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Saturday, September 22, 2012

My 꿈, My Dream, Came True: My Amazing Trip to Korea!

It still feels a little like cheating to have been able to attend the 4th Global Conference of Excellent Korean Language Learners, sponsored by the King Sejong Language Institute (Sejong Hakdong), held August 22-27 in Seoul, South Korea. Sixty-seven participants from 28 different countries arrived in Korea to experience the culture first-hand after successfully studying the Korean language. Even though my efforts to develop fluency in Korean have not proved to be so successful (I still rely on Google-translate a lot), I think I qualified because of my deep love for Korea, the Korean language, Korean culture, and my Korean friends! My persistence for the past five years in studying Korean and organizing gatherings related to Korean food, films, concerts and other cultural events resulted in this great opportunity – a week in KOREA!

I arrived at Incheon Airport and walked through the sliding doors that I’d seen in so many Korean dramas! There they were -- all the people waiting for family and friends and business associates. I paused a little too long to take it in while looking for someone holding the sign that I’d seen in the orientation papers that had been emailed to me. No one - so I walked to door #7 and found conference attendees who’d just arrived from Australia and the Philippines and a very handsome and helpful staffer from the conference. As I walked out the door to the bus, I was enveloped by a moist embrace from the hot and humid weather-- just as promised! We got on the bus to Kyong Gi University in Suwon, where we’d be staying, and headed across the looooonnnng Incheon Bridge. (When I was leaving, exhausted from the exciting week, I would amazingly take three (3!) short naps and still not finish crossing that bridge!)

Conference participants were housed in the beautiful Dream Tower of Kyong Gi University.  I was so impressed by the key card we were given: it let us through security to the stairs and elevators, was a key to our room, and activated the power for the room when we slid it into the slot by the door. So efficient! My roommate, Alyssa Donovan, a high school senior from Maine and a TEACHER at her Korean language program, and I settled in and found out that we both had the same yellow “Of course, it’s the carrot!” bag (당근이지 tang geun ee jee) from my friend’s online shop, www.okitokki.com. Each day was filled with events and tours, led by our beautiful and patient team leaders, Sunyoung Kim and Yujin Kim!

Day One seemed like a week in itself! We started with the Opening Ceremony at the National Museum in Seoul in the morning (attended by the First Lady of Korea as well as the Minister of Culture, Tourism and Sports!), then enjoyed a modern take on my favorite bibimbap at the restaurant there, had a guided tour of the historical exhibits on the first floor and then of the Buddhist sculptures on the top floor.

After that, we got on the tour buses (three for our huge group) to go to Gyeongbok Palace.
I couldn’t believe I was actually there – not only amidst the history going back to King Taejo in 1394, but also because of my own emotional connection. How many historical dramas – sa geuk --had I seen that took place there? It looked just like the place where the crown princess – or so we thought – drowned in the reflecting ponds in the past-present fantasy Rooftop Prince. I didn’t feel guilty at all that my connection to the 5,000 years of Korean history was made by crawling through the window of Korean dramas. (At first I’d just peeked in, but Kim Sun-ah of My Lovely Samsoon and Bae Yong-joon of Winter Sonata invited me in a long time ago, and I’ve been addicted ever since!) After our visit to Gyeongbok Palace, we strolled down Sejongno to the immense statue of the Great King Sejong. In every photo with our new friends from all over the world, King Sejong’s hands raised to bless us in our studies and cultural experiences in the Land of Morning Calm.
Juifong, Great King Sejong, and me
A formal dinner with an awesome musical performance took place before we were taken back to our dorm to sleep and rise to a very busy morning, which started with a American-Korean fusion breakfast at the breakfast buffet in the Foodteria of our Dream Tower.

If you can imagine, each day was as jam-packed as the first with the sights and sounds of Korea right there! One of the highlights was when we visited Hwaseong Haenggung , where Dae Jang Geum was filmed. One of the KBS photographers that was traveling around with our group asked me what I thought, and to my surprise, I started crying. I tried to explain in my limited Korean that I couldn’t believe I was actually there, walking through the places that I had come to love so much as I watched Dae Jang Geum.
We also visited Magoksa temple, where the beauty of the temple structures blended with the natural beauty of the location. The global cultural experience the participants shared in visiting Korea was brought home again as the two Buddhist participants from Sri Lanka knelt in front of the three Buddhas. Nadeesha Ma said that the temple was the same in some ways, but different.

The program also included a two-day side trip to Jeon Ju, where we visited the palace, stayed at a guest house and slept on the floor, saw traditional Hanok architecture, and visited the cultural center for special classes in cooking bibimbap (yum!) and made hanji fans - much needed!

