Thursday, January 8, 2009

Saranghae, Korea! (South Korea Part 1)

Our flight was on Christmas day itself so it would appear that we spent Christmas in two countries.

We had two of the best airport lounge available for our use.
While the MIASCOR served a wide selection of mouth-watering and hearty meal in its buffet spread,
the Northwest Lounge won us over with its bright and airy interiors.

While we were busy enjoying the buffet spread out before us,
R was enjoying himself playing with the Northwest model plane.

Korea was a sensory overload, all five senses were simultaneously occupied, amused and involved as we allowed ourselves to be absorbed by the country’s culture, beauty, its people, food and scenery. Having two Asian superpowers as neighbors, China to the west and Japan to the east, it is no wonder that even in the face of its rich 5,000 year cultural history, its tradition, architecture, and cuisine is a pleasant mix of Chinese and Japanese influences. And yet, regardless of the lengthy years of foreign occupation, they have managed to retain their own alphabet and language syntax. The Korean language obeys a strict grammatical constraint requiring that the sentence end with a verb. Thus, it is no wonder that despite the presence of numerous Americans teaching English in Korea, English is still far from being spoken and understood in the streets.

Unsuccesful as the Koreans are in learning English, my two young kids showed their knack for learning a new language. In no time, they were peppering their conversation with newly learned Korean words. The guide was a very thoughtful and competent thirty-something lady who had a habit of passing around Korean goodies during long road trips. “Kamsa-hameda!”, B solicitously says. This delights the Korean who offers her a handful more of the sweets. B politely declines saying one is enough for her. The Korean guide wouldn’t take no for an answer, pushes the sweets into B’s hands, “Never mind, keep it in your bag or share it with your brother,” she says in her sing-song manner. Now mindful of the power this word has over the locals, both kids turned on their charm talking to the guide and several hotel staff with a generous sprinkling of Korean words. "Anyong Haseo!", they greet people. They are greatly rewarded, of course, with extra goodies and pampered attention.
With Chris, our super efficient tour guide and David, our tour photographer slash luggage porter slash part time nanny.

We greatly enjoyed the local cuisine, the infamous tongue-flaming kimchi included. Surprisingly, Korean fare is not spicy as we first suspected. The level of heat can be adjusted to agree with your personal taste as the kimchi and the bean paste are served on the side, in diminutive oriental bowls.

The challenge during the trip was to make sure the kids are done eating by the time our guide signaled (loudly at that) that meal time is over. Left to themselves, meal time can easily extend to over an hour. That said, one of our meal requisites is that B and R are both nearby, within an arm’s distance, so I can fill up their spoons for them to make the next mouthful a bite faster.
We were lucky enough to take pleasure in eating one breakfast in a restaurant that offered a wonderful view of a partly frozen lake. Ducks can be seen swimming near the water's edge, their webbed feet making ripples as they paddle speedily through the icy water. The disturbance the ripples make suddenly stop midway in the lake as it meets the calm and still frozen water.

The peaceful panorama was clearly a setting meant for an unhurried and sumptuous meal. The kind where you have a lingering and meaningful conversation with your "amore" as you take in God’s magnificence in the beauty of nature that is surrounding you. The kind of which I clearly wasn't having. While eating, J wanted me to take a photo of her making like Santa’s red-nosed reindeer. Her eyes eager and pleading, I had no choice but to oblige her request.

That done, I went back to concentrate on my food. Seated in front of me, R incessantly stops in the middle of the meal and stares absentmindedly into space, his plate full of untouched food.

I continuously remind him to pay attention to his food until I realized that I only had a few minutes left to finish my food myself. Some friends who were seated at the table nearby stood up to queue for the restroom. So I gave up and let him be.

Perhaps sensing my frustration, he tries to appease me and asks, “Can I not eat the popcorn?” I looked up from my plate, confused, “Huh?” What popcorn was he talking about now? I could feel the wrinkles in my forehead appearing as I brought my eyebrows together in displeasure. I gave out a laugh as I slowly realized that he mistakenly thought the small yellow dome on his plate was popcorn. Eggs seldom, if at all, make an appearance in our dining table due to the kids suffering from various food allergies. This was perhaps his first time to see scrambled eggs. Popcorn, yes. Hilarious!