This will be my final post, concerning our last day in Korea. Kelly and I had the same flight leaving Tuesday evening, so we planned our day carefully. Kelly needed to pick up a tea set in Insadong, so we returned there for the last time and bought our last few souvenirs. We did not want to be sweaty and disgusting for the long plane ride, so we decided to spend our afternoon inside the National Museum of Korea. However, we already felt sweaty just walking back and forth between the museum and the subway!
Anyway, the museum is huge. It is three stories tall and the building is really long. We had been to a lot of museums while we were in Korea, but this one was by far the largest. Nearly all of the placards were solely in Korean, so we were able to go through the exhibits pretty quickly since there was no reason to stop and read.
One thing I’ve noticed about Korean museums, and I assume this is probably true for most Asian museums, is that they are filled with Buddhas. So many Buddhas! Approximately 1/6 of the museum was taken up by Buddha statues.
We learned that the hand gestures made by the Buddha statues all mean various things, which I found interesting.
The museum focused on Korea, but there were also sections dedicated to Japan, China, India, and other countries in Southeast Asia. The carvings in the India section were pretty raunchy with suspiciously well-endowed women. They were also very intricate, especially the one below:
In the Japanese section, I really liked the samurai armor. It looked pretty badass.
There were also several national treasures in the museum, including this bell and this golden Buddha. I don’t know what criteria they use to decide what gets to be a national treasure versus what is merely a cool old thing.
There was a lot of pottery and paintings. Korea’s most famous pottery is celadon. For example, this celadon teapot which was made to look like a pile of pomegranates.
There was also a ten story stone pagoda that reached up to the second floor.
However, I have to say my favorite piece was this screen painting. The picture doesn’t really capture it properly, but the vines almost seemed like they were moving.
We had cold noodle soup for lunch. When I first arrived in Korea, I liked this dish, but on this day it seemed really bland to me. However, when I started alternating noodle soup with bites of a hot pepper it was so much better. I was so used to super spicy food that anything that didn’t burn my lips was bland!
We came back to Guesthouse Korea in the mid-afternoon to pick up our luggage. There are bus stops throughout Seoul where a special Incheon airport bus comes by every 30 minutes. It costs less than US$10 to take this bus, so we decided this was the best way to get to the airport. The nearest stop was between two and three blocks away. I had a large rolling bag, a small rolling bag and a backpack. Kelly had a large rolling bag, a small duffel bag, a backpack, and a tea set. There was some kind of convention at the big hotel across the street, so we could not cross to the correct side of the rode until the last block. However, one of the roads we needed to cross had no crosswalk. Instead, it had an underground cross which required going down and up a flight of stairs. Kelly took one look and said, “No way.” Our only other option was to dodge traffic and jaywalk across 5 lanes of traffic. Guess which option we took? We waited until there was a red light and the cars piled up. The moment there was a block of stationary cars we were off, weaving through spaces between cars. We made it across just before the light turned green. Yes, we’re that awesome.
We only had to wait a few minutes for the bus, but our dash across traffic had made both of us sweaty enough that we had sweat spots on our shirts. So much for staying dry for the flight!
It had rained during every other weekend trip the entire summer and we thought the Seoul trip was finally an exception. It was not to be; it started raining just five minutes into the bus ride. Since the rain did not actually affect any of the trip I’m not sure if it actually counts.
Just before we got on the highway the bus pulled over and the bus driver walked down the aisle reminding everyone to buckle up. In Korea, you are only required to wear a seatbelt if you are driving or if you are on the highway.
The airport was really awesome. It took us a while to check luggage and get through security, but we spent that time looking through the 27-page airport guide. The airport was huge.
At the security checkpoint we had to remove our shoes, as in the US, but we were given slippers to wear while we walked through the metal detector. It’s the little touches that I appreciate.
They had several restaurants with a really wide selection of food to choose from. As in US airports, the food was overpriced, but only by US$2-4. I had my favorite type of bibimbap. It had fish eggs on it instead of hot sauce and was served in a hot stone pot so that the rice got nice and crispy.
Afterwards, we went to one of the free cultural activities offered in the airport. This one let travelers paint their own roof tiles. I got the impression it was for young kids, but they let Kelly and me paint without trouble. The brushes were not very good, so it was kind of difficult, but I think the result turned out okay.
Then came the 12-hour flight and goodbye Korea. They briefly searched everyone’s carry-on before we could board. The same thing happened when I was flying back from China, so I wonder if it is just an Asian thing.
I got one last nice Korean meal on the flight and then I was back to American food.
I won’t bore you with the rest of travel back to Anchorage. Instead, here are some things I had trouble adjusting to:
Small talk. In Korea, the language barrier limited small talk with strangers to nods and smiles, so I had trouble remembering what kinds of things to say.
Speaking in English. I didn’t know a whole lot of Korean, but I used Korean in place of English whenever I could, so it was hard to adjust back to only speaking English.
Not eating rice at every meal. Weird. Also, not every meal being spicy.
Remembering to buckle up.
Eating meat without putting it in a leaf. I know this one sounds weird, but a lot of the meat dishes in Korea were served with leaves to wrap the meat and sauce in so it was weird for me to eat meat without leaves.
Being able to wear tank tops. I missed them, but I felt so scandalous the first few times I didn’t cover my shoulders.
Using a fork. It really did feel awkward at first. I honestly did not expect that. I joked about it, but I didn’t really think it would happen!
The time zone. I tried to force myself onto AK time right away, but in retrospect I should have eased into it more slowly.
In order to bring Korea to my family, I made them a Korean meal of bibimbap with bingsu for dessert. We actually have a significant Korean population in Anchorage, though I hadn’t realized it before. The Asian supermarket had all the ingredients I needed and a few of the things I had not expected to see outside of Korea, like a whole wall of different types of kimchi and a couple Korean sodas.
My family really enjoyed the Korean food and asked me to make it again. There are signs in Korean in Anchorage that I can read now and my brother took me to a pretty authentic Korean restaurant here, too. I guess I went across the world to discover some things that were right in my backyard. Of course, the US is still really different from Korea, but maybe we aren’t as separate as I once thought.
I am so grateful I was given this opportunity to travel abroad to do research. I learned so much and I think I understand more about what the culture of the US is. It was hard to know what made the US unique when I had nothing to compare it to. Now I think I have a better idea. There is a great difference between a country of immigrants and a country where everyone came from a similar cultural background. I strongly recommend that you future (or current) Caltech students go to the SURF office and the Study Abroad office to explore all the possibilities you have to go abroad as a student.
Thank you to everyone who made it possible for me to go abroad and to all the people I met in Korea who helped make my trip fun and interesting.
And, of course, thank you readers for reading! I hope you enjoyed.