Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Flavors of Haggling

If there is one thing I learned from all my travels, it's haggling. Like cuisines and smells, every country has its unique style. Some challenge you; some overwhelm you; some are downright scary. But you can always count on one thing: the victory of getting a bargain, whether it is real or illusory. How often do we strut through a charming marketplace with a swelled head, thinking we've made a fantastic deal and meanwhile doing noticeable damage to our wallets?

Truth is, we get ripped off. We always do. My grandfather used to say, "The seller never loses out. It is only a matter of how much profit he makes." Wise man. Yet it is a ritual, an enticing dance between tourist and native, a contest of wills to see who emerges on top. A game, a negotiation, and the prize is that sparkling, idiosyncratic trinket that seems ever so inviting with no practical use in everyday life.

You can taste culture through the way the indigenous parade their wares. The Thai are sweet-talkers. They smile coaxingly, cajole with finesse, and welcome you into their well-worn taxi-cabs with no meters. Next thing you know, you are drinking Coke or champagne in the lobby of an overpriced jewelry factory or a well-established brothel.

The Chinese, on the other hand, are exceedingly verbal, whether you understand them or not. "How much? I give you good price." They follow you around, flaunt their merchandise, and curse at you in Mandarin if you look and don't buy. Resourceful folks: they've got everything, including open boxes of Viagra pills that you grab by the fistful for twenty yuan.

Egyptians are touchy-feely. For some reason, only swarthy bearded men are vendors in marketplaces; women are non-existent in the working-class strata of the tourism industry. If you window-shop and leave, they grab you, entwining their arms around your waist and pull you into some sinister corner where they stock "the best stuff." Apparently, it doesn't hurt that I'm a Western woman and they are not allowed to see bare skin on their own Muslim women. Between the American concept of personal space, male/female dynamic in a sexist society, and knowing I was not protected under Islamic law, I felt genuinely threatened.

Indians are fighters. Very aggressive. They battle swarming crowds and flies to get to you, they bicker with you over price, and they beat the crap out of any potential competitor. Case in point: Coming back from the Taj Mahal, we were offered plastic souvenirs by an eight-year old boy asking for a dollar a piece. An Indian-American walked by, informing us it's only worth a quarter. In the blink of an eye, the boy rallied his cronies of four and they charged like bulls at the Indian-American. He even forgot his sale. Let me not recount the endless vendor brawls that occurred on the stairs of our tour bus.

Koreans? I don't remember haggling there. I didn't have a desire to take home any isolated memento to remind me of the country. Seoul is not a city of things. Seoul is an experiential city. It inspires us to experience the things that are evanescent. Carpe Diem. To seize the day. To live in the moment: to savor good food, companionship, and the energy of life buzzing around us.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Finding Samcheong Dong Part Deux

The next day I returned to the Changdeokgung palace 6 blocks away, a Unesco World Heritage site and undoubtedly more popular than the Gyeongbukgung. It's interesting how rather arbitrary opinions define the way we think...someone at Unesco liked one palace better than another, therefore it becomes more worthwhile. After all, what really separates the noteworthy and the forgettable, success and failure? Opinion.

The Changdeokgung was similar to its older and larger counterpart, except for an exquisite garden situated on a lake in the inner courtyards, aptly named the Secret Garden. Well, it wasn't so secret anymore. Practically everybody who was anybody who visited South Korea had to get a photo with the Secret Garden. It was a greater celebrity than Lee Byung Hun. Aggressive photographers bellowed at tourists blocking shots of willow branches, pavilions, and mirrorlike ponds.

Truth was, the Secret Garden wasn't photogenic. Digitally, the waters came out muddy, and the trees appeared awkward and crooked, gangly sprouting teenagers with leaves. I wondered how many enjoyed the living beauty of such terraced landscapes, since most did not lift their eyes from the camera's viewfinder. Reminded me of Plato's Allegory of the Cave, prosaic men who preferred to see the dark silhouettes of things rather than the things themselves. When faced with the possibility of something real, do we make the leap?

As I left, I saw two fellow backpackers like myself. (Okay, so I really wasn't a backpacker yet, but I pretended to be one in my mother's absence. It made me feel more adventurous.) One was a mild-mannered Korean girl and the other, a beautiful Caucasian girl with an almost tangible exuberance for life. They looked like college students. I introduced myself and invited them to coffee to escape the sweltering heat.

Where, you ask? Samcheong Dong, of course!

Over tea and Kahlua, they told me they were sisters, visiting from Belgium. My bewilderment must have surfaced in my face, because Sun Mee, the Korean girl, leaned forward. "I was adopted. I'm Belgian. People come up and speak to me in Korean, but I have no idea what they are saying."

"It terrifies her," the emerald-eyed Cheryl laughed. "She shakes her head and turns away. Really quickly."

"She's not afraid of anything," Sun Mee countered. "She does whatever gets into her head. Moving out, quitting jobs, moving in with her boyfriend, takes off whenever to see the world."

"She thinks too much and she's too responsible," Cheryl gently berated. "It took forever to get her to Korea."

"Why Korea?" I asked.

"I just wanted to see the country I left when I was 6 months old. And I want to meet my mother."

