Today, at approximately 10 a.m., local time, Canada, through its diplomatic representative here in Seoul, finally declared us legally married.
Not surprisingly, we were not swept by any particular feeling of elation or joy as the papers were returned to us - after all, the Korean government had formally recognised our union last Friday, and we have been living together for a year-and-a-half. Still, we were happy, and immediately started calling each other Yuhbo ("Dear"). That sounded kind of strange, so after some discussion, we decided to stick to Jagi. (Although Sun-duk has been calling me yuhbo, anyway, just to bug me!)
Our day was far from finished after that. We went to the Mongolian embassy in Hannam and had our visas made. They cost W60,000 apiece and will be ready Wednesday morning. We'll have three months to enter Mongolia with them, and they're apparently valid forever! The man at the desk told us the visas had no limits set on them, so until there is a change in law or we decide to leave, there won't be any need for the painful renewal procedures experienced in many parts of the world, including South Korea.
After that, we brought our crashed laptop to Acer Repairs for a Korean facelift. I bought the darned thing four years ago in Canada, but because of the prohibitive costs of sending things to and from Mongolia, we're leaving our desktop at Sun-hwa's, wiping out my laptop's hard drive, and installing Hangul Windows 98 so that we can have a functioning Korean-language computer on hand. Unfortunately, they needed our CD-ROM (I thought they would just use one of theirs, but that would present some registration and copyright problems), so we're going back Wednesday morning, after we pick up our visas.
Then we spent a couple of hours shopping for Sun-duk's video camera. We scooted on over to Yongsan, the huge electronic goods' place (five floors, cut-rate prices), looked at a dozen or so cameras, getting a feel for our price and quality range, then picked the type we wanted. After that, it was comparison-shopping time, and we finally found a really good deal: a cyber-camera for W1,200,000 (selling for W1,600,000 most everywhere else, but Sun-duk's graduate classes in business dealing really paid off). It's got a cute screen on the left for us to see what we're shooting, and the picture quality is as good as what you see on a t.v. set. It's also chock full of special effects - black-and-white, sepia tone, slo-mo, twilight, strobe, classic, and so on. It's also got a photo function that lets us take framed pictures - and even a series of stop-motion snaps - and download them into a computer, for storage on the hard drive or transfer onto CD-ROM. We need a special cable for that, though, and may have to order it from JVC in Japan, since we couldn't find it in any of the specialty shops around.
We brought our booty home at around four, made some lunch plans for Tuesday with Kirstie, Matthew and Robert, then did a lot of packing and homepage work.
Another busy day for us. We got up very early and went downtown to spend W400,000 won's worth of ESL books. Soros gives each SPELT Fellow a US$550 book allowance for us to buy and donate textbooks to the schools we'll be working at; given such a pleasant task, I headed for Kyobo Bookstore and scoured the shelves for two hours before settling on thirty or so publications and one Scrabble game. The hard part was lugging the darned things back home, they were so heavy! We filled up three bags.
We got home just in time for our date with Kirstie and Matthew. Everyone except Matthew had eaten lunch, so we popped on over to Krone Bakery for some pastries and coffee. Kirstie and Matthew gave us a beautiful card signed by all the professors; it included a totally unexpected, large sum of money. We plan on scanning the card and putting it up on this site.
Anyway, Sun-duk had to run off for a couple of privates. Since she wasn't coming back home until midnight, I went out with Kirstie and Matthew again, accompanied by Robert, to a restaurant-bar (emphasis on the word bar) which took my order but never served me my meal (although they did bring me my bottle of beer with amazing alacrity). An enjoyable evening of conversation was once again spoiled by bad service.
Finally, Matthew came over to watch Woody Allen's Love and Death and join in an XTC song-fest, gracieusete de Napster. All in all, another terrific, exhausting day.
An awful day in many respects, entirely attributable to the incredibly hot and sticky weather, and exacerbated tenfold by our air-conditioned-free sauna of an apartment, where we had to spend the better part of the afternoon and evening packing. On top of that, Acer told us that they would have to replace my hard drive, which will set us back another W200,000. I was hoping that they could just wipe out the English Windows and install Hangul Windows 98, but they said that the crash was not caused by a faulty Microsoft application - it was a proper hard-drive crash-and-burn, no-survivors type of deal. The only upside: we'll have 2GB of hard drive space instead of one, and 32KB RAM instead of 16KB.
The bright spots consisted in our getting our Mongolian visas in the morning, then eating at a fine Italian restaurant in Apkujong. Sun-duk had shrimp pasta; me, Teriyaki steak with Cajun salad.
Later, I had a farewell dinner with Laurie, Kirstie, Matthew, Keenan and Yoon-hee, a Korean friend of Laurie's. It was Laurie's last traditional Korean meal for a while. We mostly swapped Kyung Hee horror stories, which were so funny in hindsight that I suggested to everyone that they write them down and send them to me so I could put them up on this website. (Korea vets never tire of slagging administrative incompetence.)
