An excerpt from my soon to be published novel about life in Korea.
Snow began to fall on a late Thursday afternoon. By eight that night, when I finished teaching, there was about an inch of snow on the ground. It was coming down hard, wet, and thick and would continue to snow throughout the night. By morning, when I trudged through it, over a small hill from the north gate of Yonsei University where I lived and through a woods on campus, on my way to teach an early morning conversation class, about a foot-and-a-half had fallen and it hadn’t let up.
I knew well enough to bring my camera along to school; a snowy day like this was a rarity in Seoul. As soon as my class finished at 8:30, I hopped in a taxi and headed downtown to Kyongbok Palace.
There are certain images that I have of Korea which are permanently etched into my memory. Some of them I have been able to capture on film to look at and wax nostalgic about my early days in Korea; others are mental snapshots which will forever remind me of what it was like in Korea when I first arrived.
On some of those mornings and afternoons when I had some time on my hands before and after class, I explored the shopping arcade in the subterranean depths of the Kangnam Subway Station. I had my breakfast of a fried egg, toast, and coffee at Paris Croissant; ate lunch at some cold shiktang, where I warmed my hands around a thick plastic cup of bori-cha before being served a piping hot bowl of sundubu-chigae; and stocked up on music (cassette tapes) at one of two music shops. However, during my first full week in Korea, where I spent a lot of time was going through the Christmas cards outside a stationery shop.
In 1990, celebrating Christmas in Korea was by and large limited to exchanging greeting cards and enjoying a decorated Christmas cake (heavy on the lard). After I saw some of the unique cards, I couldn’t wait to buy some of them and to send home to family and friends. Many of cards featured traditional Korean scenes: craggy, pine-covered mountains, cranes flying across the sky, and scenes of children dressed in hanboks playing traditional Korean games—not exactly Christmassy to someone who grew up with Norman Rockwell-like, Currier and Ives holiday cards. However, the ones which caught my eye and made me think of home, at least in the winter scenes depicted on them, were cards with a black and white photograph of a pavilion-looking structure covered with snow.
I bought a bundle of those cards with the snow-covered pavilion and spent a cold, gray afternoon in the Jardin coffeehouse writing out the cards, listening to a Korean version of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer,” and wondering if Seoul would have a white Christmas.
I suppose most foreigners who come to Asia to live and work harbor, for better or worse, certain images and preconceptions of what one expects to see and experience. I blame some of the tourist literature which perpetuates these images and presumptions. When I went to Japan in 1989, I couldn’t wait to see a snow-covered Mt. Fuji rising up in the distance or walk underneath a crimson maple canopy at Kinkakuji in autumn. Not long after I arrived in Korea, I read an Op-Ed piece in one of the newspapers in Korea from a female expat complaining that Korea wasn’t Asian enough for her, which prompted another expat to fire off a letter to the editor. “What did you expect to see,” the expat wrote, “ox-drawn carts?”
I can’t say that I didn’t have any expectations when I came to Korea, per se; I thought it would be similar to living in Japan.
Boy, was I wrong.
When I started to travel around Korea and fell in love with the country, those endearing images which have marked my passage of time in Korea first came into focus: misty, mountain temples, palace grounds blanketed with bright yellow ginkgo and burnt orange maple leaves, the serene expression of the Seokguram Buddha, the graceful movements of Korean women in colorful hanboks performing Buchaechum, a traditional Korean dance using fans painted with pink peony blossoms, and the energetic Pungmul, or farmer’s band music, with some of the performers wearing sangmo, a hat with a long ribbon attached that the players spun and flipped as they danced.
Still, after all my years in Korea I hadn’t come close to seeing one of the images I desired most to see—the one inspired by that Christmas card in 1990—until that snowy morning in March 2004.
Next to a snowstorm in January 2001, it was the most snow I saw fall in Seoul in all the years I lived in the city. Unlike the snowstorm in January 2001when I was stranded in the teachers’ dormitory on the Yonsei campus, this time I could get out and travel to one of Seoul’s palaces. I’ve always envied those photographers who were at the right place at the right time when it came to capturing those once-in-a-lifetime shots, but now that was about to change.
However, my window of opportunity was narrow—if I wanted to beat the rush of camera bugs seeking the same winter scenes I did. Normally traffic around Yonsei was quite heavy during the morning rush hour with people driving into the city as far away as Ilsan to the northwest, but on this morning the traffic was relatively light.
I knew what I wanted to take a picture of before I even got to the palace fifteen minutes later. It was the same photograph I saw on those Christmas cards fourteen years earlier. Once downtown, not far from Kyongbok Palace, I hurried down a subway entrance, crossed underneath the street, and came out inside the palace grounds. Fortunately, the heavy snowfall kept most people out of downtown, and judging from the dearth of footprints leading toward the back of the palace, only a few hearty souls braved the elements.
One of the most photographed, painted, and sketched structures and buildings with the palace is Hyangwonjeong, a small two-story hexagonal pavilion built in 1873. The name, loosely translated as, “Pavilion of Far-reaching Fragrance” is located on an artificial island in the middle of a small lake (Hyangwonji) and is reached by a wooden bridge, Chwihyanggyo (“Bridge Intoxicated with Fragrance”). The pavilion’s charm is without question its simplicity, but also the serenity of the surroundings; though this serenity was shattered in October 1895, when Empress Myeongseong, wife of King Gojong, was assassinated in her residence north of the pavilion.
As I trudged through the snow toward the pavilion I knew I was in a race against time and the elements if I were to take the photographs I wanted. I was not to be disappointed. As anticipated, photographers were crawling around the edge of the lake taking photographs of the snow-covered pavilion, but not as many as I expected. There was plenty of room and snow for everyone. Some had lugged all kinds of equipment through the snow to ensure they got the best photo. There were Hasselblad cameras set up on tripods, Nikons and Canons swinging around the necks of other professional-looking photographers. My trusty Nikon Coolpix was camera enough for me and I took as many shots as I could before the masses appeared which I knew would be soon. Sure enough, as I headed back across the palace grounds, the palace was crawling with visitors and office workers playing hookey.
I got some good photographs of Hyangwonjeong that day; a couple good enough for a Christmas card or even the cover of a book.