The aftermath of a getaway trip to Andong: the tendons in the top of my feet hurt. Did the mannequins at the museum curse me?
Even though Andong is just an hour away from Gyeongju, the vibe could not be more different. Andong feels like a secret buried in the mountains, and many of the historical sites are tucked in valleys or next to cliffs– cliffs! I didn’t know Korea had cliffs.
Andong looks different than any part of mainland Korea I’ve seen so far. The river that runs all the way through town cuts an impressive edge, so much so that I had to research if it was manmade. The land stops abruptly at turquoise green water.
I want to buy a house there.
Also unlike Gyeongju, this was a solo trip. I’m sorry to all my friends but I love solo travel. I can eat when I want, sleep when I want, and find myself in the most unexpected of situations.
I had planned to visit the Confucian Academy for history and moreso because it was a filming site for a drama I’ve been streaming. But I didn’t realize there was more than one ancient Confucian academy and ended up an hour away from downtown at an impressive village which turned out to be the home of an extremely important scholar.
I peered into an old well, stared at a lotus garden, wandered in and around old libraries, and pretended I could read the hanja house plaque the man himself had written five hundred years ago.
A woman with a badge framed by her umbrella like an old Christian saint stopped me. I briefly wondered if this was another cult initiation attempt.
She asked if she could explain the history of the place to me, and noting I could understand her, proceeded in Korean. I don’t know history words very well since I am but an intermediate student but I followed along better than expected. When I recounted to my teacher in Busan that I had understood about fifty percent, she cheered.
I noticed with some surprise that she referred to Toegye Yi Hwang, the man of the hour, in referential terms. Was she perhaps a Confucian scholar and daylight tour guide? She asked me to procure a 1,000 won note and I thought, oh here it comes, some sort of scheme. But I acquiesced, curious to where this was going, and she pointed out that the man on the bill was the esteemed scholar of this domain and teacher at this academy centuries ago. I put the note back in my wallet with no attempts on her part at trickery. She proceeded to lecture and I listened without worry.
“You know, King Sejong invented Hangeul in 14xx.”
“What?” I asked dumbly, slow on Korean numbers still.
Like Confucian students used to do, she picked up a sharp rock and wrote the year in the wet dirt between us.
I held back a laugh. King Sejong invented the great Korean writing system in the 15th century, but nobles refused to use such easily accessible script and continued recording all important documents in Chinese script; Korean, like many other languages in the region, used Chinese characters to write its own language. So in order to study Korean history, you’ll likely need a degree in Traditional Chinese to read documents before Hangeul came into widespread use after Japanese occupation.
I asked if any women attended this school, already knowing the answer.
“They didn’t. Scholars believed female students would cause distraction for male students. But the first school for women was established in 1910.”
I didn’t comment that this was likely due to Japanese imperialism. Part of me felt frustrated at history, and part of me was personally frustrated at Korea because I imagine I would have been, among the many jobs of Korean past, a scholar. But as a woman, that would have been completely off limits to me. My impossible dream, ruined by reality!
That was a theme for the two days I was in Andong; at the Confucian museum, at the Folk History Museum. It felt like all dioramas and plaques could be summed up as “Here, you can see the lives of scholars, nobles, archers, novelists, poets, painters. Oh and women were there too, in the kitchen.”
I felt incredibly sad for my female ancestors. How much had we lost by valuing women as tools rather than tool makers? What amazing inventions and discoveries might we have had if girls were allowed to attend school and give counsel? And then I felt a creeping fear: for so long, women had so little. Our freedoms were gained so recently and I realized, could be lost so easily, too.
If women had been relegated to a single job for most of history, what tenuous thread was keeping us from falling back? Was there a near future where I would lose the life I know?
I hoped that my female ancestors, in spite of their few choices, lived joyous lives. And I hoped that I was doing well to honor their memory by making my own choices.
Luckily, the parade of my thoughts was stopped quite literally by the museum attendant.
“You should try going to the VR experience center,” she said, gesturing from the massive lobby of the Confucian Museum to another stone building on the right.
I wandered to the VR center, unsure of what to expect, and even then, I’m sure I couldn’t have imagined the following scenario.
Another older woman behind the counter greeted me, then led us into a room with a giant screen. She showed me how to play a game where we threw plastic ball pit balls at a screen to kill various monsters. I thought she would leave but seeing as I was the only person in the museum, and maybe the only visitor she’d had all day, we played together til the end.
She then hooked me up to a VR station where I followed a guiding voice that took me on a very boring tour of the archives of the museum. Literally just looking at shelves. It didn’t need to be VR and was in fact probably made worse by overusing technology.
I thought the experience would blandly end there but the woman, much like the woman at the academy, saw a secret flashing “teach me!” sign over my head and led me through the museum, explaining in Korean how books used to be painstakingly made over three generations because wooden printing blocks were carved by hand.
“It took a long time and a lot of money. It was usually the grandchildren who could finally release the original author’s work.”
So then only rich people could publish books? I asked. She seemed confused.
She took me next to the window where we could peer in at hundreds of old hanja house plaques and wooden book plates.
“This is read from right to left,” she explained. I was surprised. Modern Chinese is written from left to right like English.
