Life in Seoul – Week 1

Having finally settled in to our flat I finally have time to write about our first week in Seoul and also about the IKAA conference.

In the lead up to leaving the UK I was beyond excited; I could not wait to get here. I didn’t feel nervous or apprehensive, I was like a little kid on Christmas Eve. So excited was I that I didn’t sleep a wink on the flight over. I listened to KPOP, I learned the Korean alphabet hangeul, I watched a K-drama and I put on an Innisfree face mask – I did anything I possibly could that was Korean to prepare me for my arrival in Seoul (eh hem *GEEK*).

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We landed at Incheon Airport on a hazy Saturday at around 2:30pm in the afternoon. As soon as the airplane door opened and I stepped outside, an overwhelming waft of humidity greeted me. I started to panic. ‘What the heck am I doing here? I don’t even speak the language’ was the first thought that came to mind. I felt totally unprepared. An old man barged past me in the doorway, jolting me back to reality.

Queueing for immigration, the first two thoughts that entered my mind were:

1.) everyone is very pale here compared to me

2.) Koreans do not queue. A girl in stilettos barged past me in the queue, smirked and tottered in front of me and I was so angry I wanted to ram my suitcase in to her heels (but I didn’t). Must be the British in me. We love an orderly queue.

We got the Korean Air Limousine bus to our hotel – the Lotte hotel in Myeongdong. The hotel was incredible and we, as adoptees, were lucky enough to get a substantial discount at this hotel (otherwise there was no way we would have been able to afford it!) The hotel also has THE most incredible food court. God help me, I love a food court.

Determined to stay awake, we immediately met up with our good friends; the only other British Korean adoptee to join the IKAA conference! We had some yummy street food in Myeongdong then went to a cocktail bar for a few drinks. And that’s when I started to crash. We went back to the hotel proud of ourselves for staying awake until 11pm and hoping this would see us through until morning. We were wrong.

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Last time we were in Korea it took us a week to get over the jet lag – this time it was exactly the same. We tried everything we could; we had a little nap, then tried staying awake till late hoping we would sleep in until morning. Didn’t work. So we didn’t nap and stayed awake all day until 12pm hoping to sleep until morning. Didn’t work either. We went to the gym hoping to knacker ourselves out. Didn’t work. We went on a big night out and drank soju shots until 4am hoping we would sleep in until mid-morning. Still didn’t work. Fortunately we had a few days to kill before the conference started to get over the jet lag which was predominantly spent exploring Myeongdong, eating, and complaining about our lack of sleep.

 IKAA (International Korean Adoptee Association) Gathering 2016

The conference is held every 3 years and is a gathering of 500+ adoptees from all over the world. The week consists of a mixture of social activities, culture sessions, workshops and presentations on various topics relating to adoption. This year the theme of the gathering was ‘Connecting Communities and Looking Towards the Future’.

IMG_1805Despite the large number of adoptees present, it was at times quite difficult to meet people. Many were in ‘adoptee clubs’ back in their home country and therefore a lot knew each other prior to the conference and stuck together throughout. Steve and I sat at a table a couple times to be told ‘sorry this is reserved for the [enter club] adoptees’. It was a bit like being back at high school!

That, or you would have a fleeting conversation with someone over breakfast only to never see them again throughout the whole conference. An exception to this was a wonderful couple we met from Washington. We sat with them for breakfast on the Tuesday and had both signed up to the tour that was planned for that morning. We both headed over to the meeting point at 9:30am… only be told that the tour had changed to 9am and the bus had already left! Unperturbed we decided to do our own tour of Seoul and hopped in a taxi (take that, bus wankers) to Gyeongbukgung Palace to witness the changing of the guard. Steve forgot to put on sunscreen so he copied all the other Koreans and got a brolly out 😂

Korean War Memorial

We then took a taxi to the Korean War Memorial which is a huge museum detailing the military history of Korea, in particular, the Korean War. This museum is massive (allegedly 20,000 m2) and took us a good few hours to get around. Exhibits range from the Three kingdoms in the early part of last millennia, invasions from Mongol and Japan in the middle ages, through to the modern age including, the big crowd puller, the Korean War.   The Korean war section in particular is curated perfectly (albeit relatively biased) and is a very engaging experience. The museum is free entry but donations are welcome and is a must see. Korea has had such a sad history and actually listening to the video clips and stories does make you understand the modern Korean mentality of pride, hard work and sense of achievement to pull itself out of hardship and shield itself from vulnerability.