Our trial has neared its conclusion. We ended up with thirteen packages - six 20-kilogram boxes bound for Canada, seven 10-kilogram ones for Mongolia. We got a cab to come 'round the house and somehow managed to squeeze every last one into the car.
Bad news greeted us at the post office, however: two of our Canadian boxes were a few hundred grams overweight, and we were told that surface mail to Mongolia had a twenty-kilo limit, not ten, as I'd been told. Well, we had no choice but to rip open all of our carefully wrapped boxes and rearrange their contents to comply with the weight restrictions and our pocketbook. We wound up paying W332,000, or about C$400.
Packing is definitely the worst thing about moving from country to country. Too many tough choices to make - what to leave behind, what to take with you to your new home. We still have to make three or four more packages out of the desktop and a few other things before we leave for good at the end of the month, but that won't be hard now that we've rid ourselves of just about everything else.
Tonight, a well-deserved break; tomorrow, a six-hour drive to Pusan for Sunday's long-anticipated wedding...
An hour spent fiddling - for the first time - with our new "Digital Cybercam" at Sun-hwa's house was followed by an afternoon at the wedding shop organising tomorrow's festivities. We pored over all the details and options, received a number of instructions (but not all!), went through a fitting, etc. Sun-duk got a facial. It ought to be a very beautiful, original wedding. Most Koreans under forty have never been to a traditional ceremony, so it'll be fun for them, too. Maybe they'll even want to dispense with their awful simulacrum of a Western wedding when their big day comes and go the traditional route, as we've done.
Later on in the evening, from about seven to ten, we babysat Jin-hee while her parents were at work. It was funny pushing the carriage around and then walking about the neighbourhood holding her hand, because a lot of people thought she was our child, and wanted to see what the "mixed-race" toddler looked like. They were alternately surprised, happy or disappointed - depending on their opinion of foreigners - that she seemed to have inherited none of her father's traits! She behaved very well the whole time she was with us, which came as a surprise, considering how closely she still clung to her mother's skirt just a month ago. We even videotaped her while we played, which thrilled her mother, and, later, her grandmothers and aunts, to no end.
I guess I sort of let myself go to seed, the last week, but I think it's understandable, given all the commotion. I plan on writing a very detailed account of the wedding and the wedding 'reception' in the next few days, and will include it in the Stories section of our Diary page. I honestly think that such milestones as come around but a few times in one's life deserve to be set aside on a special shelf, to be admired and treasured. We view our diary proper as a mere trinket, a chance for us to string small stones and shells together into primitive necklaces - not very pretty, but useful in its own way.
Anyway, here's what's happened since the two-day wedding. Tuesday, Sun-duk and I visited an old teacher of hers for an hour before meeting up with a few of our best friends from Korea and America (Heung-soo and his five-months pregnant wife, John and his girlfriend, and Eun-young). As we do every time we meet, we had dinner in a western restaurant and went to a restaurant-hof - except we reversed the order this time, eating and commiserating at a sam-gyup-sal (barbeque pork) restaurant until eleven-thirty.
I got up at six the next morning and took the subway to Pusan Station, where I bought a ticket and caught a Seoul-bound train with exactly one minute to spare. Sun-duk stayed in Pusan to meet up with long-lost friends, even going to Ulsan once and almost making it to Chinju (it rained). She's coming back very late tonight (Saturday), then we've got four days to put the finishing touches on our Korean homepage and getting everything ready before our last push through Mokp'o, Kwangyang, Chinju and Pusan to say goodbye to family. We've got to pack up the desktop and the 486 laptop for Canada, and my suits and more books and bits of clothing for Mongolia, by the 19th. We've also got to buy a lot of traveller's cheques and change some won into Chinese yuan and Mongolian togrogs. After all, I won't be paid until the end of September, and my salary will only be enough for one person to live on. I do hope that Sun-duk finds some privates within a few days of our arrival...
Why did I come back to Seoul four days before Sun-duk? Well, I still have a bunch of privates to teach and give away, that's why! Bummer, I know, but we're leaving Korea with very little money - debt-free, at long last, but practically penniless, so it's work, work, work until the very end.
I've spent the better part of the last three days working on the Korean page. I went to the Korean Tripod site, which is very slow, even with our cable hook-up; by opening another account within Tripod, I was able to simply cut and paste my original HTML programs and have the Korean site refer to files on the English site. This proved useful, since Tripod Korea only allots 12MB of space in lieu of the 50MB Tripod gives its English users. Strange thing, though - thumbnails and backgrounds weren't loading, but text and the large-picture pages did. In other words, I had to upload all the thumbnails and backgrounds again, which took ages. Of course, I also had to recreate all the buttons, captions and titles. Later this weekend, Sun-duk will translate the English text into Korean, and I'll write it into the programs. Still, that was simple compared to locating, downloading and choosing all the different Korean fonts available on the web. Which reminds me: when we go to pick up our Acer laptop next week, I'll have to download or transfer a mess of files and programs that will allow us to continue work on both our Korean and English pages. Aigo!
