Korea 2008 Day Three: National Museum of Korea

by Kara on October 10, 2008

Looking down at visitors in The Great Hall at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul.

Looking down at visitors in The Great Hall at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul.

Today we went to the National Museum of Korea. It turned out that the exhibits weren’t the only interesting thing on display. After we got our tickets (free today for some reason), we started walking up the steps to the entrance but we heard a commotion behind us. I turned around and there were at least 30 schoolgirls in uniform running after us and calling, “Hi, how are you?” Apparently, they want to practice their English any time they see a white person, which is pretty rare in Korea, even in Seoul (more on that later). I said to Stephen’s Dad, “How do they know I’m not Dutch?” He said that in Korea, they assume all Westerners are Yankees. There were probably 500 or 600 students at the museum today, so I was a popular girl. Most kids just said, “Hi, how are you?” or “Hi, it’s nice to meet you.” It was very cute. A few brave kids asked where I was from and one cheeky fellow added, “shake your hand!” After we shook hands, he ran back to his friends, who had obviously dared him. A couple boys came up with the usual greetings, then asked “Mi Guk?” Mi Guk is the United States (the translation is “beautiful country”, but interestingly, the North Koreans translate it as “rice country”, because Mi can mean either “beautiful” or “rice”.). Then they asked, “Keh Neh Dah?” So I pointed to me and said Mi Guk and pointed to Stephen and said Keh Neh Dah, which they seemed to think was really neat. A few minutes later, they came back to see if I knew any Korean. We said anyong haesayo and pangap sumnida, which is hello and nice to meet you, then they gave up on me. Even when the kids didn’t have the nerve to talk to me, I got stared at all day, so I just gave them all big smiles. I don’t think I have ever caused such a commotion when I went somewhere before. It was kind of like when I walk Chiqui and all the toddlers see her and yell, “doggie, doggie!” She gets to be a celebrity every day.

Visitors to the National Museum of Korea gather around a stone zodiacal figurine representing a monkey from the 8th century.

Visitors to the National Museum of Korea gather around a stone zodiacal figurine representing a monkey from the 8th century.

The museum was probably the best history museum I have ever visited, even though I certainly missed a lot because the Korean signage was much more extensive than the English signage. It helped immensely that I read such a comprehensive history of Korea going all the way back to the Paleolithic period, so I was able to put a lot more things into context than I would have been able to without that background. Korea has such a fascinating history, so it really was neat to see so many of the things I had read about. The museum was also arranged chronologically, which helped a lot too. I surely scored some father-in-law points with my knowledge of Korean history and my questions about certain events and people. Plus being able to read (but not necessarily understand) Korean allowed me to ask him all sorts of questions about what things meant.

Interesting note: One of the things we saw in the museum was the “Kim Family Genealogical Record” book from 1760. There are about 100 Kim clans in Korea, and not all of them are related (in comparison, there are five Bay clans in Korea, and they are all related in some way). The clan register in the museum happened to be for the Kim Hae clan. This is Stephen’s mother’s clan. So that was kind of neat to see. But the English part of the sign just said Kim Family, so there was no way of knowing which clan it was unless you could read the Korean part. His Dad must have already known it was there.

And now for something completely different… As you probably know or guessed, you don’t wear shoes in a Korean home. You take off your shoes when you walk in and put on slippers (like flip flops) in the house. But I noticed that there was another pair of plastic slippers in the bathroom. They were always in front of the door, so I had to move them every time I closed the door. I just ignored them. I wondered if I was supposed to leave my slippers on the rug outside the door and change into the slippers in the bathroom. I finally saw Stephen doing it, so I started doing it too. But not before I went into the bathroom in my socks and got my socks all wet. There are no shower curtains in Korean bathrooms. The shower head is not attached to the wall either. Basically, you stand in the tub and hold the shower head in one hand and your washcloth in the other. But with no shower curtain, the water sprays all over the place, so the floor is often soaking wet. This is also why Korean bathrooms are a small step down from the floor level of the rest of the apartment or house. Not to mention, the sink comes up just past my knees which makes brushing my teeth a little hard on my back.

In order to keep track of a unique aspect of Korean culture, I have instituted the White Guy Count (WGC) in my handwritten journal. I have never been in a place where there were fewer white people. There are more white people in Watts than in Seoul. Heck, there are more Korean people in Watts than there are white people in Seoul. Whenever I see a white person, I feel like I ought to give them a high five or something. Kind of like how in the US, all Black people “know” each other, even when they don’t.

On Wednesday, prior to the official adoption of the White Guy Count (which includes both guys and girls), we saw THOUSANDS of Koreans and seven or eight white people. The next day, in Incheon, we saw a single white guy. Today we saw 23 white people, but I am attributing that to the fact that we were visiting a popular tourist site. If you ride the subway or visit places Koreans go in every day life, you rarely see white people. Today I saw a white guy in the subway station and I got the official “white guy nod”. I thought it was hilarious that I ran into another white person who felt obligated to acknowledge me. My theory is that the Europeans do not feel obligated to acknowledge other white people, but the Americans do. None of the people I saw who had European accents of some flavor paid any attention to me. For anyone who cares, I have seen only four Black people since I got here. I will not start an official BGC until it takes more than one hand to count them.

Since I am loosely on the topic of Americans, here is a little political aside. Stephen asked his Dad whether Koreans want the Americans to elect McCain or Obama. His reply was that no country in the world wants McCain. I don’t know if that is strictly true, but I imagine that people in other countries would prefer that Americans have a President that is a little more pacifistic.

Later, we talked about American troops in Korea and Korean troops overseas. Keep in mind that these assessments are simply Stephen’s Dad’s opinions, so who knows how close they are to the mark. I think he said there were currently around 26,000 American troops in Korea. There were around 31,000, but that was reduced because of troop commitments for the war in Iraq. He said the Korean government and Koreans in general want the Americans to stay, but that they are moving the base away from Seoul and they are currently negotiating how much the Korean government will pay for the move (as the move is desired by Korea and not the United States). We also asked about Korean troops in Iraq, of which there are no longer any. Korea did not want to send troops to Iraq, understandably, but apparently the US intimated that they might pull out of Korea if they did not provide troops for the war. So Korean troops were sent, but there are no longer any there. He said Koreans were mad at the Korean missionaries who were kidnapped (I believe two were killed) because they thought it was stupid to go there in the first place. He said the Korean government had secret negotiations with the kidnappers (Taliban?) and that the people suspect the government paid a huge sum of money for their release. They charged the transportation costs to the church that sent them, but can’t charge them for the rest because it is secret.

Check out more of Stephen’s pictures of South Korea.

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