Hanok Rooftops in Jeon Ju


However, it was the intense experience of participating in one of the five Korean cultural groups – traditional Korean dance, K-pop, drama, Tae kwon do, and Samulnori – that helped all the participants bond and truly appreciate the amount of training, technique and passion that goes into developing skills in these expressions of Korean culture. I was in the Samulnori group and raised my hand for the Buk. I was surprised to find out that I would be playing the big barrel drum. I told everyone that maybe it seemed easier than the other instruments, the Changgo (hour glass drum), Kkweng guari (small gong), and Jing (large gong), but so much technique was still involved that it was a real challenge.

Our three Samulnori instructors were world-class, as were the instructors for the other cultural groups. Choi Chan-qyun sonsaeng nim tried to teach me, but I was a nappun haksaeng (bad student)!
He limply hit the drum and made a face; then he did it right, and it sounded so different! I pounded out the rhythms enthusiastically and suddenly, I loved my Buk – and Samulnori! The teacher tied the drum on me so that I could carry it as we ran into our spiral and then out to our positions. Doreen Lee, from China, and I were the two Buk players, and we started the group with “Tong! Tong! (pause) Tong! Tong! (pause) Tong! Tong! Tong! Tong!”
We all learned our “Ari Ari Rang” lyrics and six of our group mastered the dance.  We also practiced “Arirang,” ending with a rousing shout of “Dae han min guk!” Our group – from Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Algeria, Hungary, Kazakhstan, LA, San Francisco, Poland/Washington, D.C., China, Indonesia, and Taiwan -- went from zero knowledge to being able to perform at the group competition that was part of the closing ceremony for the conference. All the groups had appropriate costumes and in the dress rehearsal, the teachers tied our red, yellow and blue sashes so we looked great!

One of the five honorable judges was Mr. Kim Duk Su, who had actually created Samulnori as a performance art, transforming it from the traditional farmer processionals it had always been. Our Samulnori “Dream Team” came in second – after Tae kwon do. We took lots of group photos with our teachers and with Mr. Kim Duk Su, photos that are now posted on all our Facebook pages! My꿈, my dream, really came true! Now I miss Korea, I miss my Buk, I miss my new friends from all over the world. However, I’m so thankful that I had this unforgettable and amazing trip! My new dream is to go back to Korea! In the meantime, I will keep studying and hope to actually become an excellent Korean language learner! Fighting!
Samulnori "Dream Team" with honorable judge Kim Duk Su


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Favorite Restaurants (mostly Korean)

Just adding now: Tender Greens (9523 Culver Blvd., Culver City): http://www.tendergreensfood.com/

Banchan a la Carte (141 N. Western, LA): http://losangeles.citysearch.com/profile/45654877/?brand=smx_restaurant-nc Enjoyed their delicious chap chae with grilled veggies!

San Ya (2897 W. Olympic Bl. between Normandie and Vermont - exact cross street is Fedora): They have an 'unlimited' special for $14 right now.

***ChoSun Galbee Korean BBQ : http://www.chosungalbee.com/

***BCD Tofu House:



***Dong Il Jang Restaurant (3455 W. 8th St., LA): http://la.foodblogging.com/2006/01/21/korean-bbq/

***Bon Juk Porridge Shop: near Kingsley and Wilshire

***Mu Dung San Restaurant: http://www.ktownsearch.net/details.asp?id=230

***Cafe MAK: See link below in "Sweet Spots"

Recommended Sweet Spots:

***Union Bakery in South Pasadena (1138 Fair Oaks at Monterey Road): http://www.insiderpages.com/b/3711088944

***Bulgarini Gelato in Altadena: http://www.bulgarinigelato.com/

***Vanille in San Marino: http://www.insiderpages.com/b/3710358077

***Perfectly Sweet in Alhambra: http://www.cityofalhambra.org/about/dining/Sweet.html

***Cafe MAK in LA: http://losangeles.citysearch.com/profile/42539398/?brand=smx_restaurant-nc

***Jin Patisserie in Venice (recommended-can't wait to go there!):http://www.jinpatisserie.com/

A Persistent Passion: Episode Two

By Sharon Allerson

Episode One (Re-Cap):

Two summers ago, our heroine found “My Lovely Sam-Soon” while channel-surfing, and “tiny” Korea jumped off the map and into her life! From “Sam-Soon,” she went on to “Winter Sonata,” and moved from awareness and fascination to…..love, not just for Bae Yong Jun, but for Korea itself! During that year, she watched dozens of Korean dramas, sharing her newfound love with her family and friends. Most got hooked, staying up till 4 or 5 a.m. to watch DVDs she lent them. (You’re reading this, so you understand!)

She made new friends, too: Choonhee, the librarian at her college, and June and Wally (aka Yun-Suk), owners of a neighborhood bakery. They tried to teach her to say “Anyeong Haseyo” and “Gamsahamnida,” but her tongue tripped badly on the new sounds. Given our heroine’s bigger, better world view, she wanted to learn more. When Choonhee recommended the Korean classes at the Los Angeles Korean Cultural Center (KCC), our heroine’s addiction was about to lead her way beyond her TV……

Episode Two: Close-up of our heroine, during break at Korean language class, awkwardly picking up kimbap with chopsticks.

