First things first, though. I arrived at Incheon International on Saturday 27 August on a hot and muggy day. The only thing that I can really remember about the airport is seeing a sign reading “Gateway To Asia” and thinking – hang on, isn’t that Darwin’s claim to fame too? Doubtless, there are many “gateways” to, from and in Asia but I would hazard a guess that Seoul is perhaps more entitled to that description than Australia’s northern capital. Nevertheless, when I got out of the airport and headed for the bus, I was hit by a blast of hot air that I actually recognised from my time in Darwin in 1994 as a public servant. All of which is to say that at long last I felt I had arrived home. Only I was in Korea.
I’m currently staying at a hostel in Insadong, the arts and crafts ‘precinct’ of Seoul crammed with sweet shops, art galleries and classy home style Korean restaurants, not to mention one basball hitting range, a million street stalls selling the usual fare (notebooks, pencils, figurines) and about seven million people too. Despite the crowdedness of the main street, once you get off it and into the alleyways (where the hostel is located) it’s actually very quiet and about the most exciting thing that’s going to happen to you is getting run over by an over-zealous motorcycle courier. This is not Hanoi, however, and the number of motorbikes (or even pushbikes) is very small. This is partly due to the massive subway system, on the subject of which I could write a novel. Or two.
After settling myself in at the hostel it was time to front the university where I’m teaching this semester. Sogang University has a reputation as being one of the best in Seoul. I’m currently teaching two courses: one in creative writing and the other in Australian Culture. For a while I told everyone who was willing to listen that the Australian Culture course would be a short one. I made a lot of mileage out of that joke but now I’m here it just doesn’t quite seem so funny. That’s not to say I don’t pull it out every now and then but like the Western predilection for puns on the word ‘Seoul’ (‘seoul brother’, ‘seoul survivor’, ‘seoul searching’ or even ‘o seoul mio’) it wears a little thin after a while. That being said (and I’m not really sure why I even mentioned that), it should be a fun semester.
I have already given my students fair warning of what to expect from my classes by launching into a rendition of “Advance Australia Fair” at short notice. Knowing that I will be responsible for their grades at the end of the year, they wisely chose to roundly applaud my singing talents. So then I hit them with my a capella version of “Waltzing Matilda”. All I can say is that they had their chance. With forty five students in the class it’s the biggest group I’ve ever taught. My creative writing class on the other hand consists of only eight students, which is ideal, giving me enough time to focus on their work individually. So, yeah, it’s going okay at the moment. I have been given an office with a computer and an internet connection, which is great. The staff here are also very friendly so all in all, it’s not that different from teaching creative writing at Melbourne University.
That is, of course, until one leaves the university campus and hits the streets of Sinchon. The region around Sinchon is packed with universities (about five, I think), meaning that the whole area is full of students, student bars and a million shops trying to tempt these young consumers into parting with their cash in exchange for mobile phones, gizmos and gadgets, beer, pizza, noodles, music, t-shirts, coffee and so on. There’s a real buzz to the streets and the neon has to be seen to be believed. I haven’t ventured into the bars around here as of yet but hope to do so at the end of this month when Club Night rolls around again (15000 won gets you free entry to fifteen clubs in all). So far, I’ve really only experienced the nightlife around Jongno, just south of Insadong. But that’ll do me for starters. There’s more neon there even than in Tokyo, or at least it feels like it. There’s lots of clubs with various themes, lots of beer drinking and sometimes the odd ingenious device, such as the five litre jug of beer complete with dry ice machine to keep the contents cold.
Food-wise, I’ve been eating a lot of barbecue pork but also noodles, rice dishes and (okay I’ll admit it) the odd serving of junk food. I have also developed a taste for the chocolate biscuits, bean curd sweets and sponge cakes that you can find in almost any convenience store. Cold coffee in a can has also sustained me quite well, while the ion replacement drink Pocari Sweat is a pleasant though acquired taste (ie, it actually tastes a little like sweat). The same can be said for the local spirit, soju which, when mixed into a two litre jug of lemon cordial tastes like nothing at all but may leave you blind if you drink too many shots. The beer is quite nice though not so strong. Then, of course, there’s kim chi. I know that many westerners can’t stand it but I have to say I really like it, and I haven’t had any yet that’s really blown my head off. In fact, it’s quite mild and goes well with beer. Heck, almost anything spicy goes well with beer.
So far I haven’t done a lot of sightseeing but I have been to one massive palace, the enormous war memorial next to the Yongsan US military base, several markets of the flea, junk and craptastica varieties, as well as just poking around the streets of Insadong looking for unusual signs. Of which, more later, that is, as soon as I get a digital camera. I’m also about to get a phone which will make it easier to stay in touch but I’m shying away from purchasing any more electronic gadgets at this stage. In fact, I have discovered a shop that sells cassette tapes and so I’ve rigged up my Walkman in my hostel room together with a couple of speakers in a nifty little lo-fi kind of set-up. Add a couple of James Bond movies on cable television and I’m in heaven. Well, actually, I’m in Seoul but more on that (and everything else) later, dude.