Sunday 22 May 2005

stop 'em at the 38th parallel...

Hello all.

Long time no see and all that. After a seemingly interminable journey, we finally got back home through the front door at about 1am this morning, about 20 hours or something since we set off from Seoul (it's actually only about 13 hours in the air, but there's all that terrible hanging about in airports, including a very wearing 4 hours in Frankfurt....)

So. Korea then.

Let me summarise it for you: it is an absolutely beautiful country with the most lovely, friendly and welcoming people and delicious food.

Perhaps I should just leave it at that.... what else is there to say?

As mentioned below, my reason for going was primarily to attend the Korean leg of the wedding of my elder brother. This is a big deal in Korean society and is a serious occasion because the ceremony represents the bride formally joining a new family, and severing her ties of responsibility and duty to her own family. It is also a big event from the point of view of the social status of a Korean family, and as well as being attended by friends and family, a large number of business associates are expected to show up and pay their respects to the bride's father (or to have respect paid to them, depending upon their status).

As part of the groom's family, I had to stand in a lineup and welcome all of the guests as they arrived, signed in, and left an envelope of cash for the happy couple. We were taught how to bow slightly and say "thank you for coming" in Korean as people came in, but actually, although we were stared at quite a lot, not that many people walked down the line and shook hands with us, and tended to make a beeline straight for the father of the bride. This isn't because people were being rude, but because (as well as being western) the guests had not been introduced to us, and had no way of gauging where we sat in the social pecking order, whereas they generally all knew the bride's father as a business associate, or as head of the family, and it was fascinating watching whether they bowed to him, or he bowed to them, to assess their relative social standing.

All in all, about 700 people showed up.

The ceremony itself was divided into two parts - both for show rather than having any legal consequence. The first part was more like the traditional weddings we have here - the groom was wearing a morning suit, and the bride wore white and walked down the aisle. The ceremony was then conducted by an old family friend, and basically consists of a public announcement of the marriage and a symbolic transfer of the bride from one family to the other. Both sets of parents wear traditional Koran hanbok, and after the happy couple have been joined, they then turn to each set in turn and pay their respects with a bow.

As you can see, my mum and dad look pretty fine in their traditional costume... and my brother looks like he is either a magician hired to keep everyone entertained, or perhaps the conductor of an orchestra....

The next part of the ceremony was more traditionally Korean, and took place in a small room, although it was televised to the guests on big screens in the main hall. The bride and groom changed into traditional outfits, and then conducted a tea ceremony for the various members of the now joined family, according to their status. Each couple in turn sit opposite the bride and groom and are served tea by them, and formally welcome them into the family with a few words. The parents of the bride were first, then my parents, then C. and me, then my younger brother and his wife, and then the bride's brother and sister. This is in order of status - the couple with the higher status always sit on the same side of the table, so the bride and groom move sides when they have served everyone of a higher status than them, and although they still perform the tea ceremony, they are visibly showed to be the couple with the more status.

I only found out all this status stuff after the event - as it turns out, C. and I were put on the wrong side of the table i.e. given more status. I like to think this is simply a recognition of my natural air of gravitas, but I suspect it might have more to do with the fact that I am taller, greyer and balder than my elder brother... hmph.

There's also a little ritual (as pictured above) where the mother and father of the groom toss some dates and nuts at the bride and groom, who catch them in a cloth - the number they catch represents the number of children they will have. They caught 2 dates, and will so have 2 daughters, apparently (dates representing female children, and nuts representing male - I wonder why... any suggestions??)

It was all very interesting, and there was a splendid buffet too!

Of course, our trip to Korea wasn't just about the wedding. Our visit coincided with Buddha's birthday, which meant that Seoul was decorated throughout with lots and lots of lanterns.

Each lantern has a paper tag attached underneath on which is usually written the names of the family who hung the lantern up, and it is a kind of prayer for health and happiness over the next year. Each temple also has a lantern parade on the day itself, and we were lucky enough to take part in one.

Basically this meant that we grabbed a couple of lanterns, popped in some candles, and marched through Seoul for about 2 hours in a great procession following a giant inflatable dragon, a big inflatable Buddha, some buddhist monks, some temple dignitaries and some dancing drummers. The walk finished back at the temple, where we all took our lanterns and hung them up (generally getting covered in wax in the process). Again, brilliant fun. My dad seemed to think that this would be a great thing for his local church to do, but to be honest, I prefer the buddhists. It just wouldn't be the same with the vicar and his friends singing a few hymns, would it?

