THE GARLIC EATERS, PART 1
It is 1981 and flying into Seoul South Korea Kimpo International Airport the flight attendant makes every passenger close the blinds. The Captain comes on the speaker system and advises not to take any pictures of Seoul out the window. This was for security reasons, because South Korea did not want any spies from North Korea to have any aerial views of Seoul. Upon arrival at Seoul airport and going thru customs I went outside to take a taxi to the Chosun, Westin Hotel. You do not have to change money as everyone takes US dollars but it is best to obtain some Korean won just in case.
You could smell the air was different. There were all these wonderful odors such as burning wood, garlic, and who knows what else. Just the smell in the air told you this is a different country. It was spring time and already quite warm. Spring comes early to South Korea due to its geographical location. I was impressed by how well the people were dressed. All the men wore suits unless they were laborers and the women wore dresses with high heels. Unlike the United States, blue jeans were not commonly worn by the Koreans. The next day I felt very much at home and thought I had been here before. But that was impossible, unless it was in another life. It was déjà vu, something about this place made me feel comfortable. I could not put my finger on why I felt like this as I knew little about Korea. Maybe it was the friendly people that put me at ease.
South Korea is called the Land of the Morning Clam. The correct name is The Republic of Korea or as the military calls it the “ROK.” The Japanese call it the Land of the Garlic Eaters. Korea was also called the Kingdom of Hermits. The reason for this name was in the 18th century and earlier Korea did not want contact with any other peoples. It was a truly closed society and to venture there would mean death. No foreign devils were allowed inside the gates of Seoul, which was the capital and Imperial grounds for the King. At this time there was only one Korea which was about the size of Florida.
It is believed that the people came to Korea from Mongolia as genetic testing proves this is the nearest blood line. One little tidbit is when a Korean baby is just born there is a blue spot on the tip of the spine. It is believed this blue spot also only happens to babies from Mongolia. I do not know if this is true or not. A few days after birth the blue spot will disappear. No one really knows how the people came to Korea and developed a completely different language and society from that of China which is the closest neighbor. Most Koreans I talked to believe they came from Mongolia.
Korea was invaded by the Japanese in 1913 and pretty much controlled it until the end of World War II. The Japanese started to drain off the natural resources such as timber and coal which was in big demand in Japan for homes. Seoul means Pine Tree, which there were many of in Korea at that time.
During the Sino-Japanese War, Japan tried to exterminate the Korean history and language. Schools could only teach Japanese history and culture. These were not good times for the Korean people and they held negative feelings toward the Japanese for many years.
At the end of World War II President Truman and the Allies decided with Stalin to divide up Korea as a spoil of war rather than divide up Japan. Since Korea was considered a part of the Japanese Empire since 1913 they thought this was acceptable. It was divided along the 38th parallel. The North Korean people got a bad deal when Kim, Song IL was put into power by Stalin after World War II. The United States put in our own dictator Rhee, Syung Nam in the south and called him a President after a short election. Kim wanted all of Korea and attacked the south below the 38th parallel in an attempt to take over the whole country. This started the Korean War in 1950. This is why we still have troops in Korea. There has never been a truce signed to end the Korean civil war. North Korea was ruled by Kim, Sung IL and then he appointed his son Kim, Jung IL to take over when he died. These are truly among the worst despot rulers in the world. It is a pure dictatorship were people live in fear everyday of their lives. People who have escaped from North Korea have told stories of people so hungry that they eat dirt to stay alive.
The 38th parallel is called the DMZ or Demilitarized Zone. This is the boundary or buffer zone between North and South Korea. It is 155 miles long, running across Korea from sea to sea and is 2.5 miles wide. It is the most heavily armed border in the world.