Finally, for those of you who would like to view our Korean page - even if you can't understand anything, but just want to look at all the 'funny' writing -, just go to the welcome page and click on the strange-looking text in the upper-righthand corner next to the title; that's a link which will take you straight to where you want to go. After that, click on the View heading on the command bar at the top of your web browser, scroll down to Encoding, then go to More and choose Korean; chances are, if you've got a browser that's 4.0 or higher, the code will be there, and it'll change all those squiggles into proper Korean script (Hangul).
Other noteworthy events: Sun-hwa and Yong-gyu's new video-and-comic-book store is doing well. They started business a couple of weeks ago, near their old apartment-building complex. They're both tired of living with and working for Yong-gyu's mother, who owns a butcher shop. In fact, for the next six months, they'll have to work at both the butcher shop and their store, until their financial situation improves to the point where they can move into an apartment of their own - especially since they learned just Monday that Sun-hwa is pregnant again! They'd been trying for much of last year, but unsuccessfully (I want to say fruitlessly), so Sun-hwa made plans to continue her interrupted studies at a university in Pusan. Now, however, with the store and the pregnancy, it's a safe bet that she'll never finish her degree. Actually, she's probably cutting her losses, since most women with BAs end up marrying soon after graduation and becoming life-long housewives, anyway. (Korea is like North America before World War I, in terms of women's lib. Although it's an industrialised nation, the UN's quality-of-life index ranks the country 31st in the world, and 76th if you're a woman. That's way too low on both counts, considering the general wealth of the population.) Be that as it may, we wish them both luck and happiness. I know I'm glad, as this news raises the stakes between Sun-ok and Sun-duk as to which sister - both older, recently married and competitive - will get pregnant next! ;-)
One more incident of note: I got really angry at someone, Friday, something mellow ol' me seldom does, anymore. It was around 11 o'clock, and after four hours' sleep the night before, I'd decided to take a nap - naked, since it's so hot, these days. Half-an-hour later, I heard a key turn in my lock, then the door make a loud, clanging noise as the slip-bolt slid to a stop, preventing the would-be intruder from walking in. I got up, stunned, and saw the landlord's son's face looking at me in disbelief, then turning around and shutting the door in embarrassment while I made myself decent.
I was too mad to put anything other than my boxers on. I unbolted the door and saw the gas lady had come to check our pipe. I yelled at the kid for two minutes, told him that I didn't care that his family owned the building, he had no right to come into my house without my knowledge or permission, period, and that if I caught him invading my privacy again, I would kill him - all this using the lowest form of address possible in Korean. I even called him an idiot! I was even rude to the gas lady, and when she started telling me what I had to do to keep the kitchen safe, I bluntly told her that I didn't care, since I was leaving Korea forever the next week. I have no idea what she thought of me pacing the room in my underwear, though..!
Whew! Well, that's the week that was. May the next one be better!
Two quick news flashes before I move on to something I've been mulling over for a number of days. One, Sun-duk won't be back until later this evening! *Sniff!* She missed her train last night and couldn't get another ticket until today. Two, Mr. Kim Dong-il, my businessman private, and his wife are taking me out to Bennigan's in Taehangno at one o'clock this afternoon. Sun-duk and Keenan were supposed to come with me, but neither can make it. It's a shame, since he's a really nice man who's given me many presents and souvenirs from his travels abroad. Even though he's older and sometimes has trouble expressing himself in English, he's always tried very hard and forged ahead; I've rarely met a man his age so determined and unselfconscious. He's quite the character; in fact, many of my privates are. Hey, that's just given me an idea: I'll write a story about my privates here in Korea!
All right, that's been taken care of. Now for something a little more philosophical...
I've been surfing the net a lot these past four days, lonely as I am in my enforced state of bachelorhood. I decided to finally pay a visit to some of the homepages designed and promoted by some of Korea's EFL teachers. One in particular stood out: Adventures in Teaching English in South Korea. It's the brainchild of a 26-year-old girl (Woman? Based on my personal experience, I still think of 20-somethings as something less than adults.), and it's exceptional in its thoroughness; all topics are broached and explored, professionally, culturally and socially. She keeps adding stories, essays and pages every so often, and even has guest authors write about their adventures in the Hermit Kingdom.
This site, which understandably enjoys very heavy traffic (!), led me to ask myself the following question: Do I expand our homepage to include a specific theme that might interest a significant number of netizens, or do I keep it as it is, a small gift to our families and closest friends? The exhibitionist in me wants to stretch his wings; but as the site is only a month old, it would take a while before things accumulated and formed an entity worthy of attention. The Whoa! Cowboy in me chimes in that this homepage was not created for general consumption. Of course, I could eventually create an entirely separate site if I thought I had enough material about a particular topic - say, living and teaching English in Mongolia.
