coming from the other end of the station, down a long, tiled hallway.

For a moment I considered going and taking in the sight. But just as the thought crossed my mind the sound stopped, the notes hushed up while the players took a breather. I turned and went on my way, just as an echoey Hark the Herald Angels Sing! struck up in the background.

***

The upcoming Christmas will be the first that either my wife or I have ever spent not under our parents roofs. While strings of lights and elaborate department store displays strive to emulate that winter feeling we remember so fondly, a yawning distance between us and all our family and friends has made the hues of the season seem paler, cooler.

Somewhere, there are candles and food and cheer. But in our apartment, there is an empty Papa Johns pizza box (yes, they’re here, too ) and not a spring of pine, a string of garland or a colored bulb to be found.

For all of South Korea’s devout Christians, the holiday has hardly attained the sacred status it carries Stateside. I’ve heard that we can expect many businesses to be open. Which is great — it means I can run out for a bite should I get munchy in the middle of my shift. (Yes, I will be among those poor saps slaving through the holiday.)

In all the superficial ways, Seoul is buzzing with the spirit of Christmas — although thankfully no one has been trampled to death at E-Mart, Lotte Mart or any other discount retailer here. But, for us at least, the warm center is missing.

We’ve heard from folks back home that snow is piling up in Seattle and in Madison, icing over the streets and bringing our cities to a halt. A calm white sweeping over the landscape, keeping people indoors and in front of their fires before the holiday. Here, the air is cold and tinder dry but there’s been barely a dusting of flakes. Everything keeps moving, sighing, hustling.

Borders

It’s not yet 10 AM. The first snow of this winter is falling outside, tracing the city’s edges in white. Janice is humming along to Yozoh & Sokyumo Acacia Band as their instruments whisper out of her laptop’s speakers. The coffee is brewing. I fill up with the sense that everything is right here.

SEOUL — ABOUT A WEEK AGO, I passed the half-year mark of living in this city, without the slightest bit of ceremony or significant reflection. But now a comparison between the last six months against those I spent here as a student four years ago seems unavoidable. The unfortunate if perhaps inevitable truth is that while I felt I had “arrived” at some deeper level of understanding of Korea when I departed here in December 2004 — and grown a great deal in the process — it appears now that I’m still (as they say here) “licking the skin of a watermelon.”

Surely, however, the experience has affected and informed me. The thing about being immersed in another culture is that one loses their point of reference. By that I mean  it is difficult to determine how circumstances have changed an individual until he returns to a familiar environment with a new pair of eyes.

The biggest thing I have missed is free time, and all the opportunities for growth it affords. Whereas I spent August 2004 hopping between different neighborhoods of inner and suburban Seoul, meeting families, visiting the ancient capital of Kyeongju, becoming horrendously ill and burning myself to a crisp on the beaches of Busan, I spent August 2008 mostly in an office. Drag.

Janice and I certainly spent a decent amount of time rediscovering Seoul during late summer this year (not to mention that we got married), but I’d say the amount of self-discovery we did fell on the lower end of the spectrum. And while in the ensuing months we’ve done a good amount of soul-searching (no pun intended) as to the direction of our lives, answers have remained elusive.

If anything, the experience has been a testament to the importance of taking time out to travel. A week spent on the road — or in one’s city but outside of routine — can turn out to be more meaningful and memorable than years spent plugging away towards a vague notion of progress. The irony is that it is these routines (our careers, jobs, etc.) that we allow to define us.

During my lunch hour today, I sat at Gwanghwamun park and stared off towards the misty silhouette of Mount Bukak while noshing on a PB&J. I couldn’t help but indulge the thought that, were it not for human politics, I could trudge right over it, then scale Mount Bukhan beyond that and march onwards until China. The notion was inspiring. These borders are fabrications, permeable to our imagination and will.


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