We also got to see various other things whilst we were there, but this post will go on forever if I talk about them all. I think a couple of things are worth mentioning specifically though. The first is the trip we took to the Demilitarized Zone - the 4km strip that separates North and South Korea. Here you can see first hand the most heavily fortified border in the world, which you reach by being driven along a road surrounded by signs warning of a minefield. From the visitors centre, we looked out over the DMZ and saw 2 giant flagpoles facing each other, one displaying the flag of North Korea, and one the flag of South Korea, separated by a mere 4000m strip of lush greenery. It's very, very sad. I got a real sense from the Koreans there that they were one nation that had been torn apart, and that one day they would be reunited (and in fact, they are currently working on a high speed rail link between Seoul and Pyong-Yang). As things stand at the moment though, a South Korean is still unable to visit the North. The whole place is a real reminder of the Cold War. We took a tour down "Tunnel No.3" - a tunnel discovered by the South Koreans in the 1970s that had been dug from from the North Korean side of the DMZ out to the South Korean side with the aim of being able to start an armed incursion (Seoul is only about 60km away from the border). It is somehow very sobering to walk down this tunnel and to reach a locked and bolted door surrounded by barbed wire. Perhaps 10m away on the other side, there are tourists on the other side being told about how the perfidious South Koreans had been busy tunnelling away and when discovered had tried to pass it off as a coal mine (this is what the North Koreans actually did.... they even pained some of the rock of the tunnel wall black in an attempt to prove their point!). Interestingly, one positive thing to come out of the DMZ is that the lack of human intervention in this whole strip of land (it's 4km wide and about 250km across) means that it has become a sanctuary for plants and animals that are under threat elsewhere. The South Koreans at least seem hopeful that this is a symbol for the future, and shows how hope can flourish in even the most inhospitable places.

The North Koreans are still thought to be tunnelling apparently.

Our Korean hosts were also kind enough to organise a road trip of the South Korean countryside for us, and hired a little minibus to ferry us around on 1500km round trip over 4 days.

Let me tell you - Korea is stunning. About 70% of the country is made up of low mountain ranges (the highest is about 1200m) that are completely covered in woodland, and form a spendid backdrop to almost everything. In addition, outside of Seoul, the country is pretty rural - with mile upon mile of padi fields and gin-seng plantations. As you might imagine, the markets are fascinating, filled with fresh fruit and vegetables, tanks of live sea food, tonnes of dried and salted fish and shell fish and, yes, I did also see a dog butcher (although only in Seoul, and I should point out that most Koreans find the idea of this disgusting too)

I ate all kinds of things, but one thing that sticks out in particular: a delicacy partularly favoured by schoolchildren, apparently.... silkworm larvae. Served warm.... and yes, I did try one. In case you are wondering, they have a slightly nutty flavour with a particularly lingering aftertaste. I can't say I'd recommend them, and in fact, just thinking about it has brought the flavour flooding back...!

Oh yes, and I should also mention that my visit to Korea has enabled me to cross-off one of the more difficult to reach host cities for the Olympic Games - Seoul hosting the games in 1988 of course. My visit would not have been complete without a visit to the Olympic park and a set of silly photos....

The Koreans also seem into sculpture, so I've taken a whole pile of photos for Statue John, including a giant thumb, a tiger and Mark Spitz... keep your eyes on Stand By Your Statue over the next few weeks, I guess.

I've also discovered that Koreans in general have a real desire to go out of their way to make sure that tourists leave with a good impression of their country - we were frequently given gifts in shops or free dishes or drinks with our meals, and Koreans seem to have the rather charming desire to practice their English by striking up a conversation on the tube. Being western and nearly 2m tall, I inevitably stood out, and being stared at was something that happened every single day. When we were out touring the countryside, we frequently ran into busloads of schoolchildren out on trips, and they all tended to get terribly excited when they saw us, and cheered and shouted out things like "Hello!", "How are you?", "What is your name?" or "Welcome to Korea!". I was also given a small insight into what it must be like to be a rock star or a footballer, as teenage girls in particular seemed fascinated by me, and would either gasp loudly when they saw me, or would simply giggle and shout out things like "I love you!".... a little disconcerting perhaps, but not altogether bad for the ego!

I even (just about) survived 2 weeks living in extremely close proximity to my mum and dad.... although I have to say that I am very glad to be back home to spend some time on my own with my extremely patient girlfriend.....

It's a fantastic country, and I feel really lucky to have been able to see so much of it over the last couple of weeks.

So how are you?

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