Continuing my first line of thought - expanding our present site -, I reflected upon its most important component: our diary. I located a number of on-line diaries and concentrated on one by The Fat Traveler. This woman, who's about my age - just a couple of years younger - has been keeping a public journal of her life and travels in Europe, Asia and Africa for several years. She's only ashamed of her weight in Western and Asian countries; most African and Middle-Eastern men, on the other hand, worship her. Her site is not unique: there's a web ring devoted to people whom society has labeled 'fat' and 'obese'.
Reading her diary was like watching a soap opera. She has, in fact, quite a number of devotees: some are also fighting weight problems and read as a form of support, while others are just plain voyeurs. She (I'll call her Wendy from now on, that's her name) speaks of three things in particular: her constant diets and bulimia; her job(s); and her very active sex life (she's had over thirty men, mostly younger and inexperienced - another issue which has fascinated readers and therapists alike). The thoughts set down are Wendy's innermost, unexpurgated and incredibly frank and self-analytical, even painful. It's fascinating, in a way, but it did make me uneasy. I've never considered myself, either temperamentally or intellectually, part of the daytime talk-show crowd - you know, the kind that revels in guests bearing their souls to the world.
This type of internet diary can only work if a) you're single, and b) no one in your family knows about it. Well, I 'lose' on both counts. Can you just imagine what would happen if I started confessing to every single bad thought and doubt experienced during the day? Again, this would have to be done on a separate, private site, and I am not so low as to betray the trust of my loved ones in this manner. I may crave attention, but not at the expense of Sun-duk or my folks.
Wendy's diary appalled me for this very reason. She says a lot of nasty things about those around her, and they haven't the slightest clue that thousands of strangers are vicariously hating them. It dawned on me then: there must be a huge number of similar sites out there dedicated to tattling and narcissism, envy and loathing. Like I said, it's the internet equivalent to Sally Jesse Raphael and Jerry Springer. Yes, there are on-line diaries kept by housewives and mothers which are completely benign and positive, that tell of life's daily travails without going too far and violating people's right to privacy. However, take a look at the hit counters, and you'll see the same disparity in numbers that exists between Jerry and, say, David Brinkley or Pamela Wallin. The truth is that most people don't want to be informed or enlightened - they want dirt, something that'll make them feel superior in some way. That's much more comforting than hearing about a man donating a kidney to save a child's life.
Okay, enough moralising. Let's just say that this journal will stay its present course of striking a balance between fact and opinion, without crossing that fine line into gossip and innuendo. Anyone who's got a problem with that can just move on to one of the many trash heaps littering the net and gorge himself on the garbage of others 'til the cows come home...
A dry patch... Regular readers of this diary will doubtless be disappointed when they see nothing new posted, but they should know it can't be helped. That's because on some days, if not most, nothing really interesting happens. Another reason is limited on-line storage space (at least for now, though by the time we reach our limit a year from now, Tripod will most likely have increased our allotment). There will also be times in Mongolia when we might not have the opportunity to write. So if nothing new shows up for a few days, don't give up!
In fact, this may be the last diary entry for quite a while, as we're packing up the desktop on Thursday and sending it home to Canada. Hopefully, we'll have some free time in China - say, Shanghai or Beijing - to drop by an internet cafe and enter some quick notes. If not, the diary will lie dormant for about a month, until we're settled in Ulaanbaatar. After that - and especially if we have enough money to subscribe to an internet provider -, we'll be writing on a regular basis, again.
I didn't really plan on writing for another month or so, but Sun-duk left this morning to teach, and my tape dubbing efforts have turned into a fiasco, so I have a bit of time on my hands. Not only does my VCR (a five-year-old LG model I bought in Canada and brought over to Korea) not have a jack for the red (audio right) cable, but I can't even get a picture on the TV set. Everything fits, and I know it works, because I tried it several times in Pusan and Kwangyang... But there's something wrong with the tape machine. I fritzed it (twice) when I first got here, so maybe the repair guy messed it up. Who knows? I'll try dubbing a copy at Sun-hwa's house in Pusan this weekend. In any case, we'll be sending the official colour video to my parents Friday, so it won't be too disappointing if we can't make a copy of the home movie. It's just that my folks might not get to see the rest of the wedding-day celebrations in the company of Sun-duk's extended family.
Good news: we picked up our refurbished Acer notebook at Yongsan. It's got a new bilingual keyboard, a 3GB hard drive, and 48KB of RAM. I spent a few hours transferring a number of essential programmes from the desktop, and downloaded the rest from the internet. (My 33,6 modem sure is slow compared to the desktop's cable!).
The number of hits both our homepages have received went way up in the last 24 hours, as Sun-duk sent a block e-mail to about 100 people, and phoned many more, last night. Some were kind enough to leave messages (all in Korean, I think), and we hope they'll come back often once we've reached Mongolia.