“But how did you become so interested in Korean dramas, Sharon?” That was Jenny, a communications major from Singapore, just finishing her degree in L.A.

“I don’t know. I just started watching and knew,” I replied as I grabbed a napkin, “knew that true love still exists somewhere in Korea.”

“Oh, Sharon,” she said, evidently concerned about my delusional state. I shrugged, smiled, and we both laughed.

They say that something is love made visible. I don’t remember. Maybe it’s Korean dramas. I do remember another thing people say about love - that it isn’t just a feeling; it’s an action. This past year, I know I moved past the feeling part of loving Korea to the action. As I summarize all of these changes, I will probably amaze myself!

A year ago, when I started studying Korean at KCC, people asked, even KCC asked on the application, why I wanted to learn Korean. All I could say was that I wanted to know more, to understand. In just a few weeks, I was amazed - I could read! I went from not knowing if a storefront sign was in Chinese, Japanese, or Korean, to knowing it was hangeul, and I was able to sound it out. I didn’t know what it meant – but I could read! Now I have some basic conversation skills and am building my vocabulary. I can say: Hangook drama-reul sarang hamnida! (I love Korean dramas!)

Korean language classes were just the start! This spring, I attended KCC’s Korean Entertainment lecture series and learned more about Korean dramas, film, and animation. At the last lecture, I got the names and contact info of people who wanted to keep meeting to discuss Korean films and dramas and to explore other avenues of Korean culture – especially those avenues in nearby Koreatown! I’ve organized several gatherings for the “Hallyu Surfers” to have dinner, see films and attend cultural events – surfing the Korean Wave together! I now have my favorite Korean food – bibimbap – and favorite places to go – Chosun Galbee and Café MAK, where Elisa helps me with Korean! This new leadership role has been good for me – and so much fun! I’ve made some wonderful friends! I’ve also delved deeper into Korean film, doing some research to help prepare for a possible lecture series, even contacting scholars about participating and being delighted by their positive response! Perhaps they, too, crave more opportunities to talk about Korea!

I’ve attended KCC’s art exhibit openings, tea ceremonies, and musical performances. Images related to my experiences with Korean culture now appear in my writing. I hadn’t realized that the connection being formed was so deep. Several poems later, I was writing one screenplay about a kidnapping in Korea and another about a young woman who leaves Jeju Island in the 50s for Seoul and meets a young American soldier – someone like my dad, who actually served in Japan. That story, entwined with my own family’s history, further deepens the connection with Korea.

As I’ve continued to learn more, I’ve gained the wisdom to know that this “Persistent Passion” is not a five-episode drama, like “Freeze.” It’s an epic, like “Dae Jang Geum,” that will have more twists and turns than I can imagine. In fact, just this week I started my first blog, where I share some of my Korean-inspired poetry. I foresee a serious addiction to managing the online discussion on all things Korean!

Back when I was just “in love,” not actively loving and courting Korea, I had this fantasy: Bae Yong Jun would thank me for writing such a great screenplay for him, and I would – oh so eloquently thank him for touching my heart in “Winter Sonata.” Adapting that drama’s metaphor of finding your home in the heart of your true love, I would say something like, “Invisible walls were knocked down as I watched ‘Winter Sonata,’ and my heart grew and grew! Now my heart isn’t just your house, it’s your summer palace, big enough to hold all of Korea – North and South! – and even most of Asia! You can come visit whenever Seoul gets too darn hot!”

Since that fantasy, when an eager fan waited in a breezy, elegant, empty palace for her Yonsama, things have changed. As you can see, I have less time for all my dramas – though I still watch them and continue to get my friends addicted! Now I am busy with a real connection to Korea, one that started out in stories about love, loss, family and friendship in a culture I knew so little about. Once I watched, however, I understood, and it became a part of me. I am so thankful. I wasn’t bad before, but now I am so much better! And if Bae Yong Jun comes to visit his summer palace, he will have to wander the crowded hallways to find me among all the people I’ve come to know and love. When he finds me, of course, I will give him a big hug – one of those “Korean hugs,” when usually the guy pulls the girl close to him, and suddenly they know how much they mean to each other. Then, I’ll say “gamsahamnida, oppa!” - - and let him go....

Bae Yong Jun watches as our heroine walks over to the TV in the palace living room and turns it off so her friends can talk. He is suddenly grabbed by Auntie Lourdes, who looks like she’s going to faint! “When I watched you in ‘Untold Scandal,’ I – I – can’t breathe!” She collapses in his arms! A beautiful young Asian woman, Michelle, rushes over to help. Bae Yong Jun looks on as Michelle revives the older woman. Michelle looks up, and Bae Yong Jun gives a start as he gazes into her eyes. A look of recognition? His long lost sister? A reunion of souls destined to meet? Be sure to watch Episode Three of “A Persistent Passion”……