Saturday, December 3

South Korea through the eyes of a housewife


AS the Korean dramas continue to touch so many women of all ages throughout Asia, I set out to have a first-hand experience of those intriguing plot twists, memorable scenes, lines and the breathtaking winter scenery.

HERITAGE SITE: Changdeokgung has been listed as one of the World Heritage sites for its architectural design.

HERITAGE SITE: Changdeokgung has been listed as one of the World Heritage sites for its architectural design.

It was on a clear midnight that we boarded a Korean Airline flight bound for Incheon Airport. The tour executive of Airworld Travel and Tours, Desmond, took pains filling in the immigration forms. In the occupation column was written the word ‘housewife’.

Desmond changed his seat and said: “I would be sitting next to you.”

It was clear this would be the housewife’s maiden trip.

My 14-year-old son was extremely amused that his mum who has been working all her life, was being categorised as ‘housewife’.

We arrived at Incheon Airport at 6am Korea local time (an hour ahead of Malaysian time) and were transferred to another airport for a domestic flight to Jeju. I was anxious about what Jejudo or Jeju Island — often called the Hawaii of Korea — had to offer to this housewife. The southern island has been loved for its nature and culture which are exotic to Koreans.

It has been one of the most popular honeymoon destinations and leisure spots for Koreans and foreign tourists. Jeju is known to be rich in wind and rocks but it has more to offer than just sea breeze and beautiful scenery. The island has a huge range of unique museums to cater for every interest. Haenyeo Museum, for instance, is dedicated to the brave and hard-working of women divers in Jeju.

The famous island has an old saying: “When you have a baby girl, butcher a pig and throw a party. When you have a baby boy, just kick him hard in the butt.”

I do not mean to offend the men here! Such a saying seems out of place in the male-dominated Confucian tradition but it accurately reflects the importance of a woman as the backbone of the Jeju family.

The haenyeo (sea women) of Jeju dive into the deep sea without air tanks to gather seaweed, abalone and various other types of seafood. There are about 5,400 haenyeo working on Jeju Island. The haenyeo dive from October to July and work on farms during the other months — all while taking care of their children and domestic duties.

Perhaps, the following poem (I stole from a book displayed in the museum) best sums up life of the haenyeo:

Eating with the wind
Excreting with the clouds
Making the waves my home
Farewell to my grieving mother
Farewell to my grieving father
Farewell to my parents and siblings
Making the Han River Sea my home
Entrusting my cursed lot to continue on
My soul and body was born

It is only human for a housewife to feel very small hanging out on the island! After spending two days there, we moved to Seoul, which may lack a few things but the arts is not one of them.

Galleries and museums are everywhere — in touristy areas as well as much less-frequented neighbourhoods. We went to a 90-minute ‘Drawing Show’ — a performance of arts, music, dance, light and slapstick humour.

It was just stunning and unique. I am still amazed by a simple-line drawing inked by an artist on a glass plate. The audience could not see the image itself but images were projected through the glass and onto a large canvas on the stage.

In seconds, the artist sketched a king and a palace and then, just as quickly, made the palace appear destroyed and the king broken by allowing a single drop of water to wash down his face and smear part of it away. The drawing was simple, yet it powerfully conveyed the story of Korea’s painful history of foreign invasions.

We visited Changdeokgung, listed as one of the World Heritage sites for its architectural design. A king with a       superb sense of style, I am sure, the Emperor Taejong built the palace and its      secret garden in the early 1400s. The garden is gorgeous.

Apparently, the palace is a perfect example of far eastern Asian architecture because the buildings blend into the environment and follow the topography of the land.

I identified much with the Changdeokgung’s more modern history because the palace was inhabited by royalties up till 1989. Korean crown prince Eun and his wife, Yi Bangja, were technically the Choson Dynasty’s descendants and would have been king and queen had it not been for the Japanese invasion in 1910 and the removal of the seat of power.

Eun and his family lived in Japan until after World War II and the Korean War and moved to Korea in the 1960s. On their return,       they lived in the Changdeokgung palace. Yi Bangja lived there until she died in 1989.

Another interesting thing we learned from the tour guide is that Japan turned one of the palaces in Changgyeongung  into a zoo during their occupation from 1910 to 1945. The tour guide, of course, told us the Japanese did far worse than this to Koreans under occupation.

Korea has been dubbed as the ‘Kingdom of Plastic Surgery’. Its robust plastic surgery industry stems from “the Confucian tradition of considering appearance as an important factor in judging a person,” according to Hyun Taik-Soo, professor of sociology at Korea University.

Nip and tuck is such a common practice in Korea that surveys show 30 percent (abo­ut 2.4 million) of Korean women, aged 20 to 50, have had some kind of procedure, according to ARA Consulting, a medical marketing consulting firm.

My daughter who is studying in Adelaide, said her Korean girlfriend told her that Korean parents often used the ‘facelift experience’ as a high school graduation gift, and college graduates save up to go under the knife before getting into the job market.

It was, hence, only natural for tourists to be brought to a cosmetic shop where the secrets of Korean women’s fair skin were revealed. Tourists had a great time shopping for affordable cosmetics and skin care products to acquire that ‘Korean women look’.

Although not as legendary as Disneyland, Everland is one of Korea’s proudest achievements and a must-see attraction. Each year, more than 10 million people pass through its doors and with a 20-year history as a world class family resort complex, it holds lots of fun and excitement for visitors.

The tour guide told us that because there is Everland, Koreans, being patriotic, do not hold with the idea of Disneyland gaining a foothold in their country.

During the first hour of our visit, we were shown around Everland before going on several rides of varying speeds, heights and splashes of water.

We then watched a spectacular magical white Christmas parade. Everland is the proud owner of the longest snow sleigh slope in Korea. There was also the Tree Festival featuring unique Christmas trees.

We were told that when in Korea during Christmas, join the Christmas Party in Everland. During this festive season, every night is a night of celebration, fun and joy.

There are many other attractions, including a Four Seasons Garden, Safari World, Caribbean Bay, Speedway, and Activa. Currently, the centre of attraction at Safari World is cub cross-bred between a tiger and a lion. So, you can just imagine how the little thing looks like. We also had a ride in circular boat with four other people. Surrounding each seat was a waterproof plastic sheet which we used to protect ourselves from the water.

Once on board, it was too late to change our minds as the boat started careening down the river. Along the route, there were many well-placed props and strategic ‘bumps’ that could send our boat into a spin or cause it to hit the sides of the man-made riverbank.

For those who love roller coasters, the Suspended Coaster —one of Everland’s best attractions — is a must-try. This coaster simply flies, twists, spins and curves at 85km per hour over 1,013 metres. There is also the Hurricane that soars 19 metres above the ground in a rapid spin. Caution: a strong stomach is needed for this ride.

Probably, the biggest barrier for visitors in Korea is the language. Most Koreans speak only Korean. Even workers at tourist spots have difficulty communicating in English or Chinese. I chanced upon this ‘Hot Dog’ stall with a sign that was more confusing than informative. So language-wise, you could imagine the frustrations of the housewife during her Korean sojourn.

But we did it anyway — a housewife and her teen-aged son sampling life in Korea — the culture, the history, the kimchi, and the big cities. What more could a housewife ask for?