To save time and money, we've been thinking of buying a digital camera that would allow us to take pictures and download them directly into our laptop and thence into our sites. The cheapest one sells for about $300; it takes 18 pictures at a time, and we can delete anything, anytime. We'll see if we can fit it into our budget, but it looks kinda iffy at the moment...
On a more personal note, we found some cheap CD-ROMs of Disney's Mulan and Krzysztof Kieslowski's Trois Couleurs - Bleu, Blanc, Rouge. The latter three's outer packaging did not specify whether the movies had been dubbed or subtitled, but I took a chance anyway, seeing as they were only W3000 apiece. Fortunately, they are in the original French, so at least I'll have one masterpiece trilogy to watch over and over in Mongolia!
Tomorrow's the big day: at seven p.m., we're off to Shanghai for a three-week-long honeymoon tour of China, then on to our new life in Ulaanbaatar.
Each week has been more hectic than the precious one. We just came back from a four-day whirlwind tour of the South, visiting family for a last goodbye. Nothing much of note, so we'll save it for the coming month.
Y'all come back, now, hear?
Today, we leave, but not before going through hurry-up hell.
It all began at the post office. We arrived with half-a-dozen boxes to ship to both Canada and Mongolia, but ignorant of the weight of each. Using the scale at our disposal, we make sure every one of the boxes is under 20 kilograms - and they are, but only just. Unfortunately, once wrapped in packing paper, two are 200-300 grams overweight. The lady in charge today, more by-the-book than the man who had helped us last month, makes us rip open two boxes and take out one pair of socks and a couple of cassette tapes. After spending two hours carefully wrapping everything, we lose another precious hour, all due to the misplaced zealousness of a government worker. Sun-duk gave her what-for, let me tell you...
Hye-young and Soon-joo (Sun-duk's cousin and his wife), came over to our apartment last night and this afternoon to take away all they could use in their new menage. (I should add here in passing that Hye-young is a decent, right-thinking government worker living several hundred kilometres south of Seoul, where Soon-joo works as a nurse at Yonsei Hospital. Their initial plan had them living apart for close to two years until he was promoted, but they've announced that Soon-joo is expecting, and so something will have to be worked out.) We crammed as much as we could into their van, then set off for Kimpo Airport. Following some tearful goodbyes, Sun-duk and I changed close to US$300 into Chinese yuan and walked to the check-in counter to meet up with a friend from her Chinese-language institute days currently studying in Shanghai. His name is Yoon Chul-ho, and he's actually a French major. Nice lad; he'll be going on a tour of Xinjiang, in Western China, in August.
Our one-way tickets to Shanghai were incredibly cheap: about US$100. That's because we were flying Aeroflot, whose pilot (I refuse to blame weather conditions) must have had an ear infection - we constantly dipped, pitched, climbed, shook and rattled, to the point where I actually began to feel nauseous.
The passengers only filled about half the plane, and consisted chiefly of Koreans and Russians bound for Moscow, and a large contingent of several dozen Bulgarians. When we landed in Shanghai, the latter all transferred to another flight with, I think, Sofia as the destination; only Chul-ho, Sun-duk and I were actually staying in Shanghai. What a queer feeling to be all alone in front of Baggage Carousel No. 15, your voice and footsteps echoing in the vast emptiness of an airport obviously expecting better days!
We quickly dispensed with the formalities and boarded a shuttle bus headed downtown. We looked out our window, soaking in the sights: shanty-towns on the city outskirts; incredibly huge apartment complexes, all daubed in the faceless grey so loved by Communist countries; colonial-era houses and buildings with a distinctly European flavour; row upon row of skyscrapers, enough to make Seoul jealous; and, finally, and most incredible of all, Nampo Daegyo, a three-tiered, spiralling off-ramp that rises several dozen metres from the ground like some gigantic, compressed strand of DNA. Damnedest thing I've ever seen!
We got off near the university where we would be staying for the next few days. The dormitory charges Y100 a day (around US$12), with communal showers and bathrooms. Our room had a ceiling fan (it's awfully hot down here), a TV set, a desk and chair, and several small cabinets. It was small and dirty, with bugs crawling here and there on the beds and floor, much to my darling wife's consternation. The showers are a little strange: the shower head is actually a tap seven-and-a-half feet high, and shoots a concentrated, inch-wide jet of lukewarm water that can be quite painful in its speed and force.
So here we are at last - China. The beginning of a three- or four-week adventure that will lead up to the piece de resistance, our new home, Mongolia. Goodnight, Chang-boy...
With Chul-ho as our morning guide, we visited the university campus (and its incredibly tall statue of Mao in front of the main building), a restaurant (water is as expensive as beer), a magazine store (selling issues of Elle, Cosmo, Bazaar, Cars, Movies, as well as soft porn), and a supermarket (where we bought batteries, small notebooks, and snacks). What do we notice as we walk through the neighbourhood?..