I found out later that she did meet her birth mother. That it was like two strangers meeting, and that it felt like coming home. How they visited temples, Yangsan, museums, ate black pork dinners together, and still felt out of place, the residual memory of how things could have been permeating their conversation. Yet they still talk, though both are shy.

I realized that no matter where you go, you still have roots. Whether it is near or far, whether it hurts or not, your flesh calls to you like a conscience. Blood is a magnet; it eventually brings you home. I remembered I had left my mother back at the hotel.

I lost touch with Sun Mee soon after. But I wrote this for her, a Rendez-vous*.

Perhaps she will embrace the birth mother.
Marvel at the eyelid's flat plain, its singular whiteness
undisturbed by a crease, so like her own.

The woman's hair would be cropped close to the scalp
or pulled into a bun, speckled grey from weathering Korean snow.
And the girl would spot stray hairs, black as a calligrapher's ink.

protruding from the woman's neat ensemble, the disarray
she must have felt, finding herself with child. Aneong hay say oh?
the girl might ask, hesitation inflecting the vowels incorrectly.

This is not the question she wants to ask. Speech suspended in the
throat like a muffled bird. The woman responds in English, language
native to neither, but a common tongue and good enough.

Meanwhile her sister, a Belgian, is waiting.
She's the landscape of an entire country onto herself, steely confidence,
wheat shade of hair, and green eyes open to all they can hold.

The girl is thinking of tomorrow when she departs, what to say, and
how to pour feeling into it. Outside the sky is thundering.
She's hoping the silence between strangers is
like a break in sound, resting
between great chords of music.

*First published in the River Poets Journal, 2009

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Finding Samcheong Dong

I love ruins. Old buildings, architecture, decrepit rocks that are shadows of their glorious past; they all make me feel connected to the long line of human history, that continuum on which we are mere specks, no matter how important we think we are.

So I am fascinated by the past. I don't know what that says about my optimism or ability to move on. All I know is that I tend to be more interested in dead stones and departed people than I am about the latest figment of pop culture. (Who the heck is Kim Kardashian?)

In Seoul, my idea of fun is hitting every archaic imperial palace and strolling around, imbibing the atmosphere of kings and queens who reigned centuries ago. I believe that karma exists not only in people, but in places. The walls and floors around us absorb the love, faith, power, struggle, and blood of generations past. That karma, the karma of places, can influence events of the future. I wandered about the Gyeongbokgung, the largest royal palace in Seoul, my eyes drinking in every detail. I imagined a lonely concubine in the courtyard; a stately mandarin in the official hall.

My mother nudged me forward, pointing at our empty water bottles and the grating sun of about 93 degrees Fahrenheit. She surveyed the lake, ceilings, and buildings; then sat in the shade waiting as I completed my circuitous tour. "I don't see what all the fuss is about," she confided, shrugging. "They all look the same. Upturned eaves, pavilions, elaborate red and green etchings; it looks like the Forbidden City, except the roof is grey." I glanced around, hoping no Koreans understood Vietnamese. So much for my grand imaginings of the past.

We left, both annoyed; she feeling exhausted and me feeling slighted because I was not ready to leave. Like any good mother and daughter pair, she rushed me, I snapped, and we fought. Somehow, we managed to miss a turn, a street, and the metro station. We ended up lost.

Now, in a wonderfully organized city like Seoul, it is impossible to really be lost, even for the directionally challenged like us. We poured over the map and located another metro station within a few blocks. I grated my teeth the entire way, since it made such a huge difference in the grand scheme of things and it was naturally all her fault.

A block from the metro station, there were crowds of people heading into a side street. The station was faintly visible in the distance, beyond the teeming heads rushing into that alley way like ants. I looked at my mother and she nodded. What do we do when we see everyone else jumping off a bridge? We follow.

At first it was just people, and I wondered if we joined a rat race, literally. Gradually, shops and cafes began to emerge from the dust of foot-traffic. Tasty barbeques and scallion pancakes grilling in the street. Green-tea and red bean ice cream shops. Intoxicating smells. Artsy jewelry like turquoise and moonstone. Snazzy boutiques that even I, clearly no fashionista, could appreciate. We walked the entire 1.6 miles of that neighborhood without tiring.

"What is this place?" I wondered aloud.

A friendly bystander replied: "Samcheong Dong."

Samcheong Dong!

Todd, a NYC friend who had visited Seoul with native Koreans, recommended Samcheong Dong as one of the coolest neighborhoods in the city, kind of like Brooklyn or Soho. I had searched for it, but it wasn't marked on any of the maps and I was forced to bypass it. And if we hadn't gotten lost, we would never have found it.

I thought about that as my mother and I sat down in a cafe. I thought about it as she sipped some pomegranate-flavored green tea aloe vera drink and I drank my brandy infused cappuccino. I thought about all the things I was searching for with no luck: love, inspiration, a sense of self and the knowledge that I was not just living, but going somewhere. The somewhere I landed was not where I wanted to be, and I woke up one morning lost to myself.

So maybe we need to be lost before finding our way. Maybe there is no roadmap to the best things in life. And like Samcheong Dong, maybe I'll find them not when I'm looking, but when I'm desperate to make a quick exit.