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KBO Baseball Game, Jamsil Baseball Stadium

We called our tour a day after the war museum and headed back to the Lotte Hotel for a quick nap before the baseball game. For those don’t know, baseball is huge in South Korea; they practically consider it a national sport. The majority of teams, rather than being named after cities are named after businesses or conglomerates like Samsung, KIA etc. The game we saw was between Doosan Bears and LG Twins (both Seoul based teams that actually share the same stadium in Jamsil). Baseball games in South Korea are somewhat of a spectacle. Fans sing loudly the numerous chants of their club (many of which were to Lady Gaga songs which I didn’t quite understand). There are girls dancing on podiums like KPOP bands encouraging the crowd to partake. Spectators bring in Korean Fried Chicken and lots of soju and beer to drink throughout the (very long) game. Baseball in Korea is very good value for money with seats in the outfield starting for as little as 7,000 won ($7) going up to 20,000 ($20) won to be sat in the chanting section! Most games you can simply turn up on the day and pick up tickets but it gets busier at weekends and public holidays. For end of season crunch fixtures, booking in advance is recommended.

With LG Twins being marginally up in the 4th inning (and this was after 3 hours), we figured we had experienced enough and went to Itaewon for some drinks with some other Korean adoptees.

Feeling the Seoul Heat

The next day was the hottest day in Seoul so far this year. Even Koreans were complaining about the heat (so imagine how we felt). The humidity here is unbearable. You know that desired Korean skin glow that you hear about?

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Well let me tell you something, that glow is just SWEAT. I now see why it’s so achievable here. Trust me, if you lived here, you would have it too. I’m fairly sure the Koreans had to think of a way to describe this sweat in a desirable way and therefore have marketed it as the infamous ‘Korean glow’!

We had signed up to the ‘Amazing Race’ which was like a treasure hunt around Seoul. Each team was given a list of tasks to do/things to find throughout Seoul and record them. We had to complete as many of the tasks as possible before 2:30pm. It seemed a fun idea at the time… when we naively signed up….in England. Despite the heat, we decided to go through with it and were lucky enough to have a fun group of other like-minded adoptees. None of us we were in it to win it, we just wanted to shelter in the air con and eat cold noodles! We completed 6 out of the 10 tasks which as far I was concerned was pretty good considering it was 36 degrees with 90% humidity. One guy on our team said ‘I went to the Amazon rainforest last year during the summertime. This is far worse!’ Splendid. Many companies here hand out fans on the streets advertising their latest product or service. I saw a woman handing out fans in Myeongdong, grabbed one and started to fan myself down. Only to realise that on the fan was WONDERBRA written in huge yellow letters. Sod it, I didn’t care.

Whilst we were melting in the Seoul heat, the other half of the adoptees at the conference were wise and stayed in the air-conditioned hotel watching films on adoption. Fortunately I had seen all three films before – AKA Dan, Approved for Adoption and Twinsters. AKA Dan can be watched on YouTube. He was there at the conference and gave a Q&A on his documentary film series which is about how he found his twin brother who was still in South Korea and was not adopted. The second film ‘Approved for Adoption’, is a French animation film (Couleur de peau: Miel). It tells the story of Jung, a South Korean orphan who was adopted in to a family in Belgium and describes his childhood being stranded between two cultures. The memoir uses a mixture of archival film and animation and it is just heartbreakingly wonderful. Please watch it, it is simply incredible.The third film Twinsters is on Netflix and is also good. It’s about a set of twins (duh), one who was adopted in to America and one who was adopted in to France and how they came to find each other. I think I’ve told most of my close friends to watch this!