Women carry umbrellas to protect their skin from the sun. Fire hydrants are red. Buses are painted from top to bottom in every colour of the rainbow, advertising gum, department stores, cameras, food, etc. Delivery boys ride specially constructed bicycles, the rear of which has been welded to a small trailer. License plates are blue. Taxis are all the same model, but bear different colours. There are a lot of trolleys. Many people are wearing shorts, and quite a few men, young and old alike, walk around bare-chested. A man, in what appears to be true peasant garb - grey knee-length trousers, grey elbow-length tunic, wide-brimmed straw hat, skin as dark as tea, with a perplexed look on his face. Below the window of each apartment is a two-metre rod which sticks straight out, and upon which tenants hang their clothes to dry. There is a refreshing lack of dyed hair, especially among the young 'uns.
Following Chul-ho's directions, Sun-duk and I take a bus, then transfer to another one which eventually lets us off downtown. Skyscrapers, high rises, officetels, parks and trees surround us, but Sun-duk has eyes only for the billboards advertising Samsung, LG and Daewoo. She insists we take pictures! Cute.
We walk slowly towards the Hwangpo riverfront, a few blocks ahead, admiring the modernity of a city rediscovering its cosmopolitan past. Shanghai is home to over 15 million people - more than even Seoul -, and within these several dozen square kilometres, at least, its inhabitants are every bit as rich, as fashionable, and as up-to-date as their Asian neighbours. Men are dressed in smart Italian suits, women flit about in flattering French dresses, and everyone seems to be talking into a cell phone.
The weather is hot and humid. Sidewalk merchants offer all sorts of cool beverages, but we crave nothing more than ice water. Sun-duk practices her Chinese, does some comparison shopping, and slowly gets an idea of how much a small bottle of H2O normally costs.
We make our way through Shanghai's largest park, eventually stopping at the Shanghai Museum, with its fountains and shady porticoes. We cool off, refresh ourselves with the fruit we bought earlier, then set off once again for the waterfront.
Somehow, we get lost, and end up criss-crossing several poorer neighbourhoods. These narrow grimy streets, dilapidated apartment buildings, hole-in-the-wall stores, and the near-ubiquitous presence of bicycles in lieu of cars, mark this area as the true China for us. Sun-duk, with her improving Chinese, gets us back on track, but not before we run smack-dab into Yuyuan Garden.
Here, for the first time, we see foreigners - lots of them. The entire Yuyuan district, with its several blocks of traditional (i.e. restored) temples, streets and canals, is one of the highlights of Shanghai. We spend a couple of hours here, exploring all there is to see and taste (crushed-ice and fruit sundae - yum!). We also went shopping in a great big souvenir building, with hundreds of tiny private stalls. Be warned: if you do not like being badgered by loud and grabby hawkers, or shun confrontation of any kind, then do not come to China. I'm out of my element here, but Sun-duk, whose native Korea works on much the same principles, took to bargaining, Chinese-style, like a fish to water.
One lady showed us an item I thought interesting: a blue silk bathrobe with a multicoloured dragon embroidered on the back and the front. She quoted a price: 350 yuan. Sun-duk told me to walk away. We did, and heard the woman shout 300 yuan. We turned back, looked at it some more, then told her it was too expensive. She asked me what I thought it was worth, and I answered 150 yuan. She feigned indignation, and made gestures for us to leave - so we did. She yelled back again, asking for 200. Sun-duk then took matters into her own hands and said we would pay 100. Again, anger, a litany of Chinese cuss words - but Sun-duk stood her ground, argued back in Chinese, told the woman the bathrobe was cheap-looking. Yet more protestations, then a concession - but not quite low enough for Sun-duk. A few minutes later, I'm taking 130 yuan out of my wallet and everyone walks away happy, with Sun-duk getting a nod of approval from the saleslady.
With the Hangpo River in sight at last, we navigate perilous streets and vertiginous crosswalks (they are thirty feet above ground at major intersections, and reach out towards their respective corners, octopus-like, with their eight tentacles), and find a pleasant park lined with restaurants and ferries. Here we rest again, and befriend a Chinese family who have also come to Shanghai as tourists. Sun-duk is growing more fluent and confident in her third language, and ninety minutes later, we go our separate ways.
A wonderfully delicious, marvellously authentic Chinese meal of spring rolls, fried noodles in spinach, and chicken in peanut sauce is followed by a glorious ferry ride around and across the Hangpo River. Our picturesque boat has been built and painted to resemble a dragon; and although night comes quickly, the view is agreeable, and at times even breath-taking.
At eleven o'clock, exhausted and sunburned, we arrive at our dorm room, take a therapeutic shower (the powerful stream of water begins to take on the characteristics of a Turkish massage), and cross, quickly and blissfully, into the land of Little Nemo.