If you do not like garlic then do not go to South Korea as you can smell the herbs and garlic as soon as you get off the plane. Garlic is used in every Korean meal. They eat fried garlic dipped in bean paste for added flavor and they also eat it raw with bean paste dip. In any case garlic is a Korean tradition which they eat all the time at each meal. Most Korean food is hot spicy food and is very enjoyable to eat. One favorite national dish is called Kimchi. Kimchi in the normal form is pickled cabbage and it is made with red pepper, garlic, and other spices. Kimchi is also made in forms using radishes or onions. Kimchi is eaten at every meal, three times a day along with white steamed rice. Korean food is very healthily. Rice or bap is the main dish, followed by Kimchi. These are served at every meal along with soybean paste and curd in many dishes. Rounding out the meal there are a number of dishes called banchan that include vegetables, herbs and roots all seasoned with sesame oil, garlic, soy sauce, or toasted sesame seeds. A meat or fish dish is included along with some type of soup.
My first visit to Korea was just a year or so after President Park had been assassinated by the Korean Central Intelligence Agency. There was a fear that he would not hold free elections so a group assassinated him, as they did not want a dictator running the country. There were Korean Army guards on all the major roads and bridges, called check points, to prevent any riots or further violence. You had to stop at each check point and the guards would check each car. This went on for about a year until any unrest settled down and there was law and order under the new President Chun, Doo Hwan. Korea was becoming a democracy and they would have direct elections for President. Korea does not have electoral votes like the United States as the President is selected directly by the people. Koreans are very serious about their liberty and right to vote.
There were ox drawn carts in the streets and many bicycles in Seoul. You would see whole families, husband, wife, and kids riding on one motor bike. Out in the country side farmers used oxen to plow the rice fields. A few had gas powered rotor tillers that they would walk behind knee deep in the thick mud of the rice paddy. The oxen were a very important part of daily life on the farm. Oxen would provide fuel by using the dung to heat the farm house and also provide meat to eat. A popular dish is ox tail soup called gori gum tong. Another unusual dish was dog meat. I do not know how this started but in the old day’s food was scare. On the farms I assume they would just eat any type of protein they could obtain and dogs or any animal were fair game. I had dog meat one time and found it to taste like lamb but very stringy. My Korean friends did not tell me it was dog meat until dinner was over. They thought it was a very funny trick to play on me, since they knew I had dogs for pets. Dog is also eaten in Vietnam and China. It was common to see the dogs going to market in cages loaded on small trucks. This was not a pretty sight, as the dogs packed into the cages would be howling their heads off. Eating dog was banned in 1987 right before the 1988 Olympics.
Around 1984 Seoul was selected to hold their first Olympic games in 1988. Between 1984 and 1988 there was a huge growth in the Korean infrastructure and Seoul was turned into a very modern city. People were making money, buying cars, homes, and becoming westernized. Koreans spend a lot of money on nice clothes as appearance is very important in Korean society. The way you dress shows your status to some degree.
I stayed at the Chosun Westin Hotel during my visits from 1981 until 1986, which was the best hotel in Korea at that time. The Chosun Hotel is located in the middle of downtown Seoul. Seoul is a huge city which at that time had about 12 million people. The Chosun was very convenient to all the major locations in the Seoul area. After 1986 I stayed at the Inter-Continental Hotel located in Samsung Dong part of Seoul on the south side of the Han River which was a brand new a five star hotel.
Korea was famous for beautiful women all threw out Asia. Many men from Japan and Hong Kong had advised me Korea had the most wonderful and beautiful women in the world. Many Korean women have dark brown hair, not jet black hair like Japanese or Chinese women. Having light colored skin is also considered very important as the lighter skin means usually a higher status which is the same as in Japan. No one will ever admit this to you if you ask but I know this is a fact of life in Korea and Japan.
Across the street from the Chosun Hotel was the famous Tiger Bar. The Tiger Bar had a huge sign with a big Tiger on it, which is the Korean national animal similar to our bald eagle. A long time ago before the 19th century Korea had a lot of tigers, bears and other animals but today they are all extinct from hunting. The Tiger Bar in those days was a hot night spot for international businessmen who stayed in the downtown hotels. It was a western style bar and also had side rooms for private parties.
