July 10, 2012
By Anna Pazderski
We spent the first week in Korea visiting Kyongbok Palace, Insadong, Seodaemun Prison and the National Museum of Korea. In the bustling and ever-changing, modern Seoul, there is a feeling of time being frozen in these historic places. These places are an interesting contrast to the modern buildings of Seoul.
Kyongbok Palace was surprisingly large, and today there are around 30 buildings in existence. However, in the past, there were around 500 (WOA!). Stepping into the palace compounds, there is an interesting juxtaposition between the palace and the surrounding city area. After an exciting taxi ride, the palace grounds were quiet, and felt empty because they were so large. I was constantly looking up to see the roofs of the palace buildings. The guide explained to us the significance of the type of roof and color, the similarities and differences between Korean, Chinese, and Japanese traditional roofs. We were also shown the Queen’s and King’s separate quarters. During the day males and females were not supposed to enter each other’s quarters. The palace grounds also used to house the Government General Building, the seat of the Japanese colonial government. In class, we discussed the act of colonial mimicry and gender as a “performance.” We applied these ideas to a film about the Japanese colonial era named “Modern Boy.” However, it is interesting to wonder about the actions of the males and females in ancient times. Being segregated most of the day, what of their actions in their gender roles were a “performance”?
As we toured the Palace we also saw a couple of people dressed in traditional guard uniforms and hanbok, a traditional Korean dress. In class, we discussed the idea of “staged authenticity”—a staging of local culture to create resemblance of authenticity for tourists. We were in the front region, the place that the tour guide wanted us to see. The back region is the area closed to outsiders; the place where the people dressed in the traditional garb would put on their normal clothing, the place which would discredit the performance out front. Every tourist area has a front and back region, and while being taken in by the beauty and excitement of the traditional, it is easy to forget about the back region.
As a “tourist”, or a person who follows and keeps into a place where one is brought, I went with the group to Insadong. Insadong was a bustling town full of shops and stalls containing traditional trinkets or foods. I tried some traditional North Korean dumplings with Shoko. They were very tasty! We were also entertained at a stall which made candy in front of us by pulling honey, creating thousands of little strings that somehow magically formed into the shape of a cocoon-like candy.
The tours emphasized Korea’s transformation. Cheonggyecheon, a stream which was once a dumpsite, was transformed into a nice park. In the National Museum of Korea a soy sauce jar is now a priceless treasure. Seodaemun Prison also emanates the idea of Korea under transformation from a suppressed nation to a nation remembering the past, but constantly expanding and moving forward. Seodaemun Prison was an eye-opener, showing the great pain that so many Koreans have felt, yet the strength and bravery they faced their oppression with. From a young teenage girl to and old man, patriotism moved them to be willing to die to know a country of their own. However, when we exited the prison, the outside felt unbelievably peaceful. The hybridization of the prison grounds transformed them into a peaceful space for the locals to go for on walks. It was amazing and kind of beautiful.display.
In class we learned to listen to what tour guides tell us and choose to show us, and to wonder at the unsaid. In the National Museum of Korea, we only had an hour to see the artifacts the guide chose as the most important. One of the things she showed us was the Pensive Bodhisattva. It was in a separate room. Joann asked why it was so special and in a separate room. The guide said that it was because the Bodhisattva was one meter tall (enormous compared to other Pensive Bodhisattvas), it was considered a national treasure. Other things she showed us always seemed a little larger, or placed in prominent parts of the rooms to catch more attention. The last important artifact that was shown was the previously mentioned soy sauce jar. It was beautiful white porcelain—once a normal household item, now a priceless treasure. It is interesting to wonder what in the future will become a priceless treasure shown to others.