Sun-duk quibbled over 50 cents at brunch, this morning! After speaking to three waiters and the owner of the restaurant, she managed to save 25 cents! Oh, it was so embarrassing! A wife after my own mother’s heart!! ; - )
On the agenda today was a visit to Kum Gu’s Headquarters. For those of you wondering, as I was, who Kim Gu is, let me fill you in: he was the man who led the Korean Resistance Movement back in the days of the Japanese occupation. From 1919 on to the end of WWII, Kim Gu headed the provisional government from an innocent-looking house in a nondescript neighbourhood of Shanghai, not far from a Russian Orthodox church.
The three-storey house has since become a museum, staffed by Chinese-Koreans whose Korean-language skills are very near my own. The set-up, the atmosphere, and the special slippers all reminded me of Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, the tour wasn’t nearly as exciting for me as it was for Sun-duk. Kim Gu has been deified in Korean history books, and there is a near-constant flash of camera bulbs in front of the building as one Korean family after another click themselves into posterity, like latter-day Americans saying "Cheese!" in front of Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin.
Back downtown, Sun-duk remarks on the significant discrepancy in fashion taste between Chinese and Koreans. For one thing, she’s disgusted by the sight of men of every stripe and age shed their shirts and pants in the heat of day, parading around in nothing more than shorts and sandals. Of a more scandalous nature are the clothes the women wear - they leave her gasping in shock. The shorts are incredibly short, and blouses, pants, and dresses are incredibly sheer. It seems at times that they’ve put on a bikini and slipped on a very thin layer of gauze! (White, in case you’re wondering, predominates, colour-wise. Hem…)
I’m getting a lot of looks, myself. Shanghai still doesn’t see very many white faces, especially tall, bearded ones with a Chinese-looking woman at his side. Some stares are not so nice, and reminiscent of Korea outside Seoul.
I look more closely at the denizens of this city and conclude that although Chinese have fewer blemishes, they are not as good-looking as Koreans. Sun-duk concurs – but then she would!
We walked for an hour back to the Shanghai Museum; our guidebook said that admission is free from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays. The ticket takers at the door, however, informed us that this discount only applied to university students. Ho-hum… There was a special Mongolian exhibit, too; I guess we’ll have to wait for the real thing.
With our cultural thirst unquenched, but our hunger for corporeal nourishment as strong as ever, we made directly for the biggest department store in Shanghai and took the elevator straight up to the food court. My, oh my… There must be a hundred restaurants here, with hundreds of dishes, most unseen in the West or Korea. It took us almost an hour to wend our way ‘round each stall, from first to last. We finally settled on beef with noodles, green onions, mushrooms and spinach fried in soya sauce, with two bottles of famed Suntory beer (640 mL, and cheaper than all the soft drinks) for dessert.
We then took the metro to the train station in order to buy tickets to Suzhou and Hangzhou; this took about an hour (awfully long queues). By now, I was exhausted and ready for bed, however infested it might be. However, since the train for Hangzhou, two days hence, is leaving at 7:29 a.m., Sun-duk thought it best if we checked out of the dorm tomorrow morning, brought our luggage to the Longman Hotel next door, and reserved a room there for the night. That way, we wouldn’t have to get up so early and be in a rush. Plus, there would be the added bonus of staying in a real hotel!
We found out the cheapest rooms cost about US$30 a night – a princely sum when you consider we’ve just $1500 on us for the entire month! Fortunately, we received a discount from 24-year-old Tommy Lee, one of the junior managers, who was kind enough to help us out. He brought us to the bar, offered a couple of complimentary drinks, and for the next two hours, we discussed Asian popular culture and its regional variants. Actually, all the lip-flapping was perpetrated by Tommy and Sun-duk; I just sat quietly and listened, an outsider with only imperfect knowledge of the evening’s topic of conversation.
A bad start to the day: as we checked out of the dorm, we had to pay an additional Y10 for losing the key chain to our room. A twenty-minute taxi ride later, we checked into Room 1209 of the Longman Hotel, following which we hopped onto our train.
The train is an oddly shaped vehicle. We were quite confused by the double-decker style seating, with stairs leading to upper and lower floors. The attendant helped us to our seats, designated “hard” because they are the cheapest available. We were still quite impressed: the car was divided into sections of four and six seats facing one another on either side of the aisle, with small tables, frilly seat covers, air conditioning, and a digital board above both car doors. As their name indicates, the seats were fixed; we could not lean back in them. Suzhou is only two hours away from Shanghai, however, so the surroundings, all things considered, were very comfortable, indeed.
The countryside is flat as can be, dotted everywhere by villages consisting of small, blocky houses of greyish tint, each adorned with exactly six windows and topped by clay-coloured tile roofs. They were apparently the offspring of an uninspired cookie cutter, and the effect is not unlike that produced by North-American townhouses.