The Tiger Bar was supposed to have the most beautiful women in Seoul. At night there were usually 10 to 15 women working there in hostess positions. The hostess would serve you drinks, light your smokes, and try to do small talk with her best English to keep you company. The boss of these young women was called Mama san. Of course you would have to buy the hostess a drink and your tab could get quite high especially by the time you added a tip. It was very easy to drop three hundred in one night. I would see many of the same businessmen from all over the world in this bar after normal working hours. I even ran into a friend of mine from college who was in Korea working.
In Seoul there were some western type bars in the normal tourist areas like Itawon. For Korean men there were room salons, kisaeng houses, go-go Bars, and night clubs. Seoul was famous for room salons which were located all over the city in very nice office type looking buildings. Inside the building there are many large private rooms that a group of three to ten men could party in for the evening. It was common business practice after a busy day of conducting negations to close a deal with a dinner and then go to a room salon afterwards. The private room salons were very posh, nicely decorated with three very large couches and a very large coffee table in the middle. At one end of the room there was enough space for dancing and a one or two man band. These room salon parties would always have music for singing and dancing. In addition each room had its own private small bathroom. A few lights and a crystal spinning ball set off the tacky décor.
After entering a room salon the Mama san would come in and ask each man what type of lady he would like for his hostess during evening while there. You would advise her if you like skinny women, fat, short, tall, and so forth. You would be seated and in about 30 minutes Mamma san would bring in the women she selected for you. If you did not like the appearance of the lady you could reject her and Mama san would bring in another beautiful young woman. The polite way to do this was to say this agashi (young woman) does not like me. No questions were asked, as it was understood, that you did not like her appearance. The typical ages of the women were 21 to 35 years old.
The woman you selected would be your hostess for the evening in the room salon. A typical party would last from 9 pm until 2 am. Room salon parties were quite fun and your hostess would pour your drinks, light your smokes, make small talk, and try to create a party type atmosphere. They would bring in fruit and snacks to eat which they would cut up to serve you. One popular snack is dried squid which is very tough to eat. There was a one or two man band brought in who would play popular music and then everyone would dance, sing, and joke. Karaoke was very popular, as Koreans love to sing. At the end of the party these women were paid in generous tips, usually about two hundred dollars each. This was big money back then for a few hours work of entertaining.
Typical drinking went like this, first was makju (beer) and soju, a kind of Korean vodka made from wheat which is very good, after a few rounds of this then the hard stuff comes out, the whiskey. Whiskey would be Crown Royal or Chivas Regal. Cost per bottle was about $200. Whiskey was always drank straight from shot glasses. No ice or water was used. Bottled water was available as a chaser since drinking tap water could give you a serious problem. So needless to say I was very careful not to drink the water. Usually I would drink a bottle of coke if I was thirsty. It is a Korea custom that you never pour your own drink. You need to pour the other person their drink. To pour someone a drink put your left hand finger tips against your right forearm and pour the drink with your right hand holding the bottle. The person pouring your drink will also make the same hand gestures. Everyone in Korea, men and women use these hand gestures which are unique to the Korean culture.
A more polite method is to use both hands to hold the bottle. Someone told me it is a very old custom that started when handing something to someone. Touching your right forearm shows your hands are free of weapons and you mean no harm to the other person. Using this simple system you are showing both hands. This is used even today when shaking hands with another person in Korea. If you touch your left hand finger tips to your right forearm while shaking hands with a Korean they will know right away you are familiar with some Korean customs. This means you are off to a good start at your meeting in Korea.
Korean men test your strength by pouring you drink after drink at parties or events. I knew two Korean men who died of liver failure from too much drinking. You play pass the cup with the idea to keep as many shot glasses away from you as possible. Drinking and getting drunk is expected as it provides a bonding which makes for good relations. By the end of the night you are quite drunk needless to say. The room salon always had a private car to drive you home or to a hotel so you did not drink and drive. Please read part 2 of the Garlic Eaters for more interesting stories and facts about South Korea.