Seoul Searching Day 1

Lepaul Comfort Station (Kang-Duek-kyung)

Lepaul Comfort Station (Kang-Duek-kyung)

I’m sitting in a hostel room. This is the institute of management at Yonsei University. It’s in Seoul, a city of ten million, but you’d never think you were in a bustling polluted city here. The steps up to this hostel are cut out of rock. Obviously fashion shoes won’t get me places this trip. That’s good – I didn’t think I’d get any kind of a rural experience but this campus lives up to the Seoul’s original name which was “Land of the Morning Calm.” I’m told Yonsei a private university is the number two university, after the state’s Seoul National University which is ranked number one. Rank is very important, according to a book I read on the plane about cultural differences between Korea and the U.S. (written for expat businessmen). Among the tidbits I picked up was never give your business card with your left hand (what if you are a leftie???)… Fascinating reading, and better than watching a grayed out Harry Potter Two on a distant screen. Which many of the business passengers seemed to be watching without much reaction.

The Asiana Airlines flight was only about one-fifth full. Passengers were from Korea, the Phillipines, and Japan. And then there was me. No spirits (unlike British Airways where most people get drunk). Wine came in tiny cups…The in-flight magazines were wonderfully cross-cultural, like Tashkent from a Korean perspective. I cut out a map of the London Underground with Korean names – that would be difficult to find again. We stopped in Anchorage for an hour and a half, where there were huge brown and black stuffed bears in vitrines outside the open but sleepy duty free. That was the only sign that we were in Alaska. The highlight of the journey was the “keep fit” video at the end with the flight attendant keeping the pace. The Korean pop tune contained the English words, ‘oh my darling’ and was very peppy. In the video, a man and woman in shorts sat in two plane seats in the middle of a park. They demonstrated head rolls and leg slaps and arm shaking in very fluid movements — sort of tae bo meets valium and the plane followed suit, with elderly gentlemen responding the most enthusiastically. It ended with claps and a bow.

So, as I said at the top, I’m in a hostel and about to go and take some photos of the cherry blossom on the steep slopes of this university in the Sinchon district. I’m here to cover an International Festival of women in music. It’s actually a celebration of women composers and the schedule boasts 71 composers, 69 works and 23 countries. I have already met Gillian Whitehead, a composer from New Zealand at the airport. The performer she was traveling with Richard Nunns was stopped by customs who were very inquisitive about his Maori instruments. They are ancient and one is made from the wing of an albatross. The reaction from customs is the same everywhere: Trafficking in endangered animals is what bugs them and yes, there are bugs that they may bring in. We had a long PSA about foot and mouth disease on my plane. So, as a result of the customs hassles, Gillian cannot compose with the more exotic of the ancient tribal instruments of her homeland when she travels. Gillian and Richard came in on Singapore airlines. And had to wait 7 hours in a transit lounge in Singapore that was quarantined. She said that many people wore masks on the flight especially when they were walking around. Perhaps there will be cure for SARS by the time this festival ends. It’s a shame that many of the international composers and performers have cancelled because of the war and the virus. One of the festival organizers told me 15%.

The festival proper starts tomorrow. I’ll attend some of it but there are some non-music feature stories I badly want to investigate. It’s been difficult to get anyone to commit to any concrete interviews so I need to make arrangements fast. There have been too many e-mails and too many similar sounding names and too many institutional addresses, I need to make some face to face contacts. Get humor and warmth and personal anecdote going in conversations and then it will be clearer who is who and who does what. And find out who has the power to really make some of the visits I want to do happen.
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