Every spare inch of land is under cultivation, with crops of rice and corn dominating. The fields have been further sectioned into plots of 30 by 75 feet, all separated by irrigation ditches and canals. It’s all very pretty, but hardly edifying; the Chinese, like the Europeans, have neutered Nature and left her just enough unspoilt greenery to keep us alive.
Suzhou is an attempt by Chinese to give Nature some breathing space. For several centuries, now, it’s been home to elegant gardens and parks, all fed by dozens of canals, earning the city the monikers of “Venice of the East” and “Heaven on Earth”. Suzhou captures almost perfectly the image Westerners have of Cathay in the days of Marco Polo of Kublai Khan.
There are some 70 gardens all told, and Sun-duk and I decided to visit the best within a certain radius of the train station – we only had about six hours before we had to return to Shanghai.
For those staying overnight, or for a few days, bicycles are the ideal mode of transportation. Day trippers like us, on the other hand, either walk or pay an arm and a leg for an organised bus tour, of which there are dozens, loudly hawked, at the main intersection. My intrepid-minded wife, however, wishing to experience the real China, wanted us to get around town by city bus. This was not as easy as it appeared, as the routes seemed to have been changed since the last edition of our guide book. Sun-duk had to approach dozens of people for proper directions, and we spent quite a bit of time waiting at bus stops, to get where we wanted to go. In addition, I was soon made aware of the fact that I was always the only foreigner on board. The other passengers’ gazes were always aimed fixedly at me. It was a strange feeling - perhaps even a bit unnerving - to realise that very few, if any, Western tourists ever ride the local buses in this part of the country. It made me feel a pioneer of sorts!
Our first destination was North Temple Pagoda. Our Let’s Go to China tells us that the pagoda itself climbs up to 76 metres in height, making it the tallest such structure south of the Yangtze River. We trudged all the way up to the seventh floor (you have to pay extra to go up to the eighth, which has got telescopes), and admired the view: on one side, one saw many more gardens and canals spread about the city, resembling nothing so much as a meandering string necklace of emeralds lying on a dirty, lumpy pillow of concrete blocks; on the other, factories belched air-polluting smoke, a symbol of China’s rampant march towards modernity at all costs.
Back on the ground, we were able to forget what lay behind the garden walls and enjoy the peace and quiet of an authentic Chinese garden. It’s similar to those found in Korea – small temples and shrines, winding paths, ponds and shrubbery -, with the exception that here, everything has been miniaturised and multiplied exponentially. It makes the Korean gardens seem bare by comparison.
Our next stop was Lion Grove, an extraordinary piece of landscape architecture: an entire mountain range has been recreated, along with tiny rivers and cascading waterfalls home to a variety of ducks and geese. Kids love this garden, since the hectare of scraggly rocks actually forms a labyrinth. Sun-duk and I had a great deal of fun here for about an hour or so, then grew increasingly frustrated as we vainly tried to find an exit!
The Lion Grove is located in a neighbourhood that again evokes scenes of medieval China: blacksmiths, calligraphers, and pedicab drivers competing for customers with small-shop owners peddling strange foods and herbal medicines… I even saw, hanging from a tree branch, a huge cricket kept for luck in a tiny, diamond-shaped, wooden cage, its long antennae and bulging eyes searching about in seeming pleas for freedom. The dingy atmosphere and age-old smells were too tempting to resist, and we had lunch at a traditional restaurant – more spicy noodles, and a greasy omelette thrown in for the sake of heartburn.
The Garden for Lingering In, a few kilometres away, was a disappointment. Maybe we had already grown blasé after the first two tours, but this park had almost nothing in the way of originality – just a big pond surrounded by trees and bushes. Sun-duk and I stayed here for less than an hour, simply using the opportunity to relax and catch our breath (the weather was unbearably humid) before capping our trip to Suzhou with Tiger Hill Park.
A Chinese scholar once said that to visit Suzhou without seeing Tiger Hill is a cause for regret. He might have been right at that. The garden is twenty hectares in size, and has a number of interesting sights: Sword-Testing Rock, Thousand Man Rock, Nodding Rock, Sword Pond, Villa of Ten Thousand Scenes, and dozens of temples, pagodas, tombs and the like, each with its own tale – alternately poetic, mythic, absurd or just plain grisly.
We ended our day in Suzhou on a very peaceful, romantic note by renting a pedal boat for thirty minutes and leisurely gliding across a beautifully tranquil section of the canal, savouring every second of a honeymoon that has been picture-perfect thus far.
P.S. Speaking of pictures, our camera battery succumbed to natural causes at the North Temple Tower. The spare was in a bag at the hotel, so all we have to remember Suzhou by are video images which we won’t be able to transfer to computer until we return to a developed country… how many years from now?
NOTES: There are a great many public garbage cans – an item of hygienic importance conspicuously lacking in South Korea. Beer costs three yuan, Coca-Cola eight. Government officials (of a military caste) still wear those ugly, old-fashioned, olive-drab communist uniforms that we saw so much of in the 70s and 80s.