We were interrupted suddenly by a young guy who was too good looking to be working at an exhibit an hour away from any city but I supposed he might have been a student at the Confucian Studies Center attached to the museum.
They say Japan had ninjas and Korea had scholars.
The young guy continued down the hallway with his iced coffee while a door bell tinkled and voices of kids floated up the stairs.
“I’m sorry, there are more visitors. Please take your time to look around the museum,” my impromptu guide said, leaving me alone on the second floor.
This time I was thankful that many of the displays didn’t have English subtitles because I did not have the focus to concentrate on reading any more signs.
I finally weaved my way out of the museum, handsome man long gone, and drove down the two lane road to my next destination.
I wandered through a village then drove down from the mountains to the longest wooden bridge in Korea. There were only a few restaurants to choose from and I ordered Andong guksu from a local place run by a clan of older women.
After I tossed my shoes onto the shelf outside, I made my way barefoot through the restaurant and ordered. The woman complimented my pronunciation and looks then we chatted a bit about how long I’ve been in Korea. This was the first of many times I had this conversation in Andong, and it was nice to be treated as a tourist.
The news of a foreign woman speaking Korean and eating enough for three must have made its way to the kitchen because suddenly a short woman with short cropped hair and the biggest BDE appeared at my side to ask if I wanted a shot.
“I want to but I have to drive,” I lamented.
“Aw shucks,” she said, then appeared five minutes later to ask if I needed water, which was already on the table.
When I finally stuffed as much as I could into my belly, which was not even half of what I ordered (the perils of solo travel), I exited the side dining area to find the three women chatting at the table by the register.
Ms. BDE complimented my good skin and I told all three ladies that they were pretty. Women support women!
We talked some about the drive up here from Changwon and I extolled my love for Gyeongsang people. It’s not a trip unless I can get a dig in about Seoul people. Listen, I love my old coworkers but it’s true what they say about city folk!
I left feeling warm and fuzzy then drove through extreme darkness to get to the hanok for my overnight stay. The roads were narrow and I feared sliding off the dirt road and into the river.
I finally made it to the UNESCO house and slept solidly on floor mats while listening to the sounds of nature. The next morning, I was able to greet the owner fully and we shared coffee.
Now here is a lesson I learned that day:
Speaking Korean opens doors but sometimes doors I would have rather left shut.
The two Korean college girls studying architecture also shared coffee with us in the open air courtyard though the male hanok owner and I dominated most of the conversation. He insisted on taking pictures for me which was useful because otherwise I would have had not a single photo of me.
The girls, maybe with some foresight, headed out for the day and the owner revealed that he is drinking buddies with the superintendent of my county’s entire educational province. For a moment I considered asking him if there was any news about the predatory teacher who was being investigated, the superintendent would surely know, but stopped when he handed me his own business card.
“I’m a reporter for Daegu Ilbo.”
I keep up with Korean politics and know that Ilbo is an extremely conservative paper credited for stirring up controversy and misrepresenting news. One branch recently photographed Afghan refugees in the most unflattering light possible to dissuade people from accepting foreigners onto Korean soil.
But I shouldn’t have been surprised; Daegu is the conservative stronghold of Korea and also the starting point for the first mass wave of COVID spread by its local cult, the Shincheonji.
The hanok owner also begged me for English phone lessons. I told him it’s against my contract, and repeated myself when he insisted.
Sir, you cannot afford me!
In any case, I ended up with his business card and phone number. It’s best to collect contacts, however… unexpected they may be.
I made it out of there eventually, not without a handful of souvenirs and a sprig of applemint courtesy of the hanok owner, and spent the rest of the day hitting all the sites I hadn’t.
Most people seemed to flock to the traditional villages for Instagram photos because at every museum I visited, I was the only one haunting the halls.
Perhaps my favorite, though incredibly small, museum was the Traditional Food and Soju museum. It was a small three-room museum taking up the bottom floor of a musty building in the factory side of town. Part of the parking lot was taken up by an open shed with random equipment.
I shrugged and continued on; a lot of specialty museums on southeast America are set up the same way.
There were large dioramas and rows of glass cases filled with prop food to show meals of kings and queens, the drinking seasons, weddings, and more. The method to make fake food is incredibly interesting and I had already spent part of my earlier summer vacation watching talented women put together prop meals for movies and restaurants down one of many YouTube rabbit holes.
A man who was not the man that opened the museum doors for me asked where I was from and how long I had been in Korea. I engaged with him politely but not too much as I really did want to thoroughly examine everything in the tiny museum. I commend the translators for the signs as well; whoever wrote the English explanations did a fantastic job. The more popular museums have comprehensible but awkward to incomprehensible and alien English translations.
So I made my way through that museum, considered buying specialty Andong soju, then continued on. By the end of the last night my feet were rubbed raw from my wet sandals but that didn’t stop me from shopping. The young woman at the local clothing shop gave me a discount even though I didn’t qualify.
“This dress is thirty percent off only if you pay in cash.”
“Uh… I have ten thousand won?” I proposed, holding both out my debit card and the cash.
She acquiesced and new summer items were acquired.
Koreans seem to take a certain kind of shine to me which I recognize is 30% aura and likely 70% white foreigner. But I’ll take